You have your mountain bike completely set up to your liking, and you have your tires, suspension, chain checked. You already know how to properly maintain your bike. What’s next? You are now ready to begin actual riding.
However, before you actually get up on the bike saddle and pedal away to the trail, you have to first be ready with your safety equipment. This is the first step when it comes to riding a mountain bike – preparing and getting all the necessary equipment for your safety, because in mountain biking, crashing is inevitable.
Even the best mountain bikers experience crashing from time to time, but you can minimize injuries caused by crashing if you have the necessary safety equipment, as well as the knowledge of what to do when you crash.
- Helmet – This is sometimes the only thing that keeps riders away from death, as this piece of equipment can actually save your life. Lack of a helmet can cause major head injuries, and as a result, could lead to death or major brain injuries that affect the quality of life. If you were left with only one choice of safety equipment, then you should choose the helmet over the others. Always wear a helmet. There are different types of helmets with various designs, colors, and functionality. Beginners who want to bike through an easy trail can use lighter helmets that still offer great protection.
- Gloves – The first thing that riders do when falling, especially beginners, is to put out their hands while falling, mostly as an instinctive reaction. If you are not wearing gloves, and you fall and put out your hands to try and break the fall, you could lose some skin on your palms and other parts of your hands. It is quite painful to grip the handlebars after. Gloves can also help with fatigue for longer rides, so you have an option to get one with more padding for added ease when handling the bike.
- Elbow pads and knee pads – For beginners wanting to do light trails, this is not really necessary, but it can help from getting scrapes and bruises when you fall down. It is highly recommended for those who plan to bike more difficult trails, as there is a greater risk of falling, and falling down harder than in gentler trails. There are pads that are light and easy to wear, offering little to no discomfort.
- Padded shorts – While not exactly counting as safety equipment, padded shorts can help with comfort on the saddle, especially for longer and bumpier rides. Discomfort on the bike, especially while sitting, can cause you to make some unwanted movements that can cause a spill, so better to equip yourself with a comfortable set of shorts. There are two types – one made with the traditional stretch lycra that can be worn underneath the clothes, or mountain bike baggy shorts, coming in a variety of colors and designs.
- Cycling jacket – Like the padded shorts, this is not exactly required when talking about safety, as this is more suited for comfort, but it does help, especially when it rains hard on the trail and mud is thrown around. Also, if you’re riding home from the trail, it helps to wear this thanks to its bright color, helping drivers easily see you even during a torrential rain.
Now that you have all of your safety equipment prepared, it is time to know about some basic mountain bike riding skills to avoid possible problems by identifying them and dealing with them early and effectively.
Basic Mounting Biking Skills
There are five basic skills everyone should know and take to heart in order to effectively deal with potential problems that may arise at any point during the ride.
- Look ahead – As the saying goes, “prevention is better than cure,” and while it is a quote regarding health issues, this holds true even in mountain biking. By looking ahead and spotting the different areas of the trail, you can avoid them instead of meeting them head on and potentially hurting yourself in the process. Looking ahead allows you to plan accordingly and early, and avoid reactive actions such as panic braking and quick, jerky steering that are major causes of a spill. Looking ahead means scanning the terrain in front of you, while also looking at the ground you are riding over. Remember that the faster you are going, the further you need to look. Common hazards found in trails are potholes, water and mud puddles, loose gravel or sand, broken branches, and more.
- Identify the problems – After looking ahead and seeing a potential hazard, don’t just blankly look at it. You have to identify what it is and how to deal with it. For example, if there is a pool of water to the left side of the trail, and you spot it early, move over as early as possible to the right side of the trail, and to the better, smoother part if there is one.
- Glance both ways – Both ways does not mean front and back. It means that you have to glance at what you are riding over and also at the trail in front of you. Do this alternately and routinely and not just look at one area. A good, safe distance to keep in mind when glancing at the trail ahead is about two car lengths.
- Always be prepared – Never, ever assume that the trail ahead is safe if you cannot see it. Stay prepared to stop at any time, especially if there is a blind curve. Approaching a blind curve or any other area that you cannot see, it is best to slow down and be prepared to brake. You never know what is around that blind corner.
- Always plan ahead – This means that always steer early or brake early as soon as you spot any potential problems along the ride. Process what you need to do when you see an obstacle or hazard in the distance, and do it as soon as you can, in a smooth and relaxed manner, rather than doing them at the last minute and potentially causing harm.
Now that you know the basic riding skills, let’s take a look at some basic riding techniques in order to aid you and to always ensure your safety, as well as maximize your effort and energy during riding. You don’t want to get tired after 10 minutes during your first ride, would you?
Basic Riding Techniques
Before riding, it is best to know and understand the basic riding techniques that will allow you to have a solid foundation. Having this solid foundation will go a long way into mountain bike riding and will carry over even when you become an expert rider. Advanced riders have mastered these basics and it is second nature to them already. These are core skills that are important whether you are riding on the road or on the trail, and will help in terms of ensuring your safety at all times. Make sure to deliberately spend time with each basic technique and familiarize yourself so that it will become a habit.
- Braking – It is best to familiarize yourself with the brake levers first before actually setting off to ride. Some bikes have the front brake linked to the right hand level, while some have it the other way, to the left. When braking, do not use more than two fingers on the brake lever. Some people actually brake using only one finger. This is to keep more of your fingers wrapped around the handlebars so that you will have better control of the bike while braking. Keeping less fingers on the brake lever can also keep you from braking too much at speed, which can lead to loss of control and a spill or crash.
Make sure that the brake levers are set up properly. A test to do this is to pull the levers as hard as possible and check if they hit your fingers. If they do hit, then you have to adjust the levers closer to the center of the bar so that your braking finger or fingers are closer to the end of the lever. Doing so will actually give you more braking power. The angle of the levers should be that in which your wrists are naturally bent upwards when your finger is placed on the lever. Doing so will give you stability during the ride, especially on a difficult trail. It will also reduce fatigue in your hands, wrists, and arm, especially during longer rides.
Remember that when braking, do it smoothly and not suddenly, as this can cause you to fall forward and hurt yourself. To add a little braking power, try to push back lightly on the handlebars so that your weight does not keep going forward and adding to the momentum.
- Steering – The point you have to remember when it comes to steering is, steer early so that you can steer less, and be more balanced as a result. Jerking the bars or swerving too much can cause you to lose your balance and fall. When steering the bars, keep a relaxed grip. A grip too tight can cause you to lose control and will also hasten your hand and arm fatigue. When moving at higher speeds, try steering by leaning over the bike instead of turning the actual bars.
When entering a corner, make it a habit to look towards the end of that particular corner and into the next section of the trail, to prepare yourself for what comes next. Commit to the turn by pointing your head and shoulders toward the direction you wish to go to and always keep in mind that you are the one in control of the bike and not the bike controlling you.
Another good tip to note is that it is better to make longer, sweeping turns than shorter, sharper ones. This will help you stay more balanced on the bike.
- Pedalling – When going thru the motion of pedalling, remember to be efficient, so as not to tire yourself out too quickly. The way to do this is by moving your feet in a circular motion rather than simply pushing down, which is what most beginners tend to do. By practicing and getting used to a circular motion, you are exerting less effort over each stroke, giving you maximum speed with the least effort possible. It can take some getting used to, but having a very efficient pedalling technique will help you go a long way in your mountain biking discipline.
- Gear selection – Whether you are a beginner in mountain biking or an advanced one, you want to be very efficient during the course of your biking, so as not to get tired and burn yourself out. Choose a gear where pedalling will not require too much effort, particularly when going uphill.
Change gears early, so that you will keep pedalling smoothly, which will allow the gears to switch smoothly as well. For example, if you see an uphill climb is in front of you, change gears before actually climbing, to keep the smooth flow of pedalling going. It is not recommended to change gears while pedalling hard, as in some cases, the chain might not smoothly switch to a different gear while doing so, especially the front cog.
When choosing gears, try to choose a combination that keeps the chain as straight as possible. For example, if you are using the smallest cog on the front, a bigger cog at the rear is a better option, since it will keep the chain straighter as opposed to using a small cog at the rear. The same principle applies for the middle cog and the biggest cog at the front. As an added bonus, you are also protecting your chain and gears from too much wear and tear, meaning they will last longer before you have to replace them, saving you money and effort.
Practice these basic riding techniques on a flat, level surface until you are comfortable with them and they are like second nature to you. Try to avoid sharp uphill or downhill areas when practicing these techniques, as you can make an error somewhere and could possibly get hurt or injured. If you are confident in these basic skills, you can now go further into the fundamentals and essential mountain bike skills.
Important Mountain Biking Skills
While you are or were working on the basic riding techniques, you were doing so by using a seated position while riding. This is great, especially when familiarizing yourself with the techniques and on lighter trails. However, it can also limit you, especially as you progress into more advanced trails. That is why it’s highly recommended to learn a riding position that is different, which is the standing position or attack position. The following are skills that can be learned and mastered when it comes to the attack position, for a better, more exhilarating biking experience.
- Attack position – This is the basic standing position which can be attained by standing on the pedals while they are level. It is best to practice these things in a smooth and easy surface while you are getting used to it. Here are some basic things to know while practicing riding in an attack position:
- Use your arms – As soon as you stand up on the pedals, you lose stability from the saddle. In order to make up for the difference, you must use your hands and arms on the handlebar to control the angle of bike cornering.
- Stay loose – Your elbows and knees must be bent but relaxed, in order to absorb the more difficult, rougher parts of the trail. By bringing your elbows up and forward, you will have a more maneuverable position and stability over the handlebars.
- Move forward and back – By placing your body weight on the pedals, you can give a lot of traction to both front and back wheels. A 60-40 body weight ratio is recommended (60% for the rear, 40% for the front). Moving your body front and back especially during points of contact while riding on the trail can help prevent you from falling forward or backward. Move your whole body together as one, and not just move either your hips or shoulders individually. Try to get used to the differences when moving forward or backward, as the front wheel may feel lighter or heavier depending on your movement.
- Knees apart – Make sure your knees are apart in order to have greater flexibility on side to side movement. This will allow you to have more control in steering and in slower speeds.
- Braking techniques – One of the major causes of spills and crashes is bad braking technique, especially for beginners. They are more prone to panic braking, which is to be avoided as much as possible, as this can cause you to lose control of your bike. When you were practicing braking in a seated position, you braked evenly using both brake levers, thanks in part to the smoother trail that you were practicing on. Here are some braking techniques to keep in mind and use while riding in a standing position:
- Progressive braking – This is a technique where you are smoothly applying pressure on the brake lever rather than quickly pulling the lever back as far as it could go. By using this technique, small incremental adjustments to the level of braking can be done quickly. Panic braking or pulling the lever quickly can result in the wheel locking up, and in turn, skidding.
- Bracing – When you brake, the momentum carries your body weight forward, even as your bike is slowing down. To counter this, extend your arms a little bit and move your hips back while applying the brakes. Tip your heels down on the pedals so that they won’t bounce around, especially in rough terrain. Be sure to keep relaxed throughout the entire process. Use the handlebars for balance.
- Independent braking – Mastering this technique will allow you to use either the rear brake, or the front brake, or both, depending on the situation. In general, the front brake has more stopping power than the rear, so it is important to practice and get used to both brakes individually. Do this practice at a smooth surface to try and get used to how it feels when applying each brake.
- Rear brake – Ride straight in the attack position and apply the rear brake smoothly and evenly. Your weight will move forward as a result, so make sure to brace yourself properly (see above). Keep on repeating while adding more brake power each time until the rear wheel starts to skid. Once it starts to skid, release the rear brake to regain control.
- Front brake – Do the same exercise as you did with the rear brake, but notice that your weight shifts quicker, thanks to the greater stopping power of the front brake. As you keep repeating the exercise and adding more braking power each time, you will feel the rear wheel wanting to lift up off the ground. If it does lift up, simply release the brake and the rear wheel will drop back down to the ground.
- Both brakes – If you are comfortable with each brake independently, you can also try a combination of both. By doing so, you are making small adjustments toward each brake, which will be very useful when you go out into the trail, due to the uneven surfaces of different trails.
- Braking on different surfaces – In trails where there are various surfaces, you must properly know how to brake and how much to apply. As a rule of thumb, braking in a straight line requires twice as much front brake as the rear. If the trail is one in which your tires does not have good gripping power, less front brake is recommended. Do not brake on wet roots and ice unless you have the proper tires equipped on your bike. Try to brake on better surfaces rather than poorer ones. When transitioning between surfaces, make sure to brake harder on the better surface.
- Cornering techniques – Cornering is an aspect of mountain biking that most beginners are afraid of, but in reality, with the proper techniques and practice, cornering properly is easy to achieve. Here are some basic cornering techniques that can be applied on most corners in different trails.
- The “Racing line” – You may have heard of this term and maybe even seen it applied during car races such as NASCAR or Formula 1. The principle is the same for bikers when cornering in a trail. When approaching the corner, make sure to move to the outer edge of the trail as early as you can. This will give you a wider view of the trail ahead. A general rule is, the tighter the corner, the later you should turn. As you approach the corner, move towards the inner part, and if you did it properly, you will hit the apex two-thirds of the way. Afterwards, smoothly drift away as the tightest part of the corner is already past you. Finish the corner by exiting towards the outer part. Try to imagine how race cars would attack a tight corner, and apply the same as you ride. The whole turn should be a smooth motion.
- Ease into the corner – As soon as you see the turn approaching, get into attack position to control the bike and get a better view of the corner ahead. Remember to get low once you are actually turning. Slow down or use brakes if needed before turning, as braking while turning will cause your tires to have less grip on the road. By easing into the corner, you have more control and you can exit much faster than if you approach the corner at a high speed.
- Leaning the bike – To help in turning, you can lean your bike into the corner. Your head, shoulders, and upper body will help in leaning the bike in the direction you want it to go. As soon as you hit the corner, avoid braking.
- Exit properly – Straighten up as soon as you clear the corner and gently guide the bike towards the outer edge to finish your cornering. Avoid any sudden movements and make sure the entire process, even when exiting, is smooth, so you can pedal easily again and gain speed as you tackle the rest of the trail.
- Climbing fundamentals – You will most likely encounter uphill climbs during the course of a trail, and so it is best to know how to deal with them and maximize you effort and energy so that you will not get tired quickly every time you face an uphill climb.
- Change gears early – When approaching an uphill portion, make sure to change into the proper gear before actually starting the climb. Changing gears while pedalling hard can cause your forward momentum to stop, as well as potentially damage your chain.
- Shift weight forward – On steeper climbs, more weight in placed on the rear wheel due to gravity. You must compensate for this by placing your weight forward in order to keep the wheels on the ground. You can do this by moving towards the front part of the saddle and leaning over the handlebars. In really steep hills, you may have to get out of the saddle to add more of your weight towards the front.
- Shift weight back and forth – Moving your weight back can also help control the bike in some circumstances. You will only do this if your rear wheel starts to slip due to the steepness of the climb. However, remember that you need to keep your weight in front as well, to keep the front wheel from lifting off the ground, so you will have to move your body back in front again. You have to find the proper balance between shifting your weight forward and backward in order to clear the hill.
- Push up – As a last resort for some, if the hill is too steep to climb, you can always get down from the bike and push it up until you clear the hill or steep slope, especially if your conditioning is not up to standard yet. Try to do this to conserve energy especially on longer rides.
- Downhill fundamentals – There are some adjustments that you need to get used to when going downhill, as was the case when going uphill. Doing so can prevent high speed crashes that can really hurt and injure you. Using your body weight to control the bike is essential for downhill riding, as it was in uphill climbing. A rule of thumb is to keep your weight centered over the cranks while your body weight is towards the rear.
- Use your heels – If you take too much weight off the front wheel, it can be dangerous for you since you might lose control or cannot brake properly, or both. If your weight is more towards the front, the rear wheel might lift up and you will tumble forward. The way to properly brace yourself is to point your heels downward, with your toes pointing up.
- Downhill braking – It is best to brake confidently on smoother sections of the downhill slope, rather than dragging your brakes all the way through. Brake earlier as well, since gravity is aiding the bike’s speed in going downhill. Additionally, move back and down when braking, knowing that there’s added momentum that can throw you off-balance. Bring your weight back forward as soon as you release the brakes.
- Check the bottom – When you are near level ground once again, check and see how it will transition from the slope to the ground, so that you can adjust your riding position accordingly. If the transition is over a longer distance, move your weight slowly and smoothly. If shorter, then you would need to do it quicker, but always maintain control and do not panic.
- Dealing with rough sections – Part of the fundamentals of mountain biking is to learn how to handle rough sections on the trail, because you will encounter them at some point. The key to dealing with them is trying to avoid the biggest hazards by identifying them ahead of time and riding away from them. Your arms and legs will also act as natural suspensions if you do ride over some of these obstacles. Let us look at common techniques to use when you encounter rough parts of the trail.
- Lifting – Bumps along the trail sometimes cannot be avoided. If you do not know how to deal with them properly, you might fall down hard. The way to do this is keep your weight centered over the cranks. Immediately after the bump, as the front wheel is over it, push down on the handlebars. When it’s the rear wheel’s turn to go over the bump, let it come up under you and then extend your legs as it drops down. Try to do everything in one smooth motion.
- Pushing – Aside from bumps, you may also encounter dips in the trail. When faced with a dip, push the front wheel down and away from you while staying balanced over the cranks. Extend your legs while keeping your body high to push the rear wheel into the dip. At the end of the dip, pull up on the handlebars to aid it in getting to the level surface. Similar to bumps, allow the rear wheel to come up naturally.
- Larger obstacles – For larger obstacles like bigger bumps, you can try to move your body weight a little bit further back for extra stability. Watch the rear wheel though, and compensate accordingly and swiftly.
- Rough downhill – Hard braking during rough downhill stretches of a trail can lead to a spill over the handlebars. Remember the previous tips stated above. Take a look and process the downhill slope and adjust your speed in the smoother areas by braking there instead of in the rough parts. Simply ride along during the rough bumps. Preparation is key in this type of slope.
Mastering these various fundamentals will greatly help you in conquering a trail. Just like when any beginner starts to learn basic riding skills, try to work and master these fundamentals one at a time. Try to work on each skill in an easy area first, by going through them multiple times until your body and mind have adapted to the feel of the bike. Start easy then slowly work your way up as you get more and more comfortable.
It is important to know these basic skills so that you will always be safe when you venture out into the trails. Always secure your safety equipment, especially the helmet since it can be a life saver in certain situations. Do not scrimp on your helmet. Make sure to get a sturdy and functional one. The other safety equipment are not as necessary, but they are very helpful, so it is recommended that you get them as well.
Always remember the five basic mountain biking skills, and make sure to practice them and keep them in mind until they become second nature.
Familiarize yourself with the basic riding techniques and practice them until they become instinctive. Make sure to choose a flat and easy riding surface while practicing these techniques. You can eventually move on to more difficult surfaces but be sure to do it gradually and not suddenly.
After doing all of the above, you can move on to work on some essential mountain biking skills and fundamentals, and you can do so on a trail. However, make sure to work on these on an easy trail first before progressing to more difficult ones.
Here are some additional tips to note during your ride:
- Always remember to ride in control. Despite having safety equipment, if you do not ride in control, you can hurt yourself and worse, hurt others who are also biking along the same trail.
- Do not ride beyond what you can handle at the moment. There is no shame in walking up an uphill climb that is too steep, or stopping at the top of a hill prior to a steep descent.
- Keep your speed in check at all times. Do not go too fast especially going into corners and downhill slopes. By keeping your speed in check, you are also riding in control and you will be able to easily adjust when you see obstacles at the last minute.
- Stop and look at certain sections of the trail, especially if it is an unfamiliar trail. There might be obstacles and challenges that you need to study first prior to going thru them.
- Always err in the side of caution. Do not go into difficult sections with false bravado, especially if it’s your first time to go through a particular trail. Chances of an accident are likely and you will end up hurting yourself.
Mountain biking can be a fun experience, but it can also be a painful one if you do not know how to properly go about it. Following these techniques and tips, and practicing them accordingly will help you get the needed preparation prior to going through a trail. Once you are fully equipped and prepared to go through a trail, it will be a more enjoyable experience since you know that you put in the time and effort to conquer the trail. You will now look forward to going through various trails of different difficulty levels as you progress and gain even higher levels of skill and experience.
Mountain biking is not only a fun hobby to take up, but it also can have great physical benefits, especially in terms of stamina and endurance.
So keep in touch and get out on the trails.
About The Author
Rod Bucton, mountain bike fanatic from Mid North Coast, New South Wales Australia…discover the shortcuts to mountain biking for beginners and while you’re at it follow Rod on Facebook or Instagram.
Like any sport, bicycling involves risk of injury and damage. By choosing to ride a bicycle, you assume the responsibility for that risk, so you need to know — and to practice — the rules of safe and responsible riding and of proper use and maintenance. Proper use and maintenance of your bicycle reduces risk of injury.