Friday, February 4, 2011

5 Mountain Biking Techniques that Every Beginner Needs to Master

Mountain biking is an amazing sport that provides unique opportunities to access some of the wilder areas of the world in an unobtrusive manner. As we mountain bikers access nature, along the way we also get a solid work out, push our personal limits, and generally increase our hardcore factor every time we get on the bike.

Every mountain biker has a starting point though. We were all beginners at some point, and we were all helped along by someone else who offered friendly advice. Here is my "friendly advice" to you on the top 5 techniques that every beginner mountain biker needs to learn.

1. Shifting Technique
This was covered in greater detail a few weeks ago. There is some overlap as this post was initially intended for publication on another website.

The first thing that you need to know as a beginning mountain is how to shift the drive train of your bicycle properly.

The front gears on a bicycle are called "chain rings." They are numbered from the inside to the outside. The back gears on a bicycle are called "cogs," and are also numbered from the inside out. For our purposes, we'll be looking at a bike with 3 chain rings and 9 cogs.

In short, you want to use lower gears for going up the hills, and larger gears for going down the hills. This helps you to maintain momentum: to ride faster with less effort.

As you are riding, make sure that you shift early. Don't wait until you are pushing hard on the pedals while climbing a hill to try to shift because the chain won't want to budge from the gear it is currently in. Shift before you reach the hill.

But whatever you do, make sure that you do not "cross chain!" That is, do not use the smallest chain ring with the smallest cogs in back or the largest chain ring with the largest cogs. This stretches the chain sideways too much and could cause it to "suck" and get stuck. As a general rule, chain ring #1 can be used with cogs #1-5, chain ring #2 with all of the cogs, and chain ring #3 with cogs #5-9.

2. Braking Technique
As most people who've ridden a bicycle before should know: never brake just using the front brake! That can cause you to crash. As a result of this knowledge, some people avoid the front brake altogether. This is almost as bad.

The front brake has about 70-80% of the total stopping power on your mountain bike since your weight is driving down the hill and on the handle bars. Your back brake only has the remaining 20-30%.  The most effective braking strategy is to apply both brakes together: this will bring you to a stop quickly and safely.

One last note: don't lock up the breaks. This skidding actually increases your stopping distance. Brake hard, but not hard enough to skid.

3. Looking Down the Trail
The saying is that your bike will go wherever you're looking... and it is pretty true. When approaching an obstacle on your bicycle, make sure that you look past it and down the trail. If you are riding a very narrow trail with a drop off on one side, make sure that you keep your gaze focused on the singletrack tread. If instead you focus on the obstacle or the drop off, that's where you will end up instead of on the trail where you want to be.

4. "Rowing the Boat:" Climbing Technique
As you are climbing a steep hill, drop your elbows and pull back and down on the handlebars of your mountain bike. Don't think about lifting the front wheel up, but rather think about leveraging the rear wheel into the soil. This increases traction and helps you climb better. Repeat this motion as you continue up the hill. It begins to feel almost like a "rowing" motion, which is why we refer to it as "rowing the boat."

5. "Attack Position:" Descending Technique
You've "rowed the boat" to the top of the hill, now it is time to get back down all in one piece! The first crucial step is covered in number 3 above. Make sure that you are looking down the trail. Shift into a higher gear, and then get into attack position.

Stand up on your pedals and raise your butt out of the saddle slightly. Keep your elbows bent, ready to absorb the obstacles in the trail. Flip the cranks to horizontal to provide for maximum ground clearance, and then let it ride! Use your body to soak up the obstacles in the trail, and tear that downhill a new one! Just make sure that you brake often and remain in control.

Get Out and Ride!
All that's left is to get out there and practice these techniques! You can read all the articles you want, but the old saying holds true in mountain biking as well as everything else: "practice makes perfect!"


eastwood,  February 4, 2011 at 8:48 AM  

"and generally increase our hardcore factor" - LOVE IT!!

+ 1 on the "get out and ride" that's the best way to improve, just keep on riding.

Another solid article for the beginner. My wife is gonna join me this year so I'll certainly direct her over here to do a little "homework" before I take her out on the trail!

Greg Heil February 4, 2011 at 3:24 PM  

Haha, glad you liked that line man! My goal is to eventually have every single beginner to intermediate mountain biking skill explained on the website. It's a work in progress though!

Also, not quite sure why it was not displaying correctly on the homepage, but it's fixed now.

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Greg Heil is the Editor in Chief for He's been writing and publishing online since before blogging existed.

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Mountain biking, plain and simple. Trail reviews, ride reports, and philosophical musings induced by delirium from grinding up way too many vertical feet.

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