Your First Mountain Bike Moves

Steering a Steady Off-Road Course

Okay, now you can change gears to accommodate any necessary speed and you can brake without flipping or skidding. Now it's time to practice avoiding obstacles and following the course you want — the most satisfying aspect of riding a mountain bike. Many riders refer to steering as the true nature of technique, and you will hear trails referred to as"technical," i.e., requiring precise and steady directional control in order to ride them upright.

The first rule to remember on approaching a ground hazard is to steer around it and avoid it completely if possible, especially if it is wet or not perpendicular to the trail. Even those apparently insignificant looking limbs — not much bigger than those big pencils we used in first grade — can knock a mountain bike out of action by trashing the derailleur or breaking spokes. But we can't miss them all, and the next section teaches you how to hop over such obstacles.

Turns on a bicycle occur as a result of shifting your weight at the same time you turn the handlebar. Each time you change direction, you change ever so slightly the center of balance. Try this simple exercise: Stand on the pedals at a slow coast, keeping two points (tires and head) steady while letting the bike frame and your hips swing back and forth under you. Your spine should mirror the movement of the frame. The swing point occurs at your waist with hips rocking back and forth like a hula dancer's, only slower. A total sweep of 40 degrees of the bike frame (20 to the left of the centerline, and 20 to the right) should be a practical range for most. Your ride line — your overall, general direction — should stay as straight as possible.

Take a roll of duct tape and tear off 10 small sections (bottle caps from plastic milk jugs also work fine), placing them on the asphalt at least one bike length apart. Steer back and forth slalom-style through the"gates" at different speeds. The slower your speed, the more the rear wheel resembles the back wheels of a tractor-trailer rig making a wide turn: the front tire covers more distance in its turn than the back tire. Go slowly and try to steer the front wheel around the front of the tape, with the back wheel crossing behind the tape. If you do this properly, the tape should pass under the saddle. Likewise, a rock on the trail can be avoided in the same manner.

Making a turn at higher speeds depends more on leaning than on steering. Reach an approximate speed of 10 mph (at a cadence of 90 rpms with the chain on the largest freewheel gear and the middle crankring) and coast in the set position. You'll feel an added stability coming from the centrifugal force of the spinning wheels, allowing you to lean through the turns as well as steering through them. Although the process occurs by virtue of other hidden forces (like momentum and tire-tread angle), what becomes obvious is that turns at different speeds require different techniques.

Occasionally, you will have to execute a tight turn, like a U-turn or a sharp downhill switchback. In order to do this, your speed will need to be slow. The obvious problem to overcome is stalling out and losing balance. With a combination of simultaneous pedaling and braking, however, the maneuver is easily performed.

Let's say it's a right-hand turn. Head into the turn with a slight lean to the right. The left pedal should be pointed to the front tire. This puts the right pedal in a position (pointing to the back tire) so that it shouldn't hit the ground on the turn; the left pedal is prepared to power through the turn when it is needed. Lean into the turn, pedals in position, and turn the handlebar to the right. Begin to slow down by gradually braking the rear only. If you feel yourself losing too much speed (and it's natural for this to happen), don't release the rear brake. Instead, regain the speed needed to stay balanced by pedaling. When your front tire is headed in the direction you want, completely release the rear brake.

As you gain more experience in the saddle, the bike will start feeling like an extension of your own body. You will combine leaning with steering, braking, and pedaling — depending on the situation — in order to keep a straight course. And, before long, you'll be confidently steering your bike on trails you thought you'd see only in movies and magazines.

Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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