5 Ways Roadies and Triathletes Can Be Faster Mountain Bikers

By Jim Rutberg

The idea for this article occurred to me as I watched a friend roll into T2 of an off-road triathlon in Colorado. Somewhere underneath the blood and mud was a strong and talented triathlete, but he had made the crucial mistake of believing superior fitness could compensate for poor mountain bike skills. Always the smart-ass, I couldn’t resist yelling, “Didja have fun?” It was sad, really, because he was on some of the sweetest singletrack in the Rockies and the “Drop dead” glare he shot back at me was evidence enough that he hadn’t enjoyed the ride at all. Out on the trail he must have looked like a baby bird that’d been kicked out of the nest too soon. I was too late to spare my buddy a lot of frustration, but are some key tips to help roadies and triathletes speed up the learning curve on mountain bike skills.

For the Climb:

Most mountain bike events include at least one significant climb. A combination of skills and pacing will get you to the top fast and with enough left to stay focused and fast on the descent.

Manage Your Cadence:

The right cadence keeps your legs fresher and helps with traction on singletrack trails. Your back tire can lose traction if you’re either stomping on a big gear or spinning a super-light gear very fast. Try something in the middle, around 70-85 rpm.

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Watch Your Gears:

The pitch and difficulty of mountain bike climbs change frequently, and it helps to be able to shift gears accordingly. As much as possible, you want to be able to shift to both easier and harder gears using only your rear derailleur while climbing. This means using the front derailleur to enable you to keep the chain near the middle of your cogs in the back. Why? If you’re riding in the big chain ring and your easiest cog and you reach a steep pitch, your only option for shifting into an easier gear is to move the chain to the small chainring. Even with new, more precise drivetrains, this can be problematic because the chain is under tension and you risk dropping the chain off the chainrings completely. Riding the middle ring and easiest cog is roughly equivalent to riding the small chainring and the middle of your cassette – but you have more flexibility when in the granny gear to shift up and down a gear or two when necessary.

What about 1×11 drivetrains? Well, they certainly solve the front derailleur problem. A 1×11 drivetrain can be a great solution, but it depends on the rider and the environment. For long mountain climbs (1hr+), high elevations, and long descents, a double chainring can be a better choice. Why? It’s not the range of gears. With a 1×11 you have a huge range. But the jumps between cogs can be quite large, to the point where you’re undergeared in one cog, but shifting up one cog means being overgeared. For short, punchy climb in rolling terrain this isn’t much of a problem. It becomes more of a problem when you’re grinding up a climb for 75 minutes at 11,000 feet above sea level.

Master Tight Uphill Corners:

Switchbacks can be the novice mountain biker’s nemesis, but with a little focus and practice you can stay on your bike and gain a lot of time over your competition. Approach the corner far to the outside of the turn, keep the bike upright, and steer your front wheel around the outside of the corner. The inside line may look tempting, but it’s often too steep, too tight, and too loose for you to maintain traction. Interestingly, on really tight turns, your rear wheel will take a shorter route and almost pivot instead of following your front wheel. Experiment with gearing during training rides – you may find that a slightly bigger gear helps you maintain traction and get back up to speed coming out of the switchback.

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For the Descent:

There are some basic essentials, like looking far ahead of you, shifting your weight back, and avoiding the temptation to grab a handful of front brake, that have been covered ad nauseum since the inception of mountain biking. So let’s skip ahead:

Find the Fast Line Through Tight Downhill Corners:

The fastest route downhill through switchbacks is not the same one you used going up. You still approach the corner by starting toward the outside of the trail, but then you brake before you get to the corner and steer toward the apex. Look through the turn to where you want to go, don’t look at the ground right in the middle of the turn. By turning around the apex, you’ll have room to move toward the outside of the trail as you exit the turn. It’s a mark of superior skill if you can minimize the amount of sliding you do through these sharp corners.

Preserve Your Speed:

When the going gets rough, speed is your friend. The slower you go through rocks and roots, the more likely you are to get stuck, stopped, or bucked right off the bike. That doesn’t mean you should just close your eyes, let off the brakes, and hope for the best either. Keep your weight back, let the suspension do its job to keep your front wheel tracking over the bumps, and if you start to stall be ready to add some power with some big gear pedal strokes to keep your momentum going.

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Remember the Big Picture:

Shakespeare was right in King Henry the Fourth when he wrote, “Discretion is the better part of valor.” A planned dismount from a mountain bike is far less painful than an unexpected one, and carrying your bike up and down over a few obstacles (a rock garden, big drop-offs, or big logs) will result in an overall more enjoyable ride. The best way to learn how to go over bigger drops and through more technical section is to follow someone who can already ride it smoothly. It will take time and practice, but for the majority of career professionals and parents we work with, being a bit conservative plays out better in the long run. For my buddy the triathlete, a few smart dismounts would have gotten him to T2 faster than having to pick himself up off the ground about a dozen times!


Comments 3

  1. Great article! I thought I am the only one that struggles with MTB on steep sections.
    I made mistake when I decided to improve my skills participating on Megavalnche in France this year. It took me 3+ hours to get down the 24km long DH when other riders finished in the scope of under an hour. Well despite of many falls most hurt got my ego. Also during the few days of training I decided not to take a part in the race as I was lacking skills. However I did the track. Now I ride my road bike back home. Would love to build up MTB skills.

  2. In addition to the right gearing for climbing, you need to master front to back balance. Getting out of the saddle, or even leaning too far forward while seated will cause you to lose traction. Leaning too far back to increase traction will cause you to wheelie. There are so many variables that it comes down to experience and judgement.

  3. Chris:
    All very good points! I fluctuate between road riding and mountain biking. I do not have any problems getting on the road if I have been hitting the dirt quite a bit but the technical aspects of gearing, powering through and picking the right line are part of what make mountain biking such a fun and challenging ride. These two complement each other so well!

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