The Virtuoso: Front-Suspension Symbiont, Meet Ms. Controlled Abandon

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Outside magazine, March 1996

The Virtuoso: Front-Suspension Symbiont, Meet Ms. Controlled Abandon

Cross-country world champ Alison Sydor shows how you and your bike can achieve that elusive two-part harmony
By Ken McAlpine

When it comes to bike handling, there are two types of riders," says world champion Alison Sydor. "Those who work to better their skills and go faster as a result, and those who crash a lot in the hope that they'll learn to leave their bikes less. I, for one, have always found it to my advantage to work with my bike." It's exactly this symbiotic relationship that helped Sydor win the last two cross-country titles with nary a knobby gone astray. But that's not to say that the 29-year-old Canadian is a conservative rider who simply waits for her peers to splat. "There have been plenty of times when I've followed someone into a slippery corner and thought, 'This is too fast--but if they can do it, why can't I?' Sometimes you just need to overcome your inhibitions." In the name of better times through better technique, here are Sydor's tips to keep your riding ever so slightly in check.

The Dicey Turn
When you come to a curve on a rough trail (photo 1), look before you lean. "Approach the turn a little slower than you think you need to, and come in tight to the inside so that you'll have room to swing wide."

As you hit the heart of the turn (photo 2), center your weight over the back tire--"You may steer with the front wheel," Sydor points out, "but you carve with the rear"--and if necessary unclip your inside foot for balance.

Upon exiting the turn (photo 3), the most important thing is simply to stay the course. "Don't panic and don't stray," Sydor says, "even if you're heading for a big rut. Slam on the brakes now and you'll be doing a flying Superman."

The Uphill Obstacle
"Take a deep breath," advises Sydor, "because this is a bit of a drastic move." Work up some speed before reaching the impediment and then "perform a subtle wheelie" (photo 1) to get the front end over. "It's a little tricky, because you must simultaneously accelerate, lift the handlebars, and shift your weight back."

You should also resist the temptation to relax when the front tire clears. "Now's not the time to rest on your laurels," she says, explaining that you have to shift your weight over the handlebars quickly (photo 2) to let momentum and an unburdened saddle help the back wheel over.

The Large Dropoff
"Sometimes you have to stop and take a look before you go down a really steep hill," says Sydor (photo 1). "There's nothing wrong with that: You can use the time to pick your line." While descending, body position will be the key. "As your bike goes over the top, keep your body stationary until the saddle has passed you by," she advises (photo 2). Go down with your butt far aft (photo 3), using both brakes in an even, controlled manner until just before the bottom. "At that point you might hit a gully," Sydor explains. "So stay off the front brake."

The Rough Downhill
As you approach a bumpy descent, says Sydor, "Just think, 'More chain tension.'" Shifting onto a bigger chainring will not only keep your chain from falling off on the way down but will also put you in the right gear as you begin zooming along at the bottom. During her plummet, Sydor uses her arms and legs as secondary shock absorbers but focuses on keeping her torso centered. "Let your bike do whatever it has to, be it bouncing side to side or up and down," she instructs, "but keep your body quiet."

The Hill Start
"Getting going on an incline," says Sydor, "means applying torque and gaining balance simultaneously." With your bike in a low gear--but not so low that you'll spin out--plant one foot on terra firma and the other on the pedal at the beginning of the stroke, making sure to apply both brakes "unless you want to fight gravity in yet another way." As you push down on the pedal, let off the brakes and pop onto your seat. "Keep your weight centered," advises Sydor, "and don't worry about connecting shoe to pedal until you have momentum. Why be clipped in if you're about to fall over?"

The Civilized Cyclist

  • Believe it or not, fat-tire etiquette demands that you get muddy. "The temptation is to skirt puddles and potholes, but that just widens the trail," says Tim Blumenthal, executive director of the International Mountain Bicycling Association. "When faced with muddy waters, either ride dead center or carry your bike."
  • Stop to clean out the basin of a water bar--a barrier that prevents erosion by diverting water from the center of a trail--if it has been plugged up by rocks and leaves. "It literally takes three seconds," says Blumenthal "to scrape it out with your heal."
  • Copyright 1996, Outside Magazine

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