Mountain Biking 101
“The secret to mountain biking is pretty simple. The slower you go the more likely it is you’ll crash.” (Julie Furtado, Olympian, Hall of Fame Mountain Bike Cyclist)
Mountain biking is a sport that offers a sense of adventure the road can’t quite provide. Mountain biking offers many appeals: for nature lovers, it is a chance to get away from it all; for those who want to get fit, it offers a full body workout, for those who like their sports extreme, they can get their fix of exhilarating moments. It’s also a fantastic vacation sport! If you are a beginner to backcountry biking, the technical aspects of mountain biking can seem a bit intimidating. All right, yes, we have to admit, it takes some practice, but there will be many reasons you’ll soon be using that often-used phrase “awesome!” while mountain biking.
We went to Kari Murray of Team Sugar, a women’s mountain biking team in Park City, which puts on regular women’s-only mountain biking clinics during the summer, to get her best basic mountain biking tips. (If you a visiting or are fortunate to live near Park City, check out their free clinics held at White Pines Touring.)
Basic Biking Tips for the Backcountry Beginner
If you are an absolute beginner, you will want to practice riding your mountain bike on a level off-road area such as a rail trail. Get used to braking and shifting with the mountain bike on the level surface and then practice on some hills. Prepare yourself for the terrain ahead by adjusting the shifting and being ready to brake when needed. This becomes much more important when you leave the rail trail to ride the twisting and turning single tracks.
Another skill you can practice on the rail trail is keeping some steady speed. As the quote from Juli Furtado notes, you need to have confidence with some speed because when you have obstacles to go up and over, you need a little speed and momentum on your side to safely get over it. As you ride along work on improving your balance, especially off the saddle as you move up and down, forwards and backwards and side to side. You will soon learn that in mountain biking, your butt doesn’t stay on the saddle for long.
Seven Riding Skill Tips for the Advanced Beginner
Visualization: Look at the terrain ahead and prepare for it, by shifting or preparing to brake. Don’t be the frustrated girl who loses her momentum at the bottom of the hill because she is stuck in the wrong gearing!
Platforming: This is the position you want to be in for the technical sections of the trail or for the descent. Keep your feet in the “table-top” position (a.k.a. The ‘3’ & ‘9’ o’clock positions) Place your hands in a nearly push-up position on the handlebars. This will allow your elbows and knees to absorb the trail’s bumps and rocks and give you the high clearance you need over obstacles. Platforming will give you a steady position, allowing you to move the bike under you. (Note: do not grip the handlebars so tightly that you can’t wiggle your fingers. Your arms and shoulders should stay relaxed. The shoulders should not be hunched, nor your elbows locked. )
Level-Ground Turns: On single track, you don’t have a lot of space to turn, so you use leaning techniques. Shift your bike underneath you from side to side to make those turns. Look around the turn and keep going.
Climbing: Drop your shoulders towards handlebars, putting weight on the front tire. Keep your head up to look ahead and keep your airways open. As you climb, keep your butt on the seat. If the terrain steepens, scoot up towards the front to put more weight towards the front of the bike, but stay low as you slide forward. If you are clipped in, be sure to use the ‘up’ stroke as well as the ‘down’ stroke. Do NOT gear down to the easiest of the ‘granny gears.’ You will need enough gears to hold the traction. (Save that lowest ‘granny gear’ for when it’s really steep!)
Making the Descent: As you prepare to head down the hill, slide back a bit on the bike and get into the ‘platform’ position for the descent. Keep your arms nice and relaxed so the elbows are ‘taking it.’ Place a couple fingers on the brakes so you are “feathering” the brakes (gently pumping the brakes) all the way down. Kari notes, “Going downhill, I like to ride in the ‘table top’ position most of the time.” She adds, the exception to staying in that position is when you’re racing.
Descending Switchbacks: The most critical principle is to look ahead at least 10-15 feet downhill as you descend—all the way to the planned exit from your turn. “Once you’re looking ahead of you, you can see all this in your peripheral vision. As you’re approaching, you’ve already seen what’s below you,” adds Kari. “As you’re going down the switchbacks, really look where you want to go, because if you look at the tree that is at the apex of the turn, you will hit it!” Lastly, your technical skills will improve with practice—really! During their clinics, Team Sugar often will stop riders and have them practice riding a switchback, as they point out the line: “Okay, you’ve got to go wide here and put your front wheel in between these two rocks and pedal, pedal, pedal!”
‘Bunny Hopping’ (Jumping) a Low Obstacle: This is something that you can practice at home. While riding your bike, push the shock down, then very quickly ‘pull up’ to give the front tire some lift. Practice this in your driveway, riding to and ‘popping’ over the low curve in the pavement at the edge of the driveway where it bends up into the curb. When you master that, you can next work on jumping the curb. You’ll use this skill to get over small logs in the trail.
If there is a great clinic or workshop for mountain biking in your area–let others know by adding it to the comment section here or our reader’s forum page.