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Mountain Biking for Dummies

Mountain biking is more popular than it’s ever been. For some, it’s a way to explore new places, access mountain lakes and enjoy breathtaking scenery.  For others, it’s a way to make friends or get outside after work. And for a few, it’s a competitive hobby or even a career.

The sport has grown exponentially in recent years with the development of mountain bike-specific trails, new formats of racing, organized group rides and youth bike programs. If you’re just getting into the sport, there are resources like bike shops and riding groups to help you learn (see below).

Once you start pushing yourself on the bike, don’t forget the basics. Work up to new challenges gradually, remembering to always look ahead and stay balanced over your bike. Photo by Brennan Deegan

Mountain biking can help you push your boundaries in ways you’ve never experienced before, and will take you outside your comfort zone both physically and mentally. It will give you a new appreciation for the magnificent wild spaces that surround us and is an exhilarating way to improve your fitness, your skill set…and your attitude.

Whether you are trying mountain biking for the first time or are a seasoned rider looking to refine your skills, you can always improve. This article is written mostly for beginners, but the skills outlined here are important for riders of all levels to work on. Take your trail riding up a few notches using these tips.

Part One: The Foundation

In the proper riding position, your upper body should be balanced and upright, with your knees and elbows bent to absorb impacts. Photo by Brennan Deegan

Learning an athletic stance is essential. It will help you feel comfortable maneuvering your bike underneath you and is the foundation for tackling rocks, roots, corners and more. The better your stance, the more stability you will have on the bike, and the more confidence you will have to progress in the future.

  • Level your pedals, as if they’re at nine and three on a clock, with your weight pushing down through the pedals. Make a conscious effort to weight your feet.
  • Keep your knees relaxed and away from the bike. Although it may be tempting at first, be sure not to pinch the bike between your legs. Keep your knees over your feet or slightly farther apart, giving yourself space to lean your bike beneath you. Eventually, as you become more comfortable on the trails, you will be able to move your bike and body independently, shifting your weight fluidly over the bike.
  • Keep your hips directly over the bike. On steep descents, shift your weight back by pushing your hips over your rear tire. To pedal up a short, steep climb, move your weight forward.
  • Bend your elbows and move them out, away from your body. Your elbows and knees can act as extra suspension.
  • Loosen your grip on the handlebars. It’s easy to tense up, making it harder to react to the trail and tiring you out quickly. Check your grip while you’re riding by opening your hands briefly once in a while.
  • Always look ahead down the trail so you’re prepared for what’s next. Your bike will follow your eyes. To avoid an obstacle, look past it. Whether you’re ascending, descending, cornering or hitting jumps, looking ahead is one of the most important riding habits.
  • Practice consciously relaxing while riding. Look up, take a deep breath and feel your hands, elbows and knees to make sure you aren’t too tense.

Part Two: Braking

Keep one finger over each brake, ready to react to the trail ahead. Photo by Brennan Deegan

Before you pick up speed, it’s important to know how to slow back down. Practice braking in the parking lot and on easy trails until you have it down. Using your brakes effectively should be second nature before you start tackling difficult terrain.

  • Keep both your index fingers on your brakes, ready to respond to the trail. Most modern mountain bike brakes only require one finger to brake, but some older brakes take two. Try to use only your index fingers, but experiment to learn what works best for you and your bike.
  • On most bikes in the U.S., the right brake lever controls the rear brake and the left lever controls the front brake. The front brake has more stopping power than the rear one, but it should be used with caution. Too much front brake can send you flying over your handlebars, and too much rear brake will cause you to skid rather than stop. Play with different combinations of rear and front brake. Most riders use 40 to 50 percent front brake and 50 to 60 percent rear brake.
  • Anticipate what’s next. Brake before trail features and turns, not during them. Again, look ahead.
  • When you brake, shift yourself back and drop your weight into your heels to stay over your bike.

Part Three: Cornering 

Lean the bike underneath you while cornering. Your body should stay centered and balanced through the turn. Photo by Brennan Deegan

Once you start to gain momentum, corning is a skill that will come into play on every trail you ride. As with most of these skills, practice will help more than anything else, but using these tips can help you eliminate some trial-and-error.

  • Look forward through the exit of the turn. Your bike and body will follow where you look, putting your body in the proper position and allowing you to prepare early for the trail ahead.
  • Your hips drive the turn— let your body point where you are looking (ahead, hopefully). Your bike will follow.
  • Enter the turn wide, allowing you to smooth out the corner, carry speed all the way through the turn and exit faster. Don’t make the turn tighter than it already is by cutting into the entrance of the turn.
  • Let off the brakes through the corner. Your tires have more traction when they are rolling, not locked up. You should have done most of your braking before the turn, because you were looking ahead and well-prepared.
  • Lean your bike, not your body. If your knees and elbows are relaxed, you should be able to lean your bike underneath you while staying balanced directly over the bike, keeping your outside pedal weighted.
  • As you practice, focus on smoothness rather than speed. If you develop strong technique and learn fluidity, speed will come naturally.

Part Four: Climbing 

Standing up to climb can be useful when you need a quick burst of power, but it’s unsustainable for long climbs. Photo by Brennan Deegan

Time to earn your turns. Unless you only ride at lift-serviced bike parks, you’ll have to ride uphill to reach the fun-filled descents. Climbing is a chance to talk with your friends, enjoy the scenery at a slower pace, or race to the top and relish the workout.

  • Sit down for most pedaling, especially for longer climbs. This will allow you to save energy and get into a pedaling rhythm on the ascent.
  • Stand up to pedal up short, steep climbs or during descents. Standing gives you more power for short bursts of pedaling but is difficult to sustain.
  • Find a comfortable gear. If your gear is too low, you will spin out. If your gear is too high, you’ll be inefficient. In general, choose a fairly low gear with a high cadence, but experiment to find what gears work for different grades and types of terrain.
  • Learn to choose smooth lines, especially on technical climbs.
  • Learn to shift your bodyweight around while pedaling. Unweight your front tire to roll it up over rocks and roots in the trail. Shift your weight back slightly if the rear tire starts to lose traction. Always look ahead up the hill.
  • On flat and uphill technical trails, momentum is your friend. Rocks and roots are much easier to roll over with a bit of speed.
  • Shift early, before the climb, when there isn’t much strain on the chain. Again— anticipation is everything.
  • Remember to stay fueled and hydrated. A big climb can be exhausting, so be prepared to take care of yourself physically.
    When the going gets steep, it might be time to push. Photo by Brennan Deegan

Part Five: Stepping it up 

For me, the most magical part of mountain biking is seeing my own progress. No matter how long you’ve been riding or what type of trail you like, you can always build on the fundamentals and improve yourself in whatever way is important to you. You can improve your cornering speed, try a few jumps, or ride a rock garden that looked impossible when you first started biking. 

  • Practice rolling over obstacles like rocks and roots. Shifting your weight forward and back will help you learn to unweight your wheels and navigate technical trails smoothly.
  • Develop skills like wheelies, manuals and bunny hops. They will improve your bike handling, which will make you faster and more controlled out on the trails. Plus, it’s easy to practice flatland skills almost anywhere: on flat grassy areas, on dirt road climbs or in your driveway.
  • Consider your bike setup. As you improve as a rider, making some changes to your bike can help with your progression. Aggressive tires and a dropper seatpost can give you huge benefits for a relatively low cost. Knobby tires can give you the traction and confidence to corner faster and feel secure in loose or wet conditions, and a dropper post lets you adjust your seat height instantly. Lower your seat for descents, to move your center of gravity down and back and give yourself the freedom to move around over your bike.
  • Try new things. Jumps, drops and other trail features will help you refine your skills. Use the same fundamental techniques as you’ve already learned: ride in a stable position, stay balanced and look ahead. Start small and work up gradually.
  • Ride with other people. Not only will your riding buddies be good company, but you will learn from them and they will push you to become better.

Part Six: Safety and Stewardship 

Learning to jump your bike is an exciting way to test your limits. Start small and work your way up. Photo by Brennan Deegan

Keep mountain biking fun by keeping yourself out of trouble. Stay safe by wearing the right protective gear and riding responsibly so that you and others can continue to enjoy the sport. 

  • Always wear a helmet. Gloves are useful too, as they will protect your hands when you fall. Knee pads are also worth considering, especially if you plan on riding jumps and aggressive trails.
  • Learn to maintain your bike. Check your tire pressure before you ride, and clean and lubricate your chain regularly. Make a point of learning how your bike works so you can know when something is wrong and how to fix it.
  • Put together a basic repair kit to carry with you when you ride. I usually carry a tube, tire levers, a mini pump, tire plugs, a multi-tool and an extra chain link. I typically also bring something to eat and a little extra water.
  • Learn the trail rules. Descending riders yield to climbing riders on almost all trails, and on most multi-use trails, mountain bikers yield to all other trail users. Know the rules for your local trails and respect them. Don’t ride trails when they are closed or muddy and be friendly to others on the trails. Being considerate helps mountain bikers gain more trail access (and also helps you be a decent person).
  • Connect with people at local bike shops and trail advocacy groups. These people can become your friends and can also be great resources for mechanical questions, trail advice and any other bike-related situations.
  • Participate in trail work days and do your part to give back to the biking community. Most trail systems have regular work days scheduled, and helping to build and maintain your trail system is fun, helps you meet other riders and gives you a greater appreciation for everything that goes into your trails.

As with almost anything, the more time you spend biking, the more you will learn what works for you. Practice and experiment. Simply riding your bike will improve your skills and your day.

Local Resources

 Bike Clubs

Fidalgo Trail Riders 

Mount Baker Bicycle Club

Skagit Bicycle Club

Whatcom Mountain Bike Coalition (WMBC)

WMBC JoyRiders (Women’s Mountain Biking Club)

Whidbey Island Bicycle Club

Bike Shops

Bellingham:

Alleycat Bike Shop

Bellingham Cycle Works

Cafe Velo

Earl’s Bike Shop

Fairhaven Bicycles

Fanatik Bike Co.

Jack’s Bicycle Center

Kona Bike Shop

Kulshan Cycles/Trek

REI

Robert’s Bicycle Repair

The Hub Community Bike Shop

Transition Bikes

Whatcom County:

Lenny’s Bike Shop

Skagit County:

Bikespot (Anacortes)

Skagit Cycle Center (Anacortes & Burlington)

San Juan Islands:

Island Bicycles (Friday Harbor)

Alicia Leggett is a mountain bike racer and instructor living in Missoula, MT. She has competed in cross country, downhill, cyclocross and enduro events, including two Enduro World Series races. When she’s not riding, she studies journalism and geoscience at the University of Montana.

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