Start Mountain Biking
On land, mountain biking should be the fun activity in an adventure race. Unfortunately, the combination of a downhill slope with rocks, dirt and tree roots causes a lot of anxiety for the new racer as well as the experienced athletes. Julien Lallemand has worked internationally with both professional teams and rookie racers to help develop mountain biking skills and confidence. Checkout his clinics and other events on our clinics calendar.
What bike to get for adventure racing
Mountain biking is a big part of adventure racing. In most one-day event, about 40% of the event time is spent on a bike.
In this article we are giving you some simple tips that will help you purchase your first bike for adventure racing.
What is a mountain bike for adventure racing?
A mountain bike for adventure racing should be a bike that you can ride a relatively long distances comfortably – according to your cycling fitness – for 3 hours or more.
It should be a bike that is good for both climbing and descending. It should be reasonably light (between 22 and 26 pounds), especially if you are light yourself.
There are many types of mountain bikes for a variety of use and conditions. In adventure racing we are only interested in two types: XC (cross country) mountain bikes and “all mountain” bikes.
Full suspension is the way to go if you have a budget allowing you to get a full suspension bike. The weight should be in the 24-27 pound range or lighter. If you can’t put too much money in a new bike, stick with a front suspension (hard-tail) only.
Get a bike with 29 inch size wheels (“29er”) if you are tall enough to ride one. The big wheels are conducive to riding longer distances and makes the bike more stable and comfortable.
Prices and quality
Your mountain bike is likely to be the most expensive equipment you need for adventure racing. We are strongly advising you to get your first bike brand new.
Mountain bikes are a collection of components: Frame, forks, wheels, cranks, shifters, derailleurs, cassette, brakes etc… The quality and the weight of a mountain bike is a sum of the quality of its components. This is why we are advising you to get a brand new bike: all the components of that bike will be of equivalent quality and in optimum condition. You will be better with a $1500 new bike than a used $5000 bike you bought $1500.
Generally hard-tail bikes are cheaper than full suspension bikes because the frame requires less manufacturing and there is no rear shock. Rear shock can account for 20% of the price of a bike.
95% of the mountain bike sold in the word will never see the dirt. Manufacturers have developed a range of low-end components that fit urban use but can’t really cope with the strains caused by off-road riding. Therefore you should avoid the low-end range of mountain bikes (usually $300-$800).
You should spend at least $800* on a first brand new bike.
The more you spend, the more performance you can expect from your bike. Suspension and braking will improve significantly with price. The wheels and the entire bike will be lighter. A “competition grade” mountain bike can be bought starting at $2500 and up. A true high-end mountain bike is usually sold above $5000.
Please always remember that your cycling performance are is 90% you and 10% your bike. You won’t go faster with a high-end bike. The most expensive bike in the shop won’t make you win a race. A strong rider can win any race with an $800 bike – but an $800 bike may not survive the abuse of many regular aggressive training and racing sessions.
Our advise: start with an affordable brand new bike and if you get hooked on mountain biking, sell it and upgrade to a bike in the “competition range” or better.
Get your first bike in a bike shop
You should get your first bike in a bike shop. The bike will usually be sold with free basic maintenance for several months to a year. The shop will also carry the warranty on your parts and frame. If anything brakes on the bike, and it will, you won’t have to deal with shipping the parts to an online store – usually the bike shop will quickly replace the parts. You can’t get the same quality of service if you purchase your bike online.
Get a bike that is the right size for you.
Your first “real” mountain bike will certainly feel like it’s too high or too long for you. That’s how a bike made for riding long distance feels like at first if you are not used to it (but if you are already a road cyclist you shouldn’t have that problem). NEVER let a store sell you a smaller size bike because it’s “easier on downhill” – this is a wrong assumption that a bike shop may use to sell their remaining stock. 75% of the women we meet through California Adventure Racing Association and who just bought their first bike were sold a bike that was too small for them. They were told a smaller bike was was easier to ride for a beginner and it felt easier while test riding it in the shop’s parking lot!
Hardtail vs Full Suspension
The question of choosing a hardtail or full suspension bike for adventure racing is particularly relevant if you are on a tight budget. Get a hardtail if you don’t want to spend more than $2000.
With a hardtail the money you are not spending in the rear shock and more complex frame design goes in the bike’s components. At an equivalent price, a hardtail will be a lighter and higher performing bike than a full suspension.
29 inch wheels
Increasingly, mountain bikes come with bigger wheels – 29 inch diameter wheels instead of the traditional 26 inch wheels. A bike with 29 inch wheels is referred to as a 29er.
Larger wheels roll better over obstacles than smaller wheels. It’s bigger so it has more inertia. This will make the bike more stable on fast turns and will help you carry speed through rough patches of terrain. In general, a 29er bike is ideal for the kind of riding you will be doing in adventure racing.
The downside is that 29er bikes are rarely made in small sizes and the bigger wheels add weight to the bike – another negative point for smaller riders.
When you start riding you should use platform pedals. All entry-level bikes come with such pedals but the higher end bikes come without pedals and you will need to buy your own..
Don’t use toe straps with your platform pedals – when you are ready to upgrade you should go directly to clipless pedals.
The minimum cycling gear you need
With your first bike you must also get the following basic equipment:
Helmets are MANDATORY. A $20 helmet will protect you as well as a $200 one, but it will be heavier and bulkier. Falling is part of learning how to mountain bike. ALWAYS wear a helmet when you are riding and if you forget your helmet: don’t ride.
You should also always wear cycling gloves when mountain biking. Get the full fingers kind. The gloves will prevent injuries to your palms if you fall.
You will need a repair kit that includes:
- a pump
- a spare tube with the same valves as the ones on your bike (there are 2 types, ask the store what type you have if you don’t know)
- a tube patch kit
- two tire levers
- a bike tool kit (includes at least different size hexagonal wrench, a flat screwdriver head and Philips screw driver head
- a chain tool (the chain tool can be included within the bike tool kit)
Expect to spend at least $100 to get all the above
* the prices indicated in this article are rough estimates of a price purchase in a regular bike shop. You may find prices significantly lower taking advantage of online discounts.
Complete guide to mountain biking skills
Learn to ride a bike again !
Want to get better at riding trails without hurting yourself so much? It’s easy— just learn how to ride a bike again!
That’s right. You learned when you were a kid and have acquired enough skill to get by as long as the terrain isn’t too rough. But to mountain bike well—fast and yet safely—requires much more than just “getting by”. Mountain biking will push you to your limits. We’re not even talking about big stunts but just standard trail riding. Speed, soil types, weather conditions, trail steepness and all kind of obstacles will work against your ability to remain on your bike. The good news is that you don’t need to hurt yourself to get better; you just need to get back to the basics, and from there build up your skills progressively.
This skills guide will help you learn and/or review your riding technique, advance to higher levels in a systematic way, and hopefully spare you from a load of crashes, injuries and frustrations.
Where and when to practice your skills?
Take time to develop your skills. While riding take time to stop at an obstacle and practice until you can go over the obstacle perfectly smoothly. Try to ride with people you can follow and make sure everyone will agree to practice on skills. Too often beginners spend their time trying to catch up with their group.
It’s almost useless to “follow” better riders because you can’t pay attention to what they are doing. Instead, set up an arrangement with a more advanced rider whereby you can ride ahead and then stop and wait for them to approach, enabling you to check for their line and posture.
All mountain bike moves for trail riding are based on 5 core skills that we can summarize into: perception, balance, braking, steering, and pedaling.
Any obstacle will require you to first identify it (perception) and then take the right action response e.g. balance, brake, steer or pedal. In many advanced riding situations you’ll have to combine the skills, e.g. balance, brake and steer at the same time.
When we say “obstacle” we’re talking about anything that can challenge your ability to stay on the bike: bumps, gravels, tight turns, etc. An obstacle is anything that requires more than standard “riding a bike” skills.
The whole point of looking at mountain biking technique through these five skills is to enable you break down your action response to an obstacle into techniques you’ll have already established. You’ll face an intimidating trail section and you’ll see it as a sequence of moves you’ve done already, but that you may not have linked together yet.
Not being able to overcome an obstacle always comes down to a deficiency in one particular skill. For example: overshooting a curve and falling can be due to not looking at the trail but looking at the drop on the side of the trail (perception), not being balanced on the bike while curving and drifting off (balance), coming too fast into the curve and sliding off while using your brakes (braking).
Graphic: identifying the incoming obstacles, anticipating, taking action
The only way to learn how to ride on trails safely is to build up these skills progressively. Start by very basic exercises in a safe environment and progressively increase the difficulty level. The basic skills must be mastered in a neutral environment before being challenged by additional factors such as rocks, steep slopes, ruts and slippery ground.
The alternative would be to skip all this and directly attempt the most difficult trails (like Ho Pui Trail). You may be lucky and survive it without any major injuries; you may also be discouraged by having to push your bike most of the way, or be tense and intimidated by the challenging terrain the rest of the time.
Core Skills: Perception
All mountain biking moves are triggered by your perception of your riding environment and how you see yourself and your bike going through. Maintaining awareness of where you can go, what you can do and how your bike will react is a skill in itself.
Look ahead to where you want to go
This sounds obvious, but most of the trajectory mistakes that lead to a crash are due to looking at what is not on your path. Looking forward to where you want to put your wheels is key. If you’re looking at something else while riding, the tilt of your head will put you off balance and you’ll start turning towards it. So you must ignore what isn’t in your way and just look towards where you want to go.
Graphic: Red arrow = braking distance; look further or crash
Look as far as you can stop
Always look as far as you can brake, so you can stop before hitting an obstacle you can’t overcome. You will need to practice braking on various surfaces to have a better idea of where to look. But as a rule of thumb: look further ahead going fast on a downhill; look closer going slower; look as far as you can see the trail on a curve.
You must always plan your next move after the obstacle. If you just keep looking at the obstacle and not beyond it, you will be unprepared for what lies ahead and may something you haven’t seen.
Graphic: Think ahead of you moves, never look at your front wheel getting over/down obstacles
Roll over it
Your bike can take a lot of abuse, and can roll over a wide range of obstacles. You can roll straight over pretty much everything that is 1/4 of your wheel – this means almost 6 inches. There are few obstacles found on trails that are larger than 5 inches. You must experiment going over obstacles. Take time finding increasingly bigger obstacles ,like rocks (start small – don’t go bigger than 5/6 inches), hit them straight on and pay attention to the consequences on your speed and your balance.
Graphic: The wheels can get over almost anything 1/4 of their size but beware of the impact
The ground brakes for you
Every obstacle you hit stops your bike’s forward motion. If you’re getting on rough terrain you’ll need to pedal much harder. If you’re going down a rough section your bike will abruptly slow down.
Graphic: very rough surface, like a rock garden, will eat up all your speed
Get a grip
Your tires, if in good condition, can provide you with amazing grip as long as enough weight is applied to them to keep some traction. The grip is the tire’s ability to keep traction despite the forces applied to it. If those forces become greater than the tire’s traction abilities it will immediately start to drift. The ground surface will greatly modify your tire’s traction capabilities. Therefore, it is important to always identify the soil types conditions. Here is a list, going from strongest grip to weakest grip:
- Ideal Conditions: Moist, hard packed soil offers the most grip, allowing the tires’ knobs to dig in.
- Hard packed and dry, dry stone: The compacted soil and stone surface offers a lot of grip to tire rubber. Be careful with dust that is a loose element on a hard surface.
- Loose surfaces, dirt or sand: Loose surfaces offer very little grip at first, but as soon as the tires dig in (turning or braking) it suddenly provides a lot of grip. This makes it difficult to negotiate.
- Debris: Trails are often covered in debris such as dead leaves. Like loose surface a layer of debris provide almost no grip until the tire manage to get through.
- Mud: Clay, when damp, is like soap. This requires pushing the tires down to a more solid layer of dirt. Mud covering a hard surface makes the surface extremely slippery. Beware of rocks and roots covered by a layer of liquid mud.
- Gravel: Gravel is certainly the most unstable ground surface. Gravel reacts like ball bearings. A thin layer of gravel on a very hard surface is the most hazardous configuration. A thick layer requires the rider to dig the tire in order to achieve traction.
All the challenges in mountain biking lie in counterbalancing gravitational forces. When your front wheel hits a rock you’re thrown forward. Looking at it closer you’ll understand that your bike is stopped by the impact but your body keeps going forward. If you’re going too far forward you’ll go over the bar.
While riding a trail you will constantly have to anticipate moments of impacts and prepare for them. You’ll have to adopt a posture that will let you absorb the impact before you’ll have reached the limit of your balance on the bike.
Graphic: Your body is independent from your bike. If your bike stops, your body will keep going forward
Hit obstacles straight on
Imagine every stone giving a kick to your front wheel. The kick can be very powerful. The bigger the obstacle, the bigger is the kick. If the obstacle kicks your wheel straight on you’ve got all your mass aligned to resist it. But if you are hitting the obstacle with an angle it will kick your front wheel sideways – there will be no way to get it back online and you’ll crash. Always plan to hit an obstacle as straight on as possible.
The straightest line is the best
As soon as you’re hitting a rough zone try as much as you can to cut through it. Steering generously while going over a rocky zone increases your chances of jack-knifing and wedging your wheel in a gap between two stones. Hold firm, get the right posture, stay relaxed and let the bike do its work. Just make sure there aren’t any obstacles along the rough section that your wheel can’t go over.
Practice: Look at the trail.
Practice braking down a trail section into a series of obstacles. Look at the trails as a succession of slopes, turns and obstacles you can roll over. Even in a difficult trail section there are easier zones—zones where you can brake without challenging your balance, and zones that are flat enough to turn sharply.
Here is an example of how to look at a challenging trail section.
Scan the trail: The trail is relatively narrow and bordered with a steep down slope – where you don’t want to fall. There are big rocks on the sides, some emerging from the ground, and two set of steps. The trail section is roughly 20 meters long.
Now only look at your path; not the steep and scary down side!
Now check for the obstacles on your path, check for everything you could clip with your pedals or shoulder.
Now only look at the obstacle you’ll have to ride over: 1 set of 2 steps, followed by one large stone, followed by a set of 3 steps. The rest is insignificant.
Now consider your path as just slopes and bumps – everywhere your bike will tilt or experience a significant impact. This is the only thing you need to focus on because you will modify your posture to withstand it and brake when necessary.
The trail section isn’t as intimidating as it may first appear; broken down, it’s just two sets of steps (slopes) and a bump. Easy!
Core Skills: Balance
Good mountain bike riding is all about remaining balanced however your bike tilts or hits an obstacle. If you just sit on your saddle and hit a rock the bike will transfer all the impact’s energy to your buttocks and you will simply be kicked off. That’s why your best shocks are your legs and arms: you don’t want the impact to transfer to your upper body.
You’ll need a bike your size to be able to balance correctly. Here are a few very simple tricks to choose a bike that fits you.
To know if a bike is your size you must first adjust the saddle so that it’s in “optimum position”. This position will let you fully exploit your leg power.
- Get on the bike. Sit normally. Put your heel on the pedal.
- You must be able to reach the pedal with your heel with your leg extended. If your heel reaches the pedal and your legs are still flexed, this means you are too low.
- Ride the bike for a minute and make sure you are not rocking your hips to reach the pedals – if you so, your saddle is too high.
- Measure or mark your seat post. Remember this measure, it’s the “optimum” height.
- You may feel very high from the ground, but try to get used to it – you’re not supposed to reach the ground with your feet while riding a mountain bike. If you really do feel uncomfortable, reduce the saddle height by 1/2 inch or 1 inch but not more.
A rule of thumb is that when you’re riding you shouldn’t see your front wheel axle (or hub) because the handle bar masks it. If you can see it in front of the handle bar it means the bike is too small for you; if you can see the front axle behind the handle bar, it means it’s too large for you.
Correct riding posture
- When sitting on your bike and pedaling, you must have your arms slightly flexed. You’ll need this flex to be able to steer.
- You must grip your handle bar with your thumb beneath the bar, as you would with a tennis racket. DO NOT rest your hands on top of the bar – it would take just one unexpected impact to completely lose control of your bike.
STAND on your bike
As soon as the terrain gets rough or unstable you must STAND on your pedals, not sit on your saddle. Strictly no obstacles can be overcome with your buttocks on the saddle.
Graphic: Center of gravity falls in the middle between the wheels. Get off the saddle and shift your help back to brace for an impact
Consider your heart as your center of gravity. You want to keep your heart as stable as possible. To do so you must use your legs and arms, they are your suspension. They will help you keep your center of gravity as stable as possible by absorbing sudden impacts and counterbalancing the bike’s tilt.
Now imagine a line that falls vertically from your heart towards the ground, tracing a point on the floor – it’s the projection of your center of gravity on the ground. When sitting correctly on a bike that fits you, this point falls midway between your two tires’ contact points with the ground.
You want to keep this point as much as possible in the center or slightly behind. The more the point goes forward the closer you get to going over the bar. (We’ll develop this more in the next chapter on braking.
Getting a lower riding positure when the terrain gets rough allows you to have more flexibility with your arms and legs. The bike doesn’t only hit obstacles, it also drops and tilts.
You want to have to keep contact with the ground at all time. Without any weight on your tires it is impossible to steer or brake. Crouching on your bike is the only way you can force your wheel to stay on the ground when hitting a steep or rough trail section
Photo: low posture for high step
Practice: Find your Balance point
- Find a flat surface where you can ride for 100 meters at moderate speed.
- Gather enough speed to be able to cruise for 50 meters.
- Stand on your pedals; make sure your crank is horizontal.
- You can keep your buttocks just an inch above the saddle: keep your legs flexed.
- At the same time you are standing, shift your hips backward and flex your arms. Your upper body must collapse towards the frame. You can slightly pinch the saddle with your inner thighs.
- Important, Keep looking forward, DO NOT look at your hands or your front tire.
Now how to know if you’re well balanced?
- You must have almost no weight on your arms. If you’re pressing on your bar you’re wrong, if you’re pulling on your bar you’re wrong too. You want to be completely balanced on your feet.
- To test your balance: Pinch the saddle with your inner thigh and try to pinch your grips with just 2 fingers. Then try to release your hands from the bar.
Now explore your range of movement:
- Do the exercise again and try to get as low as possible. You’ll notice that it’s almost easier to find your balance when you’re in the lowest position.
- And now turn:
- Crouching on your bike lets you extend your arms and legs when your bike tilts. It also lets you have enough arm extension to be able to turn.
- If your arm are completely extended you will never be able to steer the bar the handlebar, so be careful to never HANG back from your bars.
Graphic: the bike will tilt in many different ways, but your center of gravity must remain stable
Practice: Balancing down a slope
Please read first the chapter on braking because you’ll need to brake while riding down a slope.
- Find a wide slope that goes progressively steeper and then comes back to flat.
- Get on the bike; start cruising down with your pedal leveled horizontally.
- Brake in order to go moderately slow.
- Get off the saddle, shift your hips backwards until you feel the saddle between you inner thighs, and flex your arms at the same time. Your upper body must be close to the frame.
- Look forward, as far as you think it would take you to brake and come to a complete stop. Keep scanning forward.
- DO NOT rest on your handle bar (posture too far forward) or pull on it (too far back). Your arms must remain relaxed and flexed the whole time.
It may feel strange to lean so low on your bike while going down, but this posture allows you to keep your arms flexed and lets you steer and absorb impacts.
Practice: Turns on slopes
- Repeat the previous practice but try to slalom in the steepest part of the slope. You can put down a stone every 5 meters to create a slalom.
- Always control your speed, don’t let yourself carried away by the slope.
- If you can’t turn it’s because you are too far back and your arms are so extended that you can’t steer.
The crouching position is the base of good riding technique when the trail gets fast, loose or rough and twisty (and maybe everything together!). It will allow you to let the bike drop down a big step. Your arms will have plenty of extension capacity to overcome the bike’s tilt and to remain able to turn. You’ll gain experience getting off the saddle and knowing how far you can get behind it without losing balance. The lower you are and the more balanced on your feet you are, the easier it will be to overcome difficulties. This skill applies for going over very rough surface, bumps and even curves.
Core Skills: Braking
Riding trails on a mountain bike makes you brake much more than you ever used to in any other type of cycling. You will often have to use the full capacity of your brakes in order to stay on the track. You must explore how quickly your brakes can stop so you’ll know your optimum braking distance for a given speed.
Always be ready to brake
You must ALWAYS ride with at least ONE finger on top of your brake levers. You must be ready to brake anytime.
Adjust your brake levers so your fingers fall on the lever’s tip, and your forearm, wrist and fingers are aligned.
Remember from the Balance section how your center of gravity projects a point on the ground that falls midway between your two tires.
Graphic: The harder your brake or hit something, the more you will be pulled forward by gravity
When hitting the brakes this line attached to your heart is moving forward – like a string with a free weight attached. If this string ¬points further than the front tire’s contact point with the ground, you’ll be pulled forward and go over the handlebar.
Braking hard is like hitting a rock—if your brakes are strong your center of gravity will be thrown forward beyond your ultimate balance point.
Graphic: braking or hitting an object is the same, your center of gravity must remain behind the front wheel’s contact with the ground
This balance point shift has a dramatic effect on your braking. All your weight gets on the front tire and the rear one is left with almost no traction. You need traction (or grip) to brakes. With weight your tire plants into the ground and stops you. Without it, it just skids.
Balancing your brakes means applying sufficient power to slow down the wheels without stopping them from turning, or causing the bike to skid. Because braking involves a mass transfer from rear to front, you’ll need more power to slow down your front wheel than your rear. The brake balance varies with how hard you are braking and how steep the slope is that you’re going down.
Riding on a flat section of tarmac, the braking balance between front and rear will be about 70% front / 30% back. But as soon as you’re braking harder, the front percentage will increase up to 100% front / 0% rear in extreme cases.
MISCONCEPTION: Some people think the back brake is safer while going downhill. This is absolutely wrong. You cannot stop on a steep downhill with your back brake only.
Some extreme situations make braking impossible. If the deceleration is too brutal or if the slope is too steep, the mass transfer will be completely horizontal. No weight will be applied to the front tire and no grip will be available to stop you. You will only slide down.
Avoid putting yourself in such a situation in your early mountain biking days! The only way to get out of such a situation is to let the bike go until you hit a spot, giving you enough grip to brake again – these are advanced riding skills.
Braking harder than usual is like hitting an obstacle. Get off the saddle and shift your hips back, get your upper body closer to the bike and allow some flexibility to your arms to absorb the impact.
Going down a step or over any kind of obstacle will require releasing the brakes for a split second – just enough time to get over the obstacle. You do not want to add up the impact of an obstacle with the impact of braking. So if your bike tilts down while rolling down a step, you must release your brakes to avoid your center of gravity being thrown forward and over.
Graphic: braking adds up with impact and slope
All the following exercises can be conducted any time during a ride. Start on clean, paved paths and repeat the practice when you can on other terrain. Go from paved ground to hard packed dirt to loose soil, mud and gravel (the most dangerous). Your goal is to brake progressively harder and in the shortest distance possible, without skidding.
Practice: Discovering your brakes.
- Find a flat surface where you can ride for 100 meters at moderate speed.
- Find a mark on the ground that will define your braking point.
- Ride towards it at moderate speed.
- Get in a safe position, off the saddle (very slightly), stable on both feet, horizontal crank (if your crank are not horizontal you will automatically turn while braking).
- Get ready for braking by shifting your upper body backward. Here again shift your hips back first, collapse your upper body and then push slightly back on your bars but DO NOT have your arms fully extended – you’re ready for the braking impact.
- BRAKE ON A STRAIGHT LINE. DO NOT attempt to turn while braking. Use more power on your front than your back brake. DO NOT cling on both brake levers, go progressively, and repeat the drill to increase the braking power.
If you skid, you are applying too much braking power or not enough weight on the tire that’s skidding. The harder you brake, the less weight will be applied on the rear tire and the more it will skid.
- Come to a complete stop and notice how far you are from your braking point.
- Repeat the exercise until you feel comfortable braking hard and you’re not skidding anymore.
- Then find a gentle slope where you can gather a lot of speed, and try to stop in the shortest distance possible without skidding.
CAUTION: DO NOT HANG from your bar, with your arms completely extended pulling on the grips. This posture will release most of the weight from your front tire and will not allow your front tire to gather the initial traction to stop you. Instead, it will end up skidding.
CAUTION: If your front tire skids, IMMEDIATELY release the front brake.
Practice: Getting over rear skidding
Repeat the skidding exercise but use your FRONT BRAKE only.
You will notice that your braking distances are almost equal to your previous ones using both brakes. This is the demonstration that most of your braking power goes into your front tire.
Now try to apply the back brake again, just a little, a very little. If you skid you’re applying too much of it.
Practice: Slowing down on a steep slope.
- Find a paved, clean and dry steep path (approx. 20% slope)
- Gather a moderate speed.
- Adopt a balanced position off the saddle (see practice in Balance chapter).
- Brake (don’t cling on your lever, do it progressively but quickly)
With the slope your bike tire is likely to skid. If it does you can correct two things:
1 – correct your posture, crouch more (pinch your saddle with your inner thighs).
2 – Brake less with the back brake, more with the front one.
Repeat the exercise at greater speed and try then to come to a complete stop on the slope’s steepest section. Try to hold your balance for one second (for this keep looking further down, don’t look at your bike), then release your brake and let it go.
Braking hard without skidding is essential to staying in control of your bike. You’ve discovered here how to balance your front and rear brakes, and how to avoid skidding. Braking balance will be essential later in many typical riding situations. Now that you also know how to counter the effect of mass transfer, you’re ready to hit a very wide range of obstacles. Bear in mind that you will use exactly the same braking skills going down a steep trail.
Core Skills: Steering
Steering seems natural. It’s the first thing you learned while riding a bike. However, turning on tight corners, or riding at high speed on turns, don’t count among common cycling abilities. For mountain biking, however, you’ll need push your steering abilities to remain comfortable and safe on narrow trails.
Engaging into the turn
Steering with a bike is far more than just turning the handle bar towards the incoming turn. You will only turn successfully if you’re leaning into the curve and then turning.
Leaning into the curve is something you’re doing “naturally” but you must explore this ability to then tackle switch-backs (hair pin turns) or curves at high speed.
Photo: learn to trust your tires’ grip
photo: Shaun Horrocks
Remember the idea of the weight attached to your heart with a string, which we used to explain the forces involved in braking? The same thing applies while turning, but in this case the weight can’t go outside of the line traced between your two tires.
Tight turning will generate braking forces caused by the friction of your front tire’s side against the ground.
As with braking hard, turning tightly requires you to adopt a low posture which will leave you plenty of room to adjust your steering and control your tilt. The faster you go the lower you must be.
Look at where you want to go
You will only turn where you’re looking at. So look as far as you can on the inside of the curve. Look at it with all your upper body, turn your head towards it, turn your shoulders, and twist your entire trunk towards the curve.
Carve your curve
Raise yourself slightly off your saddle and stand on your outward foot. Being off your saddle helps you to absorb the terrain’s irregularities (your legs and arms are your best suspensions). Turning is an exercise in fine balancing, so you don’t want to be bounced around by your saddle.
Planting down your outward foot helps you gain grip: you are lower on your bike so it’s easier to gain balance. You also want your inward foot up to prevent your pedal clipping a rock or the ground.
Graphic: on rough curves give yourself room to absorb terrain’s irregularities. Do Not hae your inward foot down
Steering stops you
The tighter you turn, the more resistance from the ground the front tire will encounter. You must not only lean into the turn but be ready to feel a braking force pulling you sideways. Here again, the balanced crouching posture is key to tight turning.
Practice: Riding in circles
- Find a paved quiet street with at least one curb on one side. Make sure the surface is about flat, clean and not slippery (free of gravel, leaves, moss).
- Define a circle with random object – small stones or gravels, will do. You’ll need 8 of them.
- define a 10 foot circle by making 4 “gates” with the stones. The circle should touch the curb. Each gate is made by 2 small stones defining a 2 foot gap. You will ride in circles within the path you have defined with the stones.
- Start riding in the direction you want. Go slowly.
- Always look at the next gate and even further.
- Turn your head and your shoulders towards the next gate (where you want to go) and ignore the curb.
The curb is an obstacle to avoid. If you pay to much attention to it you are likely to hit it. So keep focusing one where you want to go (the next gate) and not where you don’t want to go (hitting the curb).
- Press on the handlebar on the curves inward side (left if you’re turning left). Pressing on the handlebar helps while turning at high speed or very tight turns.
- DO NOT touch your front brake while leaning into the turn, it would immediately through you off balance. If you need to slow down while turning you should use your back brake.
Easy? Try the other way.
Still easy? Make it tighter: make a circle with a 7 foot diameter and ride it in both directions.
- Plant your outward foot down on the pedal (crank is vertical) and very slightly lift your buttocks from the saddle.
- Look at the curb on the other side, turn your head and your shoulders towards it: you will automatically lean towards it and turn.
You want it harder? Repeat the exercise on a dirt road with a slight slope.
Practice: Turn without loosing speed
This exercises teaching you to lean and carry speed through a turn. Find a place where you can pick up some speed safely and where you can define a 90º turn with some objects. Outdoors you can use a turn on a dirt road and define a tighter turn than what is available by living your water bottle or your bag on the floor.
The turn should be approximately 30 feet long.
- Pick up speed.
- if you are going to fast slow down BEFORE the turn.
- just before the turn get slightly off the saddle and plant your “outside” foot down (the left foot for a right turn, the right foot for a left turn). You want to have all your weight on this foot.
At the same time you have started to crouch slightly.
- Only focus on the turn’s exit. Even before entering the turn you are already looking at the turns exit. Your head and shoulders point at the turns exit. You ignore whatever is in the turn sides (it could be a cliff, all what matters is where you will put your wheels on!).
- The faster you go the more you want to press on the “inside” side of your handle bar. That helps adding some weight on your front tire and therefore gaining more grip.
- if you need to slow down while turning DO NOT use your front brake (if you do just brush it), use your back brake gently.
Too easy? Go faster! Go tighter.
click to see larger. Tight curve. Photo: Shaun Horrocks
CAUTION: if you hit the brakes while leaning sideways you will almost automatically drift outward. You do not want to have your front tire drifting, so do not touch the front brake while turning. You can lightly adjust your speed by applying some back brake. The faster or tighter the curve, the more you must avoid braking.
Now you have familiarized with leaning into the turn, you know where to look at and how to engage in a turn. You know you must control your speed and brake beforehand, and not touch the brakes while leaning into the curve.
Try the above practice advises and we guarantee you will pin switch backs in no time!
Core Skills: Pedaling
Pedaling is not just about spinning your legs. It’s about applying power when you need it. It’s also about using the right gear at the right time to roll over an obstacle or climb a mountain.
Bicycle gears allow you to use a sustainable amount of strength to make you climb almost any slope’s inclination.
A regular mountain bike has 3 chain rings and 9 rear sprockets. Theoretically there are 28 gears (3X9) but the gears are overlapping:
A 30 teeth chain ring driving a 15 teeth rear sprocket (ratio 1:2) is equivalent to a 36 chain ring (middle chain ring) driving a 13 teeth sprocket. In both cases one pedal revolution will generate two wheel revolutions.
To guarantee the gears functioning in at their optimum, the chain must be lined up as much as possible with the rear sprocket driven by the chain ring. Chains are flexible only to a limited extent, and will quickly wear out or break if used improperly. The wear is multiplied exponentially while riding in wet and muddy conditions.
Rule of thumb:
Big chain ring drives the 4 smaller sprockets.
Middle chain ring drives all the sprockets except the smallest and the largest one.
Small chain ring drives the 4 larger sprockets.
Always spin your legs
The right way to use gears for trail riding is to pedal within the same range of intensity regardless of the slope you have to climb. The slope doesn’t decide for you the effort you must make to climb it (although a very steep slope may do!). This means you must try to stay in a sustainable effort zone at all times by changing gear, making spinning easier on steeper climbs and harder on a flat or a downhill until you get in your effort zone. You must always feel some resistance under your feet. If it’s too easy, you’re spending more energy spinning your legs than pushing on the pedals.
Get off your seat for extra power
Standing up will give you extra power because you will use your weight to push the pedals down. But when you are standing up you are using your upper body much more and it will increase your effort load drastically. It’s difficult to sustain a long climb standing up. Even on a very steep climb you’ll have advantage to remain seated. However, it is good sometimes to get off the saddle for a few seconds and pedal slowly using your weight on a heavy gear – it will help you relaxing your legs.
There are many situations that require a reserve of extra power. You’ll need to push the pedals extra hard for a few second to go over an obstacle you haven’t anticipated. If you are already pushing hard on your pedals to climb up the obstacle’s slope, you won’t have enough energy left to get over the obstacle itself. This could be going over one or two steps, or just powering through a rough section. Example: A typical mistake is to zoom down a hill, pedaling on a high gear to gather momentum for the next climb, and then getting stuck on the climb because the gear is too high.
Change gear constantly
You must constantly try to find the gear that allows you to spin with the same intensity. For technical trail riding you may change shift gear every 10 seconds. You must shift to an easier gear everytime you see an obstacle or a surface that will slow you down. It can be a sudden climb, a few rocks or a tight curve; all this will slow you down so you’ll need to be in a lower gear to easily pedal through.
Tip: Gear numbers are always given from right to left in increasing number. For chain rings 1 is the largest chest ring (furthest right) – 3 is the smallest chain ring (further left). For the cassette 1 is the smallest sprocket (furthest right) – 9 is the largest (furthest left). You must always keep pedaling to change gear.
Graphic: gearing sequence
Practice: Chain alignment
Find a flat, long area that is clear of obstacles and people, since you might need to look at your chain while riding.
Get to the lowest gear (3X9).
Ride and progressively change gears with your rear derailleur. Go 9 > 8 > 7 > 6.
Now change chain ring 3 > 2
Pedaling is immediately harder. So ease it by going up 2 rear gears 6 < 7 < 8
Now you’ve found the ratio you had while on the small gear, you can accelerate. Shift down with the rear derailleur: 8 > 7 > 6 > 5 > 4 > 3 > 2.
Now get on the large chain ring 2 > 1
Shift 2 gears up on the back 2 > 3 > 4
Now you can finish the sequence and get to 4 > 3 > 2 > 1.
Start to slow down and proceed to the inverse sequence: front 1 to 3 and back 1 to 9.
You should be able to go through the all sequence with 200 meters.
Practice 2 – anticipate
Find a path where you can gather momentum and which ends in a steep slope. Accelerate enough to get on a low gear – large chain ring and small sprocket (1X3) As soon as you hit the slope start changing gear in order to keep applying the same power as you’re going further up. This exercise will force you to find the adequate gear quickly. Stop changing gear when you feel comfortable with the effort you’re making.
If no slope is available determine a distant point where you’ll stop. Accelerate until you’re getting close to the largest gear (1X1/2/3). Start slowing down, and alternate gear changing and braking. You want to reach the stopping point in a very easy gear (3X6/7/8).
Riding up and down
A mountain bike can climb slopes with up to a 30% incline and go down a 45% incline and more. The limitations lie in tire traction and grip… And the fear of falling from your bike.
A long climb can be made easier with a few posture adjustments:
- As soon as the slope becomes steep, sit further in front of your saddle and lean forward by flexing your arms. This posture will maximize your leg strength and optimize your balance.
- Try to save as much as energy as possible with your upper body, and avoid pulling on the handle bar. On any slope your ideal posture should let you make strictly no effort with your arms – you should be able to steer with the tip of your fingers.
Graphic: Correct seated climbing posture
Slope start and ride up
It’s extremely common to have to jump on the bike in the middle of a steep trail section. You must know how to start riding in such a situation:
Gears must be set to easy (small chain ring – large sprocket, 3X9/8/6).
You can either stand above your saddle or sit, but the bike’s angle must be as straight as possible.
- Your first pedal stroke must be set at 10 o’clock.
- Lean forward. Lower your chest by bending your arms to prevent the bike’s front from lifting under your first pedal stroke.
- The first stroke must give you enough momentum to very quickly find the other pedal. Expect to lose your balance slightly for the two/three first pedal strokes.
- Look forward to the point you want to reach – as long as you look forward and keep pedaling you’ll manage to go where you’re looking at. DO NOT look at your front wheel or you will follow that instead of where you want to go.
- Pedal quickly to find enough momentum and balance.
- Then pace cadence to sustain the distance to clear.
- Riding steep uphill slopes.
- Keep your upper body leaning low and forward to keep a low gravity center.
- Remain seated on a moderately steep slope.
- Keep your elbows close to your trunk.
- Look forward and focus on a point you want to reach. Always look to something forward, never look at your wheel even you start losing balance.
- Try to spin faster to gather momentum.
- Respect an effort and a cadence you can sustain for the entire slope.
Very steep climbs
Climbing very steep slopes put you on a thin line between balance and traction: Lean too far forward and you’ll lose traction, spin your rear wheel and stall – Lean too far back and the front wheel lifts.
- Get off your saddle as soon the slope gets very steep, but remain almost in contact with the saddle’s tip.
- Collapse your chest very close to the handlebars, keep your flexed elbows close to your trunk.
- Focus on the next point you want to reach.
- Don’t try to hop your front wheel by pulling on your bar in order to go over obstacle – it will destabilize you. Just roll over it. If the obstacle is too sharp to roll over it use your balance instead of your arms to lift the front wheel.
CAUTION: It is common to lose balance on extremely steep climbs. The front lifts and you may flip back and land on your back. To avoid this, cling to your front brake only. DO NOT use your back brake or you’ll flip back.
For very steep slopes do not try to use momentum to tackle it: you will burn out within meters. Instead start slowly and pace yourself.
Graphic: Steep up and downs. The closer your center of gravity gets to the wheel, the less traction or grip your tires will have. For steep uphill the chest gets close to the handle bar, for steep downhill the stomach comes close to the saddle
Graphic: when it goes wrong. [left] standing too up straight on a downhill brings the center of gravity too close to the front, there is no room to absorb an impact. [right] Standing too far back while going up and the front wheel lifts.
Downhil slopes: downhill slope start
Starting down a steep slope can be difficult on a narrow or a rutted trail. Train on a clear path first, try to get as quick as you can in a stable posture and to ride down on the straightest like possible.
- Apply both brakes.
- Stand on one pedal.
- Quickly sit on the saddle and release the brakes.Immediatly find a good balance on your feet.DO NOT try to look at your feet when reaching the pedal. Look at the trail!
- Look forward and immediately adopt a crouching posture by positioning the pedals horizontally, shifting your hips back and lowering your upper body. You must be in balance on your feet
- A long downhill trail can be particularly straining if you are tense. The more relaxed you are the faster you’ll go.
- Get your buttocks off the saddle and shift your hips backward. Flex your arms at the same time. You must be able to slightly pinch your saddle with your inner thighs. You must be as balanced as possible on your two pedals.
- If the terrain is smooth you won’t need to be too far above the saddle, 1 inch is enough. But always be prepared to absorb an impact you didn’t see coming. The rougher it gets the further back from the saddle you’ll get and the lower your upper body will go.
- Look as far forward as you think you can stop. Constantly scan what’s upcoming and keep your eyes focused only on where you can ride.
Photo: Going down a steep trail section. Neutral and balanced posture, almost no pressure on the handlebars.
Photo: HANGING from the bar. Leaning too far back with arms completely extended. Impossible to steer.
Fire in your forearms?
Have a tight grip on your handle bar but very relaxed arms. If you feel your forearms and shoulders burning on a long downhill, it means you are not low enough and not in balance on your feet. Your arms must be used to push you back just before the impact, you must use your balance and weight to absorb the impacts, not just your arms.
Graphic: Lean back right before the impact. If you didn’t lean back enough your arms are absorbing the impact.
Steps up and down
Steps are a rare on Californian trails, but you may occasionally find a them on older trails.
Steps are nothing more than a slope. Photo: Shaun Horrocks
Going down a single step
We’ve seen above how to deal with your bike tilting. Riding at moderate speed down a step will make your bike tilt. You can ride slowly over almost any step not higher than your front wheel axle (13 inch / 33 cm). A higher step requires more advanced techniques (drop off or wheelie drop off) .
Graphic: getting ready for the drop
- Line-up with the obstacle, come at moderate speed. Acknowledge the step’s height. You must try to hit the step as head on as possible.
- Prepare to drop. Get as low as possible on your bike by shifting your hips backward and flexing your arms. If it’s a small step you only need to lower your upper body accordingly. For a big step you want your arms extremely flexed to have enough room to let the bike drop.
- Be sure your pedals are leveled, you don’t want to clip the ledge with your foot (crash guaranteed).
- DO NOT use your brakes as soon as you are half a bike length from the step.
- When the bike’s front drops, extend your arms.
- Let the back wheel follow and extend your legs when it drops.
- Now you can brake again if you need to.
The same skills apply for a very steep and abrupt incline.
CAUTION: Do not use your brakes while going any major obstacle
Photo sequence: rolling down a large step. This step is almost 15 inc. Notice how flexed the arms are right before hitting the step. click to see larger. Photos: Shaun Horrocks
Going down a set of steps or stairs
Going down steps is relatively safe. Steps are nothing else than a rough slope. Start practicing on a few steps (3 to 5) with a clear run-out. Make sure that all the steps are even. For just a few steps use the single step technique. The bike won’t tilt as much. Avoid using your brakes for a short flight of steps (just 3 to 5)
For larger flights of steps:
- Come at moderate speed and quickly scan the stairs for irregular steps or other obstacles.
- Let the bike drop into the steps as if it were a regular steep slope (Use the DH posture accordingly to the slope).
- Control your speed. Brake enough to do this. Concrete steps offer enough grip for you to slow down and steer.
- The faster you go the less vibration you get—with speed, your tires will not have the time to get between the gaps of each step, and will make therefore make it feel smoother.
- Prepare to land. Lean back more in order to prepare for the final impact with the ground surface.
Going up one or more steps
Your bike can roll up and over a wide range of obstacles. Steps can also be ridden up. Again steps are just a rough surface that you will tackle in the uphill direction.
A single regular step:
You don’t need to hop your front wheel on a step smaller than 5 inch, just roll over it but brace for the impact and transfer your weight from the back wheel to the front wheel in order to go over the step.
- Approach the step at moderate speed and stop pedaling a bike length before the obstacle.
- Extend your legs.
- Pull back on your handlebars before you hit the step. Slightly flex your legs when you lean back. This will transfer your weight to the back wheel.
- The front wheel will hit the step and immediately go over it.
- Extend your legs.
- Now use the impact against the step to press on your handle bar and shift your weight onto the front wheel. Flex your legs to let the bike go over the step.
- Push the handle bar forward again in order to come back to a downhill posture and stabilize.
A few steps
The technique is similar but you must try to push the bike up the steps and place the wheel on top, then press on your handlebar.
Photo sequence: going up stairs. Let the bike suspension do the work, shallow stairs are like a rough slope up. The torso remains stable, arms are flexible and relaxed to the the bike go over each steps
click to enlarge. Photo: Shaun Horrocks
CAUTION: Trying to climb steps often results in a rear tire flat. To avoid this it’s very important to absorb the rear wheel impact against the step with your legs.
Bumps and ditches
As we’ve seen you must try to remain as balanced as possible however the bike tilts. When a bump or a hole comes up you want your bike to stay stuck on the ground while your center of gravity remains stable. You’ll be using your arms and legs to keep your center of gravity on a line as flat as possible
Graphic: standing, crouching, standing, crouching. With speed press down to avoid taking off
- Extend your arms and legs, but lean slightly back.
- Let the bike tilt up by flexing your arms, then your legs.
- On the top of the bump you should be crouching on the bike.
- Let the bike go down, press on the bars then the pedal if you’re going fast over the bump. You do not want to take off
Photo Sequence: the bike sticks on the ground despite the speed, the upper body remains leveled
Graphic: the opposite of a bump
- Get in crouching position, upper body very low, arms and legs flexed.
- Push the bike into the ditch by extending your arms and legs.
- Then, let the bike tilt up.
- You should exit the ditch in the same position you’ve entered it.
Front wheel hop
Lifting the front tire can be necessary to go over an obstacle too large to just roll over. It isn’t a common move on trails. You may have to hop your front tire over a tree trunk or a single large step. The move is almost the same as rolling over a small step. To start, try the move with a small object lying on the floor – you must be able to lift your front wheel at least half a wheel high. Then try curbs
Photo sequence: Spring load, extension, front wheel lift
- Approach the step at moderate speed. You must give yourself about two bike length to prepare for the move
- Spring load! Press hard on your bike, you want to compress the suspensions and the tires as much as you can and immediately spring back – pushing back on your arms and your legs The move must be swift. Imagine jumping on a train track and realizing that a train is approaching full speed – meters away: you would jump back.
- As soon as your arms are extended pull on the bar to lift the front hand.
- Your legs should at that point be extended.
- Let the back wheel hit the obstacle.
- Flex your legs to get over the obstacle and push your bike forward. The impact against the back wheel should bring your back on to of your bike in a stable position
Towlines and mountain bikes
Adventure racing has introduced towing into mountain biking. It’s a great way to move together and help each others.
Using a towline while climbing allows everyone to ride at full potential and yet remain together. The tow line gives a gentle pull to the rider behind you. Towing is not about literally pulling someone who doesn’t pedal, it’s about giving a boost to the rider who is slower at a certain time during the ride. Towing is a great way to train together with riders who can’t keep going at the same speed. It cuts the waiting on top of the hill for the fastest riders and prevents the slower riders to feel like there are constantly trying to catch up.
What is a mountain bike towline?
A towline is a retractable dog leash attached to the bike’s seat post. The cord’s extremity in hooked to a small loop made of a bungee cord. You will hook the loop to the next rider’s stem. The bungee cord will provide some stretch so the system to the system doesn’t brake and the pull doesn’t feel jerky. You can use a medium dog leash, that will let you pull enough to let the person behind feel like he/she is gaining two gears. If you are pretty much sure you will be towing agressively – if you are a very strong rider and go with a newbie – get a big dog leash that will be stronger.
You must make sure that the bikes’ stem have a tightening bolts behind the steering tube (that’s the most common design). If not use a big zip tie and hook the bungee cord to the zip tie’s head.
If all the teammates have a similar level then everyone on the team should have a towline because you never now when or who for using the towline will be necessary.
How to use a tow line?
The riders in front slows down and grabs the bungee loop of his own tow line and hands it to the other rider.
The rider in the back hooks the loop on the base of his stem. Then the 2 riders keep riding normally.
When riding with a towline – however you are pulling someone or being pulled – you should never go harder than you would go alone. You will just be sharing the effort: going slightly slower when at the front, slightly faster when at the back. Don’t try to push harder because you are in front and don’t try to catch up when you are at the back. Just maintain a sustainable effort, monitor your breathing, or your heart rate if you have a monitor.
Big ego: no tow!
Some people are very reluctant to get on tow. It’s an ego thing. For them being towed is humiliating and they would rather slow down the entire team than get helped on a climb.
You may read this and think that you are the one who will tow others. Think about it twice: strong riders tend to start very strong early on, several hours later it’s often the strongest rider who has the first low time and actually needs helps. Getting towed is often temporary, it helps to recover and keeps the spirits high.
Before using a towline you must make sure everyone in the team accepts using it at any point of the ride. To prevent any conflicts you could even agree to systematically get on tow for every climb: the riders who feels strong at the time takes the lead.
Remember, there is no pride being minutes ahead of your teammates at the top of the climb and wait for the rest of the team. And if you are the slowest rider there is no pride neither making it on your own and ask the other to wait ahead.
Hazards with towlines
You should be on tow only when climbing or going at moderate pace on a large and clear trail. You may use it on a road when it’s flat but the leader should be particularly careful at intersection or in traffic: any brutal change of direction or braking and your partner will crash.
Never use towlines on descents, on twisty trails or in heavy traffic.
Having The Right Tires for The Trails
Whether you are riding your hybrid bike or your new Specialized StumpJumper, you need to make sure you have the right tires to match the trail conditions. Some professional riders will change tires for every ride and every race. So, what tires do you need?First, you have to figure out the conditions.
Dry– This is the most generic and common condition for our area . It is safe to use the majority of tires in these conditions. Of course you can always get specialty tires to go faster.
Wet– The winter months will bring wet conditions. Slick roots, wet rocks, and mud will be abundant. Getting tires that have an aggressive tread pattern and mud “shedding” capability is idea.
Loose—Combining dry conditions and sand make for less traction on the trails. Waterdog, Skeggs, and other bay area trails tend to be very loose in the summer time. Tires with a good edge tread is important so you can maintain traction in the turns.
Hard Pack– Similar to dry conditions, hard pack describe the most ideal riding conditions. It describes a trail that has compressed dirt and rocks. It provides for ideal traction.Second, you need to make sure you use your tires right.
Don’t over inflate your tires!! Tires have a recommended pressure range printed on the side-walls. Stay at the lower pressure range. Tires at lower pressure will tend to “pancake” over rocks and other trail obstacles. This is good. At higher pressures, tires will tend to bounce off rocks. This is bad.
So, what does this mean to you? For beginners, I recommend that you have tires for the wet and dry seasons. As you gain more experience, you will learn more about tires and may choose to explore more options.