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Mountain biking - a guide for beginners | Ridestore Magazin

You’ve likely got a bike or you’re thinking about getting one, but before you go any further, you want to learn a little more about how to improve your riding. Being on a bike can sometimes feel sketchy, so we’re here to help alleviate those worries with some expert advice on improving your skills and supercharging your riding progression. These tricks, tips, and techniques have all been passed down through generations of riders, so if you’re looking for the best way to improve your riding, you’re in the right place. While every rider needs to find the right riding style for them, these are some of our favourite ways to ensure we’re riding better, safer, and in a more stable and focused way. So if you’re ready to jump on your bike and go for a rip, then read on to give yourself a headstart on the competition!

Still looking for stylish gear to bring on your next adventure in the mountains or in the city? Make sure to check out our latest collection of men's outdoor jackets and women's outdoor jackets over at Ridestore. 

Table of contents

What is mountain biking?

Put simply, mountain biking is the sport where a human perches on top of a metal frame attached to a pair of wheels by some questionably thin bolts, and then hurls themselves down steep, craggy, rocky, rooty mountain tracks for … enjoyment.
Now, it may sound like madness, but when you think about skiing, snowboarding, rock climbing, and, heck, skydiving or bungee jumping (!) is it actually that far out there? The answer is no. It’s not. And with some understanding of the risks, some tutelage and know-how, and the right equipment, you’ll be tearing up the trails in no time. So, if you’re ready to begin this long upward climb to the trailhead of knowledge, then read on.

What is mountain biking?

The mechanics of riding

The mechanics of riding is all about the way that your bike and you interact with the forces of nature, and how you can use them to your advantage! If you don’t understand the basic mechanics of riding mountain bikes, it’ll be really hard to progress to more difficult trails and features. But fear not! In the below sections, we’re going to cover all of the basics of riding, beginning with your positioning and the way that your body and the bike interacts with the terrain at hand. Understanding the fundamental physics at work while you ride will be essential to getting a good handle on this spot from the off, so let’s jump in!

Positioning and geometry

Position is probably the most important part of riding confidently and safely. When we say the word positioning, what we mean is where you are in relation to the bike. Modern bikes are designed such that when you’re standing on a correctly sized bike, feet on pedals, hands on handlebars, you should be pretty much sighting down the forks directly. This is the ‘ready’ position. It should be comfortable, and you should have your arms and knees slightly bent, with your pedals level, and your weight right between the wheels, central on the bike.

From here, you can move backwards or forwards, side to side, and up and down to deal with the current terrain. If you pick your head up and look straight ahead, this will give you a strong, steady position from which to learn. You should keep your muscles firm but not tensed, and your elbows and knees ready to absorb bumps as they come. From a standing start, get into this position and get used to moving the bike around under you. The faster you can commit this position to muscle memory, the faster you’ll pick up biking.

Standing vs. sitting

When should you stand and when should you sit? Well, as a rule of thumb, if you’re going downhill on a trail you should be standing. If you’re climbing or riding a traverse trail (not down hill, but across), then you can sit. But if it’s bumpy, then stand. You’ll only need to take a few shots from the seat into your butt bones to know when to get up off the saddle!

Weight distribution

Weight distribution is key for confident riding. But it’s not just about where you are on the bike, but also about the physics of the bike and the rider. If you brake, your weight shifts forward. If you turn, your weight is pulled outwards. Understanding what will happen when you approach specific terrains or obstacles (corners, for example!) and apply the brakes or lean your body or bike will give you a much better chance of mitigating the negative outcomes by using preventative motions.

When you brake, lean back to counteract the weight shift. Lean into a turn to counteract the centrifugal force. That sort of thing. But we’ll come to how to do that in a moment.

Golden rules to progression

This is a question that I get a lot. How do I progress? The only thing that’ll really give you progression is time in the saddle. The more you’re on your bike, the faster you’ll improve. But, what I can do is give you some golden rules to make sure you’re not bedding in and building on common faults. These are just some of the things I’ve picked up from better riders, or had to learn the hard way (by scooping up dirt and rock with the chin guard of my helmet!), and hopefully, they’ll help you too.

Golden rules to progression
Stay loose and tall

If you’re trying to progress, it’s natural to focus, tense your body, try to muscle your way through uneven or rough sections, but weirdly, staying low and tense is actually much, much worse than the opposite. Standing tall on the bike with soft knees and arms, in a semi-relaxed state is the best thing you can do for staying stable and absorbing bumps. As an obstacle comes up, it’s much, much easier to allow the bike to come up underneath you, utilising the natural suspension of your legs, rather than your whole body and the bike having to move upwards to accommodate.

Standing taller also gives you a higher centre of gravity, more space to move the bike around, more space to move your body around, and a better sightline down the trail. So, rule one, stay loose and tall!

Don't lock up

When a corner or obstacle is coming down the trail, it can be a natural reaction to just grab the brakes and lock up both wheels. But you lose all grip, stability, and turning ability when you do this. Brake sooner and smoother before the corner or obstacle, and then release as you’re reaching the most challenging part of it (the apex of the corner, the rock, the root, whatever it is), and roll through it with no brakes, standing tall and loose.

Breathe

Breathing may sound like a silly thing to remind you of, but it’s easy to hold your breath while riding, especially if things are getting gnarly! Breathing circulates oxygen to the brain and muscles, regulates heart rate and blood pressure, and helps you keep focus. Breathing will calm you as you ride and keep you riding better. So don’t forget to do it! It’s also a good way to stay more relaxed.

Be aware of your position

Your positioning on the bike is crucial to being able to tackle obstacles. If you’re staying tall and loose, this shouldn’t be a problem, but it’s always good to remember to return to that ready position between obstacles so that your weight is centred. If you’re backwards or forwards on the bike, you’ll find it much harder to control it and manoeuvre around and over things.

Progress at your own pace

This is one of the hardest things to do. It can be easy to gain false confidence and tackle trails beyond your ability levels. Pushing yourself to improve and pushing yourself too far are easily confused, especially when riding with other people who are further along on their journey than you are. As such, it’s important to take stock of the difficulty of the trails ahead and your own abilities, and foster a culture of slow, steady progression in your riding. Don’t feel pressured to do things you’re not comfortable with, as the consequence can be extremely high.

Understand the risks

This gives us a nice segue into this next piece of advice. And that’s understanding the risks of this sport. It can be easy to fall into a sense of invincibility, especially if you haven’t had your first big crash yet. Mountain biking is a dangerous sport, like any other extreme sport. It can be tempting to ride on a hot day with no pads or helmet, but things can change in the blink of an eye, with most crashes sneaking up on you! Understanding that there is an inherent risk of injury when you’re on a bike will help temper your desire to push things too far, and will hopefully allow you to progress in a safer way.

Learn your bike's (and your body's) limits!

One thing we see a lot of is people tackling trails that they have no business being on. It’s not a matter of elitism, but safety! Not all bikes are created equal, and tackling a big trail on a bike that’s not well suited to it at the least will damage the bike, and at most cause a crash. Bottoming out your suspension or throwing an unprepared bike into some real gnar will likely mean you end up falling, and badly. So it’s important to understand the limitations of your bike, and of yourself, too! Because the other thing that causes big crashes is people who have great bikes, but aren’t experienced riders, tackling big terrain, and paying the price. Just because your bike is ready, doesn’t mean you are!

Don't ride tired

Long days in the saddle can be epic. But it’s also a tiring sport to engage in, so giving yourself recovery time is imperative, as is staying fuelled up and hydrated. Riding tired is pretty dangerous, as your diminished reaction times and lack of focus can cause a pretty nasty fall if you’re not careful. So always be aware of your energy levels and your focus, because every rider has a story where they said, ‘I’ll just do one more lap!’ when they knew they shouldn’t, and fell because of it.

The basics of mountain biking

And so we come to the really important part! And that’s how to actually ride your bike. While this is a long road for anyone, there are some things we can share with you to help you get to grips with the sport when you’re starting off. These tips and pieces of advice will hopefully get you riding confidently and safely, but everyone’s different, so don’t be afraid to experiment a little and see what works for you!

The basics of mountain biking

Flow and rhythm

Flow and rhythm are something that a lot of riding coaches will talk about, but I think it’s best summarised by something a chef once told me about working efficiently during a dinner rush. And that is ‘Slow is smooth, and smooth is fast’, and it’s the perfect analogy for riding! Many riders will try to ride fast to begin with, braking hard, pedalling hard, and hucking hard. But overall, more measured movements and riding will result in a faster overall pace. When you’re learning, ensuring that all of your weight shifts, braking, leaning, and riding is done in a smoother, relaxed manner, with a focus on maintaining and gaining speed rather than on rapid deceleration and acceleration will allow you to begin to build a much more solid foundation as a rider. Keeping a rhythm to things like corners and bumps, in the way you brake, move, and shift your weight, will also help to bed good techniques into muscle memory.

Straights and speed

When it comes to straightaways and speed, allow gravity to do the work, and modulate braking throughout, rather than going too fast then braking hard, then letting off, then braking again. As you gain speed, it’s important to look further ahead so you have time to react to oncoming obstacles. And, of course, stay tall and loose in a neutral position with your pedals level!

Cornering technique

Cornering technique is the most talked about thing in biking and there are many different methods, with none being superior. But here are the tips that really helped me get a handle on it! First, you need to ensure that both wheels are planted on the ground, and both have weight going through them equally. This means you need to keep a neutral riding position right between the wheels themselves. Too much weight on the front and your front end will understeer and you won’t make the corner. Too much weight on the back end, and it’s likely you’ll struggle to guide the bike around due to a lack of traction on the guiding wheel.

So here’s what you do. From your neutral position, as you’re approaching a corner, begin braking. It’s important, when braking, to lean back enough to counteract the weight shift caused by the braking itself. Try not to turn while braking, but instead, keep your weight back until you reach the point at which you need to turn in for the tightest part of the corner. Then, let off the brakes, return to your neutral position, and lean your inside hand towards the apex, without turning the front wheel too much. The ‘shoulders’ of the tyres will have knobs to grip the ground, but it's imperative you’ve got your weight centralised and that you lean the bike in to help make the turn. After that, it’s just practice!

Jumps and drops techniques

Jumps and drops techniques

When you’re approaching a jump or drop, it’s really important to get your weight back during takeoff, and then centralised as you get into the air. You want to ensure that the front wheel doesn’t dive off the lip, and that as your front wheel comes into the air, you stand tall on the bike to prevent the back wheel from getting ‘bucked’ up behind you, forcing a nose dive and an OTB.

Start small, practice getting that weight back and then gently ‘popping’ into your neutral riding position in order to land with both wheels on the ground at the same time.

Approaching steeps and chutes

When you’re approaching a steeper section of ground like a bank or chute, it can be tempting to just hammer the brakes. But we do not recommend that! Like with cornering, it’s important to brake leading up to the most challenging part (the steepest part or the roll-over point, usually!). Approach slowly, shift your weight back and low over the back wheel, and then release pressure from the front brake first. You do not want your front wheel to lock up as this will likely cause you to lose control. Locking your back wheel and ‘surfing’ is a fine thing to do on steep sections, so don’t worry about that. You just want to ensure you’re as far back and as low as you can be to ensure that your weight stays behind the front wheel.

Once you reach flatter ground, bring your weight back to neutral, and release the front brake fully. It’s important to be aware of the pressure on your front brake, as it’ll often not be locked going down, but once gravity stops helping, it may lock up and send you flying! Just remember to always choose your line and know you have a sufficient run-out before attempting anything steep.

Important techniques to master early

Hopefully, you’ve begun to understand some of the skills you’ll need to master in order to progress, and all that’s left to do is put them into practice (and we mean practice!). But there are also a few little techniques and things you can work on to really enhance your riding from the get-go. These four things will come in so handy time and time again, so let’s get to them!

Important techniques to master early

Track stand

The track stand is a very common and often used technique both on and off the trails. A track stand involves standing on the pedals while totally stationary, both brakes engaged, and then balancing there. You may need to turn the front wheel, lean the bike, and do some moving and shaking to keep yourself balanced, but being able to do so for any sort of extended period of time will be indispensable as you tackle tougher, more technical lines.

While riding, it’s not always possible to put a foot down, but sometimes you may need a few seconds to pick your line, assess the best way to get down a chute or off a drop, or even just make a tight, steep hairpin turn. Having the ability to bring your bike to a stop and balancing on it without putting a foot down will save your bacon on the mountain, trust us on that!

Bunny hop

The bunny hop involves getting your bike into the air without a jump to help you. Sometimes you’ll need to be able to do this to get over obstacles or up onto boulders for example, and it also comes in very handy once you start progressing to jumps! The basic technique is fairly simple. 

From your tall, neutral position, sink down low into the middle of the bike, ‘preloading’ your front and back suspension. Then, in a smooth motion, stand tall and pull the front end of the bike up at the same time. While you’re doing this, push the handlebars away from your chest, allowing the back wheel to rise under you. Take up the slack with your legs, and then land both wheels at the same time. You’ll be making an inverted ‘L’ shape (up and then away) with the handlebars of the bike in order to complete this manoeuvre, and it may take some practice. But it’s worth learning early!

Unweighting the front end

Unweighting the front end

From chundery ground to rooty run-outs and certainly for drop-offs, unweighting the front end is an essential skill to learn. This involves moving from a neutral, tall position, into a low and weight-back position, which effectively removes all the weight from the front end. As you’re approaching rough ground or a drop, doing this will help to keep the bike stable, and allow you more control through the tough section.

To do this, you’ll be creating another ‘L’ shape but this time with your butt. What you want to do is sink towards a lowered seat, and then throw your butt backwards over the rear wheel in a smooth way. Allow your arms to straighten and tension on the bars without pulling the front end up. This should weight the back tyre, and allow the front suspension to absorb any bumps coming your way.

Incidentally, this is also the foundational movement for learning to manual a bike. But that’s for a little later down the line in your journey!

Bailing out

Possibly one of the most crucial skills to learn to avoid injury, learning to bail off the bike is a great technique to know! An intentional bail involves jumping from your bike and to [relative] safety if you think you’re about to crash in a big way.

The easiest way to do this is a lateral bail. When you stand on the bike, one of your feet will feel more natural at the bottom when your pedals are vertical. For me, I ride with my right foot down, and my left foot up. Because of this, I bail to the left. Your bottom foot will provide the power to push the bike away from you, and also give you a solid platform to jump off from. If the pedals are level or you try to spring from the top pedal, then the cranks will turn and you’ll likely just flop to the ground. As such, it’s important to be aware of which foot is going to give you power, and where your pedals are.

You’ll want to use your arms to ensure you’re pushing the bike down and to the side, and that you’re getting totally clear of it. It can be scary to do in that split second, so getting comfortable with jumping off your bike in controlled situations is important. Ride slowly over grass or somewhere soft (to prevent injuries to you and your bike too!) and then just jump off to the side, springing from the bike in one smooth motion. Getting used to this might just save you some injury, and I know it’s certainly saved me from going over some nasty edges as well as from clipping some trees at speed! Of course, we don’t recommend leaping off your bike for no reason, but hey, it’s better to have that skill in your bag and not need it, than need it and not have it.

Equipment you'll need

While it’s certainly not common to see people out on the trail in regular trainers and shorts, anyone who understands the dangers of mountain biking (and the true, unrivalled pain of taking a metal pedal to the shin) advocates for the use of most, if not all of the items below. We’re not saying buy everything right away, but you definitely want to be aware of this potential shopping list if you’re getting into the sport!

Equipment you'll need

Shoes

Mountain biking shoes are characterised by their stiffness and their soles. The added stiffness and support of mountain biking shoes means that your feet won’t ‘bow’ over the pedal, causing discomfort and strain on the arch of the foot. This is a real issue and can cause painful long and short term problems.

The soles of standard mountain bike shoes will be tacky and soft, designed to grip onto flat pedals and reduce the risk of pedal slips. Specific rubber compounds and tread patterns are used to minimise the chance of this happening, which will often result in a nasty fall, pedal jam (foot and ankle slips off the front of the pedal and gets jammed between the pedal and the ground — seriously nasty stuff!), or the dreaded shin smack.

To eliminate pedal slips altogether, you can get clipped shoes which fix to the pedals via a twist-out locking mechanism. We covered this briefly in the glossary, too, but in short — clipped pedals prevent pedal slips, but also prevent you from taking your feet off, which makes it easy to fall at low speeds as you can’t put a foot down, and at high speeds precludes you from bailing off the bike. As such, clipped shoes and pedals are only recommended for experienced riders.

Knee pads

Perhaps the second-most important item after a helmet, knee pads will save you from all manner of unpleasantness. Every rider has a horror story from that one time they rode without pads and paid the price. Modern knee pads utilise softer smart compounds like D30 foam, which are soft when not under stress, but then harden in an impact. This means they’re comfy and malleable when riding, but become the equivalent of a rock-hard plastic when you fall. They cover the patella and the top portion of the shin for added protection from pedal smacks, and are an absolute must for anyone serious about the sport.

Ankle protection (optional)

Ankle protection isn’t seen that much on the trails, and is a lot more common for dirt jump riders, but it is an option. These pads wrap the ankle and offer both support and protection from pedal smacks, pedal jams, or crank-arm catches to the ankle bone.

Padded shorts

Padded shorts are popular among riders who spend long periods of time in the saddle. They help protect the ischium bone (your butt bones!) from impacts and soreness as when in a seated position, there’s not a whole lot of fat or muscle to cushion them from that angle. These compression shorts sit under your riding shorts, and offer padding to that specific area. You may not think you need them, but once you try them, you’ll never go back!

Elbow pads

Elbow pads are another optional item you may wish to use. They come in either softer or harder options, with soft options aiming to prevent scrapes and cuts in falls, and harder D30 options protecting from impacts. Soft options are low profile and can be worn under jerseys quite comfortably.

Body armour (optional)

Body armour is often worn by riders to protect them from heavy impacts and crashes. Composed of shoulder, chest, and back plates, body armour is bulky and can be a little uncomfortable to ride in, but is worn by riders when protection is an absolute necessity.

Spine protection

Spine protectors are low-profile pads that sit under the shirt or jersey, and protect you from back injuries in the event of crashes. Few riders wear them, but if you’re intending to race or do large jumps, it may be a good investment.

Trail helmet

Trail helmet

A trail helmet covers the top and back portion of the head, but leaves the face exposed. These helmets offer a better field of vision, are cooler, and are lighter. They are favoured by many riders for longer trail rides with less exposure to high-risk situations like large drops, steeps, or jumps. A trail helmet is a good place for beginners to start as they’re accessible price-wise!

Full-face helmet

A full-face helmet is the logical upgrade for anyone looking to push their riding. Full-face helmets protect the top, sides, back, and, crucially, front of your head (your face!) from impacts. While riding at high speeds, falls can be pretty nasty, so full face helmets are a must for anyone pushing their riding. Many bike parks now have mandatory full-face policies as they’re just so much safer than trail helmets when riding larger features. If you do go for a full-face, make sure to get one that offers MIPS (multi-directional impact protection system), which offers enhanced safety in glancing or non-direct impacts versus non-mips helmets.

You can also get hybrid helmets these days, which have a detachable chin section, meaning they can be swapped from trail helmet to full-face on the fly. Personally, I have one of these for long enduro days. You can take the chin guard off for climbs and cross-country sections, and then reattach it for more risky, downhill sections. They’re the best of both worlds.

Glasses/goggles

Having riding glasses or goggles is a must for muddy, wet days, as a splatter to the face can blind you instantly and cause a crash before you even know it. In dryer conditions, they’re not quite so necessary, but depending on the landscape you’re riding on, they can be useful for protection, especially in densely forested areas in order to prevent twigs and branches from catching your eye as you ride past.

Gloves

Gloves are a must-have for riders too, and not only provide enhanced grip, but also prevent blisters and help protect the backs of the hands from cuts and scrapes during falls. You can get lightweight, breathable gloves, or padded ones for enhanced protection, the choice is yours.

Trail tools/multi-tool

A good multi-tool is a worthwhile investment for any biker and will contain a set of Allen keys to fit all the bolts on your bike, as well as other useful tools like chain splitters, torque wrenches, and maybe even tyre levers! Tyre levers are a useful, cheap tool to keep with you, too, to fix flats on the fly!

Inner tubes

Speaking of flats, whether you run tubes or a tubeless set-up, having a spare inner tube is imperative for anyone getting out for longer rides. It’s always a much longer walk than you think back to the car park!

First aid kit

A small first aid kit is a great thing to carry, and should include plasters, gauze, and antiseptic cream or spray at the very least! No need to go bleeding all over the trail, other people have to use them too, you know.

Trail pack

A trail pack is a small backpack (18L or below, usually) that can carry water, a spare jacket, and your trail tools. A lot of people will strap these things to their bike in the form of a bottle cage and bottle, a saddle pack, or just by cable tying things right to the frame! But for longer trips, a backpack with a water bladder can be a handy thing to have with you, so is worth considering.

Final things to remember

Just before we go, here are a few parting words from us to bear in mind before you start jumping into tougher trails. Moutain biking is a risky sport, but supremely enjoyable, and as such, you should never ride with a total ‘screw it’ attitude. So remember …

Final things to remember
Be safe

Wear your helmet, know your limits, and understand the limitations of your bike. If there are three things to help keep you safe, it’s these, so remember them! Mountain biking is dangerous, and even the best riders break bones, get concussed, and generally make a mess of themselves. So take your time, put safety before risk, and trust yourself out there.

Trees and rocks are tougher than you are

Ever heard the saying sticks and stones may break your bones? Well, 99% of mountain bike trails are made of sticks and stones, so don’t underestimate them! Keep your eyes up, your energy levels topped off, and your mind focused. And of course, stand tall and stay loose, and focus on your flow. Slow is smooth, and smooth is fast — and trees and rocks are better ridden past, than into crashed … That was almost good, wasn’t it?

Have fun

Lastly, have fun. Despite all the rhetoric about safety and danger and technique and risk, this is a sport, and sports are fun. Mountain biking is one of the most beloved and fastest-growing sports out there, and to be part of this vibrant, buoyant community is a joy. So get stuck in, make some friends, make some memories, and see some more of the world. Crazy trails criss-cross this crazy world, and if nothing else, you’ll always be sure to find kind, like-minded bike nuts ripping around them. So if you ever need anything, some advice, some help, then just ask. Because we’re all out here together, doing it for the love of the sport. And gosh dang do we love it. So, without another word, saddle up, cowpoke, it’s time to ride.

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