By Aaron Lutz
You’re out on the trail having an epic ride and then the inevitable happens – you come up on a large obstacle in your way. Could be a rock, a log, or anything else big enough to force you to dismount your bike. In this article, I’m going to share a special technique that will help you gain confidence riding over obstacles way bigger things than you ever thought possible!
Let’s classify three kinds of obstacles you might encounter on the trail:
1. Obstruction: The first and most common is something across the trail that you can’t go around – it requires an up and over movement, usually by going perpendicular to it.
2. Step Up: The next obstacle is the ledge that you have to climb up and onto. Say it’s a rock ledge or some kind of next level on the trail that you need to climb up in order to continue riding.
3. Double Up: The last and most advanced is not only climbing up a step, but as soon as you get up on top of that, there’s an angle. In this scenario, you have to not only climb up, but also keep your momentum rolling. This is arguable to the hardest type of obstacle to ride because you’ll need to quickly put 2 skills together in quick successionion.
Ready for some good news? All three of these obstacle types are going to get easier after this article. We’ll start on the basics of the technique and build – and as our technique develops, we’ll unlock each of the three obstacles we mentioned above.
1) Lifting The Front Wheel: Unweighting & Techniques
The crucial element of this entire thing is lifting your front wheel on command. Before we talk about different lifting techniques, lets review one of the most important elements of riding – unweighting your bike.
Where your body (and your center of gravity) is over the bike can have a massive difference when it comes to making the bike do what you want it to do. If you want to lift the front wheel, make sure that your weight is over the rear hub. Looking down, you should be at or behind the seat and bottom bracket of the bike. If you’re not there, it’s going to be a lot more work to get your front wheel off the ground. Tip: Having a friend take pictures/videos of you on the bike can be a huge help in reviewing your body position.
Now that we’ve got our body position right, unweighting the bike and lifting the front wheel becomes easier. You can get the wheel off the ground two different ways. Depending on your speed, you can use a wheelie pedal method (slow speed) or the manual method (fast). Wheelie method means that you start with your opposite foot on top of the pedal stroke, and do a quick rotation of the pedals to get the front wheel off the ground. Manual method can be done at faster speeds, and you’ll sink down behind the bike while rowing the handlebars toward you to lift your front wheel off the ground.
2) Front Wheel Timing
You can practice the first phase of the movement on flat ground, getting the front wheel up off the ground on command. I like to draw lines, use the sidewalk cracks or put small sticks down on the ground to help me practice my timing.
The important part about practicing your timing with the line on the ground (or small stick) is that you know how early to initiate the movement to get the front wheel up in time. As you begin to practice different heights or vary your speed, you’ll start to get a better understanding of how early to start lifting the front wheel. This is the most important part of the entire technique, because if your front wheel doesn’t get over the ledge…the trails stops there.
As you begin to approach higher obstacles, you’ll want to start pulling up on the front wheel earlier. I use the Ninja Balance-Manual Machine for exactly this – the more comfortable I can get with my front wheel higher in the air, the higher of an obstacle I’ll be able to ride up and over.
Since we’ve got our timing worked out with that front wheel, let’s move on to a slightly larger obstacle, like a curb or a small log. This size obstacle will still be forgiving (especially if you have suspension), but will be a great feature to help continue building the skill.
3) Tips n’ Tricks
Before we start practicing this next phase of the technique, I wanted to mention a couple miscellanious tips for practicing this skill. If possible, I suggest locking out your suspension. The reason for doing this is to have a better feel for your wheel placement, and also to prevent you from fighting against the suspension as you’re trying to manipulate the bike. Once you begin to feel confident with the basics of the movement, open the suspension back up and apply what you’ve learned. This part is extra important, because in most cases, you won’t have locked out suspension when putting this skill to use on the trail.
I also recommend putting your seat down as far as it goes. Get it out of the way so you’ll have plenty of room to move around the bike. We’ll be doing a lot of movement over the front and rear balance points of the bike with this technique, and it’ll be easier to do so if we’re not running into our seat. Similar to the suspension, you can always put your seat back up after you lock in the basics, but for now, drop it out of the way.
You may notice that one piece that I’ve added to my bike is a bashring. There are a variety of different bashrings you can get for your bike – some attach to the frame as part of a chain device, and some attach to the cranks/spider. This isn’t necessary, but it’s good for peace of mind!
One last tip, when we are practicing this technique and eventually riding up and over obstacles, it’s important to learn the skill without relying on your brakes. Especially in the case when we’re riding uphill – we’ll want to keep our momentum moving forward. Sometimes it can feel like grabbing the brake on top of the obstacle will help “lock in” the move, but try to resist the urge. Momentum is our friend!
4) Put It Together
Now it’s time to apply our skills to a small obstacle and start working on the remainder of the technique. As we mentioned at the top – we’ll start with the first style of obstacle – the “obstruction”.
If you can, find a small log or use a curb, or something around that size to start your practice.
Ride slowly at the obstruction, lift your wheel and push it right to the top of the obstacle. While it might be easy to lift your front wheel onto the obstacle, I like to think about pushing my front wheel into the front corner of the obstacle and use the moment it touches down to reset and push the bike forward in front of me. This touch-and-go motion gives you a chance to set the wheel down and lift the rest of the bike in position.
When my front wheel is touching down, I’m centered over the top tube with my elbows out (sort of like the attack position). As soon as it lands, I’m pushing the bike forward and scooping my back wheel up into my body. My arms are outstretched as I push the bike up and onto the obstacle. Again, try not to use your brakes as the back wheel rolls up, that way it can do its job and you can maintain your momentum.
When it comes to that front wheel lift onto the obstacle, you can find yourself in a situation where you’re not rolling through the section with enough speed to simply lift the wheel up and onto the obstacle. In those scenarios, you may need to do a small wheelie motion in order to get the front wheel up with enough momentum. Pedal timing becomes important here, and this is another great drill to practice on smaller obstacles, to learn where to initiate the pedal stroke as well as where to lift off.
In this situation, you will likely start with your opposite on top of the pedal stroke, and as you push that foot down, you’ll be lifting the front wheel. As your strong foot comes around to the top of the pedal stroke, you’ll be pushing forward on the bike (and your back foot will be in the perfect position for that scooping motion that we’ve been working on). Timing is everything on this – if you wanted to have a second drill to practice, this is what I’d recommend. Find a small curb or obstacle and just practice that small wheelie motion to get your front wheel high enough to tap over it.
Step Up Obstacles
When you ride up onto a ledge, the key element is rocking your body weight over the correct wheel. In the same way that you focused on getting your front wheel up and onto an obstruction, your body weight is over the back wheel. Here in this “step up” situation, we’ll take it a step forward by throwing our weight forward and scooping that back wheel up. As soon as your front wheel is over the ledge, you’re clear to push your weight over the handlebars and scoop that back wheel. What you’re doing here is essentially putting all of your effort into lifting the back wheel higher than the ledge, and then letting the bike roll forward.
By putting your weight way over the handlebars and front wheel, you’re unweighting that back wheel entirely. Exaggerating the movement here is only going to make it easier – although you want to be mindful of what the ledge looks like (ideally flat, nothing in the way that would stop your front wheel’s momentum). Extremely important here to keep rolling, no brakes. If you are throwing your weight super far forward and you’ve got your front brakes on, there’s a great chance you’ll go over the bars. Plus, once you land, you want to continue your rolling momentum, and brakes are going to get in the way of that.
Timing is going to be a major factor here, getting comfortable and knowing when to do the weight transfer. Curbs are a great place to practice this, since it’s low consequence and the top area is usually flat and smooth. As you find bigger and bigger features to practice on, you’ll continue to increase your understanding of timing and unweighting. After years of riding, I feel like I have an encyclopedia of what speed and distance combo I need to achieve specific heights on my bike.
Once you’ve mastered riding up ledges, you’ll want to tackle ledges that have a slight incline at the top. This can look daunting (especially if you’re already climbing and lacking momentum) – but by this point, you’ve got the skills required to get it done. The Double Up is similar to the previous obstacle, although in this scenario, it’ll be required to keep a bit more momentum. Using that wheelie method we talked about to build a bit more speed will help, and definitely don’t slow yourself down by dragging the brakes. The name of the game on this move is definitely momentum.
You’ll likely have the most challenge with the weight transfer between the two wheels. The nuance here is that because you’re riding an uphill section, you can’t throw your weight all the way forward without going over the bars. The good news is that as you get better at this movement (especially the previous two styles of riding up and over), you’ll become efficient and need a lot less body movement to accomplish the same thing. Once you’re feeling confident and efficient with riding onto ledges, try an uphill one and do your best to keep momentum going.
Sometimes I also include a bit of a hop forward once my wheels clear the ledge, just to boost my momentum and get away from the drop – there is a video on my YouTube channel for learning to hop your bike forward, which would be a useful thing to learn to complement this particular movement.
5) Go Ride!
These are the breakdowns for three styles of “up and over” – I hope you found some helpful insight into the nuances of all the movements. Practice definitely makes progress here, I recommend starting small and building your way up from curb height. That extra time practicing at home or at the trailhead will help you tremendously when you get to the trail. This is the stuff that gets overlooked so often, but comes in the most handy when you need it.
Have fun out there, and if you are looking to continue improving your bike handling and wheel placement skills – go check out my YouTube channel!
Excellent! This guy should be a Ninja.
Can you explain the scoup up you mentioned? I did a search with no results found
Hey Wally! The “scoop” is done by pointing your toes and bracing your foot against the pedal. Try searching for “real wheel lift mtb” to get even more tips and tricks. And, here is a link to a youtube video that walks through the skill: https://youtu.be/iJFDHkkhYKg?t=168