Hopping on the rear wheel is definitely one of the most important techniques to master when you’re learning trials, and one of the most important skills in this sport, that provides a huge spectrum of possibilities. Rear wheel hopping wasn’t so common 20 years ago, as I remember we even used to do sidehops from two wheels! But the evolution of the discipline changed our bikes into something different. The current bike geometries make hopping on the rear wheel not as challenging as before, but at the same time the sport expects much more from riders, and mastering the rear wheel is a must at the highest level. But, improving the skill will make you better in almost everything.
So how should it be done? Knowing that we’re using rear wheel hops a lot, it’s easy to deduce that it should be as economic as possible. And, also knowing that it’s the starting position for most of the static jumps, it should be as controlled and effective as possible. Below I’ll try to dig deeper into these two topics.
Finding an economic position on the rear wheel isn’t an easy thing. You’ll adapt to it over time, but you can definitely work on it deliberately too. The key is to focus on reducing the muscle tension in specific joints. In my opinion those are: Hands, knees, ankles and also elbows (but, elbows are more complicated, more on that later). If these joints are relatively relaxed, the position becomes more economic.
Grip is in general the main factor that is causing fatigue: Everyone knows the feeling of pumped arms. If you squeeze the handlebars all the time, it will affect the entire arm and shoulders, and then the legs won’t cooperate as well. Knees and ankles should be elastic, too much tension will be counterproductive for jumping, it will make the calves and the quads tired and stiff very fast. Some coaches use the word “Soft knees”, but for me, the more accurate way is “Elastic knees, elastic ankles”.
About the elbows, I’ll say the same, but to have a proper stability on the rear wheel, one should have very limited range of motion in the elbows, because if the front wheel drops down too much in one moment, then you have to pull it back into a good balanced position again, and this creates new forces which must be counteracted. If you think about it from broader perspective, the more economic way will be when the body is working up and down using the muscle’s elasticity, and less economic if it’s working back and forth.
The effectiveness and control
The effectiveness and control of the rear wheel position is determined by the core, the thoracic spine and the shoulder position. The core is definitely a subject for a separate article, but it’s in general the entire torso and the muscles there, together with the pelvis, lumbar spine, and the rib cage position, that together defines the core stability. A weak core leads to bad energy transfer between arms and legs, and also to a general instability in the body. An effective position on the rear wheel definitely has to be as stable as possible, so the most important factor here is to create and control the core muscles’ tension and position. It’s a bit tedious and tiring work, but definitely worth the effort.
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Another weak part of the body is the thoracic spine and the shoulders’ position which are mostly destroyed by sitting down too much. A rounded back with protracted shoulders are a typical view of kids at school or people working at a desk, and after many hours in this position you may develop a bad posture. To have proper stiffness when you’re on the rear wheel, you need to have a straight thoracic spine, because it will automatically correct the shoulders’ position, which should be packed tightly to generate proper muscle function. Controlling both core and thoracic spine will bring a huge change to your rear wheel control, but even more to your jumping effectiveness.
Knowing all of the above, we can now move into the more specific sensations of the rear wheel hop, that is how you feel the rear wheel hopping through your proprioceptive system. First of all, you need to imagine that standing on the rear wheel is on both of your feet. People who are learning rear wheel hops, very often forget about their rear foot, because when you put weight on it, the freewheel will rotate backwards. But, finding the balance between the front and the rear foot is very important, because then we have symmetry between the left and the right side of the body. The next thing is to find the balance between feet and hands, which is a mix of something between standing and hanging. If you’re only standing on the pedals, the upper body will have a huge work to do to keep the front wheel in the air. But, by hanging slightly on the handlebars, and let your body fall backwards, you’ll unweight the front part of the bike (stem/handlebar/front wheel), and those two will to be balanced.
As mentioned earlier, the current bike geometry makes standing on the rear wheel very comfortable (short chainstay, long stem and a high bottom bracket). So if you re-imagine your position according to what I’ve written above, and you still feel the front wheel is “heavy” or you have a strange tension in some parts of your body, then some modifications to your bike might be helpful. The most simple move is to change the handlebar position, or the entire handlebar or stem to a different geometry. These changes should go into the direction of a better position, not into a theoretical “I will jump better” (Lower stem is not always better for jumping). I don’t have any specific calculations for this, because everyone have different proportions (Legs/torso/arms lengths), and also different styles of riding, so it should be subjective. Of course it’s possible to analyze someone when you see them on the rear wheel, but their own sensations about the position are most important.
My last observation is that often the tire pressure is too low, which I know is very comfortable in general, but definitely not helpful in rear wheel stability, so keep that in mind.
Of course, after all this theory, you can think: What can this do for me? I see it this way:
- Most of people don’t think that much about what they’re doing, especially with the basics. Movements are intuitive, they’re repeated thousands of times, and it’s getting better and better, little by little.
- When you’re turning on the rear wheel on small obstacle, it’s very often like the lottery, and also in general it’s very hard for most trials riders.
The theory above is to understand that:
- If you’re good at something and you want to become better, you need to find what you’re doing wrong. If you’re able to improve it, than you can make further progress.
- Lottery in the technical stuff is measured by control: Less control = more lottery, it’s that simple.
- More control will give you more awareness, and more awareness will give you more control. That counts for all other techniques, and, as I said before, rear wheel position is also the starting position for most of the static moves.
- Somehow the best riders do not only jump the highest, but they have amazing control on rear wheel too (!).
Again, like in balance, there’s a huge room for improvement in the rear wheel position and control area. This is basics, that benefits all the other movements.
The best training exercises to improve rear wheel position and control are: Turning, hopping downhill or uphill, turning on slanted surfaces, setting up for a jump on a small object, and if it’s possible, also riding in natural terrain, especially with sharp rocks, or in wet conditions.
Rear wheel economy is about using energy only for the most necessary movements, and not waste it by fighting with the bike. Using your core and holding a proper thoracic spine position will give you more control and power for the jumps. To get to the next level, you definitely need to put more attention to the basics, and analyze where the (biggest) improvements can be made.
Featured image by Łukasz Chrzanowski. Rider: Karol Serwin.