Skills Fundamentals

This mountain biking skills section will teach you a set of fundamental skills that will make your riding safer, better and faster. This section's content is brought to you by Julien Lallemand. Julien developed a mountain bike skills teaching method and taught regular mountain bike skills clinics in Hong Kong

Core Skills: Pedaling

Pedaling is not just about spinning your legs. It’s about applying power when you need it. It’s also about using the right gear at the right time to roll over an obstacle or climb a mountain.

geared to climb

The gears

Bicycle gears allow you to use a sustainable amount of strength to make you climb almost any slope’s inclination.
A regular mountain bike has 3 chain rings and 9 rear sprockets. Theoretically there are 28 gears (3X9) but the gears are overlapping:
A 30 teeth chain ring driving a 15 teeth rear sprocket (ratio 1:2) is equivalent to a 36 chain ring (middle chain ring) driving a 13 teeth sprocket. In both cases one pedal revolution will generate two wheel revolutions.

Stay aligned

To guarantee the gears functioning in at their optimum, the chain must be lined up as much as possible with the rear sprocket driven by the chain ring. Chains are flexible only to a limited extent, and will quickly wear out or break if used improperly. The wear is multiplied exponentially while riding in wet and muddy conditions.

Rule of thumb:
Big chain ring drives the 4 smaller sprockets.
Middle chain ring drives all the sprockets except the smallest and the largest one.
Small chain ring drives the 4 larger sprockets.

Always spin your legs

The right way to use gears for trail riding is to pedal within the same range of intensity regardless of the slope you have to climb. The slope doesn’t decide for you the effort you must make to climb it (although a very steep slope may do!).
This means you must try to stay in a sustainable effort zone at all times by changing gear, making spinning easier on steeper climbs and harder on a flat or a downhill until you get in your effort zone.
You must always feel some resistance under your feet. If it’s too easy, you’re spending more energy spinning your legs than pushing on the pedals.


climb of the saddleGet off your seat for extra power

Standing up will give you extra power because you will use your weight to push the pedals down. But when you are standing up you are using your upper body much more and it will increase your effort load drastically. It's difficult to sustain a long climb standing up. Even on a very steep climb you'll have advantage to remain seated.
However, it is good sometimes to get off the saddle for a few seconds and pedal slowly using your weight on a heavy gear – it will help you relaxing your legs.


Extra boost

There are many situations that require a reserve of extra power. You’ll need to push the pedals extra hard for a few second to go over an obstacle you haven’t anticipated.
If you are already pushing hard on your pedals to climb up the obstacle’s slope, you won’t have enough energy left to get over the obstacle itself. This could be going over one or two steps, or just powering through a rough section.
Example: A typical mistake is to zoom down a hill, pedaling on a high gear to gather momentum for the next climb, and then getting stuck on the climb because the gear is too high.

Change gear constantly

You must constantly try to find the gear that allows you to spin with the same intensity. For technical trail riding (most of Hong Kong riding) you may change shift gear every 10 seconds.
You must shift to an easier gear everytime you see an obstacle or a surface that will slow you down. It can be a sudden climb, a few rocks or a tight curve; all this will slow you down so you'll need to be in a lower gear to easily pedal through.

Tip: Gear numbers are always given from right to left in increasing number.
For chain rings 1 is the largest chest ring (furthest right) – 3 is the smallest chain ring (further left).
For the cassette 1 is the smallest sprocket (furthest right) – 9 is the largest (furthest left).
You must always keep pedaling to change gear.

Graphic: gearing sequence
gearing sequence

Practice: Chain alignment

Find a flat, long area that is clear of obstacles and people, since you might need to look at your chain while riding.

Get to the lowest gear (3X9).
Ride and progressively change gears with your rear derailleur. Go 9 > 8 > 7 > 6.
Now change chain ring 3 > 2
Pedaling is immediately harder. So ease it by going up 2 rear gears 6 < 7 < 8
Now you’ve found the ratio you had while on the small gear, you can accelerate. Shift down with the rear derailleur: 8 > 7 > 6 > 5 > 4 > 3 > 2.
Now get on the large chain ring 2 > 1
Shift 2 gears up on the back 2 > 3 > 4
Now you can finish the sequence and get to 4 > 3 > 2 > 1.

Start to slow down and proceed to the inverse sequence: front 1 to 3 and back 1 to 9.
You should be able to go through the all sequence with 200 meters.

Practice 2 – anticipate

Find a path where you can gather momentum and which ends in a steep slope.
Accelerate enough to get on a low gear – large chain ring and small sprocket (1X3)
As soon as you hit the slope start changing gear in order to keep applying the same power as you’re going further up. This exercise will force you to find the adequate gear quickly. Stop changing gear when you feel comfortable with the effort you’re making.

If no slope is available determine a distant point where you’ll stop. Accelerate until you’re getting close to the largest gear (1X1/2/3). Start slowing down, and alternate gear changing and braking. You want to reach the stopping point in a very easy gear (3X6/7/8).

NEXT: Slopes Up and Down

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