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MTB Riding Tips


Even though riding a singletrack is part of riding off-road, it differs from normal mountain biking in that singletrack trails tend to be narrower, steeper, with sharper turns, and with unavoidable obstacles such as rocks, roots or streams. Here are a few tips to get comfortable in mountain bike paradise.

Narrow means that you may not have any choice in where your bike wants or has to go! Generally, go slower on narrow singletrack than you ordinarily would – until you get used to steering down such a confining course.

Steep uphill means that your front wheel may lift or come off the ground, making for difficulty in steering, or that your rear wheel may slip. Here you have to distribute your weight in such a way that your front wheel stays down and your rear wheel does not slip. Experiment with sliding your body forward when seated, and keeping it backward when standing.

Steep downhills can be quite challenging! What you do not want to do is allow your weight to be too far forward. If your front wheel hits something and your bike suddenly slows, your body could be thrown forward, the bike could flip and you will go sailing over the handlebars! You need to have a strong upper body to keep your weight back.
As rule of thumb, the steeper the descent, the farther back your weight should be.

It is not unusual to keep your body off and behind the seat on very steep descents. Use enough front brake to help keep your speed under control, but not so much that your bike might hit an obstacle and come to a stop or that your front tire might begin to slide. Use as much rear brake as you like, until it begins to slide. A sliding tire is fairly useless in helping you maintain your speed or control – and very damaging to the trail! Remember, if you start to “lose it”, let go of the brakes and the bike will usually recover.

Loose rocks can pose special problems, making it difficult to brake without sliding. Sometimes the bike will “jackknife” as the rear slides around. This usually means that your weight is not far enough back! If this happens, let the bike move a little faster than you would prefer until you reach firmer ground.

If your front wheel needs to ride up to get out of a dip or over a rock or over a log, get off the rear brake! The rear brake tends to hold the front wheel down, preventing it from riding up. In fact, getting off both brakes when the front wheel needs to move up is best.

Sharp turns provide another challenge. Many of you will find that you can turn sharply in one direction but not the other. This is probably the side that you tend to get on and off your bike. Practice by getting on and off your bike on the “wrong” side until you feel comfortable doing it.

Sometimes you may find that your bike just does not want to turn! Make sure that you are not applying your front brake; it will prevent the bike from turning and will increase the probability that the front wheel will slide out from under you. Practice leaning your bike into the inside of the turn – the sharper the turn, the greater the lean. It also helps to push your inside hand into the turn and to put your weight over the outside pedal. Remember, you want to ride around the corner on the inside edges of your tires. To avoid having your front tire slide out from under you, shift your weight forward.

On steep uphill turns (switchbacks) pull your body up hard with your arms so that your body is moved to the outside (uphill) of the turn. On steep downhill turns you must compromise between keeping your weight back to maximize rear braking, and keeping your weight forward to keep the front wheel from drifting. Balance is the key to turning very sharply; add to that the important component of relaxation – stay relaxed and let the bike turn you!

Obstacles pose a special problem. To get over a root, tree trunk or rock, approach it from a right angle, compress the front of the bike just before hitting it, and pull up with your arms as you reach it. The front wheel will then leap over it. Next shift your weight forward and hop the rear wheel over it by pulling up with your legs. Success!

If you have enough speed and you wish to jump over the obstacle with both wheels, compress the entire bike just before hitting it and pull up with your arms and legs. If your timing is correct, you will sail right over it. If you are riding uphill, throw your weight forward as you go over an obstacle. If you are riding downhill, you will need to shift your weight backward as you go over it (and release the rear brake).

If you must cross an obstacle at an angle, exaggerate your movements so as to jump over it without touching it or to minimize the force with which your bike hits it.

Riding down a “drop-off” requires that your weight be shifted back and that you stay off the front brake! More speed rather than less speed is desirable. Do not look down at what your front wheel is about to experience. Instead, look ahead.

If you spot a section that looks dubious, stop the bike before you get there and walk through it. Trying to stop in the middle of a difficult section is a sure way to fall. Please brake gently well ahead of turns so that you may turn without using brakes and so that you do not erode the trail.

Always try not to look at what you do not want to hit. Instead, look at where you want your bike to go, and it will go there. This is called “picking a line”. And do not worry, your brain will remember the line that you have chosen, even when you are looking ahead!

If you are riding across a steep slope and feel your bike beginning to slide down and off the trail, force yourself to move your weight toward the direction in which the bike is sliding. This will cause the bike to stop sliding and to turn uphill. If you allow fear to cause you to move your weight away from the direction of the slide, your bike will slide out from under you for sure!

For most people, braking is intuitive. I find that the front brake is most effective unless your are trying to turn your bike. Always let up on the front brake when going through turns! Likewise, do not apply the rear brake when trying to pull the front wheel up over obstacles. The rear brake also seems to interfere with the action of the shocks. So I tend to favor the front brake except when I am making a turn.

Now, hit the trail!



At some stage during your ride you’ll encounter some downhill sections. Some riders live for the thrill while others fear it. If you belong in the second category, read on.

The biggest fear is loss of control. You fear the fact that you won’t be able to control your speed and direction, resulting in you utilizing your medical aid policy. There’s no fun in crashing hard and as one grows older the aches and pains seem to stay with you much longer.

There are a couple of basic bike set-up techniques that will keep you from ruining your “no-claim” bonus:

Bike set-up:
If you’re inexperienced, you’ll be well advised to lower your saddle a bit on technical descents. This will enable you to lower your centre of gravity and provide a more stable ride.

On fast gravel-road descents you may encounter nasty waterbars/humps. If your saddle’s too high, you might have the tendency to launch over the bars. That’s bad! I saw a guy actually crack his frame after launching over one particularly nasty hump at high speed and riding on his front wheel for several meters after the landing…
Needless to say he needed “something medicinal” after the experience!!

Another important part is of course the brakes. Make sure that the levers are set at a comfortable angle (downwards at a 45º angle is a good start) and that the levers are within easy reach, otherwise your hands and arms will get tired very quickly.

Obviously, it’s a good idea to have a mechanic check your brake system to ensure your safety.

Get used to your brakes

1. Be certain whether the front brake is operated by the left or right-hand lever

This may sound obvious but I’ve seen experienced riders grab a handful of the wrong brakelever. Motocross riders can switch the levers to mimic the motorbike’s setup.

2. Get used to the potency of your front brake by practicing dead stops in a parking lot. Find a steep tarmac hill and do the same.

3. Disc brakes have a tendency to be very “grabby” and it takes quite some time to get used to this.

4. Remember that when you brake sharply, you’ll experience fork “dive”. This is when the suspension fork compresses under the braking force causing a temporary change in the bike’s head angle. This can result in very twitchy steering that is a problem in long, fast corners like berms (Banked motocross style turns).

This is another good reason to do your braking before entering a corner.

Fork dive is one of the major reasons for endo’s in corners so get used to this effect

Cycling Myth#1: If you pull the front brakes, you’ll go over the handlebars

Well, under perfect conditions it can happen. Under normal riding conditions your front brake is a valuable tool and the only brake that will stop the bike on steep terrain.

To get used to grabbing a handful of front brake, head off to the park or a suitable patch of lawn. While riding along practice pulling the front brake while using different body positions. You’ll realize that you can actually pull much harder on the brake when you have your butt way behind the saddle. My favorite front brake maneuver is the front wheel slide where you lock up the front wheel in a controlled skid.

If you do feel your back wheel lifting, simply let go of the brake and the back will drop instantly.

Brake modulation

This is an important skill to master and refers to the ability to exert different pressures on the brakelever and ultimately the rim/disc. While most of the modulation will come from the riders’ fingers, some brake systems provide more modulation than others – read magazine reviews.

Ideally, you don’t want an “on-off” set-up as experienced with earlier hydraulic rim brakes. It is nice to be able to have a range of pressure–options and this will allow you to fine-tune your brake-pulling technique.

The newer brake-systems are very powerful and only require one finger operation. Learn how to apply different pressures so that you know exactly when to pull/let go the levers.


The type of terrain and soil conditions will determine how quickly your wheels lock up and ultimately what your stopping distance will be. On loamy soil you have excellent grip and you can use aggressive braking techniques while on decomposed granite you must be much more careful. Here you’ll find a layer of small stones/sand on top of a hardpacked base making it very easy to slide out – especially in corners!

Your homework

Make sure your brakes are set up properly and go to the park and practice dead stops. You need to know exactly what your equipment is capable of before we can head to the hills.


MTB braking techniques

One of the most common mistakes that a beginner mountain biker makes, is using his brakes indiscriminately. Imagine the following: Our rider is on a great piece of single track, feeling good and in control, when, suddenly ahead looms a rocky section. One of three things happens…

1. He scrubs just enough speed to thread his way nimbly through the minefield; or
2. He brakes too hard and skids, losing momentary control and damaging the trail; or
3. He hits a rock, the front wheel freezes, and he tips forward over the handlebar.
Which do you prefer?

What follows are a number of tips and techniques for braking. Keep practicing them and before long you will be able to anticipate the braking force you need just by looking at the trail ahead.


Use your front brake more
Using too much rear causes it to lock and skid, which rips up the lovely trail and reduces your control. (On the right surface, experienced riders can skid in control. Then it’s called a technique. For you, it’s a mistake.)

Once you start skidding you can’t brake any harder
It’s more efficient if you can keep applying braking force to a spinning wheel – this is why so many new car owners want anti-lock braking systems. You do not have that fancy system on your mountain bike but you can emulate it by using a series of quick, tiny micro-braking actions. It’s called feathering.

About 70% of your braking power comes from the front brake. That leaves 30% on the back. But these figures change radically as conditions do. Muddy stuff decreases your rear stopping power more than it wipes out your front. And you can change how much braking power you get at either wheel by shifting your weight forward or backward.

Find a favorite hand position
Most riders put their index and middle finger on the brake levers, and wrap the others around the handlebar. Some riders brake with only their index fingers. There are other configurations, but find the one that feels secure and does not fatigue your fingers. The number of fingers on the brake lever should change depending on the terrain. It has to do with how much handlebar control you need balanced with how much force your braking might require.

Here are some handy suggestions
* A useful rule to remember is: “Brake hard where the ground is hard, and soft where the ground is soft.”
* Brake with your entire bike: Your levers and calipers are only the most obvious parts of your stopping system. To increase control and power, it can help to grip the seat with your quads or move your weight back as you brake.
* Don’t use your brakes only when you want to slow: Good braking is about control, and sometimes it can even help you build speed. Try alternating squeezes and releases on your next long descent. Lay off the brakes sooner than usual coming out of a corner. Notice the control it gives you? The surges of speed? This is the hidden power of brakes. They do more than stop you. They help you master your movement.


Here’s how to brake effectively so you save the trail and your skin:

Braking should not be a last-second decision. The farther in advance you know that you need to slow, the easier it becomes to maintain control. Look ahead at least 15 or 20 meters down the trail. Do not fixate on the obstacles directly in front of you. Instead, scan the trail, flicking your eyes rapidly from just in front of your wheel to well down the trail and back again. The key to good mountain bike vision is active, fast-moving eyes.

Shift  your weight back
Braking slows the bike, but inertia makes your body want to continue moving forward. Combine this unwanted weight shift with riding into an obstacle and you could make an unscheduled scenic detour over the handlebar. To avoid bar-hopping, simply slide your weight to the rear as you begin braking. Slide your hips back. The steeper the trail and the harder you brake, the farther to the rear you need to go – even past the saddle.

Use the front brake wisely
Many riders think that if they use the front brake, they are risking an endo. Yes, it could happen, but the front brake gives you better speed control than the rear brake. Stopping forces put more weight on the front wheel, increasing traction and braking power.

There are two times, however, that you should not be on the front brake
·  When the bike is turning. Braking tends to straighten the bike. If this happens when the wheel is being turned, the front tire is more likely to slip away from under you (wash out).
·  When you’re bouncing through rocks, roots, logs – anything that might stop the front wheel abruptly or make you accidentally snatch the brake lever if your hand is on it. Over the front you WILL go.

Be subtle

Always use a light touch on the brakes. Modern brakes require the pressure of only one or two fingers on the levers. A big skid and a dust plume are sure tip-offs of awkward, clumsy braking and poor tire choice. Skidding is hard on the trail, digging deep grooves in its surface, which leads to erosion. If you scan ahead, you can reduce speed and maintain full control.

Skill Drills

Good braking skills are easy to learn. Put on your helmet and gloves, then find a moderate downhill at least 30 meters long with a smooth run-out at the bottom. Choose a surface that will not be damaged by skidding. Using a moderate speed, do these drills:
* Use only the rear brake: Experiment to see how much pressure you can apply before you skid. Notice that because braking shifts your weight forward, lessening rear wheel traction, you do not stop very fast when using only the rear brake.
*  Use only the front brake (carefully!): Start with very light braking pressure. Notice how your weight shifts to the front more rapidly than when using only the rear brake. On subsequent runs, gradually brake harder until you can feel the rear wheel lighten. That is the edge of control.
*  Give them both a squeeze: Now use both brakes and see how fast you can stop without skidding either tire. In most trail conditions, best results will come when applying roughly twice as much pressure to the front brake compared to the rear.

These articles were originally published on World of Endurance and has been reproduced with their kind permission