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3 Simple Changes That Will Improve Your Mountain Bike Control
Holding a line through a technical section of trail can be difficult. Rocks, roots, wet patches and hard turns can put your front wheel off your line and your face in the mud. A lot of riders think that it's a simply a matter of developing skill on the bike and that there is not much you can do to make quick improvements. This is partially true, as we always need to develop our skill set more, but there are a few components you can change to give yourself an advantage and better control on technical sections of trail.
Widen your Handle Bars
My hardtail with a stock 580mm (about 22.8 inches) flat handlebar. Upgrading it to a 650 mm (25.5 inches) riser bar have me much greater control, reduced twitch in rocks and less squirm in corners and technical sections.
Why does this work? Think of your handlebars as a lever, two levers in fact. The longer you make your handlebars he less force you need to turn your tire. Likewise, it takes more force on your tire (side hit on a rock or a soft spot) to twist the bars off of your line.
Now consider the outside of the bars move in a circle. The longer bars (levers) also mean you get less turn from your tire for every inch the outer end of the bar rotates because you have a larger circle. This will reduce the twitchy feelings you have in tight spots and when you adjust in corners.
How wide is two wide? Well if it is uncomfortable, that is to wide. In theory, your hands shouldn't be much further out than your shoulders. However, too wide shouldn't be a big issue as you won't want to adjust your bars more than an inch or two on either side to get a good change in control.
Change Your Stem Length
Lengthening your stem will provide less twitchy handling and smooth out your line, just like the widening of your handle bars. However, changing your stem length also changes your center of gravity (CG) and the transfer of pressure over your front tire. Longer stems will help with smoothing out your line, but will make you feel like you are putting a lot of weight 'in front' of the fork, making downhill riding more challenging and the bike feel as it it wants to topple forward. If you have issues with downhill sections and cornering you want to shorten your stem length. It also helps with uphills as you are able to distribute your weight in a way that prevents losing traction in your back tire.
Again, my hardtail came with a 120mm stem, I moved down to a 90mm stem and there is a world of difference. My weight is now transmitted down along fork more, and does not feel like I am pusing down from 'in front' of the bike. I gained more traction over the front tire, and the slightly changed CG also gives me better weight distribution on climbs and prevents back wheel 'spin' in technical sections.
Remember, your stem length Will affect your fit, so adjusting the stem will mean you have to adjust the seat, and handle bar angle accordingly to maintain the same fit style.
Take the Plunge: Buy a Damper
Let's make this clear, this is the most expensive solution and is better suited to experienced riders. If you know motocross, you know that a damper is almost a necessity nowadays. However, the same technology has surfaced in the mountain bike industry over the last ten years. A damper essentially eliminates hard jerky movements in your steering but allows controlled smooth movements.
For a mountain bike this means that the tire twitch you encounter in a section of loose gravel, or slick mud no longer happens. It also keeps side impacts on rocks and roots from tossing your steering around. The biggest benefit I have found is that at high speeds it helps to compensate for a bad front tire angle when hitting an obstacle. Instead of throwing your tire sideways and you head over heels, it allows for you hold and even improve your angle in the moment, increasing your chances of getting back on line or landing safely. This product has become increasingly popular and is used with glowing remarks by a number of world cup racers and professionals both on XC and downhill events.
Finding a damper can be tricky and you will likely have to but it online from the dealer. The best damper to date is the Hopey, http://www.hopey.org/ but it runs about $230. For a begining rider however, it can make you feel stuck on a bad line. I would reccomend a few seasons of riding before buying one.