By Grant Peterson
When Genghis Khan and the other 800-year old Mongolians rode horses in battle, they were isolated enough from the gallop to shoot arrows with half a chance of hitting foes.
Good form and good shot, Genghis!
For a thousand years, Mongolians have been the smoothest riders in the world, the most at home on a horse. Horses are their lives—always have been—and even now they start riding at age two. By five they ride care-free, smooth as Kessler whiskey, one hand on a rein, the other flailing the giddyup switch as they glide over the steppe unaffected by the churning horse legs below.
A Mongolian’s horse is a bit bigger than a pony, and with stout legs to handle the rough-ground galloping without twisting its ankles and knees. To prepare the horse for riding, the rider lays down a woven horsehair pad, made by specialty Mongolian craftsmen. It’s cushy, waterproof, and breathable, and water runs through it like it does through a plastic pot scrubber, so it can’t get soggy like a cowboy blanket.
On top of that goes a saddle that looks wrong but works great. A Mongolian saddle is nothing at all like the long, broad, shallowly dipped saddles favored by the Marlboro Man and John Wayne. Wayne just ambled along with his cows, sitting on the saddle of his Hollywood horse like a topply sack of rice.
The Mongolian saddle evolved for the athletic, Mongolian style riding required to chase down foes and herd wild Mongolian horses on the steppe. This saddle is short, deep, and U-shaped. Wayne wouldn’t have fit. The front part of the U is the pommel, (ancient Latin for fruit or apple), the equivalent of the knobby apple-sized handle on a cowboy saddle (but it has another function too, coming up). The rear of the U is the cantle, an old word for corner. Mongolian riders use short stirrups, which allow them to stand high above the valley of the U, even with bent knees. Their articulated legs tense and relax as needed to soak up some of the bumps, and the big air gap between their crotch and the bottom of the U gives the horse something to bounce up into without banging the plumbing. The high pommel and cantle keep them centered on the horse. If Mongolians rode this way on a cowboy-type saddle, they’d flop forward and flip back. To complete the Mongolian system, they put metal studs on the seat of the saddle — an idea, it’s said, that Genghis Khan came up with to keep his team riding high and smooth and fast.
This isn’t trivia or irrelevant history. If you ride a bicycle on trails, it couldn’t be more relevant.
There are two ways to look at a trail. When speed or stunts are goals, you see the trail as your arena, and the earth’s texture as the enemy. You push your limits, so you armor up with a technologically advanced uni-purpose bike, and wear armored motocross-style clothing just in case. The mountain bike you ride has bump-nullifying mechanicry so you can ride careless and rough and pay less for it. That’s the point of modern mountain bike technology. To most riders it’s a plus, and it that becomes their style.
When travel, exploration, and fun are your goals, you see the trail as an ally that gives you access to beautiful distant places and makes getting there possible and fun.
Can you ride like a Mongolian on a suspended bike and combine the benefits of mechanical and organic suspension to reach some kind of super smooth nirvana? Only hypothetically. While Red Bull acrobats must combine them to even survive their “rides,” but when you or any other traveler rides on trails, it’s more likely you’ll sit lower, stiffen some, and grab the bike harder, while the technology kicks in below you. The bike you ride affects how you ride it. A bike designed for aggressive riding tends to bring that out. You go faster over rougher terrain because that’s what the bike was designed for.
To ride your bike like a Mongolian rides a horse, you need an unsuspended bike. It’s the better teacher because it selects and reinforces good technique, and gives immediate feedback when you’re blowing it.
Down a bumpy trail, stand on the pedals like a Mongolian in stirrups to create a pocket of protected air between saddle and crotch. If the descent is steep, lean a bit back, and squeeze the flared rear of the saddle with your thighs. That flare is like the Mongolian saddle’s cantle, just rotated 90 degrees. Then you can half sit on the saddle not on your crotch, but with your upper inner thighs. By varying the squeezing force with your thighs, and shifting weight from pedals to saddle, you fine-tune the shock absorption. Your flexing legs will soak up some absorb shock. Your bike saddle has no pommel, but the handlebar serves that same purpose. You might as well be a Mongolian.
On a steep descent, it helps to lower the saddle a few inches, push against the handlebar (your pommel), then sit on your thighs and hang your butt low off the back of the saddle — to weight the rear wheel for better braking. You’re playing the bike like an instrument. Your body stays loose and your head stays steady as the bike bounces between the trail and you, the shocks being absorbed by air, thigh fat, and articulating body joints, like a Mongolian on a horse.
When the climb or descent is too steep, don’t see it as a challenge to overcome. Get off and escort your horse up or down it. After a lot of strain riding, nothing feels better than a nice bike-walk. Mongolians walked their horses sometimes, to rest their legs, and you can walk your bike to rest yours. Bike-walking is so underrated.
Grant Peterson is the proprietor of Rivendell Bicycle Works. Rivendell makes bikes for Mongolian-style riding, so you can see why he’s telling you all this. -Ed.