5 Essential Cross Country Mountain Bike Techniques

If your dream is to hit the mountain bike trails like a cross-country pro, you’ll need some tried-and-true tips first. Mountain biking might look like anyone can do it, but the sport requires stamina and technique. Owning one of the best mountain bikes also helps!

Here are some tips to keep you in the seat longer and to conquer those trails faster. It’s also important to learn about sticky situations you might encounter on the trail—and how to get out of them.


Steep Climbs

One of the first skills you need to master is how to do a steep climb on your mountain bike. You need power and balance. Your body weight has to work for you, and not against you, to apply power to those pedals in a smooth and efficient manner. You have to be able to do it in or out of the saddle, and sometimes be in an uncomfortable position for certain really tough climbs.

When climbing, you always need to keep your body weight fairly even between the two wheels–low at the front and power to the pedals in back.

For really slippery climbs, you have to be in the saddle, remaining seated to keep weight on the rear wheel. That provides traction. As you climb, you will feel the lift of the front wheel, so keep weight as far forward as you can.

To keep the weight even, you have to lower your center of gravity, meaning keeping your body as low as possible. One great way to ensure this is to drop your elbows. That way, you can pull on the bars better. Your arms become levers and you can then lever your legs against them. This stance really gets the top of your body down low for these climbs.

You can also tug on the bars every time you do a pedal down-stroke. Pulling up on the opposite end of the handlebar (honking) produces the maximum leg power applied to the pedal. Similarly, tugging on the bar ends will force you to be in a slightly altered position; this positions your arm biceps better for max power to pull up on the bars.

Another tip is to stamp on your pedals. As you push down on one pedal, pull up on the other. This is a great sprinting move to help you climb. Just remember to not pull too hard on a steep climb as it can cause the rear end of your bike to break loose.

You need a smooth action at the pedals, so always choose a gear you can spin while riding to the top—one you’re capable of maintaining and that is within your ability. You want to avoid changing gears while climbing.

Before you climb, choose your path and pick one with the fewest boulders, rocks and roots or have a plan to avoid them. As you go up the hill, move your weight forward over the bottom bracket. This will maximize your power output through the rear wheel cranks.

If you do encounter an obstacle in the path, don’t brake. Instead, move your body weight back so you can put the front wheel on the obstacle. As your roll over it, remember to shift your body weight forward again so you’re over the front of the bottom bracket.

You should be able to simply ride over the bump. Your rear wheel should then just roll onto the obstacle and you should be able to then continue riding.


Going Airborne

Of course, what would mountain biking be without going airborne, right? You always want this to be planned, not accidental. After all, getting thrown into the air on accident is very dangerous, but controlling your bike and going into the air is totally different. You have to learn how to jump over things, and how to stay calm doing it.

You’ll mostly encounter tree roots when you’re out on the trails. They’re hard to see and the next thing you know it, you’ll be popping up unexpectedly into the air.

Stay loose-don’t tense up. When you’re relaxed, your movements are much more subtle and that means you’ll stay in control and also be able to better regain control.

Ideally, you want to be looking ahead at the trail and picking the root you want to go airborne on. Keep an eye fixated on it and as you get closer, see if there’s a good landing area—a smooth piece of land with sufficient space for run-out.

Next, calculate in your head how far you’ll jump. If it’s not far, you can simply lean back and hit the root, but if it’s a hard jump you’ll have to pull up hard. On the jump, as the bike goes airborne, shift your weight back to counterbalance the pop up of the rear wheel. The bike will come up between your legs.

Look ahead at where you need to land. Always keep your eye on the landing area—that means keeping your head up, which will also help balance the bike. Keep the bike level; you can use slight back-and-forth movements to accomplish this. Most of all, stay relaxed. When you’re in the air, lean forward. Push the front end of the bike down toward the landing spot. It helps to bend your legs and arms.

Stick the landing. Never land hard. Even if your landing is on smooth ground, you have to gently ease the bike into it to give your body more time and surface area to absorb the whole impact of the landing. Always keep your head up.

When you’re doing lots of jumps, you constantly have to look ahead at the trail. Always assess your path, where you want to jump, how big the jump gap is and where you’ll land.

Of course, it always happens—you get airborne without meaning to. Don’t panic, bend your arms and legs, relax and don’t stiffen up.


Traction

What’s the best way to get and maintain traction? Cross-country bikes are lighter models with less suspension, and the skinnier tires are built for resistance rather than grip. So you have to work with the bike. It’s harder to get traction on a cross-country bike than on a full-suspension bike. Keep low tire pressure, and that will help the tire have more trail contact and better grip and traction on the uneven terrain.

Find the right line and then maintain the correct body position to gain traction. Try to choose the smoothest route. You want to quickly hit roots so you don’t lose speed or momentum. Alternatively you can hop over obstacles to keep a tight, fast line.

 

Most importantly, stay loose and relax on the bike. A rigid body posture means you’ll bounce off obstacles, but ideally you want to roll over them.

Hover over your seat and move your weight back and forth constantly to gain traction.

Actually, maintaining traction is a learned skill that takes time. Some consider it an art form. It’s more than just hard pedaling—that will just force your rear wheel to break loose. Rhythm is crucial, and the right gear is too. If you choose an easy gear, your legs will tire out very quickly. If the gear is too hard, your wheels will just spin.

Avoid obstacles in the path. Anything you hit of course breaks the flow and you lose traction. Try to bunny hop over as many as you can. You can do hardtails for speed but the technique requires mastery, otherwise you’ll bounce all over the place and you’re more likely to crash, too.


Handling Steep Banks

Most of the time, you’ll be at full saddle height which gives you maximum pedaling efficiency. Just remember your center of gravity is high on the bike when you’re in this position. Lower your weight as you start to roll down steep terrain. Keep your weight back toward the rear wheel to maintain control of the bike.

Always do a pre-check of a steep terrain area. Explore it on foot first, before the ride. Look for dangerous roots and rocks. You don’t want anything on the path that could catch your wheels or your pedals.

You also want to look at the transition at the bottom of the steep grade; make sure it’s smooth and hazard free.

You want to maintain the perfect posture as you approach the steep bank. Put your best foot forward on the bike. Relax your body. Your eyes should always be at the edge of the bank and as you go, keep an eye on the bottom of the steep grade and the run out area. Stretch your arms out and position your butt over the saddle. When you do this often, you’ll start to feel the right positioning and how far back you need to really be to get the right balance. For shallower banks, lean forward, and for steeper banks and remain forward for shallower runs.

 

Keep your head up and look forward as you reach the bottom of the bank. Basically, you have to return to your normal position as your bike straightens back out as you reach the end. If you don’t, the bike will loop out of the back.

Don’t brake too hard, otherwise you’ll slide out or even worse, you’ll careen over the handle bars. Just squeeze your brakes when needed.

If you’re new to steep banks, you can lower your saddle height until you get the feel of it. As you get more practice, raise the saddle height. Always keep your knees and arms bent to absorb the bumps and the G-out. Most importantly, always keep your weight back so  you don’t topple over the bars. That is not fun!


Switchbacks

Cross country requires a whole host of good skills. Climbing is certainly one of them, but you have to have more than just good legs to get you up the hill. There are some fairly obvious choices like choosing a good line—it’s a great and necessary downhill skill to have.

This sport is all about getting the most out of your bike. Uphill skills are much harder. You can easily poop out or lose traction, so it takes practice.

You have to master switchback turns—it can be hard to do. Look at how sharp the corner is as you approach the turn. You need as wide a space as possible. Spin your gear, don’t push it. You need a smooth peddling motion. Before the turn, make an “S” motion—this will help you stay on the outside. Generate speed and carve up the bank. Always keep looking around the turn to see what’s coming.

When you use the bank to make a wider turn, power down. Give yourself some room and always look for obstacles in the turn path.

As you leave the turn, some switchbacks actually get steeper. Try to have a faster rhythm. Change gears on hill climbs, but first, give it a couple of hard cranks in the current gear, then release the crank pressure as you switch gears. This will prevent you from crunching through  your gears.

Some switchbacks are bermed; if so, treat it like a downhill berm. You know how to do it—hit it at full speed, push into it and look at the exit.

Always use the trail’s full width to your advantage. As you hit the apex, let the bike ride you out to the far side of the trail.

Always plan ahead—look at the upcoming trail and think about how you want to conquer it.

In a switchback turn, keep your movements very fluid and stay smooth, avoiding jerky body movements. Make round turns.

There you have it. Try these great tips on your next excursion. You’ll have the trail mastered in no time.

 


Strength, Mobility, and Endurance

Riding mountain bikes is a demanding sport, especially the more technical you get.

Other than on-bike techniques, there are 3 main areas off-bike that can help you be a better rider. They are:

  1. Strength
  2. Mobility
  3. Endurance

Strength

Strength helps you jump, lift, and climb. Having lack of strength will definitely limit your ability to do more technical rides.

Mobility

While not seen as an important factor, it can be a limiting factor not thought of before. Such as the ability to lean, flex, hand position on the grip, or even hip flexibility needed for powerful movements needed in mid to advanced types of jumps.

Endurance

Endurance keeps you riding longer at your peak performance. When you’re gasping for air, your mobility won’t necessarily suffer, but your strength will definitely decline. Decreasing your ability to perform maneuvers.

There’s a great article listed here with some great tips on improving these 3 areas of off-bike improvements.

 

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