Are any Bike Skills Truly Useless?

While it might seem like some mountain bike skills and tricks exist purely for show, most if not all of them can make us faster and more confident on the trails.
Miranda Miller initiating a massive bunny hop over off-camber rocks.

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I was chatting with a friend the other day about how I am working to elongate my tepid manual, and she replied that the skill only seems good for showing off. I’ve heard this perspective a few times from different angles. We then discussed other “cool-looking” skills and I was left to chew on the usefulness vs. peacock-ness that each of them provides.

The following weekend I went on a spin with another friend who’s talented enough to make all of the MTB balance and boost-skills look easy. After watching what some trials and BMX prowess can look like on the trail, I’m convinced that no trick is entirely useless once you learn it to the point of comfort. This same bike-gymnast friend also races elite-level EWS, and shared a number of ways all of the seemingly showy tricks can help riders go faster.

In one example, after I clumsily tripod-rolled a vertical rock face on our ride, I sat and watched how a flying leap from the top of it, followed by a nose-bonk on the pointy rock at the center of the wall could allow for a straight line with no brakes. A handful of cool looking skills tied together to mold flow from a stone cheese grater. I was impressed.

Tommaso Francardo with the leaned manual to smooth out the roots.

Take the manual for example. My riding mate rolled into the top of that rock wall on the back tire, peering over the ledge to find a good spot to bounce the front wheel off while en route to a well-placed landing that would line up the next turn. For context, this all happened at race pace. That skillful chess match wouldn’t be possible without deft maneuvers that a number of riders denounce as mere showboating. Balancing on the rear tire, or manualing, is also useful when you need to cross a small stream or roll through a slog of clotted mud. If you enter the stream or mud with the front tire high in the air, your bike will slow as the rear tire encounters drag instead of taking all of the initial drag at the front, potentially tossing your mass over the bars. A short one-meter manual will also help keep your feet dry when crossing streams or puddles. If dry feet is akin to showing off, call me a peacock.

The cuttie is a “cool looking” skill that has gained popularity of late. It looks like a mid-corner skid without brakes, which is exactly what it is. It takes loads of familiarity and trust in your front traction, and a decent sense of where and when to weight the tires, in order to slap a berm half as well as Joe Barnes. The advantage of this silly little slide is that you can maintain speed in turns, even if you enter at a shitty angle.

For example, watch any EWS race footage from the last year or so. Riders often come into sections they can’t recall from their single preview run, which means lining up a few corners with a totally square entrance that should have them hitting the brakes. Instead, they can whip the rear end into the proper angle with a cuttie and maintain most of their speed. Being able to sort a turn that you’ve entered poorly isn’t just faster, it can save you from a potential high-side crash that might result from your tires catching the berm at the wrong angle. Modern tires are great at gripping in turns or while braking, but none of them can properly perform both jobs at once.

It’s a fair bit easier to understand how wheelies and bunny hops benefit our trail time. Race tape or not, being able to hop over a rootball is stupid fun, and those little leaps allow us to increase air time off jumps and out of sharp compressions. A bunny hop can also save the day if you come around a turn to find an unexpected gap or rock stack in front of your tire. Wheelies help us gain awareness of our balance, maneuverability, and weight distribution on the bike, which all culminates in confidence. Since they are the first skill most riders try out they can also help us feel like a kid, which is never a bad thing.

Nothin’ but nose.

While we don’t need to analyze every last bike skill to make the point that they’re worth more than posturing, one other super useful maneuver that I’ve heard folks denounce as “showing off” is the nose-press. In short, if you can’t comfortably nose press, aka endo turn, in Europe you’re going to spend a lot of time stopping to make two or three-point turns in the tight switchbacks. You’ll be the new driver trying to parallel park in front of bemused onlookers who point and laugh from inside the adjacent post office. The tracks were built for moving goods on foot, and with a little practice, they’re wicked fun on the bike. Like a wheelie or manual, the nose press can help us all feel more confident in our physical understanding of the bike and the ride, even if we never need to use it. It also replaces the need to skid around tight turns, which might make your local trail builders smile.

So, a backflip or knack-knack won’t win many races, but a good selection of the balancing and boosting we’ve all been practicing throughout our various quarantines can genuinely make trail riding faster and better. The more comfortable we are with the bike dancing around beneath us, and with pushing the handlebars where we want them to go, the more confidently we can ride — which in turn makes our fun more fun.

Your turn: Can you think of a bike “trick” that is truly useless? Which skills are the most helpful?

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