New England mountain biking is low flow. Even where someone has “designed” a trail, you don’t find lengths of fast, flowy dirt. The Earth literally heaves stones up from beneath the surface here, and any carefully curated trail eventually becomes littered with babyheads and hatchet stones. You can rest assured that any place you see a spot to catch some air or rail a corner, there is very likely a life-threatening run out on the other side, if there’s any run out at all.
As a result, we spend a lot of time picking our way slowly through the woods careening back and forth between aerobic and anaerobic states, heaving our bikes around, desperately trying to preserve fragile momentum. If you’re not fully fit, you’re probably going to put a foot down once or twice, often being forced off your bike by something as innocuous as a wet root running across the trail or a sapling pushing you into a rock garden.
When this situation arises, your flow suddenly aborted by an unforeseen obstacle, it is right and proper to employ the “sympathy bail,” which is the act of dragging your sorry ass out of the way, so your riding partner(s) have a shot at cleaning this section you just failed on. There is nothing cool about parking your ass in the trail and holding up the train while you lament your own inadequacies.
Reading and riding a line is a dynamic process. It’s engrossing. You’re all-in on your own effort to move forward, so I understand that you want to bask in that moment you lose rear wheel traction and slump over in the trail. Resist that urge. Someone is coming up behind you, and they’re just as engrossed as you were.
Once you find it in your heart to incorporate the sympathy bail into your regular riding, you can begin to consider the “flying beta.”
Once upon a recent time, I was riding with my friend Jonathan at a little patch in the woods that some ambitious mountain bikers had been at with shovels and a keen eye for obstacles. The trails in that place are so twisty I think I passed myself once or twice in the accordion switchbacks.
At one point, the path ramped up towards a rock, a slick gray slab, and disappeared somewhere over the top. I knew I had to give the pedals a hard push to get my front wheel to the apex before leaping off my back wheel. What I didn’t know was that what looked like the best line, to the left, was punctuated by a momentum crushing stone facing back towards me. My front tire kissed it, French-kissed it honestly, and came to a full stop teetering just over the big rock’s leading edge.
I called back over my shoulder, “GET RIGHT!!,” and pulled myself out of the way to give Jonathan a shot at cleaning the obstacle. This is flying beta. It’s an evolution from the sympathy bail, and the best way to let a little teamwork make the dream work.
If you’re riding with someone at a place you know and they don’t, you can even offer the flying beta from behind them. “The line is to the right!!” you might call, or “Speed!!” a way of saying that momentum alone isn’t going to carry you through what’s coming.
For any of this to work and be worthwhile, it’s important to note that you can’t ride up each other’s asses in the woods. Without proper spacing between riders, no one has a chance. Recognize that the lead rider is reading the line for everyone else, so might not be going at top speed. Give them the space to do the job you’re benefiting from and give yourself the space to clean the technical challenges they might not get right the first time.
TCI is sponsored by Shimano North America. It’s not their fault I’m not a great bike rider.