As a hiker and road cyclist I saw mountain biking as a potentially perfect combination of the two, allowing me to cover more miles of swoopy single-track trail in less time than it takes to hike. The problem was, I fell a lot. And I couldn’t keep up with my friends, which led to stress over being too slow, which led to more falling.
“People like to think of getting out and doing that epic ride,” says Tom Masterson, former pro mountain bike racer and owner and lead instructor of Coyote Hill Mountain Bike Camps in Bradford, Vt. “But the reality is mountain biking depends heavily on technique.” Before you hit the trail, follow these tips and practice these drills on a grassy field. As I learned after taking a class, in just one afternoon you can dramatically raise your skill level—and have more fun on the trails.
Start with setup How your bike fits is critical to your having a confident ride, says Masterson. A good bike shop can help you adjust your bike for proper fit. Timid riders should especially pay attention to the position of the brake levers and tire pressure, says Masterson. “You want brake levers pointing downward around 45 degrees for easy reach and comfort,” he says. And reducing tire pressure by 5 to 10 psi creates more rolling surface and a little more give to make the bike feel more stable.
Learn bike-body balance “On a road bike, there are sometimes stretches where you can just sit there and pedal away,” says Masterson. But mountain biking is much more dynamic—there’s no room for spacing out. The best way to be ready for tough terrain is to think of your bike and body as a single unit, he says, so a movement by one part in one direction requires a countermovement. To practice balance, Masterson has campers stand and pedal on a field as they tilt the bike to the left and right to feel how shifting body weight in the opposite direction of the bike feels more stable. On the trail, you’ll use this in cornering, descending (shifting body weight rearward), and riding over roots and rocks.
Beat the obstacles Roots and rocks can frustrate beginners, but riding over them is simply a matter of timing and using your bike’s suspension. Start on a field pressing down on your handlebar to get a sense of the compression and rebound of your front suspension. Then, place a stick about 3 inches in diameter on the grass. As you approach it, stop pedaling with feet parallel to the ground (i.e., one in the forward position of your pedal stroke, the other in the rear). “You want to preload the bike’s front end by crouching forward and bending your elbows,” says Masterson. To lift your front wheel over the obstacle, pull up gently on the handlebar as you shift your body weight rearward. “Then you want to shift slightly forward again to get the rear wheel over.” Progress to multiple sticks in a row, and bigger ones, before you hit the trail.
Master downs and ups For smoother descents, practice braking on a grassy slope, says Masterson. “Once you’re confident in your ability to stop, speed doesn’t scare you.” With pedals parallel, body weight shifted rearward over the saddle, and two fingers positioned over each brake (no need for a death grip), ride down slowly first using only the rear brake, then ride down using the front only, and finally both brakes. “You’ll learn that the front brake slows you down a lot quicker,” he says, but using it on its own can slow momentum too quickly, and in extreme cases pitch you over the handlebar. Aim for a balance of front and rear braking that lets you scrub speed most efficiently.
Smoother climbing is often a matter of starting into an easier gear before the trail turns upward, says Masterson. To work on transitions from downhills to uphills, find a short practice trail, one that takes maybe 15 minutes to ride. “Do that little loop over and over,” says Masterson. As you get to know the terrain, you’ll quickly discover what gear will be easy enough—but not so easy you have to pedal like crazy—to make it up the hill, and your timing will improve. “Then you’ll be able to transfer those skills onto bigger loops,” says Masterson, then longer trails, and finally that epic ride.