The Golden Thread Mountain Bike Technique

The Golden Thread

Technique / Terrain

Much has been written about ‘line choice’ as an important aspect of taming the trail that lies ahead. This issue we put our usual spin on the subject with the ultimate goal of making you a better, faster rider.

Line choice is indeed an important skill to develop, but from experience we know that when you are out on the bike line choice is just one of the essentials when it comes to mastering a trail. Finding the fastest or smoothest or indeed most fun line down a trail is a big factor in reaching your riding goals. Only when line choice is matched to you own skill set will you discover the Holy Grail and what we call ‘The Golden Thread’.

Every trail will present numerous options to the rider, which in turn means a lot of decision making ‘on the hoof’. The stronger your skill set and the more unconscious your capabilities have become, the more of your brain’s bandwidth will be available to make the necessary computations at speed. In this feature we are going to draw together all the skills elements we have identified in previous features with you to show you how you can bring them together to create your own ‘Golden Thread.’

The Golden Thread is a term we use to describe a rider’s optimum line from the start of a trail to the end of a trail. As mythical as it might sound, with the right combination of skills, whatever your skill level you can too can reach this pinnacle of riding

The hardest thing is that on any trail and for every rider there are literally thousands of threads running down it. To link up the right threads in the right places isn’t as easy as it sounds. What creates the Golden Thread isn’t just line choice. Yes line choice is obviously critical, but if it were that easy we’d all be riding as fast as we could all of the time. There’s a lot more too it, which is what make’s finding the Golden Thread such a challenge but so rewarding. It is worth remembering that the Golden Thread can be as elusive as it is exclusive. You may have to work hard to find it and simply copying the rider in front won’t necessarily work for you.

A line choice you make based on another riders skills set wont lead to discovering the Holy Grail.

Only by understanding your own strengths and weaknesses in both your physical and mental game will you be able to discover your own Golden Thread.

Whether you are looking to bag a Strava KOM, wanting to stop the clock in the quickest time on race day or just keen on outpacing your mates on the local trails - there’s a Golden Thread waiting for you on every ride. It’s always there; sometimes (but rarely) you stumble across it unwittingly (although in this case you are unlikely to find it again), on other occasions it might elude you entirely. Finding the Golden Thread should not be left to chance, it is always there even if you struggle at times to find it.
Some riders seem to be born with the ability to read the trail and convert what they see, feel and think into the right series of thought processes and movements in the shortest time, with the minimum amount of fuss - finding the perfect line on every trail in all conditions. As a mere mortal this Golden Thread is often the last thing on your mind. It is easy to be engrossed entirely on just staying rubber side down and surviving rather than enjoying the ride and finding the perfect line.

All of the Elements that we’ve looked at in our previous Tech Features will have an influence when it comes to finding your Golden Thread. Fitness and nutrition will play their part, bike set-up as ever plays a major part as does getting your mental approach right. Finally the big four physical elements, body position, footwork, looking, speed control all come into their own time and time again. Only when all of these factors along with your ability to manage the energy in the trail, the bike and yourself come together, will you to find your full flow and know you’re that perfect line.

It’s obvious that the fitter you are, the further and faster you’re going to be able to ride, but that’s only part of the story. Good physical conditioning enables you to ride harder for longer but it also enables you to concentrate better and focus on riding the trail rather than how fatigued you’re feeling.

This extra capacity and the ability to produce a turn of speed enables you to think further ahead and accelerate the bike out of sections. Driving the bike and being clever with your energy, strength and power mean that you can optimize your run through the trail rather than starting fast, fatiguing quickly loosing ever more flow and using/wasting ever more energy.

We’ll look at the effect of energy management on fatigue in more detail later but for now the focus in terms of The Golden Thread is finding places where you can pedal and accelerate the bike out of the section or build speed with a view to carrying it down the trail. Accelerating hard out of sections only to have to break even harder into the next one isn’t efficient and causes what we refer to as time spikes.

Repeating this sprint break, sprint break is costly in terms of time, energy and flow. The Golden Thread will help you to measure your efforts and ride much more efficiently. Remember time spikes will turn your run from a silky smooth thread into something more akin to rusty barbed wire.

There’s no surprise that what you ride and how you’ve set it up has an influence when it comes to The Golden Thread. From tyre pressures through to suspension set up and controls, they all play an important part in enabling the bike to give you the confidence to push your line options.

Tyre pressures will always have an influence in terms of the bikes rolling speed and grip and feedback from the trail. Of course harder tyres will roll faster with less drag but they won’t give you the same levels of grip as a softer tyre. Its is worth remembering that no matter what pressure you are running, your tyres will only roll as fast as you let them.

If a perceived lack of grip causes you to lack confidence, tighten up and drag your brakes the extra PSI in your tyres will not equate to extra MPH on the trail. The Golden Thread makes you think about these compromises and it’s small changes that can all add up to make a big difference.

Suspension settings are critical too, we’ve all heard the top riders talk about the time they spend testing the latest suspension products to hit the market. This is so you can tune your suspension for your style of riding. Just five minutes spent pre-ride checking and recording your settings can open up a world of options when it comes to set up and understanding how the bikes settings can influence your riding.

Keeping notes on the settings you’ve changed means you can get back to where you started from if things don't pan out as you expected…. a trail of bread crumbs out of the forest if you like. It’s easy to overlook suspension set up and ride your bike the way it left the shop. Personalising your set up and understanding how to change it for different trails and conditions is crucial if you are to find the Golden Thread. Get your suspension and bike set up right and you’ll find you can get onto the toughest of line options with greater ease.

We’ve often looked at the psychology of the rider, this is also a critical factor when it comes to finding that perfect line. You have to be confident in your riding to go for the more challenging lines. This in turn takes commitment, both in terms of you knowing you can make the line work but also in terms of the time you’ve put into to your riding.

Being able to control the voice in your head questioning your every move is key too. Remember to think through the section and link the sections by concentrating on where you want to be next rather than what you are doing now. Think further ahead on the trail and linking the sections opens up the trail and enables you to thread through the sections with confidence and commitment.

We’ve looked at the importance of body position, footwork and looking in the past. When you’re on the Golden Thread these elements are totally subconscious. Working from the ‘pocket’ you’re able to set your body position, footwork, looking and speed control on the entry of each section. Pushing the bike down the trail keeping your wrists and heels dropped and your head up as you flow from section to section.

We’ve talked about your ability to pedal already but when you stop pedalling or if you’ve not got the fitness to pedal, keeping your pedals level on the flat and dropping your outside foot though the turns is essential. When the pedals stop turning there are other options for generating drive and accelerating the bike. Not grabbing a handful of brake lever every time you have a moment of indecision is good start but understanding and applying ‘energy management' skills is crucial and will allow you to make the line choices not open to lesser riders.

Good energy management is crucial to maintaining the momentum you might need to follow a line that although looking less rapid as you approach will open up the better lines further down the trail. With good energy management skills you are less likely to get bullied by the trail into taking a path of less resistance.

H.G.Wells may not have been thinking about world cup glory when he stated
‘The path of least resistance is the path of the loser’ - but his words can ring true out on the trails. It is easy to ride in the now, avoiding crossing roots or riding out a severe camber for the ease that it generates there and then, but as a rider and certainly as one in search of the Golden Thread it is often better to deal with a more challenging section now if it sets you up better for the sections to come.

American Philosopher, John Dewey goes even further describing the ‘path of least resistance and least trouble’ as a ‘mental rut’. It can be a challenge to apply more refined skills to more technical sections if there is an easier choice - getting stuck in this rut of taking the easy option is unlikely to allow you to find the Golden Thread.

Good energy management skills, pumping, unweighting, weighting your bike through sections will allow you to ride more smoothly and confidently over sections where your bike might otherwise stall. If these skills are developed you are less likely to get bullied onto a line that although looking easier doesn't take you to where you want to be. The stronger your skills in terms of managing energy the smoother you will ride more technical sections. If you don't get ‘pushed’ as the bike rocks and rolls below you, you can stay in the pocket and drive the bike from there.

Your perception of speed is intrinsically tied to your emotional state. Getting thrown about and bullied by the trail will definitely give you the impression of going fast as your brain races to find solutions whilst at the same time battling the bodies instinctive urge to curl up, hold your breath and tense every muscle in your body.

Panic and speed are not the same thing. When you hit the Golden Thread the chances are that your relaxed state of mind will actually skew perception and what is fast, feels far from it. A top rider will blitz a section but always look as though they have all the time in the world. Having developed a very high level of unconscious competency, their minds are free to plan ahead and thus create time. Despite their far greater speed they have less to do and thus have more time to do it.

As your skills develop ‘your’ Golden Thread may change down the same trail, better looking, foot work or energy management from the physical skills set will strengthen your commitment and confidence, maintain better emotional control and allow you to think way up the concentration ladder and thus further ahead of the bike. Until you refine your skills your Golden Thread may not be as fast as your friends and it certainly wont be the same as theirs.

Attempting the gnarliest line in the vain hope of replicating what a visiting pro achieved may see you in a hospital bed not on the Golden Thread. Play to your strengths and practise to overcome your weaknesses. You may not currently have the skills to take the most direct route but travelling a further distance at greater speed and carrying more speed into subsequent sections may suit your riding style, fitness and ability better.

Top tips for finding ‘your’ Golden Thread

  1. Look for your own perfect line - don’t follow the crowd all the time, the well-worn line may be there because the trail is ridden by many making the same mistake. Avoid the tyranny of the tyre mark.
  2. Know the trail in its entirety. A fast line into a corner may put you in a hole or rut on exit. Carrying speed right down the trail is the goal not just a short section of it. Knowledge IS power.
  3. Avoid time spikes - Be proactive not reactive, know when to accelerate when to pedal and when to pump and where to apply speed control.
  4. Deal with issues - don’t push the problem down then trail you will eventually catch it up (or it will catch up with you).
  5. The Golden Thread is silky smooth…and smooth is fast. The trail might not be but try and make sure your riding is.
  6. Feeling fast and being fast are not the same thing.
  7. Your bike has many adjustable components… they don’t come out of the box tuned for you or what you are riding. Explore your options.
  8. Work on optimal and your maximal will grow - develop your skills first speed will follow.
  9. Accept that you cannot change the now but only what is next - keep your brain way ahead of your bike.
  10. Breathe
  11. Keep breathing

Good luck in finding your Golden Thread, whether it helps you up a leader board or not it will encourage you to explore new lines develop new skills and ultimately have more fun on the trail.

This technique article was in Issue 32 of IMB.


By Richard Kelly
Richard Kelly has been riding bikes since forever, and teaching people to become better mountain bikers for over a decade. He’s always out in the Surrey Hills training riders, building trails and riding for himself whenever he gets the chance. His unique perspective on mountain bike technique has earned him fans the world over, with some speculating he is actually Jamiroquai or perhaps Jack Sparrow…

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