How to ride trail centres

Essential techniques and bike setup advice

There are more trail centres in Britain than ever before. They offer an amazing mountain biking experience for riders of all levels, straight out the car park in virtually any weather. But they are more than just a nice marked trail to follow – to get the most of them, you need the right techniques and riding skills.

Groomed trails can sometimes make riders lazy. When negotiating natural off-road trails the changes in surface texture and obstacles keep you on your toes. You constantly have to address your body position and work the bike to get the most out of it, and the terrain.

Trail centres typically have one obvious line to ride – but look a little closer and you’ll see that there are loads of different things you can do to find a faster approach. Don’t just ride the same stretch of trail that all your mates ride. Attack it flat-out, scour for less obvious lines and get as much fun out of your ride as you can.

Trail centre riding techniques

Berms

These banked turns are not there to make turns easier – they’re there so you can hit them hard and fast.

Eyes: Always look ahead – by the time you reach the berm you should have spotted your line. Focus on your exit point and direction.

 Elbows: Outside elbow up, with your forearm around 90 degrees to the ground and inside arm fairly straight, ready to pull the bike back in to shape as you straighten up.

Braking: Control your speed before and after the turn – not during. If you’re grabbing handfuls of brake once you’re in the turn, you’re approaching too fast.

Gears: As you come into the turn, flick into a lower gear ready to power out the turn.

Position: Get over the front of the bike in an aggressive position ready to attack. The harder you hit it, the more you get out of it.

Exit: As you pull the bike back in line get on the gas and you’ll fire out the turn with more speed that you came in with.

Rock drops

Most people ride around rock drops, but there’s almost always a line going straight over the top. Just look before you leap...

Eyes: Scan the landing area and run-out. Learn where the bad bits are, and make sure you know where you’re going on exit before you contemplate the run-in.

Lean back: As you leave the drop, lean back to un-weight the front wheel. Both wheels should land together, so once the front is up, shift your weight forward so it drops just as the rear wheel leaves the rock.

Seat position: Lower your seat to minimise the impact on landing. This will also lower your centre of gravity to make you more stable.

Braking: Assess the speed you need to safely ride away from a drop-off, and do your braking on approach to ensure you’re at that speed. Never brake just before the drop.

Ride away: Even though your bike probably has suspension, absorb as much of the impact as possible with your arms and legs and ride away.

Jumps

Most trail centres jumps are rollable, but the quickest – and most fun –way to ride them is to jump over them smoothly.

Setting up: Approach ready to jump. Have your saddle down, your preferred foot forwards and be poised to attack. Control your speed on the way in. If you’re too fast you’ll go into orbit, if you’re too slow you won’t clear the jump.

Feel the speed: Trail builders tend to put berms in before jumps – they allow a certain pace, which gives way to the ideal speed for tackling the jumps. To give you an idea of the speed you need, you shouldn’t be hitting them so fast you can barely stay on them.

Suspension: Your suspension set-up can affect the handling of your bike. If you have too little rebound dialled in, the kick of the jump can be dangerous. Make sure your bike has no more than the recommended sag setting on your suspension units as well – a bike that wallows won’t get off the ground.

Pump: Before the take-off there will often be pump bumps – make sure you really push the bike into the backside of these to get the maximum pop for your jump.

Bodyweight: When airborne you can use your body weight to keep you stable. Move back and forth to raise and dip the nose, and use your pedals and handlebars to alter your angle in the air. If you’re feeling unstable, pinch the saddle between your knees, but avoid stiffening up too much.

Nose in: Getting the bike back on terra firma is the fastest way ahead. Push the nose down and get the front wheel back down quickly for maximum control when you land.

Switchbacks

Tight switchback turns take full advantage of the terrain. The most natural line will be the slowest. Cut high on the banking for more speed.

Approach: Switchbacks typically come in succession, so you need to ride the first one right otherwise you’ll mess up the angle for the second turn.

Braking: Control your speed on the way into the turn, and release as you turn – the speed will help your tyres grip. Don’t grab the brakes, just drag them a little if you do need to adjust speed.

Heads up: Spot your exit point before you come into the turn. Make sure you read ahead otherwise you’ll make a wrong choice along the way.

Go low – slow: Although it’s where the trail will lead you, the inside line is the slower line and will leave you with a tight turn to negotiate, which will sap your speed.

Cut high – fast: By making the turns wider, you’re reducing the amount you turn, and increasing your speed at the same time.

Exit: As you leave the turn, get on the gas straight away to make the most of the speed you’ve managed to carry through the switchback.

Woodwork

Eyes: Just like reading a trail, keep your eyes on your exit point. By the time you hit the wood, you should have already scanned the line.

Brake control: Do any major speed control before you hit the wood as even with chicken wire, wood can be slippy. Keep braking to a minimum, and don’t grab – just feather.  

Clearance: Thanks to the slots between wood, and wire for grip, the are lots of pedal-grabbing places. Keeping your pedals horizonal will help reduce the chance of catching them.

Pump: Some woodwork can be ridden along normally, but often the builders will incorporate rises and banked turns. Pump them for every ounce of speed.

Turning circle: Get to know the length of your bike – when negotiating turns on woodwork your wheels will come close to the edge. If you lose the rear end it could damage your disc rotor or rear mech. Practise hopping the rear end about to pull it back in line.

Line choice

Safest line: The safer line will always be the worn-in option, but won’t necessarily be the easiest or best option. Expect to weave around a little and do some brake checking.

Hazards: In rocky sections like this, the safe lines will usually weave around rocks – leaving sharp rock edges at a convenient height for causing damage. Look for scarring on rock edges and you’ll see where others have got it wrong.

Commitment: Once you’ve looked at the options, commit to one. If you come into the section half-heartedly, you’ll be setting yourself up for an accident. Pick your line, stick to it and hit it with confidence.

Dab, don’t grab: When riding sections like this, control your speed by literally dabbing the brakes, rather than grabbing them. Fine tuning like this keeps you in control – locked wheels are out of control.

Technical climbs

Line: Spot your line early – be it the tougher line over obstacles, or the easier around option – and commit. If it’s a short sharp section, be prepared to put the power down.

Cadence: Gear choice is crucial – you need to be spinning a gear to keep momentum. If you stumble on an obstacle in a bigger gear, you’ll struggle to keep moving forward.

Body weight: When it’s rough, out-of-the-saddle bursts can lead to wheel spinning, but seated attempts can end up in wheelies. Hover over the nose of the saddle to keep the front end down, but weight on the rear wheel. Try and stay low over the bars to help you balance.

Pinch puncture risk: With most trail bikes, you can roll over most rubble and rock slabs but do risk puncturing. If you’re confident you can avoid it, up your cadence and straight-line the section as hard as possible.

Recovery: Once over the obstacle, get back into a rhythm as quickly as possible and control your breathing. Attacking the section will have you out of breath, but use it to propel yourself forward and ease up slightly afterwards to recover.

Rock steps

Eyes: Steps like this can have your eyes darting all over the place, but stay focused. Check your line, note any hazards and look down the trail at your exit point.

Brake control: It’s important to approach slowly – it’s easy to build up speed on steps, but tricky and dangerous to scrub it off. Start slower, and you can always build up your speed.

Seat height: If you’ve got a height dropper seatpost, now’s the time to use it. If not, lower your saddle to attack the steps. If your saddle is raised, one hard hit could pitch you over the bars, so be careful.

Pedals: Keep your best foot forwards and be careful not to strike your pedals on the steps or rocks. Some rock steps are high enough to catch a chainring at low-speed. When riding faster, you don’t run this risk because your front end will travel further from the step before impact.

Position: As the front end drops over the edge allow the bike to fall away from you. Relax your arms and allow the saddle to come up towards your chest. Stay loose and allow the bike to move around. Don’t stiffen up or you’ll be grabbing the brakes.

Gear selection: If you don’t have a chainguide, you could drop your chain on sections like this. Put your bike in a gear that will tension the chain to help stop this– using the big ring will help, or middle with a low gear option on the rear. Rock steps often have tight turns that follow, so have a low gear ready to enable you to make a fast getaway.

Bike setup advice

Seatpost: You’ll need your saddle at an efficient riding height for the climbs, but lowering it makes the descents more fun. Try running it slightly lower than usual for your whole ride, or switch to a height-dropper seatpost.

Tyres: In summer semi-slicks will fly round, but something more substantial is better all year round. Running them firmer helps with rolling- resistance and minimises pinch punctures.

 Pedals: If you want to tear up – and down – a trail centre, clipless pedals really are an advantage. They let you pull up and push down while pedalling, are great for fast direction changes and enable you to float through rough sections.

Front mudguard: A trail centre’s hard surface is designed to withstand the elements, but there is always a lot of gritty spray thrown up. A front mudguard will catch the spray and keep it out of your eyes.

Suspension: Trail centres have a firm surface and a lot of buzz when you’re riding fast. A slightly firmer ride will feel faster and more responsive. Try setting a quarter of the available travel as sag, rather than the usual optimum third.

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