Would you ever hand your keys to someone who’s never driven a car before and say, “Here ya go! Figure it out and good luck!”. We hope not!  With great power, comes great responsibility… and we would argue that mountain biking is a great power. So if you are a new mountain biker, or if you are introducing a friend to the sport, make sure to be familiar with these 7 must know skills new mountain bikers before hitting the trail!

Skill 1 – Front brake & rear brake

Riders learning about shifting gears during a skills clinic.

Putting someone on a mountain bike without explaining what the front and rear brake do, and generally how to use them, is cruel and unusual punishment.

Here are the very basics you want to understand before hitting the trails; you have two brake levers on your bike. In the US, a standard bike setup has the front brake on the left and the rear brake on the right (Think: Right Rear). In other parts of the world (i.e.; New Zealand, UK, Australia …) these are reversed!  

Generally speaking, your front brake has your stopping power and your rear brake helps you to control your speed.  Also generally speaking, you will typically be using both brakes at the same time. You should be using one finger (your pointer finger) for braking and when you squeeze the lever(s), think about easing the squeeze which is to say, it’s not a jerky on/off tug of the lever but rather a gentle ease and release.

Skill 2 – Ready position

Rider in the ready position

Ready position is used any time you’re out on the trail and need to be – you guessed it – “ready”! Ready position is your go-to for descending, technical terrain and negotiating trail obstacles like rocks, roots and rollers.  Here are the key components to the ready position:

  1. Even weight in your feet
  2. Knees bent and out
  3. Bum off the saddle
  4. Torso down
  5. Elbows bent and out
  6. One finger on the brake
  7. Head up and looking ahead 

Ready position is all about being loose and relaxed. By keeping your knees bent and elbows out, you are allowing your body to serve as your suspension, absorbing any lump or bumps in the trail and keeping you steady. You will move between a high ready position (a bit more relaxed) and a low ready position (more aggressive), as the terrain becomes more and less aggressive.

Newbie Tip: You should NOT be in a low (aggressive) ready position 100% of the time because….quad burn!  You are essentially holding yourself in a simultaneous squat + push up position and you will get tired.  If you are on a smooth, non-technical descent, you might raise up just a little into a high ready position (butt still off the saddle). If you are cruising on smooth flat terrain, relax into a neutral seated position.

Here are some additional resources to help you understand the ready position –

Want to learn more about the correct body position for climbing? Checkout this article – Going Up? Four Kinds of Climbing

Skill 3 – Safe dismount

mountain biker dismounting off of a bike

When you first start riding, if you see a feature (rock, root, steep climb etc.) that you don’t feel comfortable tackling, that’s cool! No pressure!  Just make sure you know how to safely stop and get off your bike without toppling over.

First, bail before you get in trouble. This doesn’t mean you can’t challenge yourself, but if means if you see something that you know is above your skill level, it’s time to safely stop and dismount.

You always want to dismount on the uphill side to avoid toppling downhill. To dismount, apply your brakes and simultaneously, look to the uphill side. The key here is to LOOK to the side where you want to stop. If you are looking at the cliff or the tree, you are going to roll down the cliff or into the tree. Instead, look to the uphill side at the spot where you are going to firmly plant your foot. As you come to a stop, firmly plant your foot creating a tripod (2 wheels and 1 foot safely) on the ground.

Once you are safely stopped in your tripod, swing your other leg over the saddle and stand to the side of your bike.

Skill 4 – Get off the saddle on descents (and drop that seat!)

mountain bikers riding through switchbacks

We cringe when I see a new rider bouncing around on their seat, trying desperately to stay in control on a descent. For new mountain bikers, getting out of the seat and standing up on the pedals can feel uncomfortable and awkward at first.

You just have to trust us! You will have more control and more success if you get up and out of the saddle on descents.  This does NOT mean you should be standing up straight with locked out knees. Quite the opposite. You should be out of the saddle with your weight centered over the bike. You should have even weight in your feet and a nice bend in your knees, with the lower body loose and relaxed. Sound familiar?  Yup, this is the ready position! When you are in this position, you are giving the bike room to move underneath you with your legs serving as shock absorbers (aka suspension). 

If you have a dropper post (a seat that can be lowered using a lever on your handlebar), you want to get in the habit of dropping your seat anytime you are descending. Getting that seat down and out of the way will give you more room to get low and stay centered over the bike. It might take some practice to remember to drop the seat on descents, but after a while, it will become second nature. Click here for more information on dropper posts.

Skill 5 – Head up + look where you are going

mountain biker cornering during a skills clinic

Looking where you want to go, instead of at the ground directly in front of your tire or at the obstacle you don’t want to hit. Never underestimate the power of looking where you want to go! If you find yourself having a hard time making a switchback or a tight corner, take a moment to notice where you are looking. Are you looking straight down, or at your exit? Shifting your eyes to look through the exit of the corner and on down the trail, can lend a huge hand in helping you (and your bike) roll through the corner with ease.

Skill 6 – Weight in your feet, not your hands + finding balance

mountain biker learning how to find balance

When you are mountain biking – climbing, descending, pedaling – your weight should be in your feet, not in your hands.  If you catch yourself with a death grip on the handlebars, take a moment to shift your weight back into your feet. Wiggle your fingers!  Take a deep breath. 

It can be hard to understand exactly where your weight should be at any given moment on the bike because frankly, it’s constantly changing with little micro adjustments here and there. Generally speaking, your weight shifts forward as you climb and when you descend, you shift your weight down (heavy feet) and slightly back (not hanging way off the back of the bike!).

Here is one of our favorite ways to explain how to know where you should be on your bike at any given time:

You know that party trick where someone whips a tablecloth out from under a fully set table? Voila! All of the plates and glassware magically land magically back in place, right? Just like the tablecloth, you should be able to visualize your bike being removed from under you at any given moment on the trail. If your bike is removed, you should always land balanced on your feet. Being too far forward would cause you topple over. If you are too far back, you’d fall on your bum. Finding that “voila!” balance positioned on the bike means you are constantly adjusting your weight as the terrain changes.

Skill 7 – Trail etiquette

mountain bikers giving hikers the right of way

Check out this article for a more complete list of trail etiquette, but a good general rule of thumb – be a good human! You know, like don’t leave trash on the trail, say hello to other trail users and be nice.

Here are some specific trail rules to be sure you follow:

Uphill riders have the right of way. It doesn’t matter if you are an expert rider or a newbie. When riding uphill, you have the right of way.

Pedestrians and horses have the right of way. Always stop to offer pedestrians the right of way. If you encounter a horse on trail, calmly stop your bike and dismount.

Upon getting off your bike, as quickly and safely as possible, move your bike out of the way so anyone approaching behind you can keep riding. If you come off your bike on a challenging rock section, no sweat! Just scurry off to the side of the trail with your bike to make room so the next rider can give it a try!

Ride open trails and follow the rules! Never ever ride a closed trail. Some mountain biking trails are directional and you should always read and follow directions for signage indicating direction.

…and there you have it! 7 important skills that will help make any new rider a lifelong mountain biker.

Are you a new rider with a skills question? Post a comment below with your questions. We will put your question in the queue for an upcoming skills article!

18 Responses

  1. You might want to re-think #4. How many new riders start out on a bike with a dropper post? Very few. Most would be better served starting out on a modestly priced hard tail and learn the basics before attempting descents.

    1. Every new rider should buy an aftermarket, inexpensive dropper post if the bike doesn’t come with one. Otherwise they will be seriously disadvantaged while learning.

      Many of us older riders did not have this option. We made the best of what we had at the time, but I always knew it was a compromise. Dropper post = best tech ever for MTB

    2. Hey Eric, you make a great point about many new riders not having a bike with a dropper. Even if you don’t have a dropper post it’s important to stand when descending in order to be able to properly maneuver the bike!

  2. Consider touching base with physical ability to include proper diet and hydration. When I first started riding MTB I was unable to have enough umpf to keep up yeti thought I was strong. I mentioned this to several folks at a bike shop where one of the guys put me in my place and indicated that I totally lacked on core strength and as you can imagine I was taken back. Well guess what he was totally correct. Now after a year physically training I can now kick some serious butt.

    1. Diet, hydration AND strength training can all play a very important role in your mountain biking experience! Sounds like those guys at your local bike shop could have used some better tact…but glad you were able to identify an area to work on. Keep kicking butt!

  3. Correct braking technique is essential on downhills. Front/rear balance will help stop you in the most precarious situations. Skidding is not a braking technique (some would argue that it is more a turning technique). Fun as it may be, it provides ineffective traction and just tears up the trails. Please be conscientious

  4. I understand that uphill have riders have right of way but on the other side of the coin you have earned that downhill sometimes with an hour or more of riding and climbing. To have that downhill run you’ve been working and waiting for the whole ride ruined by someone doing less than walking pace climbing can be very frustrating. It’s the same rules on a 4wd trail but that makes sense because 4wd’s aren’t trying to get downhill as fast as they can and the uphill momentum is sometimes critical to get up the hill for the 4wd that’s climbing it. This is rarely the case with an MTB. 99.9% of the time you can get back to climbing after a stop of usually no more than 3 or 4 seconds with very little effort once the rider on the downhill run passes. It has had very little impact on the rider climbing and the downhill rider is happy. A quick “THANKS MATE” or “THANK YOU” from the downhill rider on the way past is all it takes to show the climbing some appreciation then I find everyone is happy. Even though I know I have right of way while I’m climbing I will ALWAYS pull the side and give the rider on their downhill run the track to enjoy what they’ve worked for and I find most experienced MTB riders will do the same.

    1. I totally agree, the downhill has earned it, the up is going slow anyway! of course there are always exceptions if we are using good etiquette.

    2. That is just selfish. Depending on the trail, it is not so easy for many riders to get the bike going again on an uphill. Not everyone is as expert like you think.

      1. Joane, my thoughts exactly. “I earned the downhill” is simply childish and selfish. The comment, “everyone is happy” does not account for the demoralizing feeling of a novice rider who might be struggling to make that climb. Stopping midway might require someone to push awhile until they can mount the bike again. It’s much easier to start again downhill. The only way to earn a downhill in undisputed fashion is to pay for a lift ticket at a bike park. These rules predate most of the riders who dislike them and were implemented to gain the trail access we all now enjoy.

    3. “I understand that uphill have riders have right of way but on the other side of the coin you have earned that downhill sometimes with an hour or more of riding and climbing”. Not really. So many of the riders going down (at least here) are either on eBikes, or shuttled to the top of the trail. Either way, they didn’t earn it. And no, it is absolutely not easy to get back to climbing on steep/technical terrain (now, a double track or fireroad, you are right).

      1. Gravity trails are directional at the parks I ride. Anyone going uphill is in the wrong. It is much easier to a downhiller to get back their mojo than an uphill rider. All me all day is ruining the sport.

  5. Skill 3 – Safe dismount. If a rider has a dropper post then let it help hhim/her “dismount” by “dropping it” every time you stop along the trail. With the dropper post in the “down” position, a rider’s feet will be (almost) touching the ground, which makes for great stability. AND when you want to resume riding you’ll find it’s much easier to get underway (especially if you’re climbing) if you push off with one foot, begin a pedal stroke with the other and extend your dropper post as you get underway.

  6. Uphill riders have the right of way on trails and rightfully so as downhill riders can much more easily stay on their bike and slow to allow uphill grinders keep their momentum and stay on their bikes where traffic flows both ways. During a climb and if there is room to allow two-way traffic, I will give way to downhill riders, if I can stay on my bike as normally I am not interested in how quickly I can get to the top, just cleaning the technical sections.

  7. In Brian Lopes book….Mastering Mt Bike Skills….he says elbows out is out…that your elbows should be in a neutral position. He goes on to explain the why and how.
    What is your opinion on this?

  8. We would agree – – when we say “Elbows out” we are talking about being in a strong push-up position (or extended forward/out as needed for navigating obstacles and terrain).

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