The Art of Following - Opinion

Jul 15, 2016
by Mike Kazimer  
Spinning Circles column Mike Kazimer

“Follow me.” How many times have you heard those two words out on a ride? Maybe your buddy's towing you into a big jump line, showing you the entrance to a freshly cut trail, or leading the way down a sketchy rock roll. That simple phrase has a near constant presence in mountain biking, and not just because Anthill Films used it as the title of their first movie.

There aren't many other sports where so much knowledge can be gleaned from the simple act of riding a few feet behind another participant. Even with skiing or snowboarding, mountain biking's winter equivalents, it's rare that you would go down an entire run locked into the tracks of the person just a few feet in front of you. I mean, you could, but it'd look awfully funny, and the chances of a spectacular yard sale would be pretty high.

It's a different story with mountain biking, and it's not that hard to ride for miles and miles closely mirroring the actions of whoever's in front. Somehow our brains manage to simultaneously monitor the trail and the movements of the leader, while also wondering about what's for dinner and where that creaking noise is coming from. Pretty amazing stuff, really, especially since when I'm not on a bike I regularly trip over things, including my own two feet.

And they re off Remy Absalon took the holeshot but with riders hot on his tail he was far from safe.
The world's scariest game of follow the leader.

When it comes to hitting a new jump or drop having someone to follow is even more helpful. With those type of obstacles, the window of speed options is relatively narrow; deviate too far and you'll end up performing either the classic bottom bracket case or the huck to flat, two maneuvers that are best avoided whenever possible. That's why it's handy to have someone you can tail behind to suss out the speed required to land successfully. I can't even count how many times I've followed another rider into a jump; it's like having a cheat code to skip the part where you take multiple run-ins before committing to the gap.

Not all leaders are created equal, though, and it's important to do a quick evaluation of whose rear wheel you're following before blasting down the trail. I have buddies who I absolutely can't follow into jumps – they have some sort of magic kangaroo skills, and can easily clear a jump while traveling at a speed that would have me coming up a full bike length short. And then there are the riders who are immune to fear, and without even a word of warning they'll lead you into the nastiest rock and root filled section of trail ever - to them it's a walk in the park, and to you it'll probably be time for a new pair of shorts once it's over.

Of course, being a follower all the time gets old (or at least it should). It's important to alternate who's at the front of the pack, and to swap out who gets the honor of being the guinea pig. Think of the time spent being a follower as practice for being a leader. When you do end up at the sharp end, you'll notice that it's a lot less dusty, although there is a little extra pressure to keep it together for the riders behind you – the last thing you want is to find yourself wadded up in the bushes, staring at the faces of your followers as they decide whether to laugh or call 911.



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76 Comments

  • + 101
 After riding on my own for the last few years I think I'm probably getting slower and not taking as many risks. There's nothing like a little bit of competitiveness amongst friends to keep your skills sharp and keep an eye out for you if (when) you crash!
  • + 7
 really, there is nothing like having 6 inches of warning that you are about to huck it into a rock garden. truly having to let the bike do its thing when line choice is screwed from the beginning. ....or buzzing the leaders tire
  • + 13
 I completely agree. Over the last 4 or 5 years I was riding lots, but mostly by myself. Finally moved back near all my riding buddies, and my riding is way better (more aggressive and focused). We need others to push us, or we just become complacent humans.
  • + 4
 @mammal:Agreed...but then, there was strava....hello pushing limits with people you don't even know, or trying to anyways..pick your own line, but always pushing it faster.
  • + 13
 @PJD1: ...but then, there are strava-douches straightening out trails and pushing their limits in straight lines messing up good trails all so they might impress their eStrava-douche Buddies.
  • + 2
 @loopie: True, just dont be that guy and follow trails..lol only pay attention to those who do
  • + 1
 You don't take as many risks cos if it goes wrong you've got nobody to help! Go to a local race/event and you're pretty much guaranteed to get blethering with somebody that'll say "Hey come out with us", then you'll have somebody to tail and have a lot more fun. And feel safer!
  • + 1
 @AllyBear: yeah, you're correct on the 'goes wrong' part, but I have got talking to people I pass and sometimes join them for a while but I usually give them a few seconds head start on the downhills 1- because if they're faster than me, I don't slow them down. And 2- if I AM faster than them I've got a bit of space to pick my own lines. The trails I ride aren't risky at all, just sometimes I like to take it easy.
  • + 1
 @AllyBear: shmeh. That ones more of a mindset. I think I push myselfm to try the sketchy stuff even when im alone knowing i can crawl home if I had too and that I can at least get out of the network and dial 911...

Im not saying riding with someone doesnt help, just saying for me personally, strava, trail and bike, when I go down, asses damage and figure it out.
  • + 1
 @loopie: Strava sucks like 29ers
  • + 54
 fast guy first
ALWAYS !
/ thread
  • + 30
 Werd. Aside from following the guy showing you the trail for the first/second time...a decent group will naturally fall into rough order of fastest-slowest. If someone is in front of me tho...I don't like to be 3ft off their ass...more room so I can see what they're doing but still pick my own lines when needed
  • + 3
 @driftmonster depends what kind of trail you're on. Some of the best fun I've ever had has been smashing out a big train on an easy trail while riding at 2/3 speed with a load of friends
  • + 10
 I dunno, a *slightly* slower rider whose consistent and predictable can be a lot of fun. Let them analyze the trail as you figure out how to steeze up the features.
  • + 5
 So nice to get to follow someone faster. So cool to see their line. Even better when your still right there at the end.
  • + 37
 My fit xc friends are the worst to follow, especially with my heavy ass bike. They murder me on the way up while chatting happily and then ruin my ride on the way down with handfuls of brake at every corner. I remember double flatting through a small rock garden I would normally gap because my buddy felt it necessary to slam on his brakes at the entrance. Still love those guys though!
  • + 31
 Gotta get in front on the descents!
  • + 4
 This!!!!
  • + 10
 @BiNARYBiKE: Of course or you feel like the climb was pointless if you get stuck behind a slower rider on the way down
  • + 4
 I actually miss the days when I had the fast XC guys pushing me to climb harder and faster. I was a lot thinner then I can tell you.
  • + 8
 Get new riding buddies. Or get XC bike.
  • + 6
 @Satn69: exactly. Recently found a new group to ride with...
I felt like the Bee Girl at the end of Blind Melon's 'No Rain'.
  • + 2
 @ReformedRoadie: now that's a fu king reference!
  • + 1
 I used to be one of those fit xc guys leading the climb. Then I got myself riding a silly fast full carbon-duro bike... Still leading the climbs, smashing the downs!
  • + 23
 Great post on something truly unique to MTB. I love following my little brother. He's so fast and so good, it's fun to try to keep up while watching him just dance down the trail. When I first moved to Arizona, I couldn't get anyone to let me in on the secret free ride spots. After scouring the internet and using google earth, I finally found the local jump lines and explored them solo.It took me weeks to eventually hit all the jumps because being by myself I was carefully judging speed and distance bit by bit. Since then I've led many friends through the complete jump lines on their first try.
  • - 65
flag whitebullit (Jul 15, 2016 at 14:56) (Below Threshold)
 ...poacher, they are hidden for a reason, the more people that find out the better the chance is they'll get knocked down. i hate poachers.
  • + 29
 @whitebullit: Yeah but @BiNARYBiKE actually put in more effort to go find them than most people might. So props to you BiNARYBiKE, for going out and getting what you wanted and getting other people stoked on fun stuff.
  • + 21
 @whitebullit: I can see how it sounds like that, but I wouldn't call it poaching. It was built by the Freeride community on public land, and they were smart enough not to advertise it openly online and let all the riff raff show up and bring attention to the area. I'm a competent rider and digger and I did what it took to show I was a "qualified" member of the community. Before too long I was a part of the group and had done as much work as most out there. I don't blame them for making it hard for me at first.
  • + 23
 My favorite is following someone who is 95% as fast as me. I seem to ride really well and lose all of my bad habits when I'm being slightly slowed down. It doesn't work if the rider is too much slower than me, then I ride much worse.
  • + 20
 Following depends on whether strava is running or not.
  • + 32
 I wanted to negative prop for that but I didn't because at least you owned the stravasshole mentality.
  • + 2
 Everyone wanted to say it
  • + 9
 Actually folllowing reduces drag, so you should follow an electric moto while stravholing
  • + 1
 @R-trailking-S: Gonna have to remember that one!
  • + 19
 Avoiding Huck to flats... did I read that right?
  • + 16
 Yeah, my huck to flat days are pretty much over. I don't like whiplash.
  • + 6
 @mikekazimer: or back pain ,knee pain ,wrist pain , wish I was still 25 and bomb proof
  • + 6
 we just need super monster t's and 24" rims back. then we can return to the glory days
  • + 6
 @konacyril: I'm 23 and I'm already in pain. Maybe I should get a Transition for their HITF system. Might help lol
  • + 1
 @konacyril: I'm 25 and wish i was still 16 and bombproof. My body feels like I'm 80 and my list of injuries that will never properly heal just keeps on growing. It's pretty much just waiting till I'm healed enough to be able to go out for another ride again..
  • + 1
 @Mattin: You are half my age, don't worry. You will reach a point where you hurt more when you haven't been riding. Gotta keep that chassis lubed. You'll just be a little more careful.
  • + 14
 Buddies?.......huh.
  • + 6
 Great article one thing that you didn't menton is when you follow a rider with your skill level or supirior and see the sneaky lines, or simply go behind a guy see his lines and see wich ones work the best or not, by mimiking his trail choices but when you see some other line that seem's bether , or a huck, jump that the other didn't do or see i normaly if i don't know the trail want a friend that knows to show the way, and once i know the tricky bits it's play time.
  • + 6
 Being the first to hit a jump with the bros is sweet!
Passing the jump ten times then finally having the balls the eleventh time is just as rewarding. The latter usually involves me following tight behind a rider and going for it.
Being the leader is a great feeling .......untill you crash Smile
Then ill pass you.
  • + 3
 It depends on who you're following. Sometimes, it's cool to see something gnarly ahead and watch how easily (or not) the guy in front of you makes it. Then you know you can do it. (or not) But then there are those guys who slam on the brakes at the first sign of something technical and destroy all your momentum on obstacles you could have cleared.

I'm not a huge huge fan of guys riding up mein Arsch the whole time when I'm leading, either. Here, I'll stop; by all means, you go first.

Mostly, I only ride in big groups when I go to Moab. I just usually find my place in the pack, and let the guy in front of me have a little space. That way, what he does doesn't influence/affect my riding too much.
  • + 3
 I love being the leader. Being self conscious about slowing down the group is a great motivator and pushes me to take risks, grind harder on the climbs and generally ride like I should be riding all the time.

There's nothing like following a buddy's wheel through a new jump line or tech section that he has dialed, though. Perfect "cheat code" reference! Trust the force Luke!
  • + 2
 When i rode with a pair of guys who were miles ahead of me in the downhill sections, they used to have me lead a a double-positive: they tried to keep up in the uphills and push me to go faster down so as not to hold them up. It worked well, i think.
  • + 2
 The reason skiers/snowboarders don't follow in each other's tracks is because the runs are 10s to 100s of feet wide as opposed to a mountain bike trail being much smaller.

You better believe if I'm going into a 60 ft table I'll be following someone who has hit it before for speed just as I would on a bike.
  • + 2
 If I am on a ride with my bro, we take turns leading. On group rides if no one wants to lead, I get impatient waiting for someone to step up and just say FK it, I'll lead. Am I the fastest or gnarliest rider in the group, nope. But I'll lead and have a good time.
  • + 1
 I feel like whenever I'm riding with my friends, I automatically want to lead on the descents (kind of a dominance thing) and it is fun to be the leader and show off your skills and speed, but then when I follow my friends I realize how much fun it is to follow them and get rowdy. Overall, it's good to do both lead and follow.
  • + 1
 I like the guy who goes in front just because he's pretty sure he's the best and fastest. If you're that guy that never follows you're definitely not the best because EVERYONE has something to teach you by watching them ride.
  • + 1
 It's fun to follow, doesn't matter who's in front. Different speeds offer line choices. It's nice to pick up some new line or technique and also offer advice to a beginner if you're behind. Showing your buddy a wheel or heckling from begind never gets old too.
  • + 1
 Having friends like Brad Walton to follow progressed me as a rider to levels that I would have never imagined. Then you can pass on the encouragement and beta for others to follow. The circle of shredding the gnar. Too bad this type of gnar is on the endangered species list. I like flow but it's just not the same.
  • + 1
 Rode with Brad & the hick husters in 2001, they introduced me to freeriding, hucking, building, and shuttling. Never felt like I was out of the group, all ways made me feel welcome and encouraging. which is very rare in this world.

I'm the rider today, because of "pre loading" by watching and emulating others send it on the bikes that existed in that day. Still ride FR hard tail because of those dudes.
  • + 1
 When we train up we have three very different guys. The first will yank his brakes and literally stop on the trail if he's sees something he don't like or somethings wrong(text,phone call etc), pile up number one.
The second is the fast lad who wants to go at the back and play red bull fox hunt, sticking me in a bush on passing and laughing as he goes, pile up two.
Numer three is our fast stylish friend who likes to sit at the back and watch us throw shapes and crash down the trail as he finds it very amusing. Also laughter on passing. That usually ends up in pile up three.
The fast guys get bored at the front, but I like the front it keeps me pinned and hopefully away from any mischief
  • + 1
 Ive recently started following a buddy of mine who is an extremely good rider. Here at the Whistler Bike Park there are quite a few things I know I can do, but sometimes just need a bit of a push! Also not to mention I am terrible at judging what speed to hit things at, its always been that way for me.

So its really great to have someone to follow in who KNOWS the speed.

Although when it comes to trails like ALine and Dirt Merchant, you definitely do NOT want to be following someone slower than you. You know that jump you just cleared? Your buddy could now be between your wheels and the dirt. Thats not a good thing. You definitely want to make sure you take some time and verify that whoever is leading can safely do so.

Some places, especially Whistler Bike Park you REALLY need to pay attention to make sure you arent going to blast up behind someone who is going WAY slower than you. I find this quite frequently happens to me on aline. As of recently I have been able to clear things well and generally go at a fairly decent pace. But due to the fact that there are ALWAYS beginners on the trail makes it extremely dangerous for both those of us who are clearing things, and the others who may be moseying on down at a very slow clip. Hell, I am all for people trying new trails and pushing their limits, but there is also an extremely important factor that people just dont realize that maybe "YOU SHOULDN'T BE ON THIS TRAIL!".

I definitely like to try my best to leave a decent safety zone, if not for my own well being but for the others I might land on!
  • + 1
 Its circumstantial as to which might be the preference. If I'm riding with friends or acquaintances that I know are more skilled and/or faster than me, following naturally makes sense. Everyone gets to ride as they wish, and as someone who may be a little slower or less skilled, I get to work to keep up with their pace and watch and learn from the line choice of the more advanced riders. I end up surprising myself at just how fast I will go to try to keep up, and what features I might try for the first time, thus pushing my limits higher and boosting my confidence. These experiences are the moments in mountain biking where the natural euphoria of riding intensifies my love for the sport. It's also mad fun to be following a group of riders as you blast down a trail, more so (for me personally) than leading as you can visually see and connect with those you are following, whereas from the front, you could just as well be alone. On the flipside of that, leading a group of riders down trails that are new to them is fun from the perspective of getting to show your interpretation of riding the trail and riding as hard as you can to keep the next rider off your arse. So I guess I'm trying to say that either way is pretty awesome, but for me, I like to follow just a bit more than to lead. ***Puts down keyboard, goes for ride.
  • + 1
 I usually follow when I'm out with the boy. The reason is I'm shit and he's way faster. When you get to the bottom you just lie and say you gave him a 5 minute start.
Dads everywhere will be reading this and say "why didn't I think of that"
  • + 1
 I always fall into the role of a follower, but it's time for a change.
I assume I'm going to hold someone up, which is rarely true (and rarely their concern), so I follow. And I follow too closely.
Hit a stump at high speed last ride. Nearly broke my pelvis!
  • + 1
 I love both. When I am out w/ my super fast xc buds on a group ride I love having them pull me along, builds my fitness and keeps me honest. But when we get to a longer DH I almost always pull to the front, I don't always like to ride first but like being in the mix with the fastest guys, always learn something new. On a long group ride I never ride out front but always stay in the first 2-3, I find when I am out back I start to feel demolished and pissed at myself, it's good to stay in the group and flow along.
  • + 2
 I don't mind going first but everyone behind me signs the waiver, I'm a train wreck waiting to happen and may use my brakes or crash or lead you off line without notice. Just keepin it real
  • + 4
 ride behind, ride in front, as long as you ride!
  • + 2
 Was there actually an opinion on which is better? Here is mine- follow riders faster than you on a given trail. All others: lead.
  • + 1
 I usually do one speed check if I think it's necessary. Then right away I decide wether I run back up the hill to hit it again straight away or that I decide to pass the jump.
  • + 1
 Me and my riding mate always ride the same way, I lead, he follows. Always have ridden like that. Any time for some reason I end up behind I have to leave a big gap... Amazing how you get used to something.
  • + 1
 Love this story, I tried proper downhill yesterday on the mountain and was following most of the day because of not knowing any runs, it's so true about being able to magically copy the lines and speed.
  • + 2
 Awesome write up! Riding with buddies is always the key to progression and getting over your fears of a feature/obstacle!
  • + 3
 Thanks for the tow's, Mike!
  • + 1
 Is it me, or did that article start out good, then at the last paragraph it totally switches gears??? Or do e bikes have gears???
  • + 3
 A lot of good stories start with a "follow me"
  • + 1
 "Followed" a cat up onto the lower freightttrain container step up....was glad to have a speed checker
  • + 1
 I normally follow cos I'm a regular crasher! :-/
  • + 1
 I definitely need to work on this following thing.
  • + 1
 Who sharted?
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