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Mountain Biking

Mountain Biking for Roadies

By Rob Coppolillo - Rocky Mountain Sports

If you're a roadie, chances are you need some help with your mountain-biking technique just to keep a little skin on your carcass when you sneak off-road.

Those of you already hammering in the dirt, listen up and maybe you’ll learn something new, or at least get a review.

As for me, if only I’d consulted the pros before I shredded all those shorts and jerseys with catastrophic crashes.


When the gradient increases, you either dial it up and thrash on those around you, or (like me) hunker down and just pray you can see somebody’s arse over the top of the hill. Climbing on a mountain bike can be a godsend or a death sentence, but whatever the case, a few pointers will help.

Depending on the surface of the trail, keeping your butt down may be more or less important on a tough hill. Spinning the rear wheel on a loose patch of gravel or a nice slab of slickrock will lose you precious energy and momentum fast.

Longtime mountain bike pro Charlie Hayes has raced coast to coast, in 24-hour events and even in the snow. Listen to the man on climbing:

“You don’t want too much weight on the front end, and you should keep a high cadence,” he says. Higher cadence, or pedaling RPMs, will allow you to adjust to rocks on the trail, tree roots and steeper pitches.

Losing speed on a climb can mean the difference between staying on the bike and hike-a-biking. On the steepest climbs, once you’re off, it’s tough to get back on and get going again, so keep yourself moving with solid rear tire traction and a high cadence.

Letting that front wheel find its natural line will also ease your uphill toil. Too much weight there will not only let your rear wheel sleep, but also crash your front wheel into obstacles. Let it ride, keep the rear down, and upwards you’ll go.

This is not to say you should always stay seated. Non-technical situations like pavement or a fire road will allow you to stand, stretch your legs and back, and use bar ends. Stay away from bar ends on any technical stuff, though, because you’ll need more control out of the bars and may need to brake periodically.


There was a time, in the early ‘90s, when many former road pros tried their legs in the dirt game. Big promises, huge predictions and much carnage. I remember one guy who’d ridden the Tour and Roubaix, exclaiming, “They take the corners so fast!”

If there’s one area where a girl can make up some free time, it’s in the corners. Take a guy like me, losing just a half a second each curve, multiply that over a 25-mile cross country race, and I won’t even be back in time for dinner.

Proper weight distribution is crucial to safe and speedy cornering. “You’ll want to keep your outside foot down,” Hayes says. By dropping that outside leg to the bottom of the pedal stroke you’ll help keep the rear of the bike from going haywire and putting you down hard.

Don’t expect, however, your mountain bike to carve like your road bike. A little side-to-side slip ‘n’ slide is natural.

Now that you’ve got your back half anchored, consider where you’re going. “Counter-steering” sounds counter-intuitive, but bear with me. Instead of turning your handlebars in the direction you’re turning, think more of leaning your body in that direction and pushing slightly with your inside hand away from the corner. So, if you’re turning left, you lean into the turn (towards the left), point your knee in that direction and push slightly with your left hand down and a bit forward.

Hayes explains: “You push with the inside hand to avoid ‘tucking’ the front wheel.” If you tuck your front wheel, you’ll hit the ground before you realize it. Tucking refers to the front wheel whipping sideways in a corner and throwing you to the ground.

On your next time out riding, experiment with counter-steering (it’ll work on your road bike, too). Roll down the road in a straight line, push forward with your left hand and lean slightly in that direction. The bike will make a little motion to the right, but then dive aggressively to the left. Start out slowly, then begin using this technique on your faster rides. The best riders, road or off-road, counter-steer through corners, much to the frustration of the struggling followers behind.


So you’ve kept the bike moving on the uphill, practiced your cornering and now it’s time to drop off the edge of the world on a hair-raising descent.

Similarly to climbing a steep hill, you’ll want to keep your weight more toward the rear of the bike, with arms relaxed and a firm grip on the bars. The steeper the hill, the more you’ll need to slide your weight rearward to let the front wheel float over obstacles and avoid launching you over the bars.

Keep a solid grip, but don’t white-knuckle it. The bars will need to move around to allow the front wheel to bounce and twitch. The golden rule, on the road or in the dirt: no locked elbows, ever! Relaxed, bent elbows will keep control of the front end and absorb shock.

Perhaps one of the most difficult techniques to learn in mountain biking is looking ahead on the trail. Notice the inexperienced rider and you’ll notice the gaze locked just a few feet in front of the front wheel. Bad, bad, bad.

Leah Garcia, a former pro mountain biker who raced internationally for KHS bicycles, offers this advice: “It helps so much descending, cornering, too, to look ahead, look where you’re going rather than straight down at your wheel.”

Remember in Days of Thunder, when they tell Tom Cruise to steer toward a crash? Sounds dicey, just like you think you might want to watch what you dont want to hit but forget it. Your bike follows your line of sight, and focusing on land mines or fallen comrades will only get you into trouble.

And a couple last words. Using the brakes, especially in this age of powerful equipment with small tolerances, can be rewarding or dreadful.

“Most of your braking power comes from the front brake, but on the descent, especially with V-brakes, you need to watch it,” Hayes says.

The front brake has less cable running to it, and therefore less of the force involved is lost to stretch that cable. In other words, more power goes toward slowing down the front wheel.

Twenty-first-century brakes function well, but they can also send you blasting over the bars. Use the front when you can in straightaways on smooth terrain; otherwise it can affect your bike handling. Feather the back brake to control your speed, then hit the front brake if you really need to throw on the anchors.

I expect you to reduce this article on your boss’s copier, then clear-coat it to your top-tube for the next month. You’ll be whoopin’ up on me in no time.

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