See the show notes and links on the MBR page for Episode #4.
Main topic: Top 5 reasons why it’s so hard to learn to bunny hop
Hey everyone! Welcome to Episode #4 of the Mountain Bike Skills Network podcast. My name is Griff Wigley, also known as the mountain bike geezer. I’m am the guy behind the Mountain Bike Skills Network blog and I’m the founder and host of the Mountain Bike Skills Network Community, currently a group on Facebook.
My intent is to have all three – the blog, the online community and this show — help recreational mountain bikers like you, have more fun while upping your skills. Why? So you can ride the stuff you want that challenges you. I think of it as a Goldilocks Zone. Not too scary or hard; not too easy or boring but juuuuuust right. That middle is where the fun is and one of the most reliable ways to stay in that Goldilocks Zone is to continually increase your skills.
You can learn more about the Mountain Bike Skills Network at mtbskills.net where you’ll also see links to my various social media accounts.
Today’s show is about the bunny hop, what some people refer to as the most difficult skill in mountain biking.
I learned to bunny hop recently and was surprised at how challenging it was just to get to the beginner level that I’m now at.
With help from members of the MTBSN community, I’ve put together what I think are the:
Top 5 reasons why it’s so hard to learn to bunny hop
I’ve been mountain biking for 6 years now and I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve seen a fellow mountain biker cleanly bunny hop over an obstacle on the trail like a log or a rock. I’m not talking about a English bunny hop where you lift and land both wheels simultaneously, but rather an American bunny hop, in which you lift the front wheel before the back wheel and, if the ground is flat, land both wheels simultaneously after clearing the obstacle.
I like to ride difficult technical trails and I often ride with riders who are better than me but I always wondered: why so few?
I always wanted to learn to bunny hop because it looked so cool, so fun, and so handy — especially to fly over a big log across the trail in one fluid motion without having to slow down.
When I repeatedly failed to learn to bunny hop on my own, no matter how many how-to videos I watched, I took Ryan Leech’s Bunny Hop Master Class this spring, and after a 10-week struggle, I’ve gotten to a beginner level — not much height or distance yet, nor am I consistent at landing both wheels simultaneously — but I’m far enough along to where I’m putting it to use on the trail and having a huge amount of fun doing it.
I thought it would help to share my struggle in hopes that it’ll help you adjust your expectations if you decide to try to learn what my colleague Carl Roe says is the most difficult skill in mountain biking: the bunny hop.
So here are my top 5 reasons, in order of importance.
#1: The coordination and timing required is complex and requires significant body awareness
On a whim, I looked up the definition of a bunny hop on the Wikipedia. I’m not going to read it to you now in a way that you’ll understand it — I’ll put a link to it in the show notes — but it’s a mouthful”:
“The bunny hop is executed by approaching an obstacle with a medium rolling speed, arms and legs slightly bent. Upon reaching the obstacle, the rider first needs to shift their center of gravity towards the rear wheel of the bike and pull back on the handlebars, causing the front wheel to lift as if doing a manual. As the front wheel reaches maximum height, they ‘scoop’ up the rear of the bike by pointing their toes downwards and applying backwards and upwards force to the pedals, while pushing down and forward on the handlebars. It helps to think about the lifting of the back tire as snapping one’s wrist forward and shifting their weight at the same time. The combination of these two motions allows the rider to first raise their centre of gravity, and then tuck the bike underneath them, to achieve greater ground clearance.“
I alerted the MTBSN Community on Facebook about the topic of this episode, asking them for their thoughts about why learning to bunny hop was so hard. I’ll put a link to that discussion in the show notes, too. Here are a few comments related to the coordination and timing challenges:
Jeffrey Neitlich, who’s one of the online coaches for Ryan Leech, commented: “Lifting the front too early, too late, etc. not lifting the rear wheel quickly enough. Not extending at the hips when the rear wheel leaves the ground. It took me months to put all this together.”
Tiffany Hutchens cited her “struggle to stay tall enough on the manual” as well as to “keep my weight back then up and forward.”
Coob Vaj (“Chong Vang”) wrote that the hardest part for him to overcome was “the one motion of pulling to hips and transitioning right away to pulling up and then pushing forward to get more height.”
Sean Lawrence wrote, “the one thing I battled with was getting the timing and full compression of my weight on the rear wheel. I think I was trying to pull up with my feet way too early. An important point was also to explode upwards off the rear before the front wheel starts descending from the manual.”
Kyle Springer listed some of the problems he’s seen or experienced, such as “Pulling with bent arms instead of straight, not using a bounce to get a free lift out off your suspension & tires, lifting with your feet before you get the front up, lifting with your arms and shoulders like you’re performing an arm raise instead of tensed arms as in a dead lift.”
I could go on but you probably get the idea. I think of myself as being pretty coordinated but I learned that that wasn’t enough. I needed more body awareness along with an increase in my ability to focus and hold my attention on whichever movement I was working on.
#2 of my top 5 reasons why it’s so hard to learn to bunny hop correctly: Additional flexibility, strength, & posture improvements are often needed.
I wasn’t very long into the manual portion of Ryan’s course on learning to bunny hop before I started to experience some aches in my neck and lower back. Other people in the course mentioned having sore arms & shoulders, elbow strain, leg and hip aches. Some had to quit completely.
Ryan Leech states in his course, “The transition from pushing on the bar to hanging with your weight off the bar can also be jarring for your arm muscles, so it requires some conditioning.” He suggests and links to a stretching routine for your shoulders, chest and upper back.
There’s also the jarring from the front wheel slamming down repeatedly when learning to manual, as you need to develop confidence in your ability to apply the rear brake to prevent you from going over backwards.
In the MTBSN group, Kyle Springer emphasized the importance of strengthening your core strength, as well as your back and glutes. He also cited posture, as “a rounded back puts too much slack on the system.” I made significant progress once I noticed my rounded back posture in my videos and took steps to address that.
Jeffrey Neitlich noted the importance of flexibility when you have to jump off the back of the bike. I’d add hanging straight back with your weight over the rear wheel, epitomized by Ryan’s butt buzz drill which sounds a little, um, weird maybe? It’s actually a really helpful drill, trust me.
So as you can see, learning to manual and bunny hop is physically stressful and may require that you take steps to address this before you tackle the demands of the drills and exercises required to learn.
#3 of my top 5 reasons why it’s so hard to learn to bunny hop correctly: Practice (frequency, duration) is significant for each stage.
Michelle Roe’s comment in the MTBSN Community brought this to my attention. She wrote, “I’ve tried a few times but haven’t dedicated time yet to learning this skill, so I’d say the main thing holding me back at this point is lack of practice.”
I learned that for me, a practice session of approximately 30-45 minutes was best. Long enough to think carefully about what I was trying to accomplish that day and often to review the text or video from Ryan’s lesson, to pause between ‘attempts’ to both relax and sometimes visualize my next attempt, to do enough attempts to where I was either experiencing some success or complete failure, and not too long that I was exhausted.
I rarely practiced consecutive days, preferring every other day or every third day. Some of that was because I needed recovery days – the strain on my body that I mentioned earlier. Other times it was because I just wanted to go for a ride or I was busy with other stuff. I pretty much practiced 3 times a week over 12+ weeks. I did take a 2-3 week break in the middle when I needed time for my slightly hyper-extended knee to heal. But I didn’t experiment doing fewer sessions per week, mainly because I was leading the online class and felt obligated to walk the talk!
So I think the upshot of all this is that’s it’s a significant commitment of practice time. It’s tempting to go for a fun ride with your friends instead of slugging it out by yourself doing drills in a hot parking lot.
#4 of my top 5 reasons why it’s so hard to learn to bunny hop correctly: Fear is ever-present at the start.
Learning to do a manual front wheel lift is flat-out scary initially. Until you get confident in your reflexes to bring down the front wheel by applying the rear brake, your self-preservation instincts have the upper hand. “You’re going land on your tailbone! Remember how that hurts! Remember how long it takes to heal!” Ryan’s lessons help you deal with this fear — lots of braking drills and even deliberately jumping off the back of the bike — but I always wore my shorts with tailbone pads for that additional peace of mind.
Rear wheel lifts on flat pedals require pedal pressure opposed by hand pressure against the bars — Ryan’s Bowl Theory. Even if you’re experienced at that like I was, the complex timing of the leap will sometimes cause your feet to fly off the pedals and in your attempt to deal with that, the traction pins on your flat pedals sometimes find your shins. There goes your modeling career. Ryan’s strong recommendation: wear shin pads. I concur.
When it comes time to start trying to hop over an object of consequence — a curb, log, or rock — it enters your mind that if your execution and timing are lousy, your front wheel could slam down into the object, possibly pitching you OTB. And if you’re like me, if you think too much about that, you get tentative instead of confident and that’s a recipe for, well, if not disaster then at least sucking.
#5: The final of my top 5 reasons why it’s so hard to learn to bunny hop correctly: Patience & persistence needed is substantial.
A couple of times during the course, I was discouraged at the lack of progress. Why is this so hard for me?!! Taking the time to capture a video of my session and then watch it when I got home was often helpful to see what I was doing wrong.
Also, there were times when I the progress I thought I’d made in the previous practice session had disappeared. The idiom is two steps forward, one step back but sometimes it felt like one step forward and TWO back.
Yes, I kind of knew in the back of my mind that this would happen, as it usually does when learning any new physical skill that’s difficult. But it was still gumption sapping. Some of that was just ego. I want to show people my progress! But some of it was just unrealistic expectations that my progress would be linear.
But probably the most important factor in persisting was having a supportive group of people learning with me. 1) Watching the videos of others who were struggling like me (“I’m not the only one”); 2) seeing the videos of others who were progressing more than me (“Cool. They’re getting the hang of it. If I persist, I bet I can get the hang of it, too”); and 3) getting feedback and encouragement when I posted videos of my own practice sessions. All three helped to keep me going.
And then there were the breakthrough days. The first time I experienced the bunny flop, my brain went That’s it! That’s it! That’s it! I couldn’t repeat the maneuver right away but the visceral experience was so strong, I was confident that permanent progress would eventually take place.
So those are my top 5 reasons why’s it so hard to learn to bunny hop. I hope I’ve not discouraged you from trying to learn, but rather that I’ve helped to prepare you for the challenge in a way that sets some realistic expectations.
If you’re listening to this podcast episode prior to July 17, considering joining me in an online class — a private Facebook group — that I’ll be leading as a group of us go through Ryan Leech’s courses on Bunny Hops and Manuals together. There’s no extra cost for this but you do need to have a Ryan Leech Connection membership. See the show notes for a link on what you need to do or contact me.
Update – MTB Skills Network Community (Facebook Group)
Alright, before I close, I want to give a quick update on the MTBSN Community, my free Facebook Group that anyone can join. It’s completely devoted to mountain bike skills. I moderate all new submitted posts to make sure they’re skills-related. And I keep a close watch on all the comments to make sure civility rules.
We’ve managed to attract a relatively large percentage of women mountain bikers, a rare thing in the online world of mountain bike groups and forums.
And we’ve got a lot of members from all over the world and quite a few coaches and instructors. That’s a good mix for a dynamic community that, as of this recording, is approaching 2,000 members, with 475 active during the month of June, posting nearly 800 comments.
If you’d like to join the Group, you can get redirected to it quickly by going to mtbskills.net/community. Or you can do a Facebook search.
So that’s it for Episode 4..
You can find today’s show notes over at mountainbikeradio.com/mtbskills/
I’m interested in your feedback and suggestions so comment there on Episode 4 or, if you’re on Facebook, find your way over to the Mountain Bike Skills Network Community Facebook Group and attach your comment to the Episode 4 post.
Also in the show notes is my affiliate link to instructor Ryan Leech’s web site. Ryan has many comprehensive online courses for learning mountain bike skills, many of which I’ve taken.
Thanks for listening today. I’ll chat with you in Episode 5, coming in August.