Mountain Biking Tips for Road and Gravel Cyclists

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One of the most positive cycling trends in the past several years has been a shift to athletes riding a variety bicycles and participating in multiple cycling disciplines. Bicycle design has certainly fed the trend, with bikes that can double as road or gravel bikes with a simple wheel or tire swap. Gravel has formed an effective bridge between the road and mountain bike communities. The result, as CTS Coaches have observed, is a reduction in the number of single-discipline cyclists. More of our athletes are training and participating in events on all kinds of bikes. The transition to mountain biking can prove tricky, however, because road and gravel cyclists often have great aerobic fitness and poor technical skills.

The idea for this article occurred to me as I watched a friend roll across the finish line of mountain bike race in Colorado. Somewhere underneath the blood and mud was a strong and talented road cyclist, 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. The “Drop dead” glare he shot back at me was evidence 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 here are some key tips to help road and gravel cyclists (and triathletes) speed up the learning curve on mountain bike skills.

Climbing tips for Mountain Biking:

Most mountain bike events include at least one significant climb. This is often where strong road and gravel cyclists, along with triathletes, excel. 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. You may lose traction using a very light gear and high cadence in loose soil or gravel. Using too big a gear with a low cadence can be problematic in technical climbs with rocks and roots. You’ll have momentum (which is good), but you’re more likely to stall or get stuck. There is no perfect cadence for mountain biking. If you are tracking cadence in your training data, it will likely be far more variable than during an endurance road or gravel ride. And if you feel like you’re bouncing off rocks rather than rolling over them, consider lowering your tire pressure. This, along with cadence, can dramatically improve traction and control.

Master Uphill Switchbacks:

Switchbacks can be the novice mountain biker’s nemesis. 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.

Descending Tips for Mountain Bikers:

There are some basic essentials, like looking far ahead of you, keeping your knees and elbows bent and your chest low to maintain a ready position. Let’s skip ahead to some more advanced skills:

Find the Fast Line Through Tight Downhill Switchbacks:

Approach the corner by starting toward the outside of the trail. The outside line is a bit longer but allows you to maintain more momentum. You want to be in an “attack position” or “ready position”, which simply means butt off the saddle (not necessarily behind it), knees and elbows bent. This position allows you to lean the bike and your body independently. Do most of your heavy braking before the turn.

As you enter the switchback, lean the bike into the turn more than your body. This is particularly true for switchbacks without a significant berm. You want to keep your weight more centered over the bike rather than dropping your body in toward the apex.

Look through the turn to where you want to go. Rotate your hips and shoulders in the direction of the turn as well. Don’t look at the ground right in the middle of the turn. For the sake of minimizing trail damage, try to keep your tires rolling in switchbacks rather than locking them up and sliding.

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. Use that attack position to give your legs and arms room to absorb the bumps. 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.

Dismount rather than riding around obstacles:

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. 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. For my buddy, a few smart dismounts would have gotten him to finish faster than having to pick himself up off the ground about a dozen times!

Some trail systems have established “b-lines”, which are easier routes around big trail features. Use them if they are there. If they are not, do not alter the trail to accommodate your skill level. This applies whether you’re going uphill or downhill.

The best way to learn how to go over bigger drops and through more technical sections is to take mountain bike skill lessons. For skilled riders adapting to a new trail system, it is often helpful to follow someone who already knows the fastest lines.

Jim Rutberg,
CTS Pro Coach, co-author “The Time-Crunched Cyclist”


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Comments 5

  1. I’m a long time roadie and picked up a gravel bike after getting hit by a car. Lots to learn. Tire pressure is something I am playing around with. Buildng confidence as well. I am 69 !

  2. All good information. I am in my mid 60s and learning to mtn. bike after decades on road, then gravel.. Im enjoying the new learning experience, leaving my power meter and performance expectations behind. Im staying on easier trails and just get off when Im in doubt of my ability. Don’t bounce the way I used to.

  3. 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.

  4. 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.

  5. 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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