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7 ESSENTIALS SKILLS TO MASTER FOR MOUNTAIN BIKING

Mountain biking is a sport of riding bicycles off-road, often over rough terrain, using specially designed mountain bikes. Mountain bikes share similarities with other bikes but incorporate features designed to enhance durability and performance in rough terrain.

Mountain bikers ride on off-road trails such as singletrack, back-country roads, wider bike park trails, fire roads, and some advanced trails are designed with jumps, berms, and drop-off to add excitement to the trail.

Mountain bike technique is often shrouded in mystery; many riders feel it’s a vast and highly complex area which can take years to master. This technique guide will provide you the tips to learn the core fundamentals of mountain bike riding in an easy to understand manner.

The core skills and techniques that are key to mountain biking are equally as important whether you are new to the sport or a seasoned rider, and they are;

  1. Body positioning

  2. Braking

  3. Climbing

  4. Descending

  5. Cornering

  6. Switchbacks

  7. Bermed Turns

1. Body Positioning Techniques

Your body position on the bike is really important and one of the key techniques to think about. It directly affects the contact that the bike has with the ground through the wheels, and you must be in the best position possible to deal with any features that are on the trail ahead.

When the trail is flat, you’ll probably be sat down, but in an ideal world as soon as it gets a bit technical (bumpy), to make sure you are in this ideal position you should be:

  • Stood up on the pedals – so your body weight is over both wheels

  • When you’re not pedaling, pedals at the same level

  • Arms and legs bent a little bit at the elbows and knees – to further absorb bumps.

  • Looking as far ahead as you can – probably THE most important bit!

  • Covering the brakes.

2. Braking Techniques

It is sure everyone knows HOW to brake, but the skill is in knowing how to apply that. When riding off road it is not as simple as just braking whenever you want. The best way to perfect your technique is to practice on a known trail, so that you can get used to how YOUR brakes feel.

There are a couple of really important things to keep in mind;

  • Know which is your front brake and which is your rear brake. If you don’t know, roll the bike in front of you and pull one brake lever – if the rear wheel skids along it’s your rear brake, if the bike stops (and the rear wheel might even bounce up) it’s your front brake.

  • As this shows, the front brake does most of the stopping. As a beginner, it is best to use both brakes together. Although the front brake is the most powerful it is vital to avoid pulling it on too sharply.

  • Avoid pulling brakes really hard – apply them gently to start with.

  • Your body position is very important while applying brakes as your momentum actually pull you forward. If you want to stop with a fast brake, keep your weight backward on the rare wheel to help brake yourself not only with your arms but also with your feet on your pedals.

  • Choose where to brake – it is advisable not to brake on technical parts of the trail, but rather to go into these sections at the speed you want to and to look for somewhere suitable to brake after them. Remember that a rolling wheel will grip better than a braking one!

2. Climbing Techniques

In the attack position, your weight is centered over the middle of the bike, helping both the front and the rear wheel grip. As you climb you therefore need to adjust your body position to ensure your weight is kept central.

  • Body position: Keep yourself loose on the bike, knees and elbows bent to help you remain responsive to the terrain. You want to let the bike take most of the brunt of the trail; shift your weight according to the changing terrain and features.

  • Where to look: Keep your eyes focused about 10 to 15 feet ahead of you on the trail so that you see the upcoming terrain changes and obstacles and make adjustments as needed. If you stare at a root or rock, chances are you’re going to hit it. Instead, let your eyes flow ahead to better allow you to pick your line. 

  • How to use your gears: Choosing the correct gear for the trail ahead of you can be challenging at first; just remember to look ahead and anticipate what you will encounter. If you’re approaching a climb, shift to an easier gear as you hit the base of the climb. If you see a long downhill in front of you, shift to a harder gear. Rolling terrain is trickier, but with some practice you’ll be shifting without even thinking about it.

4. Descending Techniques

When the trail points downwards it’s essential to make some key body adjustments in order to ride the descent in a controlled manner:

  • Seat position for descending: Descending is where the fun begins and—for beginners—can be the most intimidating. First drop your seat, as you want a lot of clearance between your butt and the seat. This lets you respond to the variable terrain more easily, and helps you avoid getting bucked if you hit an unexpected bump and the seat comes slamming upward. Some bikes come with a “dropper post” which allows you to adjust the seat height on the fly via a remote lever on the handlebars.

  • Body position for descending: Keep your body low to the bike and position yourself far back so that your butt is practically suspended over the rear tire; make sure you’re not sitting down and that your knees are bent. This lets the bike take the brunt of the terrain you encounter and also keeps your weight back, reducing your chance of going over the handlebars.

  • Unless you’re pedaling, keep your feet and pedals parallel (the 3 and 9 o’clock “platform”) so that pedals won’t clip a rock or stump.  Bend at the knees and elbows and relax your muscles so you can respond quickly to the changing trail conditions. Avoid gripping the handlebars too tightly.

  • How to brake: Braking should be consistent and controlled; most of your braking power comes from your front brake, but grabbing a handful of front brake will send you over the bars. Instead, lightly apply the brakes, and do so evenly on the front and back brakes. When approaching a turn, brake before you hit the turn, and then let your momentum carry you through.

5. Cornering Techniques

So, everyone can turn a corner on their bike, right??! Wrong. Cornering is one of the most challenging areas of bike technique to master.

Look where you want to go – Good cornering technique starts with anticipation, or more specifically looking where you want to go, not just ahead of your front wheel. So well before you start to turn, look towards the apex, or inside of the corner. Then once you begin to corner, your eye line should be drawn towards the exit of the turn in anticipation of what’s coming next.

The faster you’re going, the further you should be looking ahead. It sounds simple, but it’s surprising how easy it is to start staring down at your front wheel and find yourself getting caught out by the next trail feature.

 Brake before, not during – Your tires have the most grip when they’re spinning and not sliding, so while locking up that back wheel may look pretty rad, it’s only slowing you down in the long run. Instead of locking your brakes up mid-corner, make sure most of your braking is done before you lean over into the bend.

This will help keep those tires rolling and ultimately have you flying much quicker through the turn. Remember, good cornering is all about your exit speed not entry speed, so this tip is important.

Lower your center of gravity – Much like a car, the more you can lower your center of gravity, the quicker you’ll make it round that corner. This is one of easiest techniques to master, as you just need to put a slight bend in your knees and arms, while lowering your chest towards the bike.

This will make a huge difference to how much stability and control you have, so it’s well worth putting some time and practice into this technique.

Shift before, not after – With good technique, you should find you’re exiting the corner with some extra speed, but you can still come unstuck with your gear choice. When coming into a corner hot, many riders forget to shift down to an easier gear, which will match their exit speed. This means they’re over geared and can struggle to get the power down. Once again, it’s all about thinking ahead to anticipate what’s coming next.

Put weight on the outside of the pedal – Once you’re in the corner, it’s important to remember to shift your weight onto the pedal on the outside of the turn. This has two benefits, first it helps press your tires into the ground, providing more grip – and who doesn’t want that? Secondly, it will automatically raise your inside pedal, so there’s less chance of it striking the dirt and causing a crash when leaning into the corner.

Looking ahead is keyThere is one golden rule that will absolutely make it easier to corner on your bike whether you are a complete beginner or an expert – and that is LOOKING AHEAD. It is one of the easiest skills to gain but also one of the easiest things to let slip – and it really does make a difference.

As you look around the corner, your head will turn, and this will move your shoulders around too. Combined with turning the bars, this will almost guide your bike around the corner. It can feel a bit strange to be looking around the corner to start with, but stick with it!

Practice Makes it Perfect – Of course, the one additional technique that will bring all of this together is practice. It is only by getting out on your bike and putting your new skills to the test that they will become second nature. You will learn what is possible – and the areas that need some more work.

Don’t be disheartened if something doesn’t work – that’s a really valuable lesson! It enables you to think about what went right and what went wrong, and what can be done differently next time. Remember that there is always an element of the unpredictable with mountain biking too – sometimes stuff ‘just happens’ – but that’s what makes it fun!

6. Switchbacks Techniques

If you’re riding where the terrain is seriously steep, you’ll encounter switchbacks, hairpin curves that traverse gradually up or down the hill.

A. Uphill Switchback Techniques

Focus wide: Look at a wide entry point because staying wide gives you the most trail to work with through the turn. After you enter wide, turn your head sharply (away from your direction of travel) to locate your exit point into the straightaway.

Shift early: Glance ahead and shift before entering the switchback. Your goal is moderate pedaling effort: Avoid too-hard gears that make you stall and too-easy gears that make you “hamster wheel.”

Lean forward: Whether you sit on the front of the saddle or stand and crouch, you need to hold your chest close to the bar. That shifts your weight forward to increase front-wheel traction and tracking. Make sure pedals are level and evenly weighted.

Burst out: Continue your pedal stroke to power out of the turn. If you don’t maintain your momentum, you risk stalling out.

B. Downhill Switchback Techniques

Focus wide: Just as you do on an uphill switchback.

Brake early: Scrub speed before the switchback by “feathering”: applying equal pressure to each brake. Dropping your heels while braking can help you maintain your position over the bike.

Keep knees wide: The “cowboy” stance leaves room to move the bike between your knees.

Heavy feet and light hands: Having level, evenly weighted pedals and a light grip provides stability underfoot and agility as you handle the bar.

7. Bermed Turn Technique

Bermed turns are not natural features, but they are a common feature of bike parks and local trail networks. Trail builders create these special dirt banks so you can rail around the turn. Assessing the integrity of the dirt is key, especially near the top of the berm.

Brake early and hunker down: Follow standard turning procedures: Scrub speed early and position yourself properly—get in an aggressive riding position with elbows and knees bent, equally weighted on both pedals.

Start wide and high: Focus on a high line to carry more speed through the turn. Exit low so you can roll down the berm and jet yourself out of the turn.

If the top of the berm is sketchy, start lower: You’ll roll slower through the turn and on the exit, and you’ll exit later. But if you guard against the berm pushing you higher, you save yourself from blowing over the edge.

Adjust your lean: If you hit it high and fast, the berm actually helps lean your bike and body so they’re perpendicular to the trailbed. If you’re going slower and lower, you have to lean the bike toward the inside of the turn, while also holding your body more upright for balance.