by Matthew Tangeman
Whether you’ve mountain biked since the days of the first Specialized Hard Rock or are just beginning to venture off the asphalt, it’s safe to say that everyone can find room for improving their riding technique. Mountain biking is often approached as a “learn as you go” sort of activity but good pointers will help you climb longer and steeper, corner a little smoother, and descend a little faster, and hopefully help you crash a little less.
No ride is complete without a good pedal to get you there. The budding beginner may not be aware of it but there’s more to climbing well than the brute power needed to keep tires spinning.
Sit Down. Raise your seat so it is in such a position where it is almost as high as it can be and still be comfortable (and where you can still reach the pedals easily). Sit down and start pedaling. Not only is this more pleasant and more efficient, but it also gives the bike better traction and you better control of it.
Look ahead. You will climb better and your weight will be better balanced if you look ahead 15 or 20 feet while climbing. If you focus on what’s right in front of you, you won’t be setting up properly for what’s coming, so let your peripheral vision take care of what’s right in front of you and look out ahead.
Steep uphills. Short sections of a ridiculously steep grade can sometimes be conquered by standing up off of the seat and putting your weight forward, over the bars, kicking your stronger muscles into gear.
Pull back, not up. The handlebars give you something to pull against when cranking up steep pitches but, if you pull up on the bars, the front wheel comes off the ground and the game is over for conquering that pitch. On steep pitches get your chest over the handle bars (the steeper the pitch the closer your chest comes to the handlebars) lower your forearms and elbows and pull back on the handlebars. The force of your pull is now parallel to the ground rather perpendicular to it.
Inch forward. On steep ascents you may find it helpful to move a few inches forward on the saddle so that the narrow part of the saddle is supporting your buttocks. This feels awkward on the flats but on a steep ascent it moves your center of gravity forward and gets a little weight on the front tire which is needed to maintain control of the bike.
Don’t crank too fast. Beginners try to charge up steep hills (often for the gyroscopic balance speed provides) and often spin the tires too fast. Tackle steep pitches not by sprinting up them but by maintaining a very deliberate cadence that keeps bike moving smoothly. That cadence also shouldn’t be so fast that you can’t sustain it up the length of the pitch ahead. If you spin the tires at any point, you’re cranking too fast. Slow down and try to feel the tread of the back tire caressing the ground. Also, when the trail drops down a steep pitch and then transitions into a steep climb (e.g., dealing with a gulley) avoid cranking until the bike has almost stalled out on the uphill. Shortly before the bike stops and while it has some forward momentum, pedal smoothly at a speed that doesn’t spin the back tire.
Photo: Cornering technique. Note foot position, elbow position,
and looking to where the corner straightens out.
Proper cornering technique is one of the simplest ways to speed up the flow and rhythm of any ride.
Upper Body. Stand up off the seat, but keep your waist low. Drop the inside shoulder, and raise the outside elbow, putting a little extra weight on the front of the bike. Look towards the point where the corner straightens out.
Foot Position/Weight Distribution. Possibly the number one way to get yourself through berms and turns just a little bit faster. With your weight on your outside foot, keep it in the lowest position your pedals can be. The opposite is true for your inside foot. Keep it in a high position, and your foot light on the pedal. This properly distributes your weight, and greatly reduces the catastrophe of your pedal grounding out.
Braking. You’ll have better control cornering if you scrub off excess speed before cornering rather than while cornering. Try to maintain a steady speed (or even accelerate) through a turn.
No matter how much you tell yourself that you mountain bike for the exercise, be honest, don’t you still love the descent? These tips will help your ride the descent faster, smoother and with better control.
Position. Sitting down is the most efficient position for the up, but standing up with a lowered seat is most effective for the trip back down. It’s a beginner’s tendency to grip the seat with the inner thigh. Don’t, it prevents the bike from moving and pivoting underneath you. Such movement allows for a more relaxed and controlled descent.
Weight. Keep your center of gravity low with hips low and centered, just above the seat. The steeper the trail, the more weight you want to shift towards the rear of the bike. This can be achieved by bending at the waist and pushing your hips backwards.
Anticipation. Keep looking down the trail rather than at what’s directly in front of the tire (let your peripheral vision take care of that). Orient your hips, and press your chest in the direction where you want to go. Where the weight of your body leads, the bike will follow.
Stay Loose. Your body is the best suspension you have. Keep your elbows and knees bent, absorbing bumps in the trail. Relax, and don’t get into a “locked up” or rigid position. Flow with the bike and the trail. Paradoxically the tighter the spot, the looser you need to be.
Loose ground. When it’s important not to lose control of the handlebars or have them twist erratically (e.g., when hitting a patch of sand or loose gravel), lower your shoulders and pull your elbows in toward each other. This helps clamp down on the handlebars so they won’t jerk in one direction as you roll into soft ground.
Contrary to the belief of many novice riders, controlled use of the front brake will not send you careening over the handlebars. In truth you want to use the front brake more than the rear brake – about 60 percent of your braking should be from the front brake, 40 percent from the rear brake. This prevents your back tire from “fishtailing”, or skidding, and is actually a more effective means of controlling your speed.
There’s nothing wrong with keeping your tires kissing the ground, but being comfortable in the air adds a whole new dimension to the fun of mountain biking. Launching into the air on a hunk of metal that doesn’t look at all aerodynamic is intimidating, so start small.
Gaining confidence. Find a jump with a small lip, and no gap. This could be a beginner-sized table top jump, or a slanted curve between a driveway and the sidewalk. Get comfortable with the jump by riding up to it with what you deem to be appropriate speed (in these early stages on a table jump, slower is better) and stopping just before you reach the point where you will become airborne. You want to get used to the slope change and be in good balance before you actually get air.
Approach. Once you feel ready to hit the jump, approach it with the speed you deem fit. A balanced position is key. Achieve this by having one foot in front of the other (whichever foot is comfortable) and having your arms and elbows in an even, comfortable position. Also, make sure to have your elbows up just slightly.
Takeoff. As you begin to hit the jump, press down evenly into the slope of the jump, compressing the suspension of your bike. This is the same concept of bending your knees before you jump while standing up. Once you reach the lip, release this compression and pull up on the handlebars. Tuck your legs slightly as well, pulling up on the rear of bike.
Flight time. Hold the tucked position, but don’t be stiff or rigid. Stay balanced. Look ahead towards where you are going to land, nowhere else.
Landing. Continue to spot your landing, and do what you can to gently nose your bike downward to match the slope of the landing. Come down evenly on both wheels, but if this is not possible, try to land on the rear tire. Use your arms and legs to absorb the impact.
All of this takes lots of practice and, in the Wenatchee area, good places to do so include Waterslide Trail up Number 2 Canyon and the Broadview jumps at the end of Maiden Lane. As you begin to hit bigger jumps, watch that fine line between confidence (good) and cockiness (a troublemaker). If you choose to hit a jump, commit to the speed it requires -- with gap jumps, it’s better to go faster than slower. Above all, be smart and don’t get pressured into jumping something beyond your abilities.