How Mountain Biking Works

Mountain Biking Techniques

To have a fun, smooth ride, you've got to learn proper riding form.
To have a fun, smooth ride, you've got to learn proper riding form.
Thomas Northcut/Getty Images

Before you head off for the mountains, it's important to learn proper riding form. When sitting on your bike, your legs should be just shy of fully extended on the downstroke (when the pedal is at the lowest point). You should still be able to apply some pressure to the pedal at this point without stretching or reaching. If the bike fits you properly, and you're using the right technique, your knees will never be locked at any point during your ride [source: Shrieves].

Once you've got your legs in the correct position, take a look at your hand placement. Your thumb and forefinger should be wrapped around the handlebars, while the other three fingers on each hand should rest lightly on your brakes. Notice that this position keeps your knuckles pointing out ahead of you, rather than toward each other like on some road bikes. Keep your shoulders relaxed and don't lock your elbows. You can place your hands as close or far as your handlebars will allow, but keep in mind that the wider your hands are placed, the more control you'll have over the bike.

Now that you're comfortable on the bike, it's time to review the basics of pedaling. Pedaling is one of the most basic mountain biking techniques, but also one of the most difficult to master. On a mountain bike, pedaling speed is known as cadence, and it's measured in revolutions per minute (RPMs). Cadence on a mountain bike is typically lower than it would be on a road bike. Lower RPMs mean less efficiency as you pedal, along with a lower speed, but also result in greater stability and endurance over longer, challenging rides. When you're first starting out, focus on keeping your cadence steady and building awareness rather than aiming for a fast speed [source: Mason].

As with all outdoor adventure sports, mountain biking will present new challenges around every turn. As you pass over difficult terrain, you'll be able to vary these basic riding techniques to help increase stability and comfort. When the trail is rocky, try sitting very low on your bike and leaning forward over the handlebars. Relax and shift your weight as you ride. Go slowly to increase your confidence, gradually building speed. Remember that the faster you ride over rocky surfaces, the more comfortable the ride will be.

If the trail is wet or muddy, focus on riding slowly, staying in control to avoid skidding. Don't brake hard when you see mud. Instead, allow your cadence to slow gradually and switch your bike to a low gear. Lean back to keep the weight off your front tires, which can keep you from getting bogged down in heavy mud.

Hills can pose their own challenges, though riding techniques will vary dramatically depending on whether you're traveling up or down. To travel up a steep incline, try lifting out of the seat slightly to increase the strength of your pedaling. If the ground is too unstable, stay in the seat and lean forward to keep the front wheel grounded. Maintain a steady cadence on hills to avoid burnout -- and to improve your chances of making it to the top.

When traveling downhill, pump your brakes instead of holding them in the entire time. Lean way back in your seat, or move your backside so it's elevated over the rear tire. This will keep gravity from pulling your body forward over the handlebars. If you do fall in this position, you'll tumble off the back of the bike instead of the front, which often results in fewer injuries and easier recovery.