Beginner’s guide to mountain biking, part 5

The ‘why to’ approach, and pumping

Having tackled some craggy rocks, gnarly logs and other obstacles at Dalby Forest and had her fair share of offs, our novice mountain biker Ruth decided she should remind herself of some of the basics in order to keep up her confidence on the bike.


She headed over to Aston Hill Bike Park, near Aylesbury in Buckinghamshire, to check out a skills course with Ian Warby from UK cyclists’ organisation CTC. Here’s what she learned…

On the course we looked at something known as the ‘Why to’ method, which is used across the country by CTC. This looks at how and why different riding techniques work, as well as focussing on your energy flow when biking. This approach has proved to be a brilliant asset in my biking knowledge bank and I found the course both confidence-boosting and inspiring.

The ‘Why to’ method looks at mountain biking on three levels: personal, psychological and physical. I’ll explain the first of these this week; you’ll have to wait for part six of this guide for the psychological and physical levels.

Why to: Personal level

On a personal level, before you can start riding, you need to make sure you feel physically fit and well, as you may be out on your bike for several hours. Secondly, you need to check your equipment is working properly for you. 

We looked at equipment in part 1 of this series but before going on this course I’d always felt like I wasn’t really connecting with the bike. Instead of controlling it, I felt like I was being taken wherever it wanted to go. On this course I learned that simple setup adjustments could ensure this was no longer the case. 

The first adjustment we looked at was brake lever positioning. Until the CTC course, my levers were positioned so that they lined up with my arms when they were straight, as in the picture below.

Before raising her brake levers her arms were almost locked out
Before raising her brake levers her arms were almost locked out: before raising her brake levers her arms were almost locked out
Ruth Schofield/BikeRadar

Ian suggested that if we rotated the brake levers upwards slightly on the handlebars, as in the picture below, then this would allow me to drop my wrists downwards. By doing this I found that I instantly gained more control over the bike as it meant my elbows instinctively bent. It also meant I had a better grip on the bars.

Afterwards her position is more relaxed
Afterwards her position is more relaxed: afterwards her position is more relaxed
Ruth Schofield/BikeRadar

Having adjusted the brakes, we looked at the distance between the saddle and handlebar, and the seat height. A high saddle gives good pedalling efficiency, but you need to be able to comfortably drop off the back of the bike on steep descents. The distance between the seat and bar can be adjusted either by moving your saddle forwards, as discussed in part 3, or – if a greater variation is needed – fitting a longer or shorter stem. Fitting a wider handlebar can improve control.

Swapping your stem for a shorter or longer one can have a dramatic effect on your riding
Swapping your stem for a shorter or longer one can have a dramatic effect on your riding: swapping your stem for a shorter or longer one can have a dramatic effect on your riding
Ruth Schofield/BikeRadar

Now that I had my bike set up properly and my arms were bent rather than locked-out, Ian was able to explain the notion of pumping – a simple, yet brilliantly effective, way of getting extra momentum and speed out of your bike, while conserving energy. He showed me that if you bend your elbows and make a small swopping action with your wrists, pushing down and forwards through the handlebars, it will push the bike forwards without any increase in pedalling.

The benefits of this technique are particularly obvious when riding ‘bomb holes’ – dips in the ground that look like the crater left after a bomb goes off. Once you drop into a bomb hole, put in a quick pump as you approach the bottom of the slope and then again as you start to come back up the other side. The energy gained on the descent will help boost you back up the other side, without the need for hard pedalling.

The pumping action can also be used on short, steep drops and climbs, and around corners, and can help to correct the bike if it has been knocked off course by a root or rock. Ian referred to these obstacles – which I tackled at Dalby Forest in part four of this guide – as ‘performance cues’, and explained that there are three types:

Make sure to look ahead when riding over roots
Make sure to look ahead when riding over roots: make sure to look ahead when riding over roots
Ruth Schofield/BikeRadar

1 Visual performance cues – these are the obstacles that you can pick out and see ahead of you on the trail, such as rocks and roots. They’ll attract your attention if you allow them to, which will put you off or cause you to ride towards them instead of continuing along the trail. Instead of focusing on them, try to look through them to the nearest high point or as far along your route as you can see.  This should ensure you ride over them with ease.

2 Input performance cues – these are the sections of the course which take you by surprise; you may not have spotted them in advance but you can feel them as you ride over them. The natural reaction is to slow down and look down, to find out what has just happened. Instead, keep focusing on the trail ahead. This way you should be able to pedal through the obstacle, using the pumping action to correct the bike where necessary.

3 Waiting performance cues – these are obstacle that you might be worried about riding, such as a very steep drop. To overcome them, focus on the ‘four Cs’ (control, commitment, concentration and confidence – there’ll be more on this in part 6 of this guide) and think about your technique, including body position, footwork, looking and speed control.

That’s it for this week. In the next edition of this guide, I’ll explain the psychological and physical levels of the CTC’s ‘Why to’ approach, along with the ‘four Cs’ and energy management.

Aston Hill Bike Park
Aston hill bike park: aston hill bike park
Ruth Schofield/BikeRadar

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!