Singletrack Magazine Issue 119: Last Word

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Mike Braybrook

Lazy Lines Choices. How to quit them.

Mike Braybrook discovers that the shortest line between two points is often the quickest way to the first aid tent. 

Last month I had a pretty decent head-meets-earth incident at a race in Scotland. It happens to the best of us, but you can be the judge as to whether it knocked some sense into me or knocked out what little I had left… 

Like many others I’ve fully embraced the 29er as my wheel size of choice for pretty much all riding, since I can count the number of times I’ve been to a BMX or dirt jump track on one finger. What’s not to love? Better rollover, more stability, more grip, longer days, bluer skies, more Minnaarier riding; I’m sold.

Again, like a lot of my 29er-loving brethren, I’ve added a long-travel 29er to the collection, something that’s a whole different beast to the terrifyingly twitchy 29ers of old, where cross-country was king and slack was a rude word. My personal bike of choice, the Starling Murmur, comes with a respectably enduro amount of travel, and geometry to match; the sort of figures that will get you down most of the UK’s bumpy bits in one piece without too much drama. That being said… I’m not actually sure it’s helping my riding.

I should clarify. Yes, my riding has certainly become faster and more aggressive over the past 12 months, and yes, it could just be down to the fact that I’ve spent more time on the big bike than the others with less travel on offer, but I think there’s something more sinister at play.

Are such massively capable bikes making us lazy when it comes to some of the most basic riding skills like line choice, skills that previous generations of riders had to master? If you’re not the kind of rider who’s looking to eke out those precious seconds from your race run or more likely still, from your Strava times, then maybe this isn’t for you. For everyone else, hear me out…

We hear the blurb, and we drink the Kool-Aid when it comes to the latest tech; these are 16% stiffer, these are 43 micrograms lighter, these WILL make you faster. But, have we stopped focusing on the biggest limiting factor of all? Namely the meat bag perched precariously on top of thousands of pounds of high-grade engineering, as they perilously death-grip their way to the bottom of an incline.

In my enduro race, I’d simply decided to do just that. I roughly pointed the bars in the general direction I wanted to go, held on, and hoped for the best. On the face of it, the shortest distance between two points should be the fastest way down – after all, it’s a straight line. However, what I maybe hadn’t accounted for are the effects that this particular choice of racing line would bring. Yes, increased speed was one of them, but it also resulted in a lack of traction due to an assortment of drops and roots that caused my speed to increase somewhat beyond control, resulting in a brief, but notable, flight through the air with a less-than graceful landing. In race terms, what that actually meant was my day was over. Not quite a DNF, but as near as could be. In broader terms, I was lucky to walk away with a cracked helmet and wonky bars. 

Looking over the previous day’s footage, fellow riders had commented that I’d missed a number of opportunities that everyone else had seemed to have picked up. Higher lines that would put you in a better position for the corner, or smoother lines around obstacles rather than over them. Although each of these may only offer gains of a second here and there, that could mean the difference between bring a mid-pack hero, a top ten, or no finish at all.

There isn’t an easy solution to this. The past year has taught me some pretty bad habits that are going to take a bit of time to straighten out. I’ll have to learn to have less reliance on such forgiving geometry and masses of travel to save my arse when my brain hasn’t engaged fully.

All bad habits can, however, be broken. Rewatching the first round of the World Cup Downhill, the pinnacle of all things fast and rowdy, often the smoothest and most poised riders were far quicker than those on the ragged edge. And now, in the month or so leading up to the next big race in August, I have a great opportunity to try to practice engaging brain over hapless hope on some less-familiar trails, with less onus on the pursuit of virtual golden trophies.

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