Five Ways to Improve Your Mountain Bike Skills — Without Riding Trails

By Syd Schulz, CTS Athlete and Pro Mountain Bike Racer

It’s January, the trails are closed due to slop, the weather is gross and (depending on where you live) there isn’t even enough snow for decent skiing. Maybe you just got in to a big goal event, or your New Year’s resolution is to get better on your mountain bike, but you know hours on the trainer are great for fitness but not technical skills. You need to ride TRAILS. Or do you?

Lucky for you, there are things you can do to improve your mountain bike skills without even setting foot (wheels?) on dirt. Here are my top suggestions for building your skills while the weather is gnarly.

Find a cul-de-sac (or less-traveled road) and practice corners.

To quote something I saw on Instagram recently, “Jumps are for show, corners win the dough.” Ninety percent of mountain biking is corners (that’s a completely unverifiable statistic I just made up, by the way), and you don’t need a trail to practice corners. In fact, we could all benefit from a little parking lot corner practice. Have fun with it — set up a slalom course out of cones – rocks work too – and challenge the neighborhood bike gang to a race. Or get serious about improving your cornering by focusing on maintaining a low hinge position, looking where you want to go, and pointing your hips around the corner. Practice wide turns and tight turns, fast turns and slow turns. Do a little bit of this everyday and by the time the trails are clear you’ll be cornering like a fiend.

Get a professional bike fit – FOR YOUR MOUNTAIN BIKE.

A lot of cyclists and mountain bikers get a professional bike fit for their road bike, but figure they’re in and out of the saddle so much on a mountain bike that you don’t need to be professional fit. You set your mountain bike seat to the same height as your road bike, and called it good. After all, you rarely go on mountain bike rides longer than 30 miles, so that’s okay, right? WRONG. While your seat might be in the right place, there’s a really good chance your cockpit is all screwy and is hurting your ability to handle the bike. Your stem might be too long, or too short, your handlebars might be too wide, or your reach might be too long. All of these factors can combine to make riding your bike downhill a little bit like steering a run-away tractor. Get a professional bike fit from someone who understands mountain biking, and your skills, comfort, and confidence may improve quickly, just from setting up the bike correctly.

Practice short, quick manuals.

IF you’re like, “Sorry, WTF is a manual?” then let me explain. A manual looks like a wheelie — you’re riding along on only one wheel! — but the difference is you’re not pedaling to move yourself forward. Pedaling=Wheelie. Coasting=Manual. You’re sitting on the balance point of your bike and using momentum and/or gravity to go forward. Holding a manual for an extended period of time is an advanced and not terribly useful skill (Husband’s note: the author only thinks it is useless because she can’t do it…) but being able to manual for 1 to 2 seconds is indispensable. This is how you prevent your front wheel from sinking into a hole or a puddle. It’s also the first half of a bunny hop (see point 4).

Slap on a pair of flat pedals (so you aren’t worried about going over backwards) and practice finding that balance point. You’ll want to compress your suspension, lean back, push with your legs, and straighten your arms. You do NOT want to be pulling on the front end of the bike with your arms. When you do that you’re weight is still too far forward and slam the front wheel back to the ground. Practice this until you can reliably get your front wheel up when you want to clear a puddle or hole.

Work on your bunny-hops in the driveway.

A bunny-hop is a fundamental movement on a mountain bike, but alas, it’s also pretty tricky and many mountain bikers either can’t do it or do it in ways that limit the height and increase risk for a bad landing. A bunny-hop is how you clear downed logs and other obstacles in the trail, so obviously it’s pretty important for safe and fun mountain biking. Plus, bunny-hops are a blast once you figure them out, so spending some time working on this is a great way to boost your skills and get outside even when the weather is lousy.

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A bunny-hop is essentially two motions combined into one fluid movement. If you are just crouching down, then exploding up to lift both wheels at the same time, you’re doing it wrong. To do it right, the first of the two movements is the manual discussed in point three, and the second is a rear-wheel lift. At the highest point of your manual, you’ll want to push your weight forward and scoop your pedals to lift the rear wheel up. Start by working on these motions separately and then gradually bring them closer together until it becomes one movement. Use flat pedals so you aren’t tempted to “cheat” (pull up with your SPDs), and don’t get frustrated if you don’t get it right away. Bunny-hops are hard! The video below from Global Mountain Bike Network provides a good step-by-step visual.

Hit the gym.

Yes, yes, I know what you’re thinking. <em>I want to improve my skills, not my strength.</em> But part of mountain bike skills is being able to handle a bike over rough terrain and a lot of that comes down to strength. Good bike handling requires a wide range of motion, activating big muscle groups like glutes and lats and unfortunately a lot of cyclists lack the mobility (and strength!) to ride skillfully, especially when they’re tired. So make sure you’re working on mobility as well as strength in the gym — and make sure you’re working with a coach who understands your goals on the bike so they can get you there without getting hurt.

Syd Schulz is a professional mountain bike racer, focusing on enduro events. She is also a writer, blogger and lifestyle athlete. Currently based in Taos, NM, she grew up in Ohio and started riding bikes as a kid in the rolling foothills of the Appalachian mountains. Over the past three years, she has raced her bike on four different continents and traveled all over the United States in a dirt-bag van (see the van profiled in Outside Magazine here!). Her blog focuses on inspirational content and stories of her own personal development. Her goal is to inspire others to tackle their biggest hurdles in life (and on the bike).

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Comments 2

  1. I suppose everyone is a bit different, but in exactly what ways should one’s fit on an MTB be different from a road bike? (Besides the obvious of not worrying about aerodynamics, and using a dropper post for rock gardens.)

    1. Post

      The cockpit setup can make a big difference on the handling characteristics of a MTB, from the width of the bars, the length of the stem, the height of the front end, the length of the top tube, and even the headtube angle. Almost everything on the front end of a MTB is different than your road bike. So, while your saddle might be in the right place in relation to the bottom bracket (height and fore-aft) by transferring your road bike measurements over to your MTB, you may benefit from having a professional look at the front-end fit.

      Handlebar width is just one example. When handlebars are very wide, you get great leverage for climbing and stability in loose terrain, but too wide means a lot of hand movement for any turn (long lever arm). Wide bars also lower your shoulders and head, which can affects weight distribution, and head/neck/shoulder/wrist pain. MTB bars are typically 600+ mm wide, compared to 420-460mm for road bars. Combined with different top tube lengths, different head tube lengths, and slacker head tube angles on the MTB, the front end setup can completely change the handling characteristics of your MTB – for better or worse. – Jim Rutberg, CTS Coach, co-author “The Time-Crunched Cyclist”

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