With the season in full swing, one thing is clear: It’s time to ride. Whether you’ve been mountain biking for years or are about to hit the trails for the first time, I wanted to run down some fundamental mountain biking techniques to help you take your riding to the next level. Let’s rip!
Mountain bikes are technological marvels that are designed to roll over all sorts of technical terrain. How effective your bike is at taking on rocks, roots, and drops depends on your body position. A rider with a budget bike and masterful riding technique is always going to fly past someone with a top-shelf rig and poor form. Although it might seem counterintuitive, you want to avoid stiffening up and bracing with outstretched legs and arms. Make sure to hover your backside above the saddle when riding over obstacles. When you’re descending, think “pushup arms” and “squat legs,” flaring your elbows and knees so that your body floats with the bike rather than fighting it.
Gears Are Friends
Many mtb trails feature loads of climbing and descending, and even the flattest trails will have tight turns and technical features that require smart gear usage. Wherever you’re riding, you’ll save your legs the needless energy drain of gear-grinding by anticipating changes in terrain and shifting BEFORE you need to. If you find yourself crunching your gears as you’re shifting uphill, try shifting earlier the next time. Spin it to win it and keep your momentum up!
Easy on the Brakes
Riding a bike at speed on tight, twisting trails is a thrill. It can also be scary at first! Any rider who claims they’ve never been spooked by pushing their limits is full of crap. There’s always a temptation to slam on the brakes to gain control, but you’re much better off “feathering” the brakes, or lightly and rapidly tapping them to slow down without locking your wheels up and skidding. A good ol’ fashioned power slide has its place, but it’s not on singletrack trails. It destroys the trail, kills your momentum, and can be downright dangerous. A light tap with a finger or two goes a long way. Keep in mind that well-adjusted mountain bike brakes are powerful. Adjust your speed before the tough stuff, like rock gardens and sharp corners, and then maintain speed through them. And whatever you do, never hammer on your front brake. Orthodonture work isn’t cheap, I’ll leave it at that.
Maintain Your Momentum
Speaking of laying off the brakes, let’s talk momentum. Once you master the mo‘, you’re well on your way as a mountain biker. It might seem sketchy at first, but maintaining speed—and even speeding up—when terrain gets tough will only make it easier to get through challenging sections. Combine a good head of speed with a nice loose body position, and you’ll be flowing in no time.
Set Your Sights
Much of mountain biking comes down to anticipation. Things happen fast, and you constantly need to be aware of what’s next. That said, it’s easy to catch yourself looking down or staring at an obstacle that you ultimately want to avoid. Instead of locking in on an upcoming obstacle or fixating right in front of your front wheel, keep your chin level to the ground, eyes forward, and try to look as far down the trail as possible. Your bike will follow your eyes. Give it a go, and you’ll be amazed at how much your riding improves.
Shift Your Weight
As the terrain you’re riding changes, so should your position on the bike! When you’re climbing a steep section, lean forward to keep your center of gravity over the rear wheel to maintain traction as you crank up the hill. Vice versa, when you’re descending, shift your weight behind the saddle to surf down the steep stuff. Dropper posts aren’t necessary for all types of mountain biking, but they’re an absolute game-changer for more aggressive riding and allow you to dramatically shift your weight lower and further back for extra stability.
Avoid White Knuckles
When many riders start out, the sorest muscles after riding singletrack aren’t in their legs, but in hands, arms, and shoulders. That’s a symptom of what I like to refer to as the “death grip.” Holding on for dear life for miles takes its toll. The good news is that you can lighten up, and not only will your upper body thank you, but your riding will also improve! A vice grip on the bars tends to make your body more rigid and makes it more difficult to effectively adjust body position. Loosey goosey, baby!
No two mountain biking trails are exactly alike, but one thing that always holds true is there’ll be plenty of twists and turns. Corners are speed killers when you first start riding trail, but they don’t have to be. Learning to corner with a head of steam is a major energy saver, plus it’s fun as hell! Set up for turns before you get to them with a crouched stance, opening the knees so the bike can lean beneath you. When you turn, lean the bike, not your body. Mountain bike tires are designed with side knobs that aggressively grip when the bike tips–make the most of them! Brake before a turn if you need to, but not during. Braking mid-turn will cause skidding and a potential fall. Remember what we said about always looking ahead? Same goes for cornering. Make sure you’re looking through to the exit of the turn, turning your body with your eyes.
This is a lot to take in, but don’t let it overwhelm you! The most important part is having fun and sticking with it. Don’t try to practice this all at once. Focus on one new lesson every time you go out for a ride, and build your technique from there. See you on the trails!
Anticipation is the name of the game in mountain biking, however it’s easy for beginners to get into the habit of staring down at the trail just ahead of the front wheel.
This can lead to problems (otherwise known as crashing), as you’re not able to anticipate the next obstacle on the trail quickly enough – basically everything becomes a surprise.
So next time you’re on a familiar piece of trail, think of a mantra that reminds you to look further ahead, meaning you’ll be able to anticipate the next feature earlier and adjust your line choice/speed accordingly.
Take a Stand
Sitting down on that lovely comfy saddle may seem like a safe bet if the terrain gets tricky, but you will be missing out on the best shock absorbers on the planet, your legs.
Not only will your legs help you soak up all those lumps and bumps, they’ll also allow you to separate your body from your bike. This makes it easier to lean and shift your weight around, making you a faster, more confident mountain biker.
Check out any pro downhill or enduro race run and you’ll see a common theme throughout: the riders hardly ever sit down, so it’s a skill well worth paying attention to.
Build up fitness
Before working on speed or intensity, it’s important to develop a basic level of fitness and endurance. “It builds the body up and allows you to handle higher-intensity workouts,” says Gullickson. If you’re coming off the couch, aim to spend four to six weeks in base-building mode—frequent, consistent, low-intensity effort—before adding speed and intensity. Ride three or four times a week for one to two hours at a time. The key here is restraint: “If you feel good, get longer rides in, but don’t go so hard that you can’t repeat the effort in a couple of days,” he says. Make sure you’re fueling your rides with high-quality food: fresh veggies and fruits, whole grains, and minimally processed foods. “It’s also important to hydrate with an electrolyte drink during the ride,” Gullickson says. “If the ride is longer than an hour, bring a gel, Bloks, or energy bar to supplement the hydration.”
Catch up on what you missed
Manuals: Going Up!
Manuals are one of the most exciting, fun, and useful techniques in mountain biking. Not only does a manual look cool and make you feel awesome, but it can be a game-changer for navigating challenging trail features. Riding over a log or launching off a ledge or a...
Winter Training: Skills
To round out our four-part series on winter training, it’s time to dig into skills! We’ve covered endurance training and strength work to give you a solid foundation to establish a winter training program. We’re obviously still in the thick of winter, but the light of...
Winter Training: Strength
In our last OTM blog we looked at cardiovascular training for your winter program. Next up we’ll be considering a strength program to help build power and muscular balance to take your riding to the next level this year. Frequency and Duration I suggest getting into...