6 Core Mountain Biking Skills
It’s easier to improve your mountain biking if you at least have an understanding of the 6 core skills that every mountain biker needs to master.
In this article, we discuss the 6 core skills of mountain biking, as presented by the Professional Mountain Bike Instructors’ association (PMBIA).
These skills all overlap one another and more often than not are all used at the same time. However, due to the complex nature of mountain biking and the bio-mechanics of the sport; it is best to teach each one individually.
A mountain bike instructor will choose the skill, or blend of skills, that benefit the student most. Therefore they may not be taught in the order laid out below.
For the purpose of this article, we will run through them in the order in which the PMBIA places them. With the foundational skills first, followed by a progression of skills that build upon the previous one.
We will briefly discuss each concept but break them down further in later publications.
Body Position & Balance
Starting with the basics, body position and balance is the first core skill of mountain biking.
If the riders’ body position is off, then this will affect everything the rider does. It’s the foundation of the mountain bike skills. Assessing the riders’ body position is the first thing instructors will observe. Finding a centred and balance position is key during the initial assessment here.
Often, people have their weight distribution slightly off. Either they place too much weight on their handlebars, or their knees are too bent; placing too much weight behind the bottom bracket.
With too much weight on the bars; the bike will feel twitchy in turns. With too much weight in the rear; riders experience front wheel washout in turns.
Finding the centre is a good place to start. Place your weight over the bottom bracket, with very light pressure on the bars. You’re feeling for equal weight distribution between your wheels. (Watch: How to find Neutral position)
Operation of Controls
How we use the brakes and gears is the next step to becoming a better rider.
Those new to mountain biking tend to be what I call ‘a little grabby‘. This means they quickly grab, and release, the brake with a little too much force and at the wrong time. This often causes the body to lurch forward upsetting the balance of the bike and distributing the weight unevenly.
Upsetting the balance like this, can cause a loss of traction. Momentum shifts in a direction that the rider was not ready for. Smooth, gradual and consistent braking; that doesn’t suddenly cause the bike to dive, or the body to lurch, is key here. (Check out how to set up up your brake levers)
As for gears – shifting smoothly, at the right time is the focus of this skill. Learning how to reduce the pressure on your pedals, whilst changing gear, is a very useful skill to master. It will save your drive chain and possibly an awkward crash.
It’s all well and good knowing how to ride your bike, but if you’re not paying attention to where you’re going, it will all be for nothing!
There is no magic distance ahead of the bike that a rider should look. It’s constantly shifting depending on the terrain and speed. This skill is all about collecting information and making decisions.
Collecting information about the terrain ahead, gives you data that can be used to make a decision. Such as what gear to chose, or where to position your body for the corner.
It’s not as simple as just ‘look ahead’. We need to be constantly scanning the trail for information. Most new riders focus on the terrain immediately infront of their bike. Many riders would benefit from lifting their gaze more often. Helping them to assess what’s coming up after the section they’re currently navigating.
It’s often the corner or root we didn’t see that catches us out. Prepare and plan ahead.
To simplify the concept of direction control, we could say this term refers to ‘steering’ the bike. However it is so much more than that. We can simply turn the bars at slow speeds. However, as we ride faster and introduce more technical terrain; the rider must learn how to use their body to drive the bike, rather than be a passenger.
Leaning the bike is one way to change direction, but rotating the body is another way. Putting direction control to work, is quite a simple concept. However, the bio-mechanics of bike body separation is difficult to master. It’s like playing a chord on a guitar. Holding down one string is easy; but to place your fingers on four strings and cleanly strum the guitar is a lot more difficult. Breaking down the concept into manageable chunks will improve the learning process.
We’re getting into more advanced techniques in the direction control phase. For those riders who never take a mountain bike lesson, this is their ceiling. Riding will seem to plateau without the ability to grasp direction control, using rotational body movements and bike body separation.
There are two main factors to consider in relation to pressure control. Firstly, being able to manage the forces acting upon the bike from the terrain. And Secondly, the forces the rider can apply to the bike and terrain. Driving your feet into the pedals at the right time can create a few different outcomes. It can create traction, it can create speed, it can slow you down, it can create momentum, or initiate lift.
Absorbing the terrain at the right time, allowing the bike some freedom to move; can also assist with carrying speed and momentum through rough or technical sections of trail.
Being able to manage the pressures on the bike is a key concept when it comes to improving your mountain biking drops and jumps. Knowing when to firm up the knees and arms, versus when to allow them to fold is the trick here. Pump tracks are a great way to develop your pressure control skills. Successfully navigating a pump track however, would be impossible without acquiring the final skill.
Timing and Co-odination
It may be the last skill here but it bleeds through every single stage of the learning process. Timing and co-ordination, is the overarching skill that must be performed consistently through all of your mountain biking.
Riding a pump track will show you instantly how good your timing is. Using pressure control to pump your way around a pump track will be useless unless you time the pumps correctly. We need to pump in the troughs and absorb over the rollers. If we absorb too early or late we will lose our flow and momentum.
If you’re heading into a jump, pressinng into your pedals too close to the lip, may be a costly mistake.
With so many moving parts to mountain biking, timing and co-ordination plays a huge part in a riders’ flow. Knowing when to perform a certain movement and being ready and responsive to the terrain, will be the difference between a smooth ride, or an uncomfortable, awkward one.
Improve your Mountain Biking Today
In later publications, we can break these skills down even more, but for now, go with the general skill areas. Pick one of these 6 core skills to focus on during your next mountain bike ride. Don’t try to tackle 2 or 3 skills, just pick one.
Focus on it during every aspect of your ride. If it’s body position then focus on your body position in the climbs, on the straights, in the corners, over roots, on the drops, over jumps. Whatever manoeuvre you’re doing, be thinking about that one skill you choose and how it can improve your mountain biking.