Would you ever hand your keys to someone who’s never driven a car before and say, “Here ya go! Figure it out and good luck!”. I hope not! With great power, comes great responsibility… and I would argue that mountain biking is a great power. So if you are a new mountain biker, or if you are introducing a friend to the sport, make sure to be familiar with these 7 must know skills before hitting the trail!
1. Front brake & rear brake
Putting someone on a mountain bike without explaining what the front and rear brake do, and generally how to use them, is cruel and unusual punishment.
Here are the very basics you want to understand before hitting the trails; you have two brake levers on your bike. In the US, a standard bike setup has the front brake on the left and the rear brake on the right (Think: Right Rear). In other parts of the world (i.e.; New Zealand, UK, Australia …) these are reversed!
Generally speaking, your front brake has your stopping power and your rear brake helps you to control your speed. Also generally speaking, you will typically be using both brakes at the same time. You should be using one finger (your pointer finger) for braking and when you squeeze the lever(s), think about easing the squeeze which is to say, it’s not a jerky on/off tug of the lever but rather a gentle ease and release.
2. Ready position
Ready position is used any time you’re out on the trail and need to be – you guessed it – “ready”! Ready position is your go-to for descending, technical terrain and negotiating trail obstacles like rocks, roots and rollers. Here are the key components to the ready position:
Even weight in your feet
Knees bent and out
Bum off the saddle
Elbows bent and out
One finger on the brake
Head up and looking ahead
Ready position is all about being loose and relaxed. By keeping your knees bent and elbows out, you are allowing your body to serve as your suspension, absorbing any lump or bumps in the trail and keeping you steady. You will move between a high ready position (a bit more relaxed) and a low ready position (more aggressive), as the terrain becomes more and less aggressive.
Newbie Tip: You should NOT be in a low (aggressive) ready position 100% of the time because….quad burn! You are essentially holding yourself in a simultaneous squat + push up position and you will get tired. If you are on a smooth, non-technical descent, you might raise up just a little into a high ready position (butt still off the saddle). If you are cruising on smooth flat terrain, relax into a neutral seated position.
Here are some additional resources to help you understand the ready position –
When you first start riding, if you see a feature (rock, root, steep climb etc.) that you don’t feel comfortable tackling, that’s cool! No pressure! Just make sure you know how to safely stop and get off your bike without toppling over.
First, bail before you get in trouble. This doesn’t mean you can’t challenge yourself, but if means if you see something that you know is above your skill level, it’s time to safely stop and dismount.
You always want to dismount on the uphill side to avoid toppling downhill. To dismount, apply your brakes and simultaneously, look to the uphill side. The key here is to LOOK to the side where you want to stop. If you are looking at the cliff or the tree, you are going to roll down the cliff or into the tree. Instead, look to the uphill side at the spot where you are going to firmly plant your foot. As you come to a stop, firmly plant your foot creating a tri-pod (2 wheels and 1 foot safely) on the ground.
Once you are safely stopped in your tri-pod, swing your other leg over the saddle and stand to the side of your bike.
4. Get off the saddle on descents (and drop that seat!)
I cringe when I see a new rider bouncing around on their seat, trying desperately to stay in control on a descent. For new mountain bikers, getting out of the seat and standing up on the pedals can feel uncomfortable and awkward at first. You just have to trust me! You will have more control and more success if you get up and out of the saddle on descents. This does NOT mean you should be standing up straight with locked out knees. Quite the opposite. You should be out of the saddle with your weight centered over the bike. You should have even weight in your feet and a nice bend in your knees, with the lower body loose and relaxed. Sound familiar? Yup, this is the ready position! When you are in this position, you are giving the bike room to move underneath you with your legs serving as shock absorbers (aka suspension).
If you have a dropper post (a seat that can be lowered using a lever on your handlebar), you want to get in the habit of dropping your seat anytime you are descending. Getting that seat down and out of the way will give you more room to get low and stay centered over the bike. It might take some practice to remember to drop the seat on descents, but after a while, it will become second nature.
5. Head up + look where you are going
Looking where you want to go, instead of at the ground directly in front of your tire or at the obstacle you don’t want to hit. Never underestimate the power of looking where you want to go! If you find yourself having a hard time making a switchback or a tight corner, take a moment to notice where you are looking. Are you looking straight down, or at your exit? Shifting your eyes to look through the exit of the corner and on down the trail, can lend a huge hand in helping you (and your bike) roll through the corner with ease.
6. Weight in your feet, not your hands + finding balance
When you are mountain biking – climbing, descending, pedaling – your weight should be in your feet, not in your hands. If you catch yourself with a death grip on the handlebars, take a moment to shift your weight back into your feet. Wiggle your fingers! Take a deep breath.
It can be hard to understand exactly where your weight should be at any given moment on the bike because frankly, it’s constantly changing with little micro adjustments here and there. Generally speaking, your weight shifts forward as you climb and when you descend, you shift your weight down (heavy feet) and slightly back (not hanging way off the back of the bike!).
Here is one of my favorite ways to explain how to know where you should be on your bike at any given time:
You know that party trick where someone whips a tablecloth out from under a fully set table? Voila! All of the plates and glassware magically land magically back in place, right? Just like the tablecloth, you should be able to visualize your bike being removed from under you at any given moment on the trail. If your bike is removed, you should always land balanced on your feet. If you are too far forward you would topple over. If you are too far back, you’d fall on your bum. Finding that “voila!” balance positioned on the bike means you are constantly adjusting your weight as the terrain changes.
7. Trail etiquette
Check out this article for a more complete list of trail etiquette, but a good general rule of thumb – be a good human!You know, like don’t leave trash on the trail, say hello to other trail users and be nice.
Here are some specific trail rules to be sure you follow:
Uphill riders have the right of way. It doesn’t matter if you are an expert rider or a newbie, if you are riding uphill, you have the right of way.
Pedestrians and horses have the right of way. Always stop to offer pedestrians the right of way. If you encounter a horse on trail, calmly stop your bike and dismount.
If you get off your bike, as quickly and safely as possible, move your bike out of the way so anyone approaching behind you can keep riding. If you come off your bike on a challenging rock section, no sweat! Just scurry off to the side of the trail with your bike to make room so the next rider can give it a try!
Ride open trails and follow the rules! Never ever ride a closed trail. Some mountain biking trails are directional and you should always read and follow directions for signage indicating a required trail direction.
…and there you have it! 7 important skills that will help make any new rider a lifelong mountain biker.
Are you a new rider with a skills question? Post a comment below with your questions and we will put your question in the queue for an upcoming skills article!
Enrolling in the Intermediate/Advanced clinic was the best thing I’ve ever done to improve my speed and ability on the bike.
Hands down, enrolling in the Intermediate/Advanced clinic was the best thing I've ever done to improve my speed and ability...
Ninja Mountain Bike Performance
Hands down, enrolling in the Intermediate/Advanced clinic was the best thing I've ever done to improve my speed and ability on the bike. I am so much faster on singletrack and through technical sections/jumps that even if people are more fit than me, I still keep up with them (and kind of love watching them do a lot more work than they need to). Richard and Kris are fantastic and break things down in a way that makes sense and is manageable. By the end of my first clinic, I was jumping off ledges and power climbing up sections that I couldn't drive a car up. You could buy a $5,000 carbon bike and do 10,000 ft rides every day, but you will get the best return on any investment you make in your riding by attending a Ninja Skills Clinic. ~ Regina J.
My 14 year old son and I (I'm 43) went to the Intermediate/advanced skills clinic at Malibu Creek State Park....
Ninja Mountain Bike Performance
My 14 year old son and I (I'm 43) went to the Intermediate/advanced skills clinic at Malibu Creek State Park. We both race and ride at a very fast pace. Getting faster for us is about making sure our fundamentals are solid and we can continue to use those fundamentals to smooth out our flow to increase our skills and confidence. Richard has a way of breaking down all the information to make it very understandable and usable. My son and I have been to other skills classes before and knew what to expect, mostly. Richard was able to coach us to better form riding high speed flat corners! We brushed up on and cleaned up some less helpful habits. We really worked to understand the how and why behind some skills that we already had but didn't know we that we did. All in all we had a blast! Richard was fun and informative. Taylor was helping Richard out for the day. It was fun to watch her demo some skills at speed. Her input throughout the day was informative and light hearted. It was a fun day on the bike with some great people and coaching. This will not be our last Ninja training clinic! Thanks for everything Richard and Taylor! ~Eric Zubick
I have, like many cyclists, been riding bikes since childhood. Feeling like I hit a plateau in my technical riding...
Ninja Mountain Bike Performance
I have, like many cyclists, been riding bikes since childhood. Feeling like I hit a plateau in my technical riding skills (because I had), I began searching for a mountain bike skills camp. I wanted to attend a camp that would push me to be a better rider, but I needed it to be in a great location on actual trails. After a fair amount of searching, I decided that spending a weekend at a Ninja Mountain Bike Skills camp would be perfect. It didn't hurt that the camp was in Big Bear. The condensed review: It took only a few hours of trail riding with Richard and Daniel to drastically change my riding for the better. The long review: The camp was broken into morning and afternoon sessions, separated by an amazing lunch on each day. The morning sessions were, in general, based on technique and riding isolated technical features. The afternoon sessions functioned more like a capstone; we rode incredible trails, like Fall Line and Skyline, and put our newly-learned skills into action. Richard and Daniel were attentive to both the class as a whole as well as each individual. The pacing of each individual lesson (I'm a teacher, so I viewed each piece as a lesson) was wonderful. There were constant checks for understanding as well as incremental assessments of our skills on the bike. We were never once, all weekend, bogged down in repetition, nor were we rushed through a skill or concept. I was blown away by the sheer volume of skills that were taught in such an easy-to-grasp manner. Of course, we were not standing by our bikes the whole time listening to a lecture: we were actively riding while Daniel and Richard looked on with critical eyes. Richard was clear in his introduction...
G2 Bike looks forward to many more of these clinics in this area.
Ninja Mountain Bike Skills is a warm and friendly environment to learn new skills and hone ones you already know....
Ninja Mountain Bike Performance
Ninja Mountain Bike Skills is a warm and friendly environment to learn new skills and hone ones you already know. It's a non intimidating environment where mistakes are welcomed so corrections can be made. I own G2 Bike is Aliso Viejo and this clinic has been ran out of the Aliso Woods area and when I interviewed the clients they had all but great things to say. None arrogant instructors and easy to follow steps. The biggest bang for many was meeting new area riders at their skill level, gaining confidence, and getting the bike set up and fit properly. G2 Bike looks forward to many more of these clinics in this area. Thanks Richard for all you do for the MTB community! ~ AJ S.
We are a group of passionate, dirt-loving, community oriented, world class mountain bike skills instructors committed to helping you reach your personal riding goals through clinics and camps. We are excited to work with riders of all ability levels and share the joy (STOKE) of mountain biking.