MTB Riding Skills

Riding a mountain bike requires the effective management of a number of techniques including planned ascents, controlled descents, smooth cornering as well as bunny hops, advanced jumps, weight distribution and bike handling.
Created: July 2011
Revised: August 2011
Latest Feedback: August 2011

Basic Technique

Mountain biking is a great way for triathletes to spend the off-season improving their cycling skills while at the same time enjoying the great outdoors. It will also give you an opportunity to train off-road which can provide a lot of unexpected fun. Further, cross-training helps balance your muscle groups, reduces your chance of injury and provides a much-needed mental break from your main sport. Before you head out, it is a good idea to master a few essential techniques before signing up for your first MTB race or adventure race.

Efficient Handling

The key to a smooth ride is handling your bike well. When you ride, you have to be constantly alert. An unexpected rock can throw you off balance, so ensure you keep a lookout for these hazards. If you hit a dangerous surface like sand, don’t brake as this will cause you to skid. Instead, shift your weight to the rear and change to a lower gear. When you are descending through a difficult area, it is better to stand up so you are better prepared to avoid or face any hazard that comes up. Don’t grip the handlebars too tight, as you will be unintentionally utilizing more energy. Most importantly, stay committed to the path you have chosen. Try and not change your mind midcourse; as it will most likely affect your stability. If you remain alert through it all, you will be able to come through the terrain without wiping out.

Steering with Weight Distribution

The good thing about mountain bikes is that they are more stable as they have broad wheels. This allows the driver to steer the bike without having to use the handlebars as much. Simply distributing your weight can help you control the direction your bike takes.

Under normal circumstances, if you are seated on your bike, your weight is distributed with 40% to the front and 60% to the back. When you are climbing, it is important to shift your weight to the front, by leaning forward or even standing. This will help you get a strong grip and prevent you from toppling over, while ascending really steep slopes.

When descending, shift your weight to the back so your rear wheels get a strong grip on the ground. Again this will prevent your bike from toppling forward as you go down a particularly steep slope.

It is generally more efficient to pedal at an RPM of 85-95 but in mountain biking this is not always possible, given the terrain and slope. However, it is important to attempt to reach this cadence at all times. At the same time, if you spin the pedals too fast, you will end up bouncing up and down on the seat, which can be quite uncomfortable and inefficient. Therefore, find a cadence that suits your level of proficiency.

Dealing with Obstacles

Throughout the ride, you will find yourself faced with a variety of obstacles. Some will be small and manageable and others complex, requiring a substantial degree of skill. Here are some techniques that you can use to deal with hazards you face along the way.

Bunny Hops

Bunny hopping helps you to jump over small obstacles like rocks or sandy patches. Ideally, you should be using clip-less pedals rather than platform ones, but theoretically you can perform bunny hops using either type. It comprises of a combination of a front and rear wheelie. Practice performing at home before trying this on a trail.

First build up your speed as bunny hops work best when you have a fair amount of forward inertia. When you are ready, stand on your pedals and keep your weight slightly towards the rear. Then give your bunny hop its spring by leaning downwards on the pedals and the handlebars. Lift your weight upwards with a pop, so both wheels are off the ground but take care not to jerk too much, as you may lose balance. You are now in the midst of your bunny hop, enjoy it but prepare for the landing. Shift your weight towards the rear, so the rear of your bike touches the ground first, prepare your knees for the shock and remain standing. As the front wheels touch the ground, brace your elbows and shoulders for the impact. Let the bike slow down a little before you brake, all the while keeping your weight balanced.

Keep practising this technique until it is instinctive. Then try it out on a gentle bush trail.

Advanced Jumps

Bunny hops are fairly easy to master but advanced jumps take more time and precision. One example is the double jump, which consists of riding up an obstacle which has an upward slope. Once you reach its peak, jump off it and land on another downward sloping hazard.

You need to master bunny hops before you try double jumps. Most importantly, ensure that you are able to land precisely where you intended. Begin your double jump prep by cycling up the obstacle and stopping at the top. This will help you judge how much pedalling pressure is required for the climb, as well as to clear the gap.

Next, ride your bike quickly to the top ensuring you don’t apply the brake at any point. When you reach the top, perform a massive bunny hop to take you as high as you need, literally leaping upwards as both wheels take flight. Keep your eyes on the landing stretch, leaning to the rear if you think you will be short or leaning to the front, if you think you will be long. For the landing you want to get both wheels to touch the ground at the same time, so try and match your bike with the slope using your arms and elbows. Once you land allow your bike to become stable before braking.

Encountering Ruts

Most riders experience ruts at some point in the ride, so it’s a good idea to prepare for it, to avoid an unexpected wipe out. A rut occurs when vehicles drive over a muddy stretch on the course, causing the path to be repeatedly eroded at the same point.

First of all, you need to decide whether you are going to face the rut head on or avoid it. If the rut appears to be straightforward, wide, shallow and fairly well established, you can try riding it out.

If it is deep, narrow, has jagged edges or is mostly fresh, you should try to avoid it. One way is to turn your wheel towards the side of the rut and try to bunny hop your way out of it. Take care to ensure that your front wheel doesn’t touch the side of the rut wall, as this will almost certainly lead to a fall. You can also try to cross it by turning your bike as perpendicular as possible to the rut, but this must be done very quickly, otherwise you risk your tyre falling in and the inevitable crash. Both techniques require practice on smaller ruts before attempting them on bigger ones.

Efficient Climbing and Controlled Descending

What sets mountain biking apart from other forms of cycling is the terrain, which consists of steep ups, gruelling downs and hazardous tracks. A major aspect of your technique lies in efficient climbing and controlled descending. Here are some of the important concepts.

Encountering Steep Hills

It is always wise to first practice on flatter inclines before heading for steep ones, so you know which gear works best, what pedal pressure to use and how to pace yourself. When you encounter the hill, keep your weight towards the front, leaning forward with your back straight throughout the climb. Lean heavily on your handlebars, so the pressure is constantly on the front wheels. This helps to keep the traction going. If the slope is particularly steep and you feel the front wheel lifting, put even more pressure on the handlebars. Pedal as fast as you can, hunching over the bike at all times, to avoid toppling backwards. You may even choose to stand; however, in general, lighter people experience better results from standing, whereas heavier people do better if they are pedalling hunched over. Successfully coming out of a steep climb is a testament to your endurance and conditioning, so don’t underestimate the importance of concentrated weight and strength training off the track; and regular hydration and breathing on the track.

Managing Traction

If you are having trouble with traction, then you need to spread your weight evenly on your bike while remaining seated, so your rear wheels maintain their traction and the front wheels don’t lift off. Ultimately, if the climb is just too steep, then get off the bike and walk. It’s safer on your body and your bike. Conditions like this may present itself during endurance off-road cycling events, or adventure races. No one is ever too proud to have to walk up a hill.

Preparing for Descent

The best part about a long climb is the quick and exciting descent. However, a painful fall during the descent can quickly take the fun away. Place your fingers on the brake as you descend but at the same time, don’t allow yourself to tense up so much that you end up using your brakes more than required. Many experienced downhill riders also adopt a lower seat height to ensure weight is well distributed to the rear. You may also consider standing, while keeping your foot ready for a turn. Don’t use your front brakes at all when going down a hill. Instead, try to use the inside of your thighs, your body weight and your legs to control the balance and stability of your bike. As you gain experience with different types of surfaces, you will be able to better exercise brake management.

Braking

While braking, it is important to remember that your front will always be stronger than your rear ones. So gripping too hard on the front wheel brake could result in a catapult over the handlebars. The best way to stop is to use a combination of both front and rear brakes but as you get more experienced, you will be able to change your braking technique based on the terrain. While descending, avoid keeping the brakes permanently engaged as this may cause the brakes to stick. Use a squeezing action of pressing and releasing to control your speed.

Cornering or Turning without Wiping Out

Learning to master your off road cornering skills is an art and requires some patience and practise. It is a skill that must be perfected if you wish to ride single-track.

Types of Corners

There are a variety of different types of turns that you may encounter in a mountain bike ride. There are banked corners where the outer perimeter is raised to quite a steep level. You can manage these by approaching it as wide and high as you can, so you keep your speed constant. The opposite of banked corners are off-camber corners where the bank slopes down against the corner. You need to approach this corner at a high speed so you can coast through with your inside pedal up. Then there are flat turns which do not have any slope associated with them. These are the easiest to manage. Take the widest lane you possibly can while turning on this corner, as this is most efficient technique. However, bear in mind that in a pack ride or race situations you may not have the luxury of taking up the whole width of the track and there may be other riders alongside you, to negotiate. Mountain bike riding involves quick reflex actions to effectively anticipate the ever-changing terrain.

Handling the Turns

The best way to handle the turn is to read it well. As you gain more experience you will be able to judge which technique will work best. Your braking effort should take place prior to reaching the turn, so you are at the desired speed during the turn. At this time, all you should be worrying about is your weight distribution and inside foot. Lean forward so you are located in-between the saddle and the handlebars. On many occasions you might also need to place your inside foot on the ground, to maintain your balance.

Race Day Techniques

Start:- Unless you’re racing Downhill or Cross-Country (XC) the start isn’t a critical part of the race.

Endurance:- While training, try and replicate the exact event in terms of duration and terrain. You should aim at including one long endurance ride every week. However, extend the duration only by 10% or less, so you gradually prepare your body for the real event.

Speed:- Add one speed session to your training schedule, once a week. This session can be short, so you can concentrate on improving your timing. You can also try interval training of short bursts followed by periods of rest.

Recovery:- Your race success will also depend on how soon you recover from a steep ascent. For better recovery, identify a short circuit that has a climb which turns into a technical descent. Practice riding hard, yet smoothly over the summit so you can use the descent to recover. Do these runs again around 4 or 5 times. If you find that you can repeat it for a 6th or 7th time, then you were probably not riding fast enough.


MTB riding is a skill that requires constant concentration and ongoing experience. Heading to different terrains will improve your skill and opportunity to apply these concepts.
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