Fundamentals are the key to mountain bike success

Relaxation is key to mountain biking. Even on a climb it is important to stay loose.  Credit: Nathan Bilow/Allsport
Fundamentals are vital to mountain biking: anticipation, smoothness, staying relaxed. You just need a few extra tricks to enjoy the ride. Here are the three key principles.


Staying loose is even more important in mountain biking because the terrain under your wheels is often rougher. Tense mountain bikers suffer from unpredictable steering, fatigue quicker because their bodies absorb so much of the earth's pounding, and have little stability or control. Your goal is to keep your upper body calm while the bike rages beneath you.

Use a firm grip, but never clench the handlebar. A death grip fatigues your forearms and makes your steering twitchy. Keep your fingers loose by drumming them against the bar occasionally.

Never lock your elbows. Your arms must be free to extend or compress instantly to absorb shock. Rigid elbows ruin control because you're bouncing just as hard as the bike is. Swing your elbows slightly to keep them loose.

Unlock those knees, too. Your natural tendency will be to "brace" yourself against the trail's roughness by locking your legs, instead, let them bend to absorb the dips and jitters.

Be ready

A relaxed riding style is only half the equation for a successful mountain biking position. You also need to be able to respond to the trail-spring forward, absorb unexpected hits, shift your weight around to maintain traction, and other stunts. You give yourself this kind of readiness with something called the "ready position."

You need to assume a dynamic position that gives you complete control over the bike. This is the stance you should take when you're coasting for extended periods, between bursts of pedal strokes, descending, or any other time it's possible.

The idea is to "float" over your bike rather than drive yourself down into it. Here are the basics:

Keep your pedals level-at three and 9 o'clock. A low-riding pedal is likely to catch on an obstacle protruding from the trail. But more important, this pedal position provides a solid platform for your feet a big help when you're floating over the bike.

Keep your butt just off the saddle. Your butt should graze the saddle not quite sitting, not quite out of contact. You're using the saddle more as a guide to feel the bike under you than as support. If you plant your weight on the saddle, every kick of the bike also kicks you. But don't be so upright that you tire your legs and feet. You should feel like your weight is distributed evenly between the handlebar, pedals and saddle.

Find "the line"

When you're mountain biking you need to plot the best course for your bike not always the smoothest or shortest but the one that keeps you moving the fastest while expending the least amount of energy. This is known as a "line." It's probably the toughest skill in mountain biking to learn. Here are the basics:

Look where you want to go. Our instinct is to fixate on what we want to miss. This is bad because our bikes follow our vision. So if you look at that rock, or that hole, you go there. Instead, aim your vision along the clear path.

Concentrate only on the obstacles that require some technique to get past. Most of the stuff you see can be simply rolled over.

Look ahead. If you look directly in front of your wheel, by the time you see objects, you won't be able to react to them. On relatively smooth terrain, aim your vision 20 to 30 feet down the trail. Adjust to conditions: as little as 5 feet on hard trails, as much as 100 feet or more on fast, flat paths.

Next: Acceleration, gearing, cadence and braking

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