Photos: Anthony Smith
The established wisdom in mountain biking is that pedaling will make you go faster. I can't argue that on a smooth, straight piece of trail (like a gravel road) you will go faster if you pedal harder. However, on singletrack it often pays to not pedal. Why? Read on.
Slow In, Fast Out
It's not how fast you approach a trail feature but how fast you come out the other side that counts. Corners are a great example. Come in too hot and you'll struggle to maintain traction and then probably trickle out of the exit of the turn. Instead, try rolling into a corner a little slower and then see how you are able to process and initiate cornering techniques a lot easier and then perhaps come out faster.
The best way to demonstrate this is to practice going chainless. You don't have to take your chain off but rather challenge yourself (and your riding buddies) to a lap of one of your favorite pieces of trail but aim to freewheel it as best you can. Count how many times you have to pedal and try to beat it next time. Watch how you feel more in tune with the subtle shapes of the trail, you begin to work out how to generate more momentum (pumping) or keeping your momentum (slow in, fast out).
Pump tracks are brilliant but without someone to maintain them I feel they might end up being something we look back on in the same way we do the U.S.E. Suspension Seatpost ("Great idea, but…I moved on."). However, the skills that can be learned on a pumptrack can also be acquired and used on any trail.
Use roots, rocks and natural rollers on the trail to pump and flow. Anything that looks like a grade reversal can be used to pump your way through the trail. Pumping can help you generate speed or momentum, maintain a poised position on the bike, increase the traction of your tires and is a lot more fun than sitting on your bike pedaling like a lunatic.
Pumping is about using your legs to absorb and push down through your bike over pumps and bumps in the trail. It makes your bike and body track forward rather than being thrown around, and then can be used to produce more forward momentum.
NOTE: There's way more to this technique and a web post isn't the best way to learn. Seek out a good coach or someone who really knows their stuff and how to communicate it.
Make them count
Rather than mashing the pedals to fit as many pedal strokes between corners, learn to find the right gear for the trail and then maximize the significance of just one or two good pedal strokes. Find the timing for applying a good power input and look for where it is smart to pedal and where it is silly to do so. Look for the smooth bits of trail to pedal hard on and avoid pedaling on rougher bits of trail of possible. If you can't pedal, then pump (see above).
Avoid Pedal Strikes
You know that thing that some people moan about a lot when talking about how their bike rides: "It's good but I tend to hit my pedals on the ground all the time." Even my colleagues go on about this sometimes. I tend to see this as operator error not machine malfunction.
Your pedals go round and round, and they don't strike the ground unless there's some very uneven terrain and you spin your cranks into it. Figure out when to pedal and when to tackle the obstacle without pedaling – generally that is most of the time. Rather than mashing your pedals, hitting them on the ground, losing balance and momentum, and then tumbling over or coming to a dead stop, try rolling into these obstacles with level pedals, standing up, and absorb and pump through the obstacle instead.
Pedaling through bumpy terrain might also make your feet bump around on the pedals particularly if you’re using flat pedals, and often if you are being rattled around then your pedal strokes won't be efficient anyway. Find the smoother areas of the trail to put a few good pedal turns in.
Learn to Flow, See Trail, Roll, Momentum
All of these things are interrelated but one of the most important things to do is to look up and analyze the trail ahead. Spot the good areas where you can pump, pedal, brake or reposition and identify the bits of trail where you don't want to be doing these things. Spot the different lines on the trail and figure out which is best suited to you and your riding. This is something that comes with time, so just ride your bike. A lot.