How to Improve Your Mountain Bike Skills

How to Improve Your Mountain Bike Skills

Here are some great tips from Cecilia ‘Ceal’ Potts, who is a former professional cyclist. Her greatest cycling accomplishment was winning the Junior Cross Country Mountain Bike World Championships in 1997, so it is a great pleasure to publish her tips here on

People I ride with often ask me if there’s one thing–a silver bullet for mountain bike technical skills–that will make them a better rider. My answer is: YES, and learning how to do a bunny hop or a mastering a nose wheelie is not required.

My technical mountain bike skills are exponentially better than they were in 1997 when I won the Junior Cross Country Mountain Bike World Championships. This is why: I now have core and upper body strength and can better control a bicycle on all types of terrain.

TIP #1 Strengthen your core and upper body to be more balanced with your legs.

Watch a few videos on Youtube of mountain bike racers going down (or even up) a steep, rocky section of trail. You’ll notice that the cyclists who have the most control and pass through the section the quickest are those who have the core strength to keep their bodies balanced over their bicycles and the arm strength to put their front wheels on the most efficient lines.

Those who don’t have a strong core or upper body and arm strength ride rough terrain like the metal ball in a pinball machine as they bounce off of rocks, riding the trail at the mercy of gravity and with good luck.

I’m not saying bulk up. Instead:

  • Strengthen your core – try doing planks, abdominal crunches, and oblique twists.
  • Put meat on your chicken wings the old fashioned way – push ups and pull ups.
  • Use cross training to improve balance – surfing and Nordic skiing work the core and upper body.

Your body is the fulcrum when you are on your bicycle. When the downhill terrain gets steep and bumpy, you need to be able to effortlessly transfer your weight to behind the bottom bracket (or transfer forward on a climb) and be able to hold it there to maintain equilibrium through the section. You also need to use your arms to push down and pull up on the handlebars to steer toward the most efficient and safe line possible.

After you’ve built up your core and upper body strength, you can build your next skill set: picking the best line.

TIP #2 Pick the best line. Practice makes perfect.

We all know that the shortest distance between two points is a straight line, and anyone who has ever ridden a mountain bike knows that the shortest distance isn’t always an option due to lack of skills or a strong sense of self-preservation.

I’ve had the privilege of pre-riding a downhill course with world-class downhillers Mark Weir and Brian Lopes. One of the things on this ride that surprised me most was the way each of them took on technical sections (it was Brian’s first time on the course). They took the time to look at all the available lines, sometimes walking those lines, no matter how unfeasible the lines seemed at first glance.

When you come across a technical section of trail:

  • Get off your bike to get a better look – view it from the top and the bottom of the section.
  • Choose a line and then walk it – from the top to bottom and then back to the top.
  • Would carrying speed through the section help or hurt?

Walk the line you choose with your bike – note the flow of the terrain as your wheels rollover. Are their rocks, roots or ruts that may swallow a front wheel or cause the rear wheel to slide out?

Finally, I ride the line repeatedly, until I’m confident I can pass through the section of trail flawlessly at race pace.

By combining TIP #1 and TIP #2, you now have the strength and confidence to handle lines that you previously may not have considered. This is where it all comes together.

TIP #3 Anticipate what’s ahead on the trail.

Another key to keeping the pace up on a ride is knowing what terrain, topography, and obstacles are ahead. Even if you haven’t ridden a racecourse or you are on an unfamiliar trail, you can get a solid idea about what’s ahead by looking at your surroundings.

About a year ago, I learned the value of this skill the hard way. I was on a trail I’ve ridden in dozens of times, but tall grass had grown up and closed in a long, long section of singletrack. The trail was hard-packed clay, flat, and fast. However, the grass made it impossible to see more than two bike lengths ahead on the trail. We were riding at race pace. Then I made a huge mistake. I thought the trail was going to bear left, and instead it took a sharp right. I shot off the single track and blasted through the tall grass into thin air over a small ravine.

Before I had a chance to react, I piled headfirst at full speed into the other side of the ditch and slid down to the bottom of the 15-foot or so deep gully. It knocked the wind out of my chest, and my ears were ringing – it was a concussion for sure.

But what hurt worse was the embarrassment I felt from the crash. Had I been using my two eyes — one to watch the trail in front of me and the other to take a look at my surroundings, I would have realized to my right was a nearly vertical mountain side going up, and to my left was just as steep going down since we were essentially perpendicular to the hillside.

If I would have paid attention to this, I would have adjusted my speed and kept it on the trail.

Here are some visual hints that can give you a good sense of what’s ahead:

  • When there’s a steep slope above, the slope below is likely steep, too.
  • Use the contour of a hillside to anticipate the trail’s twists and turns ahead.
  • Long climbs are usually followed by long fast downhills – maintain equilibrium on the bike.

Knowing what’s ahead smooths out all aspects of the ride. As you move your body back on the bike for a steep downhill, realize there could be a climb soon after the descent, and your legs might be somewhat fatigued from the pounding of the terrain. Give yourself a break and pick a suitable gear that will allow you to maintain a good cadence and keep a smooth pace after the technical section.

Final thoughts

Tips and helpful hints work best when they are used every day. Even if you don’t have the core and upper body strength you think you need, go out and practice those technical sections over and over again. As your line picking skills improve so will your instincts for anticipating what’s ahead on the trail.

I’ve been riding mountain bikes for more than 20 years, and with every mile, I log, I’ve seen my skill sets improve. I hope you see the same progress with yours.

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