Mountain bike coaches everywhere consider “light hands, heavy feet” a fundamental skill, right up there with the attack/ready position. Why? Because light hands, heavy feet will help make your riding more stable no matter what the terrain.
Carrying weight in our feet vs. our hands puts our weight much lower on the bike, allowing the bike and us to float over terrain more smoothly. Carrying weight in our hands creates a higher center of gravity, making it easier for our body to get knocked out of position by uneven terrain and obstacles.
In chapter 2 of the book Mastering Mountain Bike Skills, co-author Lee McCormack (Lee Likes Bikes) mentions light hands, weightless hands, neutral hands, and other variations 18 times. His rationale includes:
Leaning forward onto the bars makes the front wheel too heavy. Leaning back away from the bars makes the front wheel too light. Unless you’re intentionally pulling an expert move, your hands should be neutral on the bars. This lets your weight drive through the bottom bracket and into both wheels, which is perfect.
Mastering Mountain Bike Skills, Brian Lopes, Lee McCormack, Good Condition, Book
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It sounds logical, but there are at least three factors that prevent “light hands, heavy feet” from becoming a habit for many mountain bikers:
1. It’s a skill that’s hard to observe.
It’s difficult for a coach to assess when a rider’s hands are neutral on the bars. Bent wrists are an indicator, but even if a rider’s wrists are straight and overall body position on the mountain bike is correct, hand and feet pressure can still be wrong.
2. It’s not a sexy skill.
No one ever says, “Wow, look at that guy. He’s really good at keeping his hands light.” So most riders don’t ever think to practice it or seek help to get better at it.
3. Drills to practice the skill aren’t common.
Instructors remind their students with shouts of “light hands” and gestures of their hands holding imaginary tea cups.
But that seems to be about the extent of it.
So as a newly certified Level 1 IMBA ICP instructor, I decided to create some mountain biking drills to help students increase their awareness of the pressure on their feet and hands. And in the process, I discovered that A) I wasn’t very good at keeping my own hands light on the bars, and B) the better I got at it, the more stable my riding became, the faster I could go, and the more fun I started to have. Singletracks readers who tackle these drills might have a similar experience.
Stage 1 Awareness Drills
Venue: Yard, driveway, neighborhood park, empty parking lot
Drill 1: Sit on the mountain bike, with your feet on the ground. Spend a few minutes alternating between pushing the palms of your hands against the handlebar grips, pulling up and back on the grips with your fingers, clenching the grips tightly with your fists, and a neutral position that barely touches the grips. Say the words “palms,” “fingers,” “fists,” and “neutral” to yourself as you feel the pressure of your hands change.
Drill 2: Ride your bike slowly in figure 8s, both sitting and standing. At first, just notice your hand pressure as you ride and mentally label it whenever it changes. Then, deliberately do whatever is needed to feel palm and finger pressure on the bars. And then see if you can find and keep a neutral/light hands grip for a few seconds.
Drill 3: Repeat Drill 2, but ride standing up in a straight line, moving your body back and forth in the bike’s cockpit.
Drill 4: Repeat Drill 2 but ride standing up and then brake to a stop. Notice what happens to your hand pressure when you squeeze the brake levers as you stop. What can you do to get closer to neutral hand pressure when applying the brakes?
Drill 5: Repeat Drill 2 but ride straight in a ready or attack position.
Drill 6: Repeat Drill 2, but wedge the front wheel of the bike against an object so that you can stand on the pedals and balance in a stationary position with relative ease. A fire hydrant, trailer hitch, or steps along a wall work well. Using body position, deliberately exaggerate your palm and finger pressure on the bars.
Drill 7: Prop the front wheel of your bike up on an object in a stationary position, placing a rock or block behind the rear wheel to prevent the bike from rolling backwards. You want to simulate an uphill position on the bike. Steps along a wall work well, as does moving a picnic table next to a wall. Grab the handlebars, balance the bike with the handlebars against the wall, and then stand on the pedals, using your shoulder and hip as needed. Once you feel stable and centered, start moving around the cockpit, saying the words “palms,” “fingers,” “fists,” and “neutral” to yourself as you feel the pressure of your hands change. And then, using body position, deliberately exaggerate your palm and finger pressure on the bars.
Drill 8: Repeat Drill 7, but prop the bike in a downhill position. Note especially what happens to your hips in order for your hands to be completely neutral/weightless as you hold the bars.
Stage 2 Awareness Drills
Venue: Singletrack trails:
Drill 9: Ride a mountain bike trail or section of a trail that’s relatively flat and easy for you. When sitting on the saddle and when standing on the pedals, say the words “palms,” “fingers,” and “neutral” out loud as you notice your hand pressure on the bars changing. Initially, just focus on being aware of the changes, i.e. don’t deliberately try to have neutral hands.
Drill 10: Repeat Drill 9, but on a trail that has some uphills and downhills that are relatively easy for you.
Drill 11: Repeat Drill 9, but on a mountain bike trail that’s much more challenging for you. Alternate between riding it as fast as possible and much slower than normal. What did you notice about your ability to shout the words “palms,” “fingers,” and “neutral” when you’re riding fast vs. deliberately riding slower? What percentage of the time were your hands neutral on uphills? On downhills? When riding fast over bumpy terrain, were your hands tightly clenching the handlebar grips? How did that affect your ability to get to “light hands, heavy feet”?
Stage 3 Awareness Drills
Venue: Flat, empty lot
For this next set of drills, it’s important to find a spot like a flat empty parking lot with no distractions, no vehicles, no traffic, no obstacles, and no other mountain bikers. Why? Because these exercises involve taking your hands off the brake levers while the bike is moving. There are already plenty of Darwin Award candidates every year; we don’t need more mountain bikers competing.
Drill 12: While standing on the pedals, ride a straight line and lean the bike side-to-side (the usual bike/body separation exercise), but hold the handlebars with the palms of your hands pressing on the ends of the bars as lightly as possible. This drill forces you away from using downward or upward pressure on the bars, so that you get a different steering experience with “light hands” than you’re used to. Do this both pedaling and coasting.
Drill 13: Repeat Drill 12, but use just your fingertips on top of or at the end of the bars.
Drill 14: Coast in circles while standing on the pedals, leaning the bike using the fingertips of one hand on one end of the bars and the fingertips of the other hand in the center of the bars or on the stem. See how slow you can coast until you have to put a foot down.
Drill 15: Repeat Drill 14, but take your fingertips off the center of the bars and coast in circles using only the fingertips of one hand on the end of the bars. Try to feel the bike turning the bars, not you. Do this while standing on the pedals in a neutral position and then in increasingly lower attack or ready positions.
Drill 16: If you really feel confident and stable doing Drill 15, try it no-handed. Momentarily lift your fingertips off the bars while coasting in a slow circle. It’s actually a pretty cool feeling to be balanced to where you can let go of the bars and feel the front wheel turning on its own.
Drill 17: After doing these drills, do a series of fast turns around the lot as if you were on a trail, deploying all the other elements of a basic turn that mountain bike instructors teach (eyes ahead, attack position, rotate torso/hip flexion). But focus the most on keeping your hands neutral. What do you notice?
Stage 4 Awareness Drills
Venue: Your favorite mountain bike trails
To varying degrees, our minds wander when we’re riding. Some of this makes the riding more enjoyable, such as when we notice the scenery or laugh at our riding companions. But other times our wandering minds create problems for us, such as when our egos get the upper hand. Using the “palms,” “fingers,” and “neutral” awareness drill while riding can quiet our monkey brains and get us to the state of relaxed concentration–flow–that defines our best days on the trails.
So get out there and practice these skills! Before you know it, your riding will be exponentially more stable, no matter what the terrain!
Video: Light Hands, Heavy feet: Developing the Habit – Part 1
Parts 2 and 3 of the video series “Light Hands, Heavy feet: Developing the Habit” are available via a free subscription at Thick Skull Mountain Bike Skills.