Skills for your First Mountain Bike Race
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Learning Essential Skills for Your First Mountain Bike Race

By: Jim Rutberg  June 01, 2022

Here's your guide to sharpening your skills for your first mountain bike race

Mountain bike racing is a fun and challenging way to spend time in nature, engage with the cycling community, and satisfy your desire to compete. The incredible popularity of high school and collegiate mountain biking, along with increased trail use that began during the pandemic, is feeding a resurgence of mountain bike racing across all age groups. For riders looking to get started in endurance mountain bike racing – like cross-country, short-track, or ultraendurance – here’s a guide to developing essential mountain bike skills.

Endurance mountain bike races feature mass starts and courses that include single track and double track trails of varying widths, along with technical challenges ranging from rock gardens, frequent turns, climbs and descents, and sometimes small drops or jumps. The keys to having fun are being comfortable with riding trails near other people and with cornering, braking, and descending on single track trails.

The Start

For many mountain bikers, the start of an endurance MTB race is the only time they experience handlebar-to-handlebar riding in a pack environment. Getting a good start is critical because the courses often narrow down to single track or double track within a few hundred meters. A strong start can put you in a good position near the front of the pack before you reach areas on course where passing becomes difficult. Here are some tips for safe and fast starts:

  • Practice clipping into your pedals: If you are riding a clip-in shoe and pedal combination (as opposed to flat pedals), you’ll start with one foot clipped in and the other on the ground. To start fast, it’s important to get both feet clipped in fast. To practice, start with your clipped in foot at the 1 o’clock position and your rear end on the saddle as you balance yourself on the unclipped foot. This allows you to start rolling with a strong push on the pedal so you can just lift your other foot, and find the pedal. If you don’t engage the cleat on the first try, pedal unclipped to get up to speed before searching for the pedal.

  • Protect your handlebars: Wide handlebars are great for creating stability in technical terrain. During a mass start, however, they can get hit by or snagged on other riders. To protect your handlebars, start with your hands flush with the ends of your bars and slightly flare your elbows so your forearms are roughly perpendicular to the ends of the bars. Think of creating a loose rectangle with the long sides being your handlebar and your upper body from elbow to elbow. This way, if you contact a rider next to you, you can absorb the contact with your forearm and bent elbows instead of catching the end of your handlebar.

  • Start straight and strong: Everyone wants to get off the start line safely, and the best way to do that is to start straight. In training, practice powerful straight line starts, including keeping your eyes forward as you clip into your pedal on the first try. Looking down to find your pedal increases the likelihood you’ll move to one side. Once you’re moving, keep your bike upright and steady as you rocket forward. Use your arms and upper body to stabilize the handlebar rather than to swing it side to side.

Cornering

Trail conditions vary so widely that there are many variations and considerations for cornering skills on a mountain bike. Cornering is an aspect of mountain biking that riders continue learning and refining for as long as they ride.

  • Ready position: The goal of the ‘ready position’ is to distribute weight between your wheels, unweight the saddle so you can lean the bike independently of your body, and lower your torso so you have bent knees and elbows to absorb bumps and articulate the bike. Keep your chest low, chin over the stem, and your head up so your gaze is forward toward the exit, not down at the corner. Positioning your pedals parallel to the ground (3 and 9 o’clock) is a good starting point. For looser soils or flatter turns (as opposed to berms), dropping and weighting your outside foot may improve traction.

  • Brake for traction: Use both front and rear brakes to adjust your speed before entering the turn. Try to avoid braking so hard that either or both wheels lock up and slide. Remember, smooth is fast and fast is smooth. You will have more traction for turning if your tires are rolling rather than sliding. Once you are in the turn, if you still need to be on the brakes, use both but prioritize the rear brake. If it locks up and slides you are more likely to stay upright than if your front wheel locks up and washes out.

  • Look to the exit: Your wheels follow your eyes, so look through the turn to your preferred exit line. In mountain biking, you also want your hips and torso to point in the direction you’re looking. In other words, if you are taking a sharp left turn, look left through the turn and turn your body (belly button and hips) to the left as well.

Climbing

Riding up hills and mountains is not just a matter of fitness and power output. Climbing skills are important for maintaining traction, riding over obstacles, and staying on the bike instead of walking.

  • Body position for climbing: On steep grades, bring your body forward on the saddle and lower your elbows to bring your shoulders toward the handlebars. This helps to distribute your weight between your wheels so you have both traction and steering.

  • Find your ‘Goldilocks gear’: Shifting on a climb is a balance between a gear easy enough to keep your feet moving and hard enough to maintain momentum and traction. There’s no perfect formula. If the gear is too easy you don’t move forward enough with each pedal stroke to maintain forward momentum. This makes steering difficult and increases the risk you’ll spin your rear wheel. When the gear is too hard, your legs will fatigue quickly and you’ll lack the agility needed to ride over obstacles.

  • Uphill switchbacks: Aim for a wide entry to switchbacks rather than aiming for the apex. On wide switchbacks both wheels may roll this outside line. For sharper switchbacks, envision rolling your front tire around the outside while your rear wheel takes a shorter line, almost a pivot. Adjust your gearing before entering the switchback. You’re likely to slow down, so shift into an easier gear so you can keep your pedals moving. Look through the turn and accelerate out of it so you regain lost forward momentum.

Descending

As with other aspects of mountain biking, descending skills are something even the best riders continue learning and refining year after year. To get started, here are some basic skills for descending safely and confidently:

  • Ready Position: See Cornering section above. The ready position for descending is the same. You want to be crouched with bent elbows and knees and your chest low toward your handlebars so you can absorb bumps. By keeping your chin over your stem, you have room to extend your body to either roll over obstacles or push the bike forward to keep the bike level for two-wheel drops. If you have a dropper post, you can lower it as needed to create more space for the bike to move beneath you.
  • Look far ahead: Keeping your gaze far ahead helps you maintain a steady line, just like looking far ahead helps you walk a straight line. At higher speeds, it’s also important to recognize technical challenges, turns, and appealing lines with enough time to respond appropriately.
  • Control your speed: Use both brakes to maintain a safe speed downhill.
  • Downhill switchbacks: As with uphill switchbacks, come into the turn wide rather than on the inside. Do most of your braking before the turn to keep the tires rolling instead of sliding. Lean the bike into the turn while keeping your body more upright. Look through the turn to the exit and rotate your hips and torso to follow your eyes.

Passing

Passing and getting passed is an important component of endurance mountain bike racing. For beginner riders there are a few rules and customs to be aware of, particularly because it’s possible you could be overtaken by riders in faster, more experienced categories.

  • The leading rider has right of way. You are not required to yield the trail to a rider who wants to pass, but you also cannot actively impede their progress. In other words, you can continue riding at your pace and on your preferred line but shouldn’t purposely ride to block the trail.
  • If you’re not in a heated battle for position, it is best for leading and passing riders to communicate. Passing riders should communicate their desire to pass and leading riders should acknowledge hearing the request.
  • Riders who are pedaling have right of way. If you are off the bike to walk and push your bike, or you’re stopped with a mechanical issue, make best efforts to move out of the way so riders who are still pedaling can continue unimpeded.

Have Fun!

Above all, make sure you have fun! The mountain bike racing community is one of the most supportive, inclusive, and encouraging you’ll ever be part of. To further improve your skills, keep practicing, follow your friends and watch the lines they take, consider joining a club or working with a coach.