Nothing is more annoying than getting off your mountain bike to walk. Trail obstacles pose a real confidence challenge, especially when learning how to handle your ride. As trails constantly evolve, lines and trail debris appear and disappear regularly. If no one is doing trail maintenance, you can easily find that your ride will have you hopping over downed trees or through loose rocks. So how can you ride through obstacles smoothly and without wrecking? The key is to trust your bike and your balance and just send it.
When first learning how to ride your mountain bike, your mind is your worst enemy.
Behind the scenes, your brain is learning how to build neural networks in your muscles, teaching you how to pour strength and balance into the bike and trail while moving forward in three dimensions. This construction takes time, but it is shockingly efficient, especially if you commit to riding challenging trails that are still appropriate for your riding level. Still, there are three areas where I’ve found that beginner riders really struggle with confidence: steep climbs, downed trees, and rock gardens.
Knowing the terrain helps build confidence to ride through obstacles.
When I first started to ride, I would explore new trails with friends who were more seasoned vets. After several months, I quickly discovered how knowing the actual terrain ahead of time helped my friends go faster and smoother through the trails. In addition, they knew what to expect and when which was a real advantage. I struggled to keep up, but I tried to learn what I could, and as I repeated trails, I prepared my mind and body for challenging aspects of the trail. Steep climbs were the first of these unexpected challenges.
Turning a corner and suddenly spotting a punishing uphill section is shocking. I was usually in the wrong gear, my mind quickly flooding with anxiety as I wondered if I would make it up the hill or collapse in a heap on the side of the trail. Over time, I found that the best way to make it up these sections was to shift to an easier gear, move up on my saddle or stand up, and power through. I also found it was essential to make sure my bike was moving fast enough to hold a straight line. I usually wrecked as soon as my handlebars started twisting left or right. Your bike can handle these steep climbs easily, and your bike is not too heavy. Balance, confidence, and power are the only ingredients you need to make it up a tough, short climb.
Downed trees and rock gardens are other obstacles that really seem to stump new riders.
Unlike steep climbs, you can’t always get through these features by power and positioning alone. Finesse and line choice are the keys to avoiding getting unseated on the trail. Riding over a downed tree is based on the tree’s size, your bike’s clearance, and your ability to bunny hop. If a tree is too big or the branches still cover the trail, you’re probably out of luck. But if the tree is, say, 5-10 inches in diameter, chances are that you’ll be able to ride over it with no problem, especially if someone has nestled rocks up to the log to make a ledge. The key once again is confidence and an appropriate amount of speed.
As you approach the tree, lean back on your bike and pop the front wheel up (not too much!) to catch the top part of the log. As soon as your front tire grips, momentum will start pulling your bike up and over the tree. As the front of the bike is moving over the tree, press the ground slightly in the rear, creating a spring that will drag the back half of your bike up and over the log. Do not shift too much of your weight forward, or you may go over your handlebars and face-planting on whatever is on the other side of the tree.
The challenge with being able to successfully ride through rock gardens really rests on picking the right line.
If you have an incredibly squishy full suspension bike, the line doesn’t matter since you can buzzsaw through most of the features. But if you’re learning how to ride on a hardtail or are crazy and love riding a rigid frame, then picking the best path for your bike is key. Holding speed is once again essential since rocks threaten to kill your momentum. I have dislocated a finger by not keeping enough speed through a rock garden, so yeah, not fun.
As you approach a rocky section, pick the line that seems to offer the least resistance and stick to that line! Don’t try to hop out or change your mind as it gets tricky. You’re guaranteed to be on your ass as a result. Once again, stand up, push your butt back, and let your momentum carry you through. The key to rock gardens is to let the front of your bike move smoothly through the rocks, allowing momentum to drag the back of your bike. You’re done as soon as you punch your bike’s nose into a rock, so use the same scoop technique you would use on a downed tree to pop over, especially large stones.
Obstacles on the trail appear scary, but they shouldn’t cause you to have to hike. Be smart about how you ride but also be confident. You will surely wreck at some point; no one rides perfectly. But you can ride through more challenging sections than you think if you try it. Line choice, smoothness, and commitment are essential to any problematic feature.
Matt Chisholm is a data analyst and freelance writer who studies the environmental history of the Southern Smoky Mountain region of North Carolina. He was a contributor to Lost in Transition: Removing, Resettling, and Renewing Appalachia and the 2016 edition of the Journal of East Tennessee History, for which he won the 2017 McClung Award. When not writing, Matt enjoys road and mountain biking, hiking, trail running, and drinking beer around Concord, NC where he lives with his wife, daughter, and twin boys.
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