Technique: 50 ways to be a better mountain biker

Make the most of winter riding

With dark days, darker nights and weather that’s verging on the criminal side of foul, it’s little wonder that mountain bikers sometimes have a hard time keeping their spirits up when the winter months draw in.

Still, with all that spare time on your hands it seems somewhat foolish to spend it polishing your top tube. We think winter is the perfect time to take a close look at everything in your life to do with bikes and find out just how well it works.

From maintenance tips for bike and body, to skills advice and valid excuses to spend your cash on bike-related stuff, we hope our list of ideas to boost your riding will encourage you not to hang up the wheels until summer but instead keep you out on the trails whatever the weather, making the most of what can be a very beautiful (and productive) time of year.

Get motivated

1 Own goal

Pick a target and give yourself something to aim at. There are now enough events of all sorts on the race calendar to keep you amused every weekend of the year. Cross-country, enduro, endurance, downhill, cyclo-cross… the list is endless and once you’ve picked your poison you’ll have plenty of motivation to get fitter and faster.

2 Ride, don’t race

Some people just don’t like closed-circuit mountain bike racing. If you’re convinced it’s not for you, then look elsewhere for a goal to keep you going over the winter. Check out adventure races, which mix running and riding with navigation and often require plenty of brainpower and hill skills as well as fitness and riding ability. You could also have a crack at a long-distance cycle route; while they’re not usually technically challenging, the point-to-point nature hits the spot for many people, and they traverse some beautiful parts of the world.

3 Mini adventure

Escape the humdrum and tackle something a little more adventurous. Bivvying is still the method of the moment but we’re fans of bothying and credit card touring, too. Simply fill a small pack with overnight gear, then take the scenic route to a bothy or bike-friendly B&B/guesthouse/hotel. Repeat for as many days as you can manage.

4 Foreign climes

A week of winter sunshine can’t be beaten for lifting your mood. Bike tester and photographer Seb Rogers says: “Spend the money you saved for a new fork/wheelset/whatever on a holiday with your bike instead.” Make sure your chosen location isn’t going to be under 10ft of snow, though...

Clean up your act

5 Feeding stations

Whether you’re whippet thin or could lose a few pounds, take a look at your eating habits. There’s usually room for improvement and always room for more fruit and veg. Fuel the engine consistently and healthily and you’ll notice a big improvement in your riding.

6 Hydration, hydration

When the temperature drops it’s easy to forget to drink enough liquid when you’re riding, but dehydration is just as damaging in the cooler months. Keep sipping through the chilliest rides and drink plenty of water throughout the day.

7 Yoga

Tack a weekly yoga practice onto your riding schedule and you’ll feel the benefits almost immediately. It boosts strength and flexibility, aids breath control and helps you to focus. Look for a local class with help and guidance if you’re a first timer, then check out a DVD in the comfort of your own front room.

8 Bend and stretch

Regular stretching is an overlooked part of any rider’s arsenal. The jury is out over whether it’s best to do it before, after or even during rides, but we prefer to do it in front of the TV while the post-ride tea is brewing. Target any existing problems but don’t neglect the rest of your muscles. View it as preventative maintenance rather than emergency treatment.

9 Catch some Zs

It doesn’t matter how hard you ride, if you don’t make time for your body to recover, you won’t reap the benefits. Sleep is massively important for muscle repair and regeneration so make sure that you get plenty.

Boot camp

10 Learn to love being out of breath

“Far from just being the domain of racers, embracing exertion means you’ll go further, faster and become fitter. Plus, it always helps justify the extra slice of cake at the end of the ride!” Oli Pepper, directeur sportif, Morvelo.

11 Push yourself

“When you think you can’t pedal that hard for a second longer, keep going for a count of 10. You’ll be amazed how much faster/further you’ll soon be going.” Guy Kesteven, BikeRadar tester in chief

12 Cross training

Indulge in a little cross training – a weekly run or swim will boost your all-round fitness markedly. If you’re an adrenaline fiend consider hitting the local climbing wall as an alternative; it’ll increase your flexibility as well as strength and give you the buzz that keeps you absorbed.

13 Spin the night away

It’s a last resort in many people’s eyes but if you’re seriously time crunched then get the turbo out and indulge in some interval sessions. Keep them hard, fast and, most important of all, short to avoid the mind-numbing boredom that comes from pedalling your legs off while going absolutely nowhere. 

Back to basics

14 Pins & needles

Take advantage of some fettling time to get your riding position sorted out. Niggly aches and pains are often caused by something as simple as incorrect saddle height or handlebar rotation or poorly set up SPDs. Pay attention to what your bike looks like, and what you look like on it, to try to work out what’s going wrong.

15 Eat strong

Use the winter downtime to figure out what you can and can’t eat when riding hard. At its most basic this could just mean training yourself to take on adequate amounts of carbohydrate while exercising; move it on a notch and you’ll be looking at testing different sorts of energy drinks, bars and gels to find out which combinations work for you.

16 Back to school

If you want to make the most of your training then it makes sense to brush up on the theory so you really understand how your body works. Pick up a dedicated training book and immerse yourself in the principals of periodisation, lactate thresholds and power output – your friends and family might not welcome a full reprise but you’ll be able to put the knowledge to good use once spring rolls around again.

17 Trials on tarmac

Break out of the knobbly-tyred mould and hit the blacktop for a slightly cleaner mid-winter experience. If you don’t want to splash out on another bike then stick slicks on your mountain bike: you’ll miss out on the rolling benefits of 700c wheels but you’ll still find the speed and apparent ease of road riding utterly refreshing.

Sort out your kit

18 Experiment with bike setup

“Alter your bike setup. Try different riding positions, play with tyre and suspension pressures, experiment with component choice and so on. Work out what works best for you in different situations and don’t just bow to fashion.” John Ross, racer extraordinaire.

19 Lose weight, not cash

Throwing money at poor performance is a quick fix, but shedding excess flab is a more cost-effective, and healthy, way to speed things up. As an incentive, only buy new kit once you’ve earned it by dropping those pounds.

20 Go minimal

“Don’t be afraid to take just the  bare essentials out with you: if you're only blasting around local trails of an afternoon a pump, puncture repair kit, spare tube, tyre levers, multitool and some snacks should be all you really need. Make things easier and ditch the pack: get a saddle pack or strap your spare tube to your saddle rails, get a bottle boss mount for your pump, and stick the other kit in your rear jersey pocket. And, last but not least, use a water bottle rather than a hydration pack.” Matt Skinner, What Mountain Bike editor.

21 Audit your backpack

Dig out your usual riding pack. Open all the pockets, turn it upside down and give it a good shake (preferably not over your best white carpet). You’ll be amazed at what you find...

22 Reduce, reuse, recycle

Do you chuck your punctured tubes away? Get the patches out and fix them instead. It’s a purposeful non-riding bike task to do when the weather is vile and is far better for the environment (and your pocket) than sending them to the landfill.

23 Lending library

If you’re mechanically minded and in need of costly specialist tools, consider starting up a tool library. Rope in some friends, work out what you need and then split the cost; you’ll have access to expensive items like thread taps and headset presses but without having to bear the financial burden alone. It does mean that someone will have to take the role of library co-ordinator though.

24 Charitable acts

Clear out your boxes of bike bits and take everything you haven’t touched for a year to your local bike recycling project or cycle jumble. The parts will go to a great home and you’ll have space to start accumulating those worn chains, gripless grips and split tyres again.

25 Spring cleaning

If you’re a novice, learning how to properly clean your bike and relubricate its drivechain is one of the most useful skills you can learn to keep your ride running smoothly. If you think that’s below you, then take a close look at your bike – we bet you’ll find parts that could use a little attention, because ours are exactly the same.

26 Cable magic

Shifting performance is one of the first things to go when the trails get sloppy. Whip out old inners, flush outers with dispersant and fit new inners; it’s one of the quickest ways to get a lacklustre ride feeling neat again, and costs peanuts.

27 Shop local

If you’re lucky enough to have an LBS (local bike shop) nearby, then make the effort to use it. They might not be able to match online/mail order prices but it’s likely that you’ll gain more from their experience and advice than you would save shopping online. If there’s something you’d like to be able to buy from them that they don’t stock, then give them some constructive feedback. Taking the time to develop a good relationship will make buying bike bits even more pleasurable – you might just be glad of it when you need an urgent job doing at 5pm the night before a big ride.

28 Tool school

Learn how to fix your own bike. From the most basic trail skill of replacing punctured tubes to tackling a strip, clean and rebuild of a full-suspension frame, there’s little that can’t be done once you have the knowledge. Start with the small things and work up – there are plenty of resources available to help you learn and you can even go on a training course if you want to take things further.

Be inspired

29 Feel the love

“Be in love with cycling. To be a better cyclist you need to feel the passion. True love will drive you out of bed on windy Sundays, remove the temptation to take the car to work and blind you to the trudge of constant bike cleaning. Love comes from squirrelling away beautiful cycling experiences. Ride more, love more, ride more.” Fi Spotswood, adventure racer.

30 Catch up on your reading

Long dark winter evenings confined to barracks make the perfect opportunity to seek out motivation. No, we’re not talking about the latest YouTube hit; there’s a huge amount of inspirational writing available in a variety of formats from regular riders’ blogs on the internet to more involving reading material published in good ol’ paperback format.

31 Break out the popcorn

Bigger bucks, better kit and innovative techniques have boosted the bike film industry in recent years. The latest crop of visual stunners includes eagerly awaited Life Cycles and Brit flick Find. Fire up the DVD player and prepare to be amazed.

32 Get connected

Love it or hate it, the growth of social media makes organising days out and finding riding buddies significantly less arduous. With Twitter lists and ‘tweet ups’, Facebook groups and forum rides popping up all over the place, it’s a great way to get involved with like-minded fools. Just beware of the difference between some people’s online persona and their real life personality.

33 Take out a newbie...

As anyone who’s experienced the joy of basking in the glow of a new convert to the cause will tell you, nothing quite beats taking out a novice for their first ever mountain bike ride. Make sure they’re properly equipped, be prepared to weather a few sticky moments and have a stash of sweets on hand ready to ease progress, and you'll find the experience thoroughly rewarding.

34 …but not your partner

We’d recommend that you don’t press-gang your partner onto the trails. Sending him/her out to learn the basics with an impartial third party if – and only if – they express an interest, is usually far safer and more diplomatic for all involved.

35 Time crunched

Make the time to ride with your friends. It’s easy to blame work and domestic arrangements for keeping you away from regular rides, but the company and laughter will keep you riding happily through the worst of the winter weather. We all have the same number of hours in the day; it’s how you use them that matters. As Debbie Burton, full-time mum and keeper of the Minx Girl cycle clothing website, says: “Just ride  your bike whenever you can. Nipping  to the shops, half an hour free? Get out on your bike.”

Practical steps

36 Go exploring

“Escape trail centres. Do it now. Maps aren’t scary and there’s a big world out there.” Seb Rogers, tester and photographer.

37 Skills school

Brush up on your trail skills. Take an outdoor-specific first aid course, learn the basics of get-you-home bike repair, make sure you know how to read a map and use a compass. You’ll probably have need to call upon one or more of these skills in the coming year and they could even save your life one day.

38 Map magic

Expand your horizons by researching new places to ride. Use the web to find out about places that interest you, then buy an OS map and get plotting. Guidebooks are a big help to the adventurous rider, but nothing beats finding your very own secret singletrack out there in the back of beyond.

39 Local knowledge

To get the very best out of an area you’re visiting, consider employing a professional guide. Many people don’t see why they should do this in the UK, but you’ll benefit from their legwork and knowledge of the local trail network, the local economy will get a boost and they'll be able to tailor the riding to suit the kinds of trails you’re looking for. Check out trail centres, tourist information centres and local bike shops for prospective candidates.

40 Dig day afternoons

The trails don’t fix themselves and a great way to give something back is to participate in a maintenance day. Alternatively, adopt a local trail as ‘yours’ and make a habit of stopping every once in a while to trim back encroaching undergrowth and stop up chicken runs or widening puddles. You’ll get a warm glow and the trail will love you back.

41 Eyes open

Be nosey – ride with your eyes open. Investigate the patches of woodland, scrub and wasteland tucked between the houses; it’s likely there’s a trail or two right under your nose.

Expand your skill set

42 Improve your riding

“If you want to ride like a big bowl of awesome, just get your chin up and look well ahead. While you’re at it, let’s have elbows out, move your hips, open your legs, open your mind and relax harder.” Ed Oxley, trail guide and skills guru.

43 Top technique

We all have our mantras to ride by. Mike Davis, test team rider, says: “Bend your elbows – the tip to end all tips.”

44 Vision power

What Mountain Bike editor Matt Skinner has these words of wisdom: “Looking up and further ahead will allow you to see things in good time so as not to get caught unawares. As a result, you’ll pick better lines, and ride better/more smoothly.”

45 Harden up

We’re big hardtail advocates here at BikeRadar. Resident snapper Seb explains why: “Ride a rigid hardtail through the winter, or at least a hardtail. You’ll go much faster when you get back on a susser.” Super-smooth trail surfer Steve Worland goes one step further and recommends that you own at least one off-road bike without suspension (big tyres excepted) and ride it regularly.

46 Skill up

Many riders who wouldn’t think twice about splashing hundreds of pounds on hardware baulk at spending a fraction of that on some skills training, yet booking yourself in with a guide for the day is one of the most fruitful ways to boost your skill level and enable you to make the most of your equipment.

47 Positive spin

Boost your efficiency and you’ll be able to ride harder for longer while expending less energy. Develop a smooth pedalling rhythm and learn how to select the right gear for a given section of trail; you’ll climb better and have more energy left for the downhills.

Time to have fun

48 Vroom vroom

Make motorbike noises just for the hell of it. Mountain biking is all about fun after all, and who knows, it might even make you go faster!

49 Stop blaming your kit

It’s easy to make excuses for riding badly. What Mountain Bike editor Matt Skinner advises: “Don’t be afraid to make mistakes. We all do it and sometimes alarmingly frequent. It’s often the best way to learn, and it keeps other riders entertained.” Just try not to make them too painfully! Check Matt’s knees next time you see him – messy!

50 Get out and ride!

Turn off your computer and go out for a ride. When you get back plan the next one – it’s habit forming, this mountain biking lark. What are you waiting for?

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