Whoever coined the phrase “It’s just like riding a bike” never screamed down a shale-covered trail, flanked by unforgiving chaparral on one side and a sheer cliff on the other. Mountain biking is an adrenalized thrill ride and a great cardiovascular workout, but it’s no Sunday cruise at the beach. Safely navigating down a hill demands an investment in technique to make it exciting rather than terrifying.
“The first thing you want to do is find a trail that is a little difficult, but one that if you were to go off-course, you won’t fly a cliff,” says Waylon Smith, a pro mountain biker in Southern California who rides for Hyper Bicycles and Troy Lee Designs. “Go through it again and again, increasing your speed just a little bit each time.”
Speed is the concept that few novice mountain bikers fully understand. Just like the eye of the hurricane is the safest place in a storm, descending a trail with a certain amount of speed is more prudent than slowly crawling down the mountain. “You will find that the faster you go, the smoother your ride because your front and your rear wheels will go over every hole,” Smith says.
Now that your brain is in position to handle the descent, it’s time to get the rest of your body in its proper place:
Eyes: Whether you’re riding a mountain bike, motorcycle or snowmobile, one law of physics applies: Your body will always follow your gaze. Keep your head up and your eyes on the trail 15 to 20 yards ahead. Don’t worry about the five yards in front of your tire. Instead, focus on where you want to be going.
Posture: “Keep your head and upper body as upright and central as possible, with your weight over the center of the bike,” Smith says. “And try to be relaxed. Keep your shoulders down and have a slight bend in the arms. Let the bike itself move around underneath you.”
Hands: When you need to scrub some speed, apply front and back brakes at the same time. Too much back brake is inefficient and will cause you to skid. Too much front brake will send you over the handlebars. By applying both brakes firmly and equally, you will quickly slow down while maintaining control.
Legs: “An easy trick to remember is that when you are going around a left-hand corner, your left foot should be up, and when you’re going around a right-hand corner, your right foot should be up,” Smith says.
Of course, whatever goes down must have gone up at some point. Most novice riders think that climbing a mountain is just a matter of lower-body strength and endurance. While conditioning does pay a big role, so does technique, especially when it comes to very steep grades. “When you’re climbing, you want to sit on the nose of the saddle and lean over the front wheel,” Smith says. “That keeps your rear wheel from spinning out and the front wheel from doing a wheelie once it gets really steep.”
Ultimately, mountain biking is an analogy for life, a search for that sweet spot between going too slow and being out of control. “If you’re too aggressive, you’ll always be overcompensating. But going too slow is dangerous because you want to keep your wheels moving,” Smith says. “You have to find that happy medium.”