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Trials is really just a catch all phrase for “bike handling”. For whatever reason, the term “trials” gets more interest than “bike handling”, and if you have any insight as to why, please give me a comment!
I’m actually not very much of a trials rider. Trials is a competitive sport where the goal is to stay within a marked course, and points are given for putting a foot down. At the end of the day, the rider with the lowest score wins. I competed for about a year as a kid, got bored with the slow speed, and never went back to competing. However, the fundamentals of the sport apply directly to technical mountain biking, and practicing these are the building blocks to becoming a truly well rounded rider.
The simplest of all biking handling exercises, the track stand is essential to take seriously. You MUST be able to trackstand in order to learn the rest of these moves.
Tip 1: Concentrate your weight over the pedals. Use the weight of your feet on the pedals to adjust your balance. Modulating the brakes will help with the track stand, and this is a great first step to understanding how to use the brakes for slow speed control.
Learn to balance while using one brake, both brakes, and just the tension of your weight against the rear wheel through the drivetrain. That practice of using the drivetrain to control the bike is another key aspect of how the trackstand is so significant. Finally, moving on to one handed and no handed variations is fun too.
On the trail, you’ll find the track stand very helpful on technical climbs, where this can allow you to catch your breath before a big punch type move. On technical descents this is a great skill to avoid clipping out when looking for a line down a rough section of trail.
Tip 2: This move combines braking with balance and some dynamic turning. A 45 degree nose pivot can help a ton with getting onto a skinny or a rock in a tight trail situation. Honestly, this set up skill is critical to have mastered if you want to be able to focus on more advanced lines.
This move is fairly intuitive to learn. Start at a really slow speed, pick which direction you want to try pivot towards, and stop the front brake. Rotate with your head, shoulders, and hips. You’ll notice that once the rear wheel hits the ground, it’s pretty hard to stay balanced. Practicing this over and over will make it easier. A small hop is a good way to dissipate that inertia, but me mindful that you don’t hop off your line.
The rear wheel pivot isn’t quite as practical on its own, but when combined with the front wheel pivot, will have you putting your bike precisely where you need it. Spot where you want that front wheel to get placed, keep your brake locked up, and move it to the side.
Tip 3: Hops are quintessential trials moves. They are ugly, and they take a lot of energy, but they can be VERY helpful on the trail! I first learned hops by hopping up stairs. I would keep both brakes locked up, and would just hop up, one step at a time. I find it more comfortable and easier to place the front tire one step above the rear tire, but the best technique is to practice different variations.
Once you’ve mastered the hop, you can experiment with releasing the brakes and giving a small bit of pedal input to drive the bike forwards. This was really hard for me to learn, and I’m still surprised when I cover a lot of distance this way. However, it’s a move I’ve really utilized a lot for tech climbs.
Tip 4: Jeff Lenosky did a great video about these. The goal is to place your front tire onto an obstacle then lunge the bike up, as opposed to a full on bunnyhop. It’s more precise than the bunny hop, and takes less energy. You will that you can more easily get your bike onto higher obstacles with the punch than with a bunnyhop. Once your front tire is on top of that obstacle, you’re able to push forwards on the handlebar and lift your feet, and utilize the front end of the bike as a lever to lift the rear.
Tip 5: Slightly more advanced, the pedal kick is learned by figuring out stationary back wheel hops. With the rear wheel locked up, pull back and balance on the rear tire, then begin hopping. Once you can consistently do 10 or so rear wheel hops, begin to experiment with driving the bike forwards. Slightly release the brake, applying some pedal pressure, and allow the bike to lunge forwards. The trick is to time your forwards lunge with the drivetrain pressure.
I like to pedal kick from obstacle to obstacle, and I’ll pedal kick off drops, as to me it feels safer than a wheelie drop. While rear wheel hops are much easier on a hardtail, the pedal kick is easier on a full suspension bike. Go figure!
All of these moves can be easily practiced indoors during the winter. Your garage is a great place to practice all of these, and even 20 minutes daily of simple track stands and pivots will make a noticeable improvement in your technical riding ability.