The attack position is probably the most important riding technique you can have in your skills set and luckily it is a fairly easy one to develop. It is clichéd I know, but in this case the attack position really is your best means of defence.
Nearly every time I go out riding I see people out on the trails who spend almost the entire ride sitting down on their saddle, even over technical features and when approaching features that they are unsure of. I recently asked one of these riders why they stayed seated and the reply was that they felt safer seated when the trail was rough. I asked them to try riding in the attack position and showed them how. I bumped into them again later and they were grinning from ear to ear and couldn’t wait to tell me how much easier it had made the rest of their ride after they started using the attack position. What you want to develop is to instinctively adopt the attack position at the appropriate points.
What’s in a name?
The attack position is known by at least three additional titles! If you have had any coaching from a British/Scottish cycling trained coach, or ride with people who have, you may well hear it referred to as the “ready” position. In a later article you will also see me refer to it as position “2” and position “B”. What it is called is unimportant, however, it is how it will improve your riding that really counts.
Being able to be stationary without putting a foot down while out on your local trails, or even on the roads going to your local trails, lets you ride with more flow, confidence and control. There are loads of examples of when track standing can or should be used on the mountain bike, way more than when road biking or even cycling on a track, where the technique originated.
Attack, Attack, Attack
When should you use this technique? Simple answer is almost every time that you are not pedalling. If you are approaching a rough part of the trail where you don’t need to pedal – attack position. Before any non-seated manoeuvre – attack position. Unsure where the trail is about to go – attack position. Although I much prefer the term “attack position” over “ready position” — I think it is cooler and sums up how most of us want to ride — the term “ready” is a good one as it gives and clue as to when to use the technique. Basically, it is the position that allows you to be “ready” to employ any of the other skills you will need on the trail and for anything else that you are about to encounter on the trail.
Assume the Position
Here it is in a nutshell:
- Get your bum off the saddle
- Look forward and well ahead
- Long legs but with knees slightly bent
- Drop your heels
- Bend your elbows (it’s sooooo enduro)
- Try to line your belly button up on the bottom bracket (the bit your cranks pass through)
- Try to have a more or less level back (don’t worry if it’s not totally flat)
- Drop your shoulders
Bum, Bum Bum, Bum Bum
It is important to get your bum off the saddle as it gives you better control of the bike. This is mainly because it allows the bike to move around underneath you largely without it transmitting this movement into your body. Why is this good? Simple, you don’t get shaken up or spat off when it gets rough. You control the bike, not the other way round. We’ll cover more on this in a future article on “Cone of Movement”, but for now just picture a drawing pin stuck point up to your saddle whenever the trail gets rough, or you need to be ready for anything and keep that bum up.
If my clients were to be polled on the advice I give them the most, it would undoubtedly be to keep their heads up and look forward. The attack position is no exception to this. It is the usual story that it allows you to read the trail better, etc. but even more than this is effects your centre of gravity on the bike and the way the bike reacts to obstacles on the trail; and more importantly, what happens to your body when your bike encounters these obstacles.
Mommy Long Legs
The most effective suspension on any mountain bike is your legs! You can have a hardtail or a 170mm enduro rig, but it holds true for both. With your saddle dropped, it will provide most riders on correctly sized bikes with at least 300mm of travel – awesome isn’t it? Like all suspension you want to set it up with a little bit of sag, in this case with your knees being a little bit bent. You also want to get the most from this natural suspension, hence the long legs. This will give you your optimal range of movement.
No Stilettos on the Trail
That’s right, I don’t want to see any high heels. Drop those heels to improve your position. Dropping the heels has loads of benefits, but please remember that if you are riding flats then use a shoe with sticky rubber or a good waffle sole as you don’t want shins as scarred as mine. By dropping your heel, you will improve your grip on the pedal, but more importantly, you reduce the risk of your foot being bounced off the pedal and forwards if you bike encounters a root, rock, or stray badger. In addition, dropping your heel lowers your centre of gravity, which in turn gives you greater control and stability.
It’s Sooooo Enduro
Look at almost any photo of a top rider shredding the gnar — online and in magazines — and you will notice that they all have their elbows bent and out. The reasons are similar to those mentioned above for your legs with bent knees, but also again it allows the bike to move independently from your torso. But why elbows out and not back? You are stronger, and therefore, have more control with your elbows in this position. If you don’t believe me, try a simple experiment. See how many proper push-ups you can manage with your elbows bending out to the side, now give yourself a minute or two’s rest, then try to do the same number of push-ups “marine style” e.g. with your elbows tucked in and bending parallel with your torso. For most of you, the former way will be easier and you will achieve considerably more reps.
Belly Button Dancer
We are beginning to get into the fine tuning of the technique now. If you are even only able to employ the tips I’ve given you above, it will greatly help your riding and confidence on the trail. However, if you really want to rip those trails then read on.
Getting your hips a bit further back than you may feel is normal will help you with your balance in this position and keep that all important centre of gravity over the correct part of the bike. You’ll tire less easily in this position, too, as you will be engaging your gluteus maximus muscles (yes, recurring theme here, it’s your bum again). Your glutes are a massively powerful set of muscles so rather than just carry them around for show, let’s make them work for you. The way to check if you are more or less in the correct position is your belly button should be more or less over the top of your bottom bracket.
Flat Back Attack
The fine tuning continues with this point and it leads on from the immediately preceding point. By keeping your back flat and more or less level — within the realms of what is comfortable for you — will ensure that your hips remain back and that your belly button over the bottom bracket. Don’t get your back straight by only lowering your shoulders try to bend forwards from your pelvis, but engage those abs to create a straightish line from the base of your neck right to the end of your coccyx (tail bone).
Shoulder to Boulder
Try to drop your shoulders if you can. You should find this happens when you get your hips and back position right anyway, but many riders exhibit their nervousness on the bike through ridged and tense shoulders. Try to relax them and let them drop. This allows you to absorb more movement more quickly; it also gives a great range of movement. If your shoulders are relaxed and down, it should also allow your head to be in the correct position.
The Finishing Touch
So you’ve nailed the position and are ready to take it out on the trail and ride your bike like you stole it, but let me give you one final saying that I want you to repeat to yourself until a little voice in your head shouts back “I am!” That saying is “heavy feet, light hands”. This is one of the best pieces of advice I was given and I make no apology for passing it on. Having the best attack position in the world will count for nothing if you have a death grip on your handlebars, with most of your weight on your arms and your feet are floating. To be honest, that should be almost impossible, anyway, if you have all the above points in place, but rather than try to remember if you’ve done everything I’ve suggested as you are doing warp speed down that piece of track you’ve always wanted to dominate. Just remember, “heavy feet, light hands” and you should more or less revert to the correct position.
Jim Barron is a Level 2 Coach, Instructor and Guide and one of the most experienced coaches of female mountain bikers in the UK. He holds Mountain Bike Leader Association qualifications at the Trail Cycle Leader (TCL) level and at the highest level of guiding certification – Mountain Bike Leader (MBL). Jim volunteers his time to help youth development of mountain biking in conjunction with the Moray Council Active Schools Team, coaching skills to young riders of secondary school age. Jim is based in Elgin, Moray, Scotland and is the owner of Dirt Vixens.