Mountain bike technique is often shrouded in mystery; many riders feel it's a vast and highly complex area which can take years to master. In this technique guide, Wiggle's very own MTB skills coach Sarah Pain explains the core fundamentals of mountain bike riding in an easy to understand manner. Regardless of your ability level; Sarah's expertise and helpful tips will help bolster your confidence on the trails!
Welcome to your MTB skills class
If you’re a beginner, you might have seen the trails disappearing off from country lanes and fancy escaping the crowds off-road, or you've spied a couple of interesting bridleways. You might have even found yourself wanting to visit a dedicated mountain biking trail centre. Welcome to the rather addictive world of mountain biking!
Mountain biking is one of those sports that – possibly – looks trickier than it actually is to get started in. All you really need is a few vital bits of kit, some basic skills (which will develop as you ride), and you’re off! If you’re an experienced rider, then you might find that revisiting the core skills will enable you to ride faster and with more flow than before!
Kit wise you’ll obviously need a bike suitable for off-road riding – there are lots available and the subject is vast, but essentially for your comfort you’ll be after something with at least front suspension to absorb the bumps off-road. You’ll also need a bike helmet that fits properly, and I would suggest padded shorts, gloves and glasses as a minimum.
The 5 core mountain biking skills
The core skills that are key to mountain biking are equally as important whether you are new to the sport or a seasoned rider, and they are;
- Body position
1. Body position explained
Your body position on the bike is really important and one of the key techniques to think about. It directly affects the contact that the bike has with the ground through the wheels, and we want to be in the best position possible to deal with any features that are on the trail ahead.
The attack position
When the trail is flat you’ll probably be sat down, but in an ideal world as soon as it gets a bit technical (bumpy), to make sure you are in this ideal position you should be:
- Stood up on the pedals – so your body weight is over both wheels
- When you’re not pedalling, pedals at the same level (i.e no foot lower than the other) – to avoid snagging on anything.
- Arms and legs bent a little bit at the elbows and knees – to further absorb bumps.
- Looking as far ahead as you can – probably THE most important bit!
- Covering the brakes.
2. How to brake
I’m sure everyone knows HOW to brake, but the skill is in knowing how to apply that. When riding off road it is not as simple as just braking whenever you want. The best way to perfect your technique is to practice on a known trail, so that you can get used to how YOUR brakes feel.
There are a couple of really important things to keep in mind;
- Know which is your front brake and which is your rear brake. If you don’t know, roll the bike in front of you and pull one brake lever – if the rear wheel skids along it’s your rear brake, if the bike stops (and the rear wheel might even bounce up) it’s your front brake.
- As this shows, the front brake does most of the stopping. As a beginner, it is best to use both brakes together. Although the front brake is the most powerful it is vital to avoid pulling it on too sharply.
- Avoid pulling brakes really hard – apply them gently to start with.
- Choose where to brake – it is advisable not to brake on technical parts of the trail, but rather to go into these sections at the speed you want to (i.e brake before them) and to look for somewhere suitable to brake after them. Remember that a rolling wheel will grip better than a braking one!
3. How to climb
In the attack position, your weight is centred over the middle of the bike, helping both the front and the rear wheel grip. As you climb you therefore need to adjust your body position to ensure your weight is kept central.
- As you climb on your bike you will need to move forward to keep your weight over the front wheel of your bike to maintain grip.
- How much depends on how steep the slope if but, if you feel the front wheel lifting slightly, then you are not leaning forward enough!
- It is also important to be in an easier gear BEFORE you start to climb.
- It’s even more important to remember to look ahead and to keep on pedalling!!
4. How to descend
When the trail points downwards it's essential to make some key body adjustments in order to ride the descent in a controlled manner:
- Descending on the bike you will need to keep your weight back.
- Again, how far your weight is back depends on how steep the slope is.
- You should be out of the saddle with your arms stretched out, your saddle in front of you, pedals level, your fingers covering the brakes, and looking ahead.
- If you need to brake to slow your speed, remember to pull the brakes on very gently.
5. How to corner
So, everyone can turn a corner on their bike, right??! Wrong. Cornering is one of the most challenging areas of bike technique to master.
Looking ahead is key
There is one golden rule that will absolutely make it easier to corner on your bike whether you are a complete beginner or an expert – and that is LOOKING AHEAD. It is one of the easiest skills to gain but also one of the easiest things to let slip – and it really does make a difference.As you look around the corner, your head will turn, and this will move your shoulders around too. Combined with turning the bars, this will almost guide your bike around the corner. It can feel a bit strange to be looking around the corner to start with, but stick with it!
Practice makes permanent
Of course, the one additional technique that will bring all of this together is practice. It is only by getting out on your bike and putting your new skills to the test that they will become second nature. You will learn what is possible – and the areas that need some more work. Don’t be disheartened if something doesn’t work – that’s a really valuable lesson! It enables you to think about what went right and what went wrong, and what can be done differently next time. Remember that there is always an element of the unpredictable with mountain biking too – sometimes stuff ‘just happens’ – but that’s what makes it fun!
The power of coaching
Hopefully these few techniques will help you get started in mountain biking, or allow you to revisit the core skills, but ultimately nothing can beat actually practice and learning from a qualified coach.
A coach will be able to assess where you are at the moment and offer tailored advice to improve YOUR riding. Practice is also great and certainly nothing improves mountain biking like mountain biking, but it is important not to learn bad habits! There are also various local clubs around that welcome riders of all levels.
In summary though, the best way to learn is to take it steady and just get out there and ride!
Sarah is a coach for Dirt Divas who offer day courses for novice to advanced women mountain bikers who want to gain confidence and push their biking skills to the next level.