Five skills for beginner mountain bikers

March 24, 2012 · 5 minute read

This winter season Richmond has offered up a broad spectrum of weather patterns. Overall, the season has been relatively mild and has enabled riders to put rubber to dirt more frequently than usual. As winter releases its grip, there are opportunities all around us to ride. Mountain biking is one of those activities that literally (and figuratively) springs to life as each riding season draws near.  Any trailhead in the area will have more and more cars filling parking lots and giddy riders piling out eager to stretch those atrophied muscles.  For those riders brand new to trails (or parents wanting to help their child learn the basics), here are five skills that will help develop a sense of rider awareness.

The first order of business is to get a helmet and wear it. It’s that simple! This basic concept has saved thousands of lives and modern helmets are comfortable and stylish. There are numerous places to purchase a helmet but check out the staff at any local bike shop for a proper fit. 

There are a few concepts to keep in mind while learning the skills that will benefit all riders, regardless of ability.  Relax…always remember to relax while riding.  This seems like common sense but is critical to finding a comfort level on two wheels.  Precision now, speed later…when working on a new skill, approach it slowly on easy terrain.  Smoothness first, speed later.  Commit…the ups and downs of purposeful riding requires commitment. Lastly, relax even more…yes it continues to be important.  Practice does not necessarily make perfect.  Practice makes permanent!   

Balance– Sure this seems like a no-brainer but there is surprisingly a great deal of thought that goes into achieving good balance on the trail. Good balance comes from an awareness of how your contact points (hands, feet, and bum) are connected to body position on a bike. A good rule of thumb is to keep your body between your feet, meaning try not to lean outside of the width of your feet on the pedals. A good way to practice this is to try riding a painted street line or even trying to balance while riding on a curb. 

Body Position – Your position on the bike is contingent on your contact points (hands, feet, and ‘seat’). Your body position changes as the terrain and pitch of the trail change. When seated, grip the bars firmly and remember that the seat is used as a tool not a place to rest all your weight. Try to distribute your weight evenly on all contact points. To get started, spend some time coasting while standing on your pedals without sitting on your seat. Keep your arms bent, and don’t lock your knees. Next, set your pedals so they are horizontal at the 3 and 9 o’clock positions. Then experiment with shifting your body position slightly to the rear of the bike. You will want to be in this position when you coast over terrain featuring roots, rocks, and other technical features. Your seat should be between your legs with your knees bent. This is your primary standing position.

 Pedaling – Pedaling your bike is actually a lot more dynamic than one would think.  There are lots of ratios and math involved when you get down to the science of it. However, for our purposes you will just need to know a couple of things. First, always think about making a smooth circular transition during pedaling. From pushing down to sweeping across the bottom of the stroke to pulling back up to the top…always be smooth.  When seated, use your seat and handlebars to maximize your power. Gently push back against your saddle and lightly pull back on your bars to transmit power from your legs.  When standing, pull on the bars and rock the bike slightly from side to side.  This also helps generate more power.  Remember to stand up with your hips forward and your shoulders directly above your hips.  Practice these on slight/short hills to get the hang of the technique. 

Steering (or turning) – The first thing to remember when riding on trials is to always look down the trail (your eyes should never be on the front tire). Second, how a bike turns is all based on your speed. At low speeds, you steer the bike by turning the handlebars in the direction you want to go. However, at low speeds, turning your wheel can make you get off line by running into irregularities (roots, rocks).  At high speeds, learning the bike is much more effective, allowing your tire to roll around a corner. Just remember to judge your speed by braking before you enter the turn, lower your center of gravity, and lay off the brakes as you exit the turn.  Be patient learning the complexities of turning.  There is plenty of time to rail corners as you get comfortable. 


Braking – When it comes to braking, repeat the mantra that slow and in control equals good.  Fast and random equals bad. There are three things to keep in mind when braking. First, brake in a straight line. For maximum brake efficiency you need to set up turns by braking before you enter them. Tires don’t grip well when braking while leaning over the bike. Second, get down and back. Any time you brake, get off your saddle and lean back to counter the forward momentum. Third, never lock your front wheel. It is important to remember that your front wheel is for steering so it needs to always be rolling. A good way to get the feel of how much brake is needed to stop is to practice braking as hard as you can without skidding.         

 These basic tips will serve as a starting point when transitioning from the pavement to the dirt.  I do recommend finding a location that is best suited for learning these skills.  Once you have the basics dialed in then you can check out more challenging locations in order to push your progress forward.  Some notable locations are; Deep Run Park in the west end, Rockwood Park on the south side, and Pony Pasture/Wetlands trails in the city.  Always remember to be safe and we’ll see you out on the trails.