Relax. That’s what Carl Decker tells himself when he comes flying into a rock garden. As a five-time Downieville Classic All-Mountain Champion with a long career and consistent results, it obviously works—Decker rarely crashes. But cruising through fields of boulders requires more than just relaxing, right?
We caught up with the Giant Factory Off-Road Team racer, along with a slew of other pro and elite riders who’ve tackled the rockiest of races (like the Trans-Sylvania Epic) to find out what else it takes to crush the rocks, and how they make it look so darn easy.
Prepare For What’s Ahead
As you approach an upcoming rock garden, here’s what you should do to prepare.
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See the Future
Focus on where you’re going to be, not where you are. “To ride rocks fast, you have to be able to see the line well in advance,” Decker says. “You want to look for wedges to use as take-offs or landings, and smooth areas to brake or turn or get in a pedal stroke.”
All this takes practice. “It’s easy to look down the trail when it’s less challenging, but to look forward in the gnarly stuff requires more discipline,” he says. Decker suggests spending some time on a long-travel bike at a bike park to practice the technique. The extra suspension softens the blow, and the lifts allow you to repeat runs again and again.
“Look way further ahead,” adds Sue Haywood, a retired pro mountain biker. “The rock that you think is the hardest is not the hardest. It’s the one beyond that rock.”
Cody Phillips, an enduro and cyclocross racer, also recommends looking for the lines that other riders have picked, if you can spot the signs. “A lot of times, you can see peoples’ skid marks or bushes that are knocked over, and then you know a corner is going to be tight. If you read the trail, even through a blind corner, you can see everyone’s tire marks and where people are hitting it hard,” he says.
Avoid a Static Position
Before you reach the rock garden, Decker recommends getting into an attack position: cranks level, elbows and knees bent, head up, bike at the proper speed, and saddle dropped (if you have a dropper post, and especially on longer descents). From there, get ready to move.
“Novice riders tend to ride in a static position,” Decker says. “Great riders move their bodies around on the bike. You want to weight and unweight each wheel to ride the rocks.”
Need to pedal through that rock garden? Give yourself something to push against. “I like a gear that’s a couple harder than my most-efficient gear for a given speed,” Decker explains. “This makes it easier to time your pedals to avoid pedal-rock strikes, and keeps more weight on the pedals instead of the saddle so that you don’t get bucked by the terrain as much.”
Mountain biker and former pro cyclocrosser Justin Lindine agrees: “In a pedaling section, it’s a little trickier. You have to oversteer just a little bit and sort of monster truck through it. You can’t really spin, you’re more likely to clip a pedal or get hung up on something. It’s about torque. You need those bursts of speed so you need to be in a big gear. Then, when you have a second to pedal, you’re like, ‘Sprint!’ for half a pedal stroke.”
In the Rock Garden
Once you’re in the thick of it, here’s what you should keep in mind.
Momentum is Your Friend
“Slow-speed trials moves [think: track stands and hopping] might get you through a particularly nasty section on your local singletrack, but they are often less effective than harnessing momentum. Let go of the brakes for a moment, or sprint into an uphill crux,” Decker explains. The extra speed can help carry you up ledgy climbs or skip over the gaps in rocks on a descent. “Mo [momentum] is your friend. And I’m not talking about my mustache.”
Go Over—Not Into
Ramming into rocks is a sure-fire way to kill your momentum. “Go over rocks, not into them,” Phillips says. “Use your legs more than your arms to pick your bike up, maneuver it, and pump it. Anywhere there’s a rise or a fall is a place to lose or gain momentum.”
Balance Is Key
“You always want to be balanced,” Phillips says. “The steeper it gets, the more you’ll want your balance to shift toward the rear. That’s just the way balance works. But you don’t want to be off the back the whole time because then you lose control of the front. And if you’re over the front, you don’t have control of your back end and you’re likely going to flip over.” Work on maintaining your body weight over the center of balance when on downhills and uphills.
One Section at a Time
If you’re overwhelmed by nailing a rocky length of trail in its entirety, just focus on completing one little section at a time, and session the toughest spots. “Breaking it into small sections helps. Even a long trail of rock gardens has some smooth sections, so if you have the time and you’re practicing, work on a section at a time and string it together. In a race, just think about what you’re doing right this second, not the future, and tackle it one bit at a time,” Lindine says.
For the last step, it’s back to Decker’s original “relax” mantra. Keep your fingers, arms, legs, and shoulders loose. Don’t hold your breath. “I think the band 38 Special said it best: ‘Just hold on loosely, but don’t let go. If you cling too tightly, you’re gonna lose control.’ Those are words to live by,” Decker says.
Likewise, pro mountain biker and cyclocross rider Ellen Noble says to “use your elbows as added suspension.”
Lindine adds that if it’s a downhill rocky section and you’re coasting, “it’s mostly about trying to pick good lines but mainly staying loose and letting the bike float around a lot. People aren’t inherently comfortable with that sensation, so you have to get used to the bike kicking around,” he says.
[Gravel! prepares you with everything you need to know to crush it, including the best gear, how to train, and much more!]
Other Useful Tips to Consider
Learn the Hard Way
“I rode a hardtail until . That forced me to learn how to ride versus having something that just rode for me. If you ride a bike with enough suspension, you can ride over anything. But if you’re forced to ride it right or not make it, you learn,” says Noble.
“Folks out here don’t understand how we can ride these singlespeed hardtails, but the hardtail can be an advantage: You can pop that front wheel and have a little more control,” says Chris Merriam, a mountain bike racer on team Crosshairs Cycling p/b Bike Doctor of Waldorf.
There are also some things you can do off the bike that will allow you to better handle rock gardens when you do encounter them.
Build Core Strength
“It’s a lot about slow-speed balance, and just practice, like anything. It helps to have a really strong core. With rocks, you’re always getting bumped around, so it’s good to be able to move around on the bike a lot,” says Payson McElveen, a pro cyclist on the Orange Seal Off-Road Team.
Don’t Skimp on Fitness
Similarly, it’s helpful to have good fitness overall. Riding through rock gardens is no joke—and quite the workout. “Have lots of fitness! It goes much more smoothly when you can keep powering through rock gardens,” says Merriam.