30 Oct 2023
For the past few months I’ve been practicing trackstands, and have gone from being able to balance on my bike for about 5 seconds to being able to reliably balance for 30 seconds or more (my current personal best is about 1:15). Here’s what I’ve learned in the process.
Before I get into lessons learned, let me take a moment to define what the heck a trackstand is. Simply put, a trackstand is balancing on your bike with a minimum of forward and backward movement. When your bike is rolling you have two large gyroscopes helping you to stay upright, so as you might expect balancing without their help is more difficult.
I guess the natural question that follows is: why did I want to learn trackstands anyway? Well, lots of reasons. It’s something that I’ve wanted to be able to do for about as long as I can remember. It’s cool. Most importantly, getting into mountain biking has rekindled a long-dormant interest in technical riding and trackstands form the base of the trunk of just about any skill progression tree that you might draw.
In any case, I’m not writing a post here about why you should learn to trackstand (though you should), but rather some of my observations on the process so far. Please note that while I’ve made a lot of progress, I feel like I’m still in the shallow end of even this basic skill. I sincerely hope that in a few years I have a totally different outlook and disagree with at least some of what I’m about to write.
For anyone with a pulse, balance involves movement. We are constantly making minor adjustments even when standing still, and so balance is less about being perfectly positioned to not fall over and more about being able to constantly make small adjustments. As we get increasingly proficient balancing in a particular position those adjustments get smaller and more automatic, until they become so small and automatic that we don’t even notice them. To get a sense of this, try “bamboo in the wind”, where you stand upright and relaxed with your eyes closed. After a few seconds you will feel your body swaying, as if in a gentle breeze. That swaying is your body making adjustments to keep you from falling over.
In this sense, trackstands aren’t very different from standing (heck, it’s right there in the name). Since you aren’t rolling you can’t use big movements (or the gyroscopic forces of spinning bicycle wheels) to balance yourself and so have to use more subtle movements to keep from falling over. This is important not just from a mechanical perspective, but also so that you do’t get discouraged. When I first started I found myself gradually creeping forward as used my pedals to correct my balance, which was demoralizing when I was trying to stay perfectly still. Once I started expecting forward and backward movement and started to think of it as a spectrum and my goal became to control and reduce it rather than to eliminate it, practice became much more rewarding.
There is no single movement that allows you to stay upright. Instead, trackstands are a combination of many tiny movements that allow you to correct your balance in different ways. Just as important, learning trackstands is just as much about learning to feel your balance point as it is about how to affect that balance point. Finally, it’s not just about learning those things but about internalizing them so that they happen automatically. To paraphrase what I learned when I studied Kendo, “hitting your opponent is a side effect of learning how your body works” and “if you’re thinking about what to do next, it’s already too late”.
Essentially, learning trackstands had three separate components for me. First I had to learn to feel when the bike (and me on top of it) was starting to move as early as possible. Then, I had to learn to apply force to adjust the the bike’s position (pedal pressure, handlebar pressure, wheel angle, shifting hips, shifting shoulders, etc.) and how to apply that force precisely so that I didn’t overcorrect myself straight into the ground. Finally, I had to learn how to relax so that my body could do the things that I had been practicing.
Our culture is replete with examples of intense practice: the teenager playing violin alone in their room for hours every night, the gym rat who spends hours at the gym several days a week, the writer downing endless cups of coffee at the cafe as they tap away at their keyboard. In some cases, these marathon sessions are totally justified (such as when you’re training for a literal marathon), and long sessions can make sense it logistics are challenging (if you’re driving across town to go rock climbing, you might as well spend a few hours there). But since trials riding isn’t an endurance sport and there are plenty of skills that you can practice in a garage or driveway I think that short sessions are the way to go.
My trackstand practice has consisted of 5 minute sessions 3-4 times a week. I’m fortunate that I work from home and my home office happens to be in my garage, so when a spreadsheet is making my eyes bleed or I need to get my head right before the next meeting, 5 minutes on the bike is amazing. Is it the fastest way to learn? Probably not. I could likely make faster progress with more frequent and longer sessions. But 5 minutes here and there is what I can fit into my life right now, and my progress has been infinitely faster than if I waited until I had a big chunk of time to get some practice in (which in my experience probably means that I would likely put it off for months or years). At this rate, I’m never going to go pro, but if I had started this sort of gradual practice 20 years ago and stuck with it I’d probably be doing some pretty neat tricks by now.
I think of this practice pattern as ”microdosing”, and I think that it has some other benefits as well. For example, I can fit it in to more places. Waiting for 2 minutes at the trail while the person ahead of me works their way through something? Practice trackstands. Arrived early to pick my kid up from school? Practice trackstands. Also, it means that a bad session has less of an opportunity to spiral into an injury (I imagine that I’m not the only person who has just kept on trying something while in a bad head space until they got hurt) or to lead to burnout.
I’m not sure where I originally picked this idea up from, but I know that I’ve run across it many times. I think that the thing that most directly influenced me was an article I read about strength training frequency that makes a solid case for infrequent training, which has ended up changing the whole way that I think about exercise.
I’ve been enjoying learning trackstands on their own merit, but I think that they will indirectly allow me to have more fun on my bike. Here’s what I’ve noticed so far:
The short version is that practicing this skill has been very rewarding and I look forward to seeing where it goes. Below you will find some resources and other random stuff.
Astute reader that you are, you have probably noticed that I haven’t spent much time talking about the nuts and bolts of doing a trackstand. Part of it is because text isn’t the best way to teach this skill, part of it is because I’m too lazy to write it out, but by far the biggest reason is that I’m still new to it and there are already plenty of amazing trackstand tutorials out there already. My favorites are:
For me, there are a bunch of places to go from here. I plan on deepening this skill, practicing it in less controlled environments, trying it with my non-dominant foot forward, etc. Also, since trackstands are foundational to many trials skills, they naturally lead into things like riding fakie and front and rear pivots, so maybe I’ll write more stuff like this in the future.