Your First Mountain Bike Moves

Getting a Grip on Braking

Before you go tearing down the trail or blacktop, practice using your brakes. They not only supply the safest means of coming to a stop in an emergency, but brakes also adjust speed in turns. If you're used to coaster brakes, it will take a period of adjustment before you feel comfortable forsaking your feet, but you'll come to love the greater control achieved by using your hands.

Straddle the top tube and put your hands on the handlebar. Two levers — one on each side — stick forward from the bar. When you properly place your hands on the bar, the position and shape of the brake levers should invite your fingers to pull them toward the bar. Your left hand controls the front brake. The lever should come no closer than an inch away from the bar before stopping. Squeeze the left lever while looking down at the pads below on the front tire. The two pads should grab the wheel without landing below the rim and without hitting the tire's sidewalls. Inspect the rear brakes by squeezing the right lever. New brakes will squeak briefly as they're broken in, but incorrectly aligned pads will continue their annoying sound until they are positioned parallel to the rim.

Brake Dancing

Controlling speed on an uphill grind is no problem, but when you come whooshing down a mountain, being able to stop quickly and safely is a life-or-death concern. The brake systems on off-road bikes allow saddle-bound descents on slopes far steeper than a bike can climb, an experience you will want to have as soon as possible. But become a master braker on level ground first.

Brakes should only be applied when riding in the set (not"sit") position. In order to be balanced in this position, shift your weight to the feet and hands (mostly the feet). Put one foot forward (I stand with my left foot to the front, right foot back) while standing on both pedals, keeping them parallel with the ground. Your buttocks should hover an inch or so above the saddle, your thighs should be pulled tight to the horn of the saddle. I call this "riding by the seat of my pants," which you can practice without moving by getting someone to steady the bike for you.

Your hands should be balanced on the bar with the thumbs and forefinger of each hand wrapped around the bar. The outward three fingers of each hand should be lying on top of the brake levers and ready to squeeze the outermost section of the levers. After you feel comfortable squeezing the levers, go to the section describing pedaling and practice braking at slow speeds.

With your arms slightly bent at the elbows, coast in the set position at approximately 5 mph (this is what most people generate in first gear at 90 rpms). Slowly squeeze the right (rear) lever until you come to a gradual stop. Now apply the left (front) brake at the same speed. Notice the difference? The front brake provides greater stopping power because the weight (you) sits behind the brake, instead of in front of it. Each brake has its own disadvantages when operated improperly — squeeze too tight on the front and you'll be flipped off; squeeze too much on the rear and you'll skid out of control. Either situation puts rider and bike at great risk of injury and damage.

Both brakes should be used properly together, especially when rapid speed reduction is necessary. The rider must develop a feel for how firmly each brake must be squeezed. To practice this, assume the set position, coasting at a speed of 5 mph, and gradually squeeze both brakes at the same time. You will find that you can stop quite quickly after a few tries. Remember to keep your weight low and over the saddle.

Many people are surprised to find out how physically demanding braking can be. During a long and steep descent, your hands may tire and even cramp. You may also need to give your legs a rest from the tactical set position.


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