An Amateur's Guide on How to Mountain Bike

Thinking of getting started with mountain biking? Cycling expert Zaal Rottunda offers some advice for beginners who want to learn more about riding.

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If you are reading this article, then chances are you aren’t a professional mountain biker with years of racing experience to help you navigate every terrain imaginable. And that’s ok! With mountain biking developing into a mainstream international sport over the past few decades, most riders were simply not exposed to any sort of riding until they were adults, and now are left with all-new body mechanics to master and understand.

Now I’m not trying to give you the “skeleton key” answer for your riding that will unlock your ability to do everything you’ve seen in a Red Bull video. Instead, I can offer you some fundamental skills and mechanics of riding that you can continually improve upon in future mountain bike rides. Whether you are a strict cross-country rider on a hardtail bike or a downhill rider on a full suspension bike, these universal good practices will help you keep a baseline understanding of the fundamentals of effective riding.

The first thing you need to know is that riding hard is, well, hard! The faster you want to go and the more technical the trail, the greater the challenge to keep your bike under control is. It’s because of this that many riders hire professional coaches who make a living off of tuning their physical performance and overall riding IQ to a professional level. Don’t expect to find that world class sage wisdom in this humble article, however; like I said we will only be exploring some of the fundamental rules of riding that can be developed and strengthened as your understanding of riding principles grows. While there are many different riding styles and riders out there, that doesn’t change some of the more basic riding rules for every skill level that we’ll dive into below.

Two mountain bikers ride through a field with mountains in the distance

The Cardinal Rule: Maintain Your Bike

No matter how good your wheelie is or how perfectly you can track the line you are visualizing with your tires, there isn't anyone who wants to compensate for mechanical inefficiencies with talent or hard work. It’s pretty simple really: a working bike is essential to a fun ride. Bike maintenance ideally should happen before and after each ride, but regardless of how disciplined you are in your upkeep, a pre-ride bike check is always a must. Checking the axle tightness for both wheels, stem and handlebar tightness, crank and pedal tightness, drivetrain function, and chain cleanliness are all essential for a pre-ride check. Riders and mechanics refer to this as the “M Check” and is pictured below.

A black-and-white photo of a bike with a red M super-imposed over it
The M Check. Photo by Zsolt Palatinus

Body Position: Relaxed, Attack, and When to Do Both

One of the biggest aspects of riding that is an area of constant improvement and development for riders is body positioning and control in transitions. A lot of this comes down to physical conditioning, as the more control you have over your body's movements, the easier it is to accomplish these movements. But that doesn’t change the rules of body placement. Because there are several positions one can have on the bike to change its handling, we’ll briefly cover the ideal placement for the basics of flat, uphill, and downhill terrain.

Flat

For flat ground, it’s best to have your saddle at the highest it will go without causing you to over extend. You can easily test your saddle height by making sure both cranks are lined up with the seat tube, then putting the heel of whichever foot is next to the lower pedal, on said pedal. If your heel is on the lower pedal and your leg is bent, your seat needs to come up. If your leg is straight while your heel is on the pedal then you need to drop your seat. Once you think you have it right, confirm by bringing the ball of your foot back to the pedal to ensure that your leg is extended about 85-95%.

Uphill

Similar to flat ground, uphill riding requires your saddle to be at its maximum height to ensure you are staying efficient while climbing. Unlike flat ground, however, climbing uphill means that the rider must keep their weight centered on the bike and at times shifting forward and backward as needed to clear obstacles. While it is best to climb seated to avoid fatiguing your legs, to clear tough sections and obstacles you are often to adopt the climbing attack position, which consists of elevating your body off the saddle and centering your body weight to balance between front and both wheels. A key feature of both uphill and downhill attack positioning is that your elbows must flare out to create 90 degree angles between the handlebars and your shoulders, which gives riders greater control and stability over their front wheel. See pic below for proper elbow form.

Downhill

Just like uphill climbing, weight placement is everything for downhill riding. This time, though, we’re keeping the weight primarily to the back. Unlike climbing and flat riding, for most downhill riding you are best off with your saddle at its lowest height, or “slammed.” This does two things: it allows riders to shift their weight back over the rear wheel and stay low to the bike, and it keeps the bike from bucking the rider over the handlebars via the saddle and higher seatpost. The attack position for downhill looks similar to the attack position for uphill as you have your elbows bent in the same way and you’re keeping your bodyweight low and centered to the frame. Except now, be prepared to shift that weight from the center of the bike to almost exclusively over the rear wheel.

Maintaining Center & Cornering

Keeping on track with our topic of body positioning and that sort of static centering, let’s move on to cornering and how to handle turns. One of the most difficult areas for people to master, corners and sharp turns rely on a rider's ability to properly maintain their center while the bike leans from side to side. Cornering and turning both require the rider to adopt their attack position, and tilt the bike into the direction of the turn while maintaining their centered positioning over the bike and not leaning purely to one side. Cornering also requires momentum, so somewhat counterintuitively, riders should pedal and blast out of corners to avoid momentum loss. For mountain bike trails with more developed berms and turns, the rider will sometimes have to tuck pretty low so be aware of how aggressive a turn is.

A man on a mountain bike executes a dramatic turn around a corner
Photo by Nur Andi Ravsanjani Gusma

Focus on Where You Want to Go

It’s not just for turns and cornering that you want to scan ahead. Arguably the most important rule of actual trail riding is to scan ahead of where you are riding - don’t stare directly in front of your tire! Doing so not only helps you identify and avoid potential hazards, but also will potentially save you a lot of time on your ride as you’re able to navigate the best line choice on your ride. Ask the pros: line choice is everything, and you can’t pick a line unless you are looking at where you want your bike to go.

Braking

For most people it’s hard to not over-brake when they are in a tight technical spot, but there are some definite do’s and don’ts of braking that we should go over real quick. First and foremost, THE FRONT BRAKE IS YOUR FRIEND! All too often, I’ve seen and heard people be afraid to use their front brakes due to some prior trauma of when they overgripped their front brake and were catapulted over the handlebars like some fleshy artillery projectile. Rest assured, your front brake is your friend, and it’s arguably the more important of the two brakes. Over-applying your rear brake can cause the rear wheel to lock up and fishtail, so it’s actually the front brake that you want to apply steadily on technical descents, all while feathering the rear brake as needed. This allows you to effectively slow and control your momentum without locking your wheels up.

Stay Fluid

Whether you’re pushing your bike over an obstacle on a climb or navigating a rock garden and root section on a descent, it’s important to stay as loose and fluid as possible. This doesn’t mean not exerting any effort on the bike and letting your bike try to handle all of the ride, but it does mean staying relaxed and confident on the bike and making sure to push the bike into its turns and through whoop sections. Maintaining an attack position but allowing your legs and arms to work with the bike as a sort of suspension system for your torso weight will help you navigate obstacles like root sections and rock gardens by allowing you to keep your weight centered and in control while your arms and legs work with the bike suspension instead of against it. Try your best to stay light on the bike and move with it, pump it through ups and downs, and “float” as best you can over turbulence.

A person on a mountain bike navigates their way down a rocky trail

The Most Important Rule of Riding: Have Fun!

Mountain biking is like any sport or pastime in that the benefits and rewards only go so far as your enjoyment and appreciation of the experience do. The great thing about riding is it’s a totally personal journey; you’re not relying on anyone's ability but your own to have fun and improve.

So get out there and ride! While there are infinite details about pedalling efficiency, feet placement, cornering, jumping, etc., to learn, hopefully now you have a basic understanding of some of the fundamentals that you can focus on each ride. Good luck and see you out on the trails!

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Written By
Zaal Rottunda
Cycling Expert
I have been riding mountainbikes for over 10 years. I worked for Trek bikes for 4 years where I got fully immersed in the culture and every changing technology of the cycling industry. I spent the past two years working for a major online cycling retailer, where I learned not only invaluable product...
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