Filip Meirhaeghe isn’t used to standing still. But high on a hill overlooking Quebec’s St. Lawrence River, on a narrow ribbon of muddy trail spiked with snot-slick rocks, the best mountain biker in the world has stopped pedaling.
In fact, he’s hovering over me, inspecting a flap of skin ripped from my right knee courtesy of a rain-slicked root. “You have too much air pressure in your tires,” he says, with an I’ve-seen-worse shrug. He gives my rear tire a cantaloupe squeeze, then wheels around and disappears into the brush.
It’s choice nuggets of wisdom like this (and maybe his mammoth thighs, zeppelin-size lungs, and years in the saddle) that made Meirhaeghe the 2003 cross-country world champion and a former kingpin on the balls-to-the-wall downhill cicruit. They also make him the perfect two-wheeled trail guide for the bruising, top-notch course I’ve only just begun to tackle.
Meirhaeghe’s mission: To shred my riding style in search of the most common mistakes that you’ll make on the trail, and the easy fixes that you, I, and even some of his rivals could benefit from. Listen up–or learn the hard way.
Trail Trick # 1: Deflate Your Tires
Make sure your tires are primed to handle off-road terrain. At 45 psi, mine were overinflated–pumped for a paved bike path, where a stiff, unforgiving tire makes you more efficient. (Road-bike tires are often inflated to more than 100 psi.) At Meirhaeghe’s suggestion, I drop my pressure to 30 psi and notice the difference right away. My tires envelop the terrain instead of riding on top of it, and cushion blows on the tough stuff. The hidden benefit: You’re less likely to blow a tire when you slam into protruding rocks.
Trail Trick #2: Don’t Steer
Your bike has shocks, so use them. Cautiously picking your way between obstacles will only slow you down and mess with your center of gravity. “The straightest line is the fastest and the easiest,” says Meirhaeghe, before making a neat bell curve over a giant boulder blocking our path while I grab a fistful of brakes and zigzag my way around it. Practice scaling smaller roots and rocks first, keeping your eyes at least a dozen feet ahead on the trail. Then move on to larger obstacles, such as timbers or fallen trees placed midtrail as speed bumps or “stunts.” See “Steal These Moves” for the technique.
Trail Trick #3: Shhhhhh!
“Be one with your bike,” Meirhaeghe says, waxing Caddyshack during our first steep drop, a rubble-strewn wasteland leading down into a valley. “Try to ride so that it is as quiet as possible.” When your bike makes noise, he explains, you’re losing speed because you’re hitting obstacles or shifting incorrectly. And, sure enough, Meirhaeghe’s bike is ninja-silent as he whizzes down the trail, while mine clanks and rattles with all the stealth of an Abrams tank.
The key is keeping your arms and legs loose, using your body as a second set of shocks to absorb whatever the ground dishes out. The ground comes up, you crouch down–and your center of gravity stays put. Keep your joints bent slightly, ready to flex with the bike. You’ll not only retain better control of your ride and prevent yourself from being bucked off by a dirt speed bump, but you’ll also be microadjusting your balance to the terrain, making last-second swerves around boulders less precarious. Anything to stay in the saddle.
Trail Trick #4: Use Wheel Power
Cranking hard over slick rocks and roots can cause you to spin out, cutting your speed, traction, and forward momentum. If you can’t make it up a hill on oomph alone, put the pedal down when it counts–on dirt. “Power the pedals before the root or rock, then let up as your rear wheel rolls over. Then start pedaling hard again,” Meirhaeghe advises. Use your head before you lose your head of steam: If you see a steep ascent looming on the horizon, kick in some extra legwork. You’ll need it on the way up.
Trail Trick # 5: Flex Your Abs
Descending a steep hill can be risky business, as aggressive braking can cause the front wheel to lock up and skid, especially on slick trails. The front brake is where you’ll find 80 percent of your stopping power, so you can’t ignore your left hand altogether. But turn your hands into a makeshift antilock brake system and you’ll keep control of your descent. Start to brake with your rear pads, then add in as much front as you can. Feather the brakes immediately if the front wheel begins to slide or, worse, lock up.
And don’t forget to shift your weight backward to keep yourself on the right side of the handlebar. Practice braking on flat, dry ground first, and you’ll get a feel for it without having to pick through grass for your missing teeth.
Trail Trick #6: Go Long
Hard riding is sort of like tequila: A little is a very good thing, but too much and you’ll find yourself on the rocks. “You shouldn’t do it more than two times each week,” says Meirhaeghe. Even if you’re riding only twice a week, make sure one of those days is a long ride at a comfortable pace.
Long rides build endurance, the secret weapon of pro riders–it ensures that they always have a burst of speed left in reserve, even after a full day of riding, for attacking that last runoff chute, slippery boulder, or race to the finish.