Downhill riding on a mountain bike is truly one of the most exhilarating and exciting activities any rider can experience as it allows individuals to ride from the top of the trail to its bottom at incredible speeds. Downhill riding is also an extremely risky and dangerous activity especially when the trail being travelled is filled with obstacles and different types of terrain such as gravel, cement, sand, and rocks among others. It is an extremely intense type of riding that all riders need to learn through constant practice and many times, a trial by error method that includes falling down which often leads to injury. In order for any individual to master the art of downhill riding, there are many aspects that need to addressed such as the proper gear, proper riding form, and the proper mountain bike to name a few. For those interested in taking on the art of downhill riding, here is the quintessential guide on the art and science of downhill riding.
Buying the Proper Gear
For beginners looking to get into downhill riding, it is essential to keep in mind that all intermediate and expert riders never ride without wearing the proper gear. Since this type of riding is known to be very dangerous, all riders must protect each and every inch of their body by wearing the proper riding gear, which is an investment unto itself because there are many required items to buy. However expensive these items come out to, it is important to remember that each of these items are a must have so that you keep safe and sound on the road or on a trail at all times. These items are as follows:
- Full-faced Helmet. The most essential gear to own is a helmet because you do not want to fall down and suffer a concussion to your skull. For downhill riding, a full-faced helmet is ideal as it protects your entire head from sustaining injury.
- Short Sleeved Jersey. Short sleeved jerseys are the ideal torso wear as they cloth your body through any type of weather and climate. As downhill riding entails speed and acceleration, a skin tight short sleeved jersey is ideal because this provides the least resistance to the wind as you travel downwards. When shopping for a jersey, it is best that you get one that is longer than your torso so as to cover your backside when you are bent over on a downward riding position.
- Long Sleeved Jerseys. Long sleeved jerseys are very similar to short-sleeved jerseys. This type of jersey is very ideal for riding under cold temperatures and climates. It is also expert recommended to buy a fitted long-sleeved jersey to prevent wind resistance. In addition, the tops that you buy must have rear or side pockets that are ideal for carrying tools, gadgets, and even food such as energy bars.
- Soft-shell Jacket. While many people prefer to ride with fitted short or long sleeved jerseys there are also those that choose soft-shell jackets to cover their torsos. Soft-shell jackets are very comfortable and are extremely ideal for cold riding temperatures.
- Bike-specific Rain Jacket. Through any type of mountain bike riding, there is always a possibility that it could rain at any given moment. For this reason, it is recommended that all riders must have at least one bike-specific rain jacket that is waterproof and wind resistant.
- Arm Warmers. Arm warmers are individual wraps that you wear on each arm when the weather is cold. These warmers are also good for preventing arm sunburn on long sunny excursions.
- Bike Gloves. The final essential upper body gear for downhill mountain bike riding is to wear bike gloves. These gloves come in full length and cut-off designs that are ideal any type of riding. Form downhill trips, full length gloves are recommended because they have the necessary padding in the palm region and also have gripping material on the finger areas to allow better gripping on the brakes and handlebar.
- Fitted Bike Shorts. With short and long sleeved jerseys, downhill riding also requires riders to wear fitted bike shorts as they are the least wind resistant bottom wear. Tight bike shorts are also very ideal to wear because it prevents chafing on the bike saddle which can be a very discomforting feeling for any rider, especially on a downhill trek. When shopping for shorts, it is suggested to get one with thick padded chamois because it will add much needed comfort and will absorb moisture that keeps a rider’s sensitive area dry and sanitary. It is also essential for any rider to remember that wearing underwear with bike shorts is not recommended because you want to wear as little material as possible in your bike’s saddle region.
- Leg Warmers. Leg warmers like arm warmers are used for riding under cold and chilly weather. They also work to prevent sunburn on your legs during sunny days.
- Biking Shoes. Last but not least on the essential gear items to own are bike shoes. Downhill riding entails a lot of acceleration and riders need to wear bike shoes that clip into pedals. Biking shoes that clip onto pedals are important to get because they allow the rider to pedal more efficiently when pushing or pulling on the pedal.
Choosing the Right Mountain Bike
After securing all the essential gear for downhill riding, it is now time to find the ideal mountain bike for your height and size. Riders come in various heights and weights and randomly selecting a mountain bike is a mistake because you have to find an ideal bike specific to your height. To find your ideal mountain bike, here are some quick tips that should prove effective.
- Proper Stand-over Height. In finding the ideal mountain bike for your height, it is important to keep in mind that finding the bike with the right frame size depends heavily on your stand-over height, which is how much room you have over the top tube of your mountain bike. To be able to determine the ideal bike for your height, you will need to be able to comfortably put one leg over the bike without having to tip toe or tilt the bike sideward.
- Distance Between Saddle and Handlebar. The next step in finding your ideal mountain bike is to determine the distance between the saddle or bike seat to its handlebar. The perfect distance between the saddle and handlebar is when you are seated on your bike and you are able to reach its handlebar with your hands without over-stretching your torso forward. The ideal distance is when you are able to sit on your bike and reach the handlebar while maintaining a comfortable bend on your elbows. With this distance you will be able to maneuver your bike’s handlebar effortlessly without having to move forward.
- Proper Saddle Height. As riders come in various heights and sizes, determining the right saddle height will be the next tip at finding your ideal mountain bike. Most beginners make the mistake of forgetting to adjust their saddle height, leaving their bodies either too low or too high which could cause a lot of unneeded strain on their arms. To determine the proper saddle height for any mountain bike is to sit on the bike. If your feet can touch the ground while seated, this means that your saddle height is too low and you must adjust your saddle height upwards until your feet reach only the bike’s pedal.
Choosing the Proper Tires for Downhill Riding
Finding the right mountain bike for downhill riding also depends very heavily on its tires. As downhill riding is the most punishing type of riding for tires, you must choose your tires well. Here are some tips that should help in choosing the right tires for downhill riding.
- Tire Thread Count. In choosing the ideal tires for downhill riding, it is suggested by many experts to get lower thread bike tires that use courser threads with more rubber surrounding the tires as this allows for stiffer and more durable tires capable of taking downhill punishment. The suggested tire thread count for downhill riding ranges between 50 to 60 TPI thread counts.
- Wider Bead Tires. Since your mountain biking of choice will primarily be centered on riding downhill, it is recommended to get bike tires designed with wider beads as opposed to folding tires. Wider bead tires are composed of steel that is strong enough to handle downhill riding’s many obstacles. These tires are usually wider and beefier by design and allow higher air pressure which keeps the tires strong and sturdy regardless of the downhill terrain.
- Sidewall Construction. Sidewall construction heavily influences a tire’s flat resistance, weight, and ride quality. It is composed of many materials that add to tire thickness, which is very essential in downhill riding. With this in mind, it is a good idea to get tires that are designed with thick sidewall construction.
Mountain Bike Setup Tips for Downhill Riding
As downhill riding is one of the most exhilarating and exciting types of mountain bike riding an individual can do; it is also one of the most dangerous and perilous. With riders accelerating at a descending pace, it is easy to get into an accident especially when riding down uneven terrains filled with stones, rocks, wood, sand, and gravel among others. In order to help prevent accidents from occurring, riders should first know how to properly set up their mountain bikes before taking on any downhill trails. Here are a few tips that will help you in setting up your mountain bike for downhill excursions.
- Seat Angle. The angle that you sit on your bike is the catalyst for the way that you will be riding. For downhill riding, your entire body will be tilted southward for a good percentage of the time; therefore, it is crucial that you adjust the angle of your seat at a level position as this gives you the best chance of achieving proper seated posture while riding downhill. If your seat is adjusted at a higher angle, it can cause minor to major discomfort to your crotch region as well as preventing you from being able to totally control the handlebar. With a level angled seat, your torso will be able to stretch forward, leaving you ample space to maneuver your handlebar to left or right.
- Saddle Height. Aside from adjusting your seat at the right angle, your seat’s saddle height must also be adjusted accordingly. The right saddle is what connects the seat to the rest of your bike and adjusting it at a proper height allows your legs and feet to control the pedal with the most minimal amount of pressure. When your saddle height is adjusted too high, you will need to sway your hips side to side to control the pedals. This could cause discomfort on your hips as well as your back. On the other side of the spectrum, a low saddle height will cause you legs to bend while pedaling. This could lead to knee and back discomfort as well as early fatigue.
- Handlebar Position. The rotation of your bike’s handlebar within its stem will have a huge effect on the way you handle your bike on a downhill path. You can either adjust your handlebar facing upward or downward depending on the type of riding you plan to do. If you adjust you handlebar at a backward position, this can result in poor riding position which leads to exerting too much pressure on your palm and wrist areas. For downhill riding, it is critical that you adjust your handlebar perpendicular to the ground as a starting point. From there, you can make small adjustments forward or backwards until you find the most comfortable position.
- Brake Lever Position. Another very critical adjustment that you will need to make on your mountain bike is your brake lever set up as you will be constantly utilizing your brakes through every twist and turn of downhill riding. The most ideal setup for your brake levers is to adjust the accordingly to the length of your index finger as this will give you easy access to using your brakes without having to bend over or backward. With adjusting your brake levers too low, you will find yourself over-extending yourself forward to control the brakes. This may cause an imbalance which may result in a slip or fall. When you adjust your levers too high, your hands will have to adjust upwards resulting in too much pressure on your palms. This may cause discomfort and early fatiguing on your arms and hands.
- Tire Pressure. Adjusting tire pressure is like selecting the right shoes for basketball or football in the sense that wearing the wrong type of shoes may lead to injury because of the way the sport is played. The same concept can be applied to mountain biking as it is influenced by many factors such as riding conditions, riding style, and the type of terrain travelled on. For downhill riding, the suggested tire pressure adjustment is to apply higher levels of pressure as this allows the tire to be able to take on the punishment of riding on extremely aggressive terrain with many obstacles such as rocks, stones, twigs, gravel, and sand to name a few. Having low tire pressure can cause the tires to lack the strength to take punishment and deflate easily.
- Suspension Pressure. As most modern mountain bikes come equipped with complex suspension systems, these systems come complete with shock absorbers. The amount of air pressure in your bike’s shock absorbers will determine how your bike absorbs obstacles such as sudden bumps on rocks and other terrain as well as how it handles on a downward trail. With most suspension manufacturers placing charts on their shock absorbers suggesting the right amount of pressure to apply on the absorbers; many downhill riding experts suggest placing 20% to 30% sag to your fork and shock absorbers.
Training for Downhill Riding
For beginner riders looking to get into downhill riding, there is a lot of work that you need to do to in order to prepare yourself for the difficulties of this type of riding. It is said that fitness is a big part of doing this type of riding, which means that you will need to consider doing the following riding and non-riding exercises regularly.
Downhill riding requires complete and total body balance on the bike. To achieve this, you may need to consider going to the gym to strengthen your upper body as well as your lower body. Downhill riding requires a tremendous amount of balance, which means that you will need to do multiple exercises in your gym workout. Some exercises that may help include:
- Bench Press. Good for building upper body strength in the chest area as well as arms and back.
- Dead lift Squats. Squats are very effective exercises that allow you to develop the power and explosiveness required to accelerate your mountain bike at fast speeds. Most expert riders do this exercise regularly at their gym of choice and it is an exercise that has proven most effective among other gym exercises.
- Bicep Curls. Great for building arm and forearm strength that is essential for maneuvering a mountain bike for prolonged time periods.
- Pull-up Exercises. To maintain a good core, your back muscles must be developed. This exercise also works well at strengthening your arms and shoulders.
- Sit-ups. Sit-up exercises are wonderful for strengthening you abs and lower back, which are essential for core strengthening.
- Leg Raises. To build your leg strength, these exercises will work wonders on your thighs making pedaling a very easy and effortless activity.
- Cardiovascular Exercises. Cardio exercises build your stamina and endurance. It also sheds excess fat that will be detrimental to efficient downhill riding.
Even if downhill riding requires minimal pedaling effort as a whole, you will still need to build up stamina. In most downhill riding trails, riders must first accelerate at very fast speeds in order to gain momentum. This requires a lot of leg strength and upper body strength to keep pedaling with maximum force to achieve that required speed. A good exercise to develop your stamina is to go on road trails which are extremely long trips that take 2 to 3 hours to complete.
Sprint training is a mountain bike exercise that is designed to build your power and explosiveness at accelerating your bike. To sprint on your mountain bike, adjust your gears to the highest level while stationary then pedal with all the effort in your system and keep a constant pace for as long as 1-2 minutes then slow down the pace. After another 1 to 2 minutes of slow riding, resume accelerating your speed again for another 1 to 2 minutes. As you build stamina and endurance, you can increase the duration of your sprints to 3 to 4 minutes. Increasing this total to 7 to 8 minutes is an indication that you are in tip-top downhill riding condition.
Downhill Bike Riding
In order to truly get into downhill bike riding, you will really need to dip your feet in the water. This means to actually go to downhill riding trails and test these trails out to get a feel for what it is. If you are a beginner at this type of riding, it is best that you search for a beginner trail where there are not too many obstacles and the trails are rather easy to ride on. When you find a suitable trail, do not rush yourself in riding as fast as you can for this can cause you to sustain serious injuries. Ride the trail as leisurely as possible so you can master the terrain and study how to maneuver properly. If you know a rider with advanced downhill riding skills, invite them with you to teach you the nuances of downhill riding.
Another great type of mountain bike riding to develop your downhill skills is cross-country riding. Cross-country riding is not as intense or exhilarating as downhill riding yet it has many of the same obstacles that downhill riding has. With riding cross country, you will experience all the type of riding terrains, weather, and environment that come with downhill riding. You will also be able to hone and master your maneuvering skills which are extremely important in managing a downhill trail.
Downhill Riding 101
As you feel that you are now ready to completely immerse yourself in the art of downhill riding, it is time to begin by learning the basics. Downhill riding is a very complex art that takes time, dedication, and a lot of practice to learn. It also bestows such a gratifying feeling of achievement when you have started to progress from beginner to intermediate and finally to an expert where you can start competing in downhill racing. As a beginner, there are many scopes that need to learn. Here is a guide on how you can progress speedily as a downhill rider.
Lesson 1 – Establishing a Good Downhill Riding Position
The first basic lesson in learning how to ride downhill is to adopt the ideal riding position as this works to improve your stability and balance as you ride. Establishing the right riding position is a biking fundamental that will allow you to build up your skills at executing many intermediate and advanced tricks such as cornering, drop-offs, and jumping among others. It is said that once you have developed the right riding position, everything else will fall into place. Here are a few key points on how to develop the right downhill riding position.
- Always keep your head up. When riding downhill, your eyes are the most important factor at riding as safely as possible. Many downhill bike trails contain numerous obstacles that you must spot in advance in order to plan the way you maneuver your bike on top or around these objects. It is suggested by many expert bikers that you should look ahead at least two to three times the length of your bike so that you can foresee the trail and execute the numerous cornering, obstacles, and slopes.
- Always stand up with the pedals at a level position. As balancing is the most important skill in downhill riding, the perfect way to achieve even balance is to stand up on your pedals at a level position. This means that your right and left feet should be at the same horizontal position with the back and front wheel of your bike. The importance of standing on your pedals at a level position is it centers the weight of your bike and allows you to brace yourself for any sudden maneuvering.
- Keep your elbows and knees flexed out. To find the right balance, you will need to harness a lot of support from your arms and legs. For this reason, it is essential to keep your elbows and knees flexed out at a comfortable angle. Keeping these joints flexed out allow you to adjust yourself through each bump and turn. It also works very well at allowing you to re-establish your balance after a jump.
- Hips over feet and chin over stem. As your elbows and knees are flexed out at a comfortable angle, you must always see to it that your hips are directly angled over your feet at a standing position. In addition, you should always angle your chin right on top of the bike stem. These two adjustments places even weight distribution on your bike.
- Keep your fingers placed on the brakes. As you maneuver through a downward trail, you will need to press your brakes many times to move around obstacles and turn around corners. This is why you should always have your fingers on top of the brakes at all times.
Lesson 2 – How to Adapt a Perfect Riding Position for Your Body type
As downhill riding is full of many obstacles, all riders must have the ability to adapt to the terrain at a moment’s notice. Adapting to your riding terrain depends heavily on your body size. While all riders have different body sizes, the rule of thumb when adapting to your riding terrain is:
- Shorter Riders. Since shorter riders have a lower center of mass, it is easier for them to maintain the right type of balance for downhill riding. These riders can actually allow them to stand up higher on their bike while riding.
- Taller Riders. Taller riders on the other hand, have a higher center of mass, which means they must crouch their bodies a little bit lower to achieve that essential center of balance.
Lesson 3 – Common Mistakes to Avoid in Downhill Riding
In order to be able to progress to the next level as a downhill rider, you will need to avoid certain riding mistakes that a lot of people make. These mistakes can prove very costly as they have caused many riders to fall down and sustain serious injuries. In order for you to prevent getting injured, here are some mistakes to avoid doing.
- Avoid riding on your hips. The first common error that people make when riding downhill is to ride on their hips. Riding on your hips is a mistake because your weight is distributed backwards. This can cause your riding to become extremely unstable and susceptible to falling down backwards.
- Avoid riding with your elbows placed near your torso. Another common mistake that many riders make is to place their elbows near their torso when riding downwards. This position can cause a lot of instability and could create an imbalance when riding. It could also cause early fatigue for your legs as weight is distributed unevenly on your bike. The perfect position is to always keep your elbows and knees flexed out.
Lesson 4 – How to Ride More Efficiently Downhill
Progressing on downhill riding means that you must learn how to harness your speed while moving at a fast space. It is not about getting faster as a downhill trail is packed with obstacles and taking these on at incredible speeds may prove to be dangerous and even fatal at times. Instead of aiming to get faster at riding downhill; it is a better idea to learn how to harness your speed first. Learning how to ride faster downhill is reserved for experts who have year upon years of experience which beginners and intermediates simply do not yet possess. To harness your speed for a more efficient downhill excursion, here are some quick tips.
- Re-doing certain sections of the trail. Learning downhill riding is a trial-by-error process that entails a lot of studying and reviewing both mentally and physically. When you are riding a certain trail and you find yourself falling down in a specific section, you may need to re-do that specific section multiple times until your get it right. Re-doing certain sections work to improve your knowledge and experience as well as strengthening your nerves to be able to conquer your fears and master your mistakes.
- Concentrate on looking at the oath as opposed to obstacles. Most expert riders when riding down an obstacle-filled path do not pay close attention to upcoming obstacles. Instead, they pay attention to the path where those obstacles lie on and figure out in advanced how to maneuver through or around those obstacles. Downhill riding is exciting and at the same time scary because many people get so easily intimidated with those obstacles that they forget that there is a path that they can use to avoid or get around those obstacles.
- Braking on Corners. A lot of accidents occur when riders fail to brake before riding around corners as these tend to have gravel, sand, and mud all of which can easily cause a bike to skid and slide. Braking before an upcoming corner allows your bike to slow down its pace and for you to brace yourself by adapting the right balance as you tilt your bike right or left and turning around a corner.
- Timing yourself and improving your time. As you progress from a beginner to an intermediate downhill rider, it may be the right time to start timing yourself as you complete a downhill trail. Timing yourself is a challenge that works to improve self confidence and your ability to execute what you have learned so far as a downhill rider. The true challenge in timing yourself is to improve on that as you try to beat your fastest time completing a specific trail. Upon beating your best time on various trails, you can now compare yourself to those who have better time trials. This is how intermediate downhill riders progress into expert level riders.
How to Brake Properly while Downhill Riding
In all types of mountain bike riding, braking is a basic fundamental that all riders should master. In downhill riding, braking becomes an even more crucial skill to learn as it is what truly protects an individual from disaster. Downhill braking entails a lot of factors to learn which these helpful tips may address.
Tip 1 – Knowing how to use your front brakes and rear brakes.
When accelerating downward, your front wheel brakes become very essential as you will be utilizing these a good percentage of time in maneuvering around corners and tackling obstacles. When you feel that you accelerating too fast and you see an upcoming obstacle, you will need to use both front and rear brakes simultaneously to be able to stop efficiently. For maneuvering purposes, the front brakes should be utilized more.
Tip 2 – Establishing the correct body position.
Just like downhill riding has a correct riding position, braking while downhill riding similarly has a right position as well. When braking while riding downhill, experts suggest that riders should tilt there body backwards to place more weight on their rear wheels. Another helpful tip when moving your body backwards is to place your pedals at a higher position, leaving one leg higher and one leg lower. This should allow you to move backwards more efficiently while still being able to control your bike’s handlebar.
Tip 3 – Taking the path most travelled.
Even if your mountain bike has the best brake system money can buy, this is not enough to ensure that you will be able to brake properly at all times in downhill riding. Downhill riding takes a lot of planning and execution that need to be done at a second’s notice. This is especially true with trails that are reserved for intermediates and experts because they have uncountable obstacles that can really make riding an almost impossible experience. The way that riders are able to brake properly on these advanced trails is to anticipate everything before it happens. When you see an upcoming obstacle and you feel that braking is not an option, you need to anticipate the turn or corner by immediately spotting the path most travelled on because this is where most riders maneuvered their bikes in order to get to safety.
As there are indeed many more lessons to learn about downhill riding, the only way to learn those lessons is to actually go on many downhill trails and learn the nuances and technicalities. By knowing the fundamentals of what gear to wear, proper riding position, and proper braking position, you put yourself at an advantage as you are able to avoid many costly mistakes committed by many other riders. Downhill riding is an achievement to master and by knowing the fundamentals, you will be able to learn and master this art in a very short span of time.
Keep in touch and see you out on the trails.
About The Author
Rod Bucton, mountain bike fanatic from Mid North Coast, New South Wales Australia…discover the inside edge to become a more confident mountain bike rider 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.