Beginner’s guide to mountain biking, part 3

Basic trail riding and bike adjustments

With some kit and basic trailside repair knowledge (see parts 1 and 2), we decided it was time for our novice mountain biker Ruth to learn how to ride properly, so we booked her onto a beginner's course with Afan Valley MTB.

She spent a day riding Penhydd, one of the many great trails on offer at Afan Forest, South Wales. The weather was typical of Wales – rain, and lots of it! – but she still had great fun improving her technique. Here's what she learned...

Basic braking

One of the first things I learnt on the course was how to brake. Sounds simple but there is a technique to it, particularly on descents. Most importantly, don’t slam on your front brake, as this can result in you practising your aviation technique instead of your mountain biking skills.

The rear brake is the one to focus on when you're starting out (although as you progress, you'll find the front brake gives more stopping power ed) and the best technique is to ‘feather’ it. To do this, lightly squeeze and then release the brake lever. Repeat this until you've slowed down to an appropriate speed.

If you tug abruptly on the lever, you run the risk of locking up the rear wheel, which can cause the bike to skid off the trail. If you squeeze the lever and release it before the wheel locks, you'll stay in control.

Being able to control your bike by feathering the brakes is a useful technique and is worth practising on small, fairly smooth descents until you feel confident enough to tackle slopes with steeper gradients and a few obstacles.

Another important technique to remember when braking on descents is your weight distribution on the bike. When starting out, it's a good idea to keep your weight back, as this will help to stabilise your rear wheel and will give you more traction to stop it from sliding out from underneath you.

Also, if you're not pedalling, try to keep your pedals level – don't follow my example in the photo at the top of this article! – as that way you're less likely to hit them on rocks or tree stumps, which can knock you off line and cause you to crash. You need to keep them both as flat and high off the ground as possible to avoid catching them on any obstacles.

Basic cornering

It's all very well being able to go in a straight line but sooner or later you’ll come across some corners. Whether they’re smooth and sweeping or short 'hairpin' bends, known as switchbacks, cornering is another technique that will help you to get around the trail faster and more enjoyably.

The key to cornering is to adjust your speed accordingly (ie. slow down!) as you approach the turn and make sure you're in a gear that will allow you to pedal out of it. For smooth, wide bends you shouldn’t need to reduce your speed as much as you will for tight switchbacks.

You should always focus on your exit – where you want to be once you’ve ridden around the corner. If you look directly in front of you or at the trail floor, that's where you'll end up. If you keep your eyes on the exit, that's where your bike will head.

Position your weight as centrally as possible as you approach the corner. If it's uphill you'll need to keep pedalling as you go around it. If not, then practise levelling your pedals.

Cornering technique can vary according to the type of turn. One of the most common corners you’ll come across is the flat turn, as seen in the picture above. In this case, when you're starting out it's a good idea to follow the widest part of the bend.

This should help to keep your ride smooth until you're confident enough to aim for the apex of the corner. The apex is the straightest line through a corner and therefore helps to flatten it out, meaning that you can maintain speed through the turn.

Basic obstacles

When approaching an obstacle, whether it’s a rock, a tree root or even an old railway track, the same principle can be applied. Hitting the obstacle square on with your front wheel will mean your back wheel will follow suit. 

Most of the time your bike will simply roll over the obstacle, as long as you keep it straight and don’t tense up. Keeping your grip on the handlebars fairly loose will allow you to relax so the bike can perform as it should. It should also help to prevent you from getting tired quite so quickly.

Basic trailside adjustments

As you ride around your first trail you may need to think about making some basic adjustments to your bike. This will ensure that you get the best performance from it and in turn make it easier and more comfortable to ride.

1 Saddle

Your saddle should be adjusted to the correct height before you start riding. One way to check this is to sit on your saddle and with one pedal at the bottom of the pedal stroke, as close to the ground as possible, check that your leg is almost straight but that your knee can still bend slightly. You can always lower the saddle at a later stage but for your first ride this is usually the best setup.

Once you're happy with your saddle height, there are one or two other adjustments that you can do to make your ride more comfortable and enjoyable. The tilt of your saddle can help with comfort and can be easily adjusted while on the trail as long as you take an appropriately sized Allen key with you.

You can also adjust the reach on your bike – the distance between the saddle and the handlebars – by sliding your saddle further forwards or backwards, and this can make a huge difference to your ride.

2 Brake levers

Make sure that your brake levers are positioned so that you can draw a straight line straight down from your shoulder to the tips of your fingers without bending your wrists. The brake levers should therefore be angled slightly towards the underside of your handlebars. This will avoid putting too much sprain on your wrists. (Bear in mind that as you progress, you're likely to spend more time standing on the pedals in the 'attack' position rather than seated, so this angle may change ed.)

3 Tyre pressure

To help the tyres grip as you ride over obstacles, such as roots and rocks, or when riding in mud or snow, it is sometimes helpful to reduce the tyre pressure by letting out some of the air. This can also make the bike more comfortable to ride. However, there are a couple of things to be aware of if you do this.

Firstly, with less air in the tyre there is an increased likelihood of getting punctures, particularly 'snakebite' or pinch punctures (see Beginner's guide to mountain biking, part 2). If you let too much air out, the tyre can also become too soft and will lack stability. Try out different tyre pressures as you ride over certain obstacles to see which pressure works best for you. Recommended tyre pressure ranges should be printed on the tyre's sidewall.

4 Front suspension

Most modern mountain bikes come with a suspension fork, and these generally offer a range of adjustments so you can set them up to match your weight and riding style. Here's a brief guide; for more on suspension tuning, including how to adjust coil-sprung forks, see Workshop: Setting up mountain bike suspension.

The RockShox Recon Solo Air fork on my bike has an air spring. This can be adjusted to suit riders of different weights by adding or removing air. To do this, you'll need a high-pressure shock pump.

It's important to follow the weight guidelines specified for each fork; these can usually be found in your owner's manual or on the manufacturer's website. If the fork isn't correctly set up for your weight, it'll either barely move or blow through all of its travel every time you ride over a pebble. If you're in doubt about the correct pressure, ask at your local bike shop.

Most forks also have a rebound adjuster, which allows you to adjust the speed at which it bounces back after you ride over an obstacle. This should be fast enough that your suspension is ready to absorb the shock from the next obstacle but not so fast that it springs straight back up like a pogo stick.

Rebound speed is down to personal preference, so adjust for one ride and then try it on a different setting half way round to see if you bike feels smoother or more controlled. Err towards faster rather than slower.

Many forks also now come with a lockout feature that allows you to turn off the suspension so you can ride up smooth hills and trails without wasting effort. Just make sure you turn your fork back on again before you head downhill.

When making any adjustments to your bike, try to ensure you only change one thing at a time so that it’s easier to identify what modification has helped or hindered your ride.

Next challenge

The above are the key points that I took away from my first ride. I was shattered by the end of the day and realised I was definitely going to have to work on my fitness levels. That being said, I was extremely pleased that I’d ridden a full trail on the day, with the help of my instructor.

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