I was an avid mountain biker through college. After taking some time off, I enthusiastically picked it back up after moving to Bend, Oregon, two years ago. It’s taken a couple seasons to get my legs back and learn the local trails, and I’ve spent enough time in the saddle to realize I could use some help with my technique.
In an effort to take my riding to the next level, I signed up for a women's fundamental skills class through Ninja Mountain Bike Performance, a bike instruction group offering clinics throughout the U.S.
The three-and-a-half hour fundamentals class is formatted to address six key areas with the goal of improving every aspect of your trail riding for both new riders and experienced riders who've hit a plateau. I admit to being a somewhat reluctant student, but our instructor Hannah Levine owned it. We met at Phil's trailhead, and after brief introductions, Hannah dove right into instruction with our class of six women, guiding us through a structured lesson with lots of personal attention and tips to continue improving on our own.
Index Finger Braking
This is widely known, but maybe it needs to be said out loud more often – only use your index fingers on the brakes (no middle fingers) and always have your fingers ready on the brakes at all times.
The reasoning behind single-finger braking is that the more fingers you sacrifice to braking, the looser your grip on the handlebars and the less control you have over steering.
How To Use Your Front Brake
I admit to just grabbing brake when I need to slow down without a lot of thought to technique. I also rely more on the back brake because of the fear of going over the handlebars.
Hannah ran us through the proper use of front braking, which started with us standing on the side of our bikes to compare the reaction of the tires with rear braking (skidding) to front braking (full stop). Then we learned how proper body positioning and weighting could improve front braking.
We combined a low body positioning, a little behind the seat, with footwork involving putting downward pressure on your heels to weight the pedals and relax weight off the handlebars. The key was to really lower your center of gravity, while putting weight into the pedals by pointing your toes and dropping your heels while braking. Then there's the matter of "easing the squeeze" on the front brake, which she equated to gently squeezing toothpaste from the tube – in other words, don't just grab it.
There's a lot going on here, but after a few passes with Hannah providing personalized tips, I eventually got the hang of it and felt a lot more confident in front braking. This also made me feel good about my investment in a dropper post for my bike seat so I could easily get into a low position – money well spent.
Balanced Body Position Over The Bike
If I had only taken one thing from the class, this would be it. As I've slowly taken on moderately steeper terrain, I've definitely adopted a really exaggerated body position that has to be so ugly to witness. I approach steep terrain with my weight hanging back off the handlebars and my butt way back behind the seat. I now realize that, while this will keep me from flying forward, it eliminates any control I have over steering.
Hannah explained that no matter the terrain you should always be balanced over your bike. To achieve this, imagine at any time that your bike could be pulled out from under you. Would you land on your feet? Or would you be off balance and fall? I expect to continuously be working on a balanced positioning – this one’s going to take constant attention.
Peek And Push
This tip is all about taking on steep transitions and I love it. We practiced on a small rock drop and the idea is to eliminate the hallelujah aspect of riding off a rock and introduce technique.
As you’re riding toward the edge of a drop or steep decline, bring your weight forward to see what's on the other side (peek); this gives you a chance to bail if it's sketchy. If it looks good, you're now in a position to push your handlebars – and your front wheel – forward, straightening your arms and weighting down the bike evenly as you ride off the transition.
This ensures you're going exactly where you want to go, and that your bike is evenly weighted – not over the handlebars and not hanging off the back. This one, too, takes some practice, but it's just one more thing to work on while riding the trails.
This is a technique I've used before, but being a total recreational mountain biker, I never knew the name of it and didn't recognize it as part of my "tool box." Ratcheting is the term used to describe taking partial pedal strokes. You use this in rocky terrain that doesn't have the clearance to allow for a full pedal stroke.
Approach the terrain in a "ready position" with pedals even and in an appropriate gear, and with some tension. As you're traveling through the uneven terrain, you take a partial pedal stroke, then back pedal to the original position, then partially stroke, repeating this movement until you have the clearance to return to full pedal strokes. This is a great technique that offers an alternative to walking through uneven terrain.
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