Beginner's guide to mountain biking, part 4

How to tackle common trail obstacles

After learning some basic skills at Afan Forest, it was time for our mountain bike rookie Ruth to step things up. She headed to DalbyForest, Yorkshire – home to a World Cup level cross-country course littered with challenging obstacles – to work on her technique with Steve Phipps of Chasing Trails.

Basic obstacle technique

Steve taught me that the same basic technique can be applied to pretty much any trail obstacle, such as a root, rock or step. There are two main parts to this: speed and position.

As you head towards the obstacle, make sure you're in an appropriate gear and that you're going fast enough that you won't stop before – or even on top of – whatever's blocking your way. On the other hand, don't overdo it and go so fast that you lose control. To start with it's better to err on the slow side.

Now stand up on your pedals with your knees and arms bent so that you’re ready to absorb as much of the impact as possible. This is known as the ‘ready’ position as you’re prepared to tackle almost anything in this stance. You can see this in action in the short video clip below:

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The next thing to remember is to stay relaxed. Tensing up will make it much harder to absorb the impact (of hitting the obstacle, in the case of a rock or root, or landing from it, in the case of a drop) and could make you lose control of the bike. Staying relaxed with both knees and arms almost exaggeratedly bent will ensure you can control your balance and weight distribution.

Have your preferred foot forward on the pedals and keep both pedals flat as you roll off the obstacle. This will ensure you don’t scrape them on the obstacle, throwing you off balance or off your bike.

Keep your head up and focused on the trail ahead. Search out your next move. This way you’re not tempted to look down at your front wheel, again throwing you off balance. Just before you hit the obstacle, shift your weight backwards off the saddle. A top tip here was to practise this technique with your saddle lowered so you aren't tempted to stay seated and it’s easier to shift your weight right back over the rear wheel.

As you roll over the obstacle with your eyes focused on the trail ahead and your arms and knees bent, your front wheel will drop away from you. Be ready to bend your arms again as your front wheel hits the floor as this will act like natural suspension and cushion the blow. Your back wheel will follow your front wheel and you’ll have conquered your first obstacle. Now prepare for the next one, with arms and knees bent.

Small obstacles and uneven trail surfaces

With small obstacles, it's often simply a matter of adjusting your weight distribution as you roll over them. As you approach a small rock or uneven section of trail, shift your weight backwards, bend your arms and legs, roll over the obstacle and, as the front wheel reaches the other side, shift your weight back to the centre again. Standing up on your pedals will help you stay in control, and being in the ready position will mean you can cope if anything unexpected happens, like a rock or root shifting when you hit it.

Larger obstacles, rocks and drop-offs

Larger obstacles and drop-offs can be extremely daunting for beginners – especially if you can't see where the trail goes on the other side. However, the basic technique is the same. Learning to shift your weight and stay relaxed on the bike means you'll flow over the obstacle and feel in control.

When approaching large rocks for the first time, it's a good idea to get off the bike and have a closer look at the line you’re going to follow. Walk along your chosen path, checking for uneven surfaces and looking at your exit route. This will help you to see where the bike will roll and when to shift your weight.

Once back on the bike, approach at a comfortable speed, standing up on the pedals with your arms and knees bent, and shift your weight backwards. How far back you'll need to shift your weight depends on whether the rock forms part of a drop-off (where there is no downslope) or whether you can simply roll over it.

On drop-offs, you'll need to shift your weight off the saddle and right over the back wheel to make sure you don’t fly over the handlebars and your back wheel keeps as much grip as possible. When you roll off the edge, the front wheel will drop away from you and your arms, which were bent in the ready position, will reach out. 

Once the front wheel reconnects with the ground, absorb the shock by bending your arms back into the ‘ready’ position and centralise your weight. If you find you're catching your outer chainring on large drop-offs, pedal slightly faster on approach so that your bike will clear the edge of the rock before it drops.

With tree roots and logs there is an additional factor to consider: they can be slippery, especially in the wet. Your best option is to ride over tree roots as squarely as possible. This will ensure your front wheel rolls over the root or log rather than skipping or sliding to the side and throwing you off. 

Another technique for getting over large obstacles and tree roots, particularly when going uphill, is to lift the front wheel. This technique needs some practise but is very useful once you master it. The easiest way to lift the front wheel is to use your suspension fork.

Push down on your front suspension. As it rebounds (springs back), shift your weight backwards and straighten your legs, and your front wheel should lift off the ground. We practised this technique on flat ground, using a branch and a rock as obstacles.

What happens when it all goes wrong?

As a beginner you’re going to make mistakes when practising technique so be prepared for some interesting falls – also known as ‘offs’. Learning to position your weight and getting a feel for your bike and its capabilities will help to limit these. Just remember that even the pros fall off their bikes; it’s all part of the biking experience, and shows you're pushing your riding boundaries.

A great way to build confidence and help avoid big offs is to learn how to use both brakes to control your bike. The rear brake is the one that’s going to help you avoid going over the handlebars, but the front brake is actually more crucial when it comes to stopping you – most disc brake equipped bikes come with a larger rotor (disc) at the front than at the rear, and when you're heading downhill, there's much more weight over the front of your bike than over the back.

Getting a feel for both brakes on flat, level ground will help to give you confidence in the mechanics of your bike. Test the strength you can apply to each brake and how that affects the balance of the bike before you start your ride.

Ride in a straight line and then try to stop using only the rear brake. Brake too hard and you'll lock up your rear wheel, which will make it lose grip and skid. To prevent this, try braking less abruptly and shifting your weight backwards to push the tyre into the ground.

Ride in a straight line again and try to stop using only the front brake – be careful as this could cause the rear wheel to rise off the ground, sending you flying over the handlebars. To avoid this, again try braking less abruptly and shifting your weight backwards.

Ideally you should be using both brakes at the same time – although when you're starting out it's a good idea to apply the rear fractionally before the front to avoid an over-the-bars moment – and using subtle shifts of bodyweight to maintain traction.

About the author

The staff of BikeRadar, Mountain Biking UK and What Mountain Bike  have vast amounts of knowledge on mountain biking and I’m always left wondering how these guys are so clued-up. Where did they start?

As a complete novice, I had very little idea of what I needed to start riding, or even where I could go to learn how to ride. So I decided it was time to get knowledgeable.

For this series I’ll be riding and writing from a complete beginner's point of view. I’ll visit a variety of locations and take part in skills courses, and then tell you honestly what I’ve learnt.

Follow me through the series and by the end I’ll be aiming to take on the massive challenge of riding down Snowdon, the highest mountain in Wales. This will be the ultimate test of the skills and knowledge I've acquired, and it'll prove that mountain biking isn’t just for the elites!

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