You’ve probably seen footage of the pros swooping down trails on a mountain bike. Everything seems so fluid and smooth almost effortless.
The purpose of this article is to help you get closer to that smooth and graceful style with a whole lot less of that crashing into the ground part. Think of it like learning a musical instrument.
While it’s not effortless, taking things slowly at first can give you a great opportunity to develop the technical skills required. With some practice, you too can become proficient enough to make it all look easy.
You have to learn to play slow before you can play fast. Take your time starting out and you will build speed naturally as your skill progresses. But before we get to skill, let’s look at what you need.
Getting into Mountain Biking
Types of Mountain Bikes
Rigid bikes are the most affordable type of mountain bike and it is unfortunately where most people start. Rigid bikes have no shocks what so ever.
Though you can use a rigid bike, you will have to go slower and with more care to ensure you get proper breaking and force transfer when pedaling.
If this is where you have to start, by all means, do so. Just be prepared to upgrade down the line if you find you want to progress with mountain biking.
The next tier of bikes are hard-tail bikes. They have front suspension but no rear suspension. In general, a hard-tail bike is somewhat faster than a full suspension bike.
You can see an example of a hard tail bike in the image below:
As you can see it has 2 suspension springs on the front fork but no suspension in the rear. One drawback of a hard-tail is that with a lack of rear suspension, you are more likely to take a beating over bumpy surfaces.
Once you learn to manipulate your body weight, you can do a lot with a hard-tail bike. These are a personal favorite. I prefer a bike that doesn’t lose speed and energy on bumps the way a full suspension bike does.
Speaking of full suspension bikes, these have both front and rear suspension. They are the most expensive mountain bikes but perhaps the easiest to ride.
Full suspension bikes are far more comfortable and forgiving of bumpy terrain. They do loose energy fast as the suspension moves up and down but they keep better traction for breaking and riding up hills.
The one thing you want to make sure you always have is a helmet. Very few mountain bikers escape without ever falling. A proper helmet designed for mountain biking can turn a critical accident into something you can ride away from.
Never leave your helmet behind, keep it attached to your bike in storage, do whatever it takes. Just make sure you remember to take it along.
Depending on the trails you ride and current conditions, you may also want shin guards or at least long pants. For dusty conditions, having a set of goggles can be a nice touch. I prefer to wear a good set of gloves that give me good grip on the bike while providing a little bit of protection.
You could safely wear knee and elbow pads if you chose and may not need any other gear like chest protectors. You likely won’t need them and they make learning harder. You can add them later if you think you need to.
Your other clothing should be serviceable and not baggy. Shoes should have laces that can be fully secured. Getting your clothing stuck in your chain can bring you to a halt you won’t soon forget.
You don’t have to get all the biking specific clothing but make sure it’s suitable for the purpose and not too baggy.
A small, serviceable pack that can be attached to your bike or carried on your back is a very good idea. You don’t want anything that will throw off your balance but there are some things you are going to want on the trail.
It’s always better to be prepared than not!
First Aid Kits are one of the most neglected items to have on you in the field. Keep it small with some bandage and gauze, blister treatment, and a few medicines along with any specific needs you may have.
I also keep a small folding knife, elastic bandage, and quick clot sponge on hand just in case.
You should also have a bike care kit that has everything you need to fix any common issues you may have with your bike.
- Spare Tube and Patch Kit
- Tire Levers
- Small Hand Pump
- Assorted Allen Wrenches
- 4 Way Screwdriver
- Duct Tape
- Zip Ties
It would also be advisable to carry a few extra nuts, bolts, and screws of the sizes your bike needs.
I would highly recommend some extra socks and rain gear along with any extra clothing you may need. If you are riding in an area where you may not have cell signal if something goes wrong, a reusable space blanket is lightweight and can come in handy.
Don’t forget to bring water along and perhaps some protein or meal replacement bars. You never know when you may be out there longer than you plan. All in all, you can get this in a pack that weighs under 5lbs if you are cautious. Even with heavier items, it should be a very manageable weight under 10 lbs.
Got everything you need? Time to move on to the fun stuff!
Hitting the Trails
Roughly 90% of mountain biking is all about how your weight is positioned and being able to shift your weight for better control. The good news is that you will quickly develop a natural ability to shift your weight around the bike without even thinking about it.
The other 10% of mountain biking is momentum and learning how to preserve it and when to create it. This does involve the inevitable pedaling, shifting gears efficiently and breaking properly.
Momentum skills are what separates the novice from the pro more than anything else. It may be a small part of the overall experience but it is by far harder to master than any other part of mountain biking.
With the variety of bikes, terrain, and all the other variables, it would be impossible to give a how-to for every scenario. Instead, we will work with generalities. If you start out slow and progress naturally, you will quickly develop the ability to adapt to different situations on the trail.
For smoother trail portions, you are going to want a neutral position on the bike. This should be reserved for non-technical sections of trails and smoother surfaces where you have better control.
This position keeps the weight balanced between both wheels for the best traction and control. The neutral position is best for generating and keeping momentum.
Start by keeping your pedals level so that one foot isn’t lower than the other. This gives you the opportunity to explode the moment you need to.
Your hips should be over the seat with your torso very slightly forward with elbows and knees bent. One or two fingers should be kept on the brakes at all times and your eyes should be well ahead of you with your head up and not looking at your front tire.
When you move to a more difficult section of trail, you will transfer to the attack position. This way you prepare for any obstacles that come up. Your pedals should still be balanced with even weight on both sides of the bike.
Increase the bend in your knees which will bring your hips forward slightly. As you learn more over the center of the bike, your arms should flair out to a pushup position with the arms bent at about 90 degrees or a little over.
Your back should be straight with your chin lifted so you can easily spot upcoming obstacles. Your eyes should be focused on where you want to go, not where you are right now.
From these two positions, you will have to learn to adjust for the many variables you may encounter as you ride. These are just the starting positions that make moving to any other positions quick and efficient.
Before you get going, it’s probably good to know how to properly stop. All mountain bikes will have brakes in the front and rear. The type of brakes you have will determine how much force it takes to stop your bike.
The type of bike you are riding will also change how effective your braking is. A stiff bike will be more affected by bumps that make stopping distance longer. Bikes with suspension will keep the tires planted better and stop shorter.
You will have to learn to apply your front brakes correctly. This will mostly be governed by the amount of pressure you apply to the brakes and your body position as you apply them.
You will want to position your weight rearward on the bike. Not completely over the back wheel, but far enough back that it keeps traction while the forward momentum drives your front wheel into the trail. This is a balancing act that takes some practice to know how far back you need to shift in different situations.
Brakes should be applied slowly and evenly between front and back. Quickly engaging the front brakes on a downhill run is a good way to fly over your handlebars. Bike brakes can be very powerful, especially disc brakes.
Before you go downhill, practice with your brakes to know how they work, how much pressure they take to pull, and how effective they are at stopping you.
Bumpy paths and slick surfaces will ruin your breaking power. Brake early in those cases. Always give yourself plenty of time. It’s not a race, at least not yet.
Before you get going, you need to practice safely and effectively shifting gears. Done correctly, it makes riding far more efficient. Done incorrectly, you can damage your bike or at least make your life much harder than it needs to be.
Each bike will shift differently, even two bikes that look identical can shift slightly different. Get a feel for your bike and how it shifts but here is the general basis for shifting.
If you push very hard on the pedals, your bike will sort of surge forward and your next push will be a little easier. When you get to that soft pedals is the perfect time to change gears.
This will allow the chain to easily slip across the gears. Keep your pedals moving or your chain could bind and snap. Never stop pedaling until your chain is fully engaged on the next gear. It’s easier to feel if you are shifting up than it is if you are shifting down.
Pedaling – Uphill and Level Ground
Before you get to the exciting part of downhill, you have to get to the top. Some trails do start at the top but that’s rare. Let’s assume for this article that you have a long uphill climb.
In order to climb you have to get the most power out of every pedals push. This means getting any speed you can prior to starting up the hill and shifting your gears appropriately BEFORE you get to the hill.
Though it often feels stronger to stand on the pedals, you will actually waste a lot of energy from lack of traction. Especially on loose trail materials like sand or gravel. For climbing, your seat should be adjusted so that at the bottom of your pedal stroke, your knees are only slightly bent.
This position allows you to keep your butt on the seat so you get plenty of traction on your rear wheel. Your leg will be in the perfect position to push down on the pedals. Keep your back straight and slightly forward to keep your front wheel from lifting.
Once you get to the top, you get the reward! The swift downhill run that makes mountain biking so exciting! Unfortunately, it’s also the most dangerous part and the easiest to mess up.
The two points to remember going downhill are to know where you are going before you get there and keeping the bike under control.
Anytime you are riding, you need to keep your eyes ahead. How far ahead depends on how fast you are going. A good general guideline is to always be looking 25 feet ahead, picking your line of travel as you go.
Your peripheral vision should be used to make sure you are clear of any obstacles.
For a good downhill, 25 feet is less than a second of travel so moderate your speed or your sight distance to make sure you can pick out a good line of travel.
As for body position, you will be constantly moving as you brake and turn but the basic travel position is standing with your knees bent. You become a natural shock absorber as your body moves with the trail.
You should have your weight slightly forward of the seat and your hands on the handlebars like you are doing a pushup. Your elbows should be slightly bent but NEVER locked.
You can build speed later, for the first few times keep it slow and controlled. Learn to pick your lines and move with your bike, especially around turns or on rough sections.
Learn how to slow yourself with your brakes and when to do so. Get the timing down. You can worry about all the rest as you improve your skill.
Turns and How to Manage Them
It’s easy to imagine a smooth turn but you don’t get a lot of smooth anything in mountain biking. Turns will be banked, have rocks or roots, loose gravel is an issue on some trails.
Turns are never simple and each turn will be a little different. You have to get a feel for the bike and how it handles to make the process foolproof.
The most important thing to remember about turns is to brake before the turn and let your momentum carry you through. Braking in a turn is a good way to lose control of your bike and a turn is the worst place in the world to lose control.
As you pick your line, you need to be calculating your safe speed. This is a skill that comes with time. Until you develop that skill, err on the safe side.
The posture for turns is pretty logical unlike most of the postures above. Lean into the turn with your weight about midway up the bike. Put most of the weight on your outside foot, this keeps the bike from slipping out from under you.
Your arms should be mostly straight but never locked out and never so straight that you lose your ability to turn.
Most of the turn will be handled by your weight distribution but you will need to coax things along by steering. You should be going slowly enough that you don’t have to whip your handlebars around, just gently glide them through the turn. Over or understeering can cause a crash at worst and at best is hard to recover from.
If you mountain bike, at some point you are probably going to take a spill. It just happens. You don’t have to like it but you better be ready to roll with it.
The most important thing when it comes to wrecks is to have a proper helmet. This can save you from very serious injuries and shouldn’t be taken lightly.
Spend as much on a good helmet as you can afford, the difference in protection and comfort are well worth the added price.
Hopefully, you were in control of your bike and able to see the wreck coming. That is the crucial moment you realize you have screwed up somewhere and you are going to pay the price.
With any luck, you will have enough time to de-escalate the situation. You want to stay in control and slow yourself as much as possible. Don’t freak out, just keep calm and let it happen but try to do it on your terms.
Usually, a fall won’t hurt much more than your pride is you are lucky, especially if you are ready for it.
Broken wrists are probably the most common injury in mountain biking. They are almost universally caused by people trying to stop themselves from hitting the ground with their hands.
After a crash, always check to make sure your bike is in proper order. The seat and handlebars should be straight, your brakes should function, and your chain and gears should be aligned. Taking some time to do trailside repairs may prevent a second wreck from faulty equipment.
Sharing the Trails
Unless you are very lucky to have a mountain bike park nearby, you are going to be using multi-use trials. In addition to other mountain bikers, you may have hikers, horses, and even ATVs on the same trail.
It’s your responsibility to give us mountain bikers a good name by being responsible and courteous. Many states are just now opening trails back up to mountain bikes, we want to keep it that way.
Leave No Trace
The first part of being a responsible trail user is to take care of the trails. Calling it Leave no Trace works, it borrows from a lot of other outdoor activities and certainly applies to mountain bikes. Not only does this mean packing out everything you packed in but has extra implications for bike riders.
Make sure you are staying within the confines of existing trails. Don’t go off making new trails, not only is this disrespectful to the landowners but can be dangerous as well.
This includes cutting switchbacks or shortcuts around obstacles. Preserve the trail as it is. Most parks maintain their trails to some degree, keeping things on the official trail makes maintenance easier.
The final part of leaving no trace is to avoid riding trails that are muddy or soft. Bikes already do some damage to trails but we can keep it minimal. Avoid soft trails that may be unduly damaged by bikes. Yes, a little mud and water can be fun but it’s not worth it if trails are getting closed to riders because people had no respect.
Ride the Correct Trails
Make sure the trails that you are riding are intended for bike use and that they are currently open for you to ride. Some parks only allow biking in off seasons when there are fewer hikers while some are close to bikes altogether.
Riding trails that are not intended for bike use may land you with fines in some areas and could be against the law.
There are legal repercussions to trespassing on both private and public lands. Especially in registered state and federal wilderness preserves. There are hefty fines associated with damaging these lands.
Your bike will be enough to get the attention of park rangers or local law enforcement. Find a place to ride where you are welcome and don’t risk it.
Control your Bike
The largest part of being in control of your bike is accurately assessing your skill and limits. Don’t go wild on the trails, make sure you are confident and capable to handle the trails you are riding. It’s better to slow down than to crash yourself or to cause someone else to have an accident.
Obey any posted signs on the trails regarding speed and conditions. Not all trails will have signs, most will not. But when signs are present, heed their advice.
It may look like the guys in the videos are ripping blindly down trails, sliding around corners, and jumping ever obstacle in sight. In truth, they have practiced for years and likely have ridden that specific trail numerous times. It’s not a suicide run, take it easy.
Always give other trails users sufficient space on the trail and give them warning as you approach. For a hiker, a high-speed mountain bike can cause a sense of panic and panicking people make mistakes that could lead to your injury and theirs. Slow down and pass cautiously.
The same is doubly so with animals on the trails. Horses can spook easy and cause massive amounts of injury to you, themselves, and their riders.
Give them extra space and go slower. It’s not worth the possibility of an accident just to get a little extra adrenaline.
It’s always a trial when sharing trails to make sure that everyone has the ability to enjoy the trail while staying safe. For this reason, most trails have stopped allowing mountain biking. It will take good stewardship and being a good neighbor on the trails if we ever want to mountain biking to be as acceptable as it has been in the past.
While I would not call mountain biking a cheap hobby, it is far cheaper than a lot of outdoor hobbies. This makes it accessible to a great many people who enjoy the outdoors.
A good used bike can be had for under a hundred dollars and another hundred or so in kit will get you started. There are few outdoor activities that run that cheap.
When you get your gear, don’t think you need to go ripping down trails and jumping logs. If you want to get to that point, you can but you can take it as easy as you need to.
While mountain biking can be a rather extreme sport there are many riders that simply enjoy the trail, the woods, and the wind. You can take it as easy as you need to.
But the best thing you can do is just give it a shot.