“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.
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.