What I’m doing to learn from my nasty skinny drop crash

I crashed hard on my first attempt to ride the new 4-foot high skinny drop at Hillside MTB Park in Elk River, MN a month or so ago. I somehow had it in my head to not go too fast, that it was better to err on the slow side. And since I’m good at riding skinnies, riding it slow was not a problem, or so I thought. 22-second video:

Looking at the video, clearly visible in the slowmo segment, I not only approached the lip too slow but I didn’t use any ‘technique.’ My front wheel dropped immediately and OTB I went.

Fortunately, I was completely armored up: chest and spine protection, shoulder & elbow pads, hip and tailbone pads, knee and shin pads. Unfortunately, I was pretty shaky afterwards and decided to bail on my riding companions, L to R, Paul Hogan, Troy Sierakowski,  and Bradley Cyr:

L to R, Paul Hogan, Troy Sierakowski, and Bradley Cyr

I sustained some cracked ribs on my right side, which have pretty much healed since with no complications.

Here’s a video of Hillside’s DirtWirx trail steward Rich Omdahl riding the skinny drop on the day it was installed this past summer:

I posted about my crash in a few places online and it generated some good discussion (Facebook here, MORC forum here, Twitter here, Pinkbike here).

My primary mistake was one of judgement. I have ridden a few intermediate-level drops, including this one recently at Lebanon Hills:

In retrospect, I didn’t take the time to carefully analyze the Hillside skinny drop and think about what was needed. I was fixated on not going too fast. ‘Technique’ didn’t enter my brain. I might have been too cocky.

The upside of a crash like this in which I get hurt but not severely is that I’m motivated to learn. I’m confident I can do this drop but I’m definitely not cocky now.  I’m curious. What are the elements of drop techniques?  What’s done for different types of drops? What drills and exercises can help develop drop skills and the confidence needed?

I found this Bike Magazine article on drops by Seb Kemp  in which he describes the the ‘lunge’ technique:

“Get into a low athletic position: bend your arms and knees to load your suspension and to get ready to initiate your move. Lunge the bike forward off the drop: push the bike out in front of you by extending your arms and legs. Accelerate the bike out from underneath you by forcefully pushing it forwards. This should feel like you are allowing your hips to go back but really the bike should be moving forward faster underneath you, not you going backwards.”

This series of screengrabs from Rich Omdahl’s ride seems to show some of this ‘lunge’ motion. Note his extended arms in photo 3:

 

 

I found this UK Global Mountain Bike Network video on drops to be helpful primarily because  it explains why a pedal wheelie is a generally a bad idea for any kind of drop:

Their recommendation to use a manual technique, however, should not be interpreted that you do a manual wheelie off the drop. It’s the ‘slide’ or ‘lunge’ motion of a manual that they recommend.

But the most helpful instructions (text and videos) come from RL Connection, the membership area of Ryan Leech’s mtb coaching site where he has two-part video series titled Lofting Drops:

Lofting drops screengrab

For small to medium-sized drops (either to flat or to transition), he teaches that it’s enough to use a basic front wheel lift, unweighting the front wheel and using enough speed so that your rear wheel clears the edge of the drop. (A basic front wheel lift is not a pedal wheelie, nor is it a manual.)

For higher drops, he advises shifting your weight back (combination manual and front wheel lift) to ‘suspend’ the front wheel off the lip and then absorbing the rear wheel off the lip with your legs.  This ‘absorb’ technique is best understood by watching his Part 2 video and noting 1) what his legs are doing before his front wheel goes off the lip, and 2) what his legs are doing after his rear wheel goes off the lip. It’s a subtle but distinct difference from the riders in the UK Global Mountain Bike Network video.

Ryan writes:

Absorb is the best way I can describe it, because it’s this leg motion that contributes to the smoothness of the drop and also the eventual angle of the bike in the air – there are varying degrees at which this absorption can happen and it can be adjusted on the fly as need be…

All this is academic until I actually get on a bike and start practicing and experimenting, of course.  In a normal winter, I would have to wait till the spring thaw in April.  But we’re having an ugly warm and snowless winter thus far, so it could be sooner.

Update January 8:  I was notified yesterday that I won Pinkbike’s Fail of the Month for November for my skinny drops crash video.  The announcement is visible at the bottom of the Fail of the Month for December. I guess this is good news. 😉

 

23 thoughts on “What I’m doing to learn from my nasty skinny drop crash”

  1. I crashed this year as well, it took me some time to notice why. Pushing the bike forward from under you is a part of the story. You need a room to do it, you must load the gun. I was riding too far back and even though I knew about pushing and I applied it, I just didn’t have enough movement range to push the bike dynamically enough. Right now I am applying what I forgot but it takes relaxation and self confidence gained on small things: get up and forward just before the edge of a drop, as if you were trying to check what is ahead of your tyre. Do it to spot the landing as soon as you can, don’t wait for the edge of the drop to unveil it. Then on the edge relax completely and push the bike slightly from under you. I have seen enough people pushing too aggressively, or even pulling bars -- ending up doing a dead sailor to the side. A well executed slow drop feels effortless!

    Cheers!

  2. Waki, that’s a really helpful elaboration on the rationale for preparation of the ‘slide’ or ‘lunge’ motion.

    But when you say “get up and forward” and encourage people to “spot the landing,” I’m wondering if that would inadvertently make people approach the lip with their legs straight.

    Seb Kemp says, “Get into a low athletic position: bend your arms and knees to load your suspension…”

    See what I mean?

  3. Hey Jase, thanks for the encouragement! And for continuing to help me think about drops.

    Here are four screengrabs from the video you linked to, showing each rider as they 1) prepare to launch and 2) extend the bike over the lip:

    Rider A, photo 1:

    Rider A, photo 1

    Rider A, photo 2:

    Rider A, photo 2

    Rider B, photo 1:

    Rider B, photo 1

    Rider B, photo 2:

    Rider B, photo 1

    From what I can tell:

    Rider A compresses and then lunges straight; the front wheel starts to descend as the rear wheel clears the lip of the drop.

    Rider B compresses and then unweights, doing a front wheel lift; the front wheel is level with the drop as the rear wheel clears the lip of the drop.

    It seems to me that with the height of this drop, Rider A’s method is preferred. It looks smoother and the landing seems less harsh.

    Is that your assessment?

  4. Hey Griff, thanks for the link and mention to my mtb membership site! Just one reflection that popped to mind -- and it’s about the mind -- errr could I say your thick skull?!

    You mentioned you didn’t analyze the drop ahead of time and you had it in your head to go slow, for some reason. Now, sometimes, depending on experience levels, visualization might not be as powerful as some say, though I think in this example it could have helped, but I think it may be most helpful now in your lead up to conquer that drop clean.

    Once mistakes are acknowledged (thanks for being so vulnerable!!) and the technique is understood and makes sense, then it becomes crucial to get a ‘feel’ for it -- can you visualize yourself doing this drop now successfully? Can you do this both from a 3rd person (watching yourself do it) and from a 1st person (like POV)? Great post Griff!

  5. Hey Ryan, yes, thick skull indeed!

    I have done visualization before though not very often. This would have been the perfect time to use it, but I didn’t even consider it, in part due to my cockiness, ie “I know I can ride this skinny, no problem. I know can ride off the end of stuff, no problem.” Pride goeth before the fall… literally!

    I’ve not ever heard about doing visualization from a 3rd person POV, only 1st person POV. That’s intriguing.

    I plan to find some neighborhood spots to practice small and medium-size drops. I’ll also practice both types of visualization.

    Thanks!

  6. In my drops webinar today, Jason K asked about the relevance of this Lee McCormack blog post titled:

    RIDING STEEP DROP-INS SAFELY
    http://www.leelikesbikes.com/riding-steep-drop-ins-safely.html

    Lee’s post is not really about the type of drops that I’ve been examining in this blog post. He’s talking more about the body position needed for steep ‘drop-ins’ or ‘roll-ins’ in which the front wheel immediately goes down rather than extending the wheel out from an edge or lip.

    He does include a photo towards the end of the post showing racer Erin Huck going off a high drop. But he doesn’t elaborate on the additional technique needed (lunge/slide/suspend the front wheel) to accomplish what she’s doing:
    http://www.leelikesbikes.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/02/ErinHuckDrop061112-950x535.jpg

    Jason K further explained in the webinar that his interest in Lee’s post was because he almost went OTB when his BB got hung up on the lip of a steep progressive drop-in at a DH park. It was similar to the drop-in like the first one (4-second mark) in the video.

    My initial thought is that what’s needed in drop-in with a lip is a small front wheel lift, ie, unweighting the front wheel just a bit to help the BB clear the lip. Lee doesn’t show it in his combo photo of him riding off the loading dock but I bet he does a small front wheel lift there to prevent his BB from hitting the edge:
    http://www.leelikesbikes.com/wp-content/092410ledgepushdown.jpg

    If you look at how-to articles and videos on how to do drop-ins on a BMX bike (to avoid getting hung up on the lip/coping of a quarter pipe, for example), they generally include a recommendation to use a front wheel lift. See:

    http://www.howcast.com/videos/513743-how-to-drop-in-on-a-bmx-ramp-bmx-bike-tricks/

    http://rideukbmx.com/basics/ride-basics-how-to-drop-in.html

  7. David R asked in my drops webinar:

    “Do you think that your incoming speed should be different when doing a large vs short drop?”

    If you read Seb Kemp’s article, he indicates that speed is one of the variables that relates closely to other factors. Some quotes:

    “This is the basic technique but remember that different drops require different variations of these techniques depending on the size of the drop, your trail speed etc. ”

    “Doing an air drop successfully requires a certain amount of energy and that this can come from their general approach speed, the amount they load the bike before take off, and how explosive the lunge is (and that in a way doing a really explosive lunge is a bit like speeding the bike up a lot right at the end). When one of these changes, one or both of the others has to change to compensate.”

    “… once someone is doing a great job at drops with a high approach speed, I get them to slow down a bit so that they have to work on the other aspects.”

    In Ryan Leech’s Lofting Drops 1 lesson on small/intermediate drops (RL Connection membership required), he says:

    “If you’re going reasonably fast, you only need to momentarily lift/unweight the front wheel until your rear wheel clears the edge of the drop.”

    “Experiment with speed -- go slow and see what happens (usually bad things) and then go faster until you find the sweet spot.”

    In my crash on the skinny drop, a higher approach speed might have prevented the crash. But too much speed, minus the correct lunge technique, could have created a different kind of crash on the landing.

    So, David, like many things in life, the answer to your question is, it depends!

  8. Thanks a lot for the webinar Griff, this was greatly appreciated. I can’t wait to try the front wheel lift technique. Preloading has always been a bit unstable and catching my BB on the drop lip is always hair raising.

  9. You’re welcome, Jason. I’m sure Ryan Leech will be happy to hear you’re eager to practice front wheel lifts. 😉

    I’m eager to practice the lunge/slide/suspend/accelerate technique on a progression of drops.

    FYI, to add to the confusion about the word ‘drops,’ see my blog post from a couple years ago about wheelie drops, also known as ‘slow drops to flat.’ It includes some content from Lee McCormack’s book:
    http://mountainbikegeezer.com/progress-on-the-wheelie-drops-aka-slow-drop-to-flat-surprisingly-hard-fun/

  10. Here’s a how-to-drop video by Fabien Barel that’s pretty good:

    https://youtu.be/o6mKqihL_Xo

    His first segment is a large drop to flat, and he talks about extending arms in order to move the bike forward. He also recommends extending the legs after the rear wheel clears the lip so that the rear wheel lands first on the flat to help absorb the impact.

    His second segment is a large drop to a steep transition. He advises applying “pressure to the handlebars, to dive the front wheel into the landing to be able to control your speed as early as possible.”

    Note that with this second segment, the drop he’s chosen doesn’t have as sharp of a drop as the one in the first segment. So he doesn’t use the technique he mentioned in the first segment, “extending arms in order to move the bike forward.” But he should have, since his wheels didn’t land on the transition together. The front wheel hit first, as you can see in the screenshot:

    Fabien Barel drop screenshot 1

  11. Griff, I think this discussion exemplifies why I find mountain biking fun — there’s so much to learn, and so much technique to try. There’s always something on the trail to keep both the body and the mind active! I’m riding a fatbike pretty much year around now, so the wheel weight and general size of the bike plays a role, too, I believe. I need to slightly exaggerate drop techniques like these to get my “big” bike moving in the proper way. Thanks for the “heads-up” on the Fabien Barel video, too — in the past, I’ve found his videos add to the pool of informed viewpoints regarding a number mtb skills.

  12. David, I hadn’t thought about needing to exaggerate the lunge/slide/suspend technique to compensate for the extra weight of a fat bike. Glad you brought that up. Your comment reminded me of the comment by Candace Shadley at the bottom of the Seb Kemp article:

    “once someone is doing a great job at drops with a high approach speed, I get them to slow down a bit so that they have to work on the other aspects. After all, sometimes you won’t be able to come in as quickly as you might in the manicured drop park you’ve likely chosen to learn this skill to begin with.”

    I’ve been eager to experiment with this on a curb or other small drop on my 29’er, ie, how slow can I go off this drop and, using the advanced the lunge/slide/suspend technique, still have the rear wheel clear the lip of the drop. Seems like that would be good for you as well with your heavier fat bike.

    FYI, I fixed the sreenshot photo of Fabien Barel landing front-wheel first. It was distorted when viewing on a mobile device.

  13. The above pingback on a blog post by someone at Surry Hills MTB in the UK was a pleasant surprise. Their comment:

    So, James has volunteered another excellent post, this time from pinkbike.com – “Fails of the Month – December“. I can only hope that all featured in the videos were not too badly broken and I have to say, massive kudos to mountainbikegeezer, for not only making his skinny dropoff crash video available to the masses (we’ve all done something similar but less are prepared to admit to it), but also for his excellent analysis of what went wrong!

  14. Griff -- which part of GMBN video explains why pedal wheelies are a bad idea? I watched it 2 times and didnt catch that. Although i am still learning, my understanding is that usage of pedal wheelies is a question of speed. If you had sufficient speed, pedal wheelie would be of course difficult, but if you managed to approach the lip with too low speed, i believe the pedal wheelie would be the only thing that would save you (as any lunge would only help if rear wheel left the drop at the time front wheel is starting to drop).

  15. Hey Peter, you’re right, the GNBN video doesn’t explicitly state ‘pedal wheelies.’ But starting at the 30-second mark, they explain why using your arms to lift the front wheel increases the likelihood of going OTB, because your weight is typically forward. So this would be true with a pedal wheelie while you’re standing on the pedals, as well as the yank-the-front-wheel-with-your-arms type of wheelie they show in the video.

    As for what to do if you approach a lip too slow, the GMBN advice is to stop before you get to the ‘point of no return.’ See the 4:00 mark. If that’s not done, then I think the next best advice is to do as much of an ‘explosive lunge’ as you can, even if your rear wheel doesn’t clear the lip before the front starts descending. At the end of the Fabien Barel video that I discuss in the comment above:
    http://mountainbikegeezer.com/learning-from-nasty-skinny-drop-crash/#comment-23502

    you can see him land slightly front-wheel first. It seems that that’s a better problem to deal with than doing a pedal wheelie and landing slightly rear-wheel first on a sloped landing, risking being pitched OTB when the front slams down. Of course, worst of all is to do neither which is what I did. 😉

    It’s all a bit academic for me, however, since I’ve not yet gotten back on the bike to test this out. We’ve had a real January winter thus far, so it might be a while!

    I look forward to your thoughts on this.

  16. The way that I was taught, you time your loading up of the front suspension by shifting your weight over the front bars, and then you lofting the front end and throw the bike forward (quickly throw your but way back behind the seat and extend arms far forward at the same time). As you get air-born, you get your weight back to center to make an arc trajectory that gets the front down to match a flat landing. Absorb landing mostly with legs and smoothly ride out and away. Don’t use the brakes. Too slow is no good and neither is too fast.

    Start practicing with very small drops and focus on proper technique, and then work your way up progressively. Even after I learned how to do it (I am definitely no expert at it), I am still not too comfortable with doing every drop that I come up to because of the potential of getting it wrong or misjudging the drop, or having something break on the bike from the drop.

  17. Blundar, after studying drops for a few months since my crash, I think you’ve described it pretty accurately.

    Got a video of yourself going off a drop?

  18. I don’t really have anything to video myself with. Out of all the skills videos that I have ever seen, one of my favorites is on YouTube from iChooseBikes. The 10 step series is so quick, simple, and explains it so well that I usually watch every once in a while as a refresher.

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