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

Riding up and down

A mountain bike can climb slopes with up to a 30% incline and go down a 45% incline and more. The limitations are lie in tire traction and grip

Long Climb

A long climb can be made easier with a few posture adjustments:
  • As soon as the slope becomes steep, sit further in front of your saddle and lean forward by flexing your arms. This posture will maximize your leg strength and optimize your balance.
  • Try to save as much as energy as possible with your upper body, and avoid pulling on the handle bar. On any slope your ideal posture should let you make strictly no effort with your arms – you should be able to steer with the tip of your fingers.
Graphic: Correct seated climbing posture
climbing seated

Slope start and ride up

It’s extremely common to have to jump on the bike in the middle of a steep trail section. You must know how to start riding in such a situation:

Gears must be set to easy (small chain ring – large sprocket, 3X9/8/6).

You can either stand above your saddle or sit, but the bike’s angle must be as straight as possible
  • Your first pedal stroke must be set at 10 o’clock.
  • Lean forward. Lower your chest by bending your arms to prevent the bike’s front from lifting under your first pedal stroke.
  • The first stroke must give you enough momentum to very quickly find the other pedal. Expect to lose your balance slightly for the two/three first pedal strokes.
  • Look forward to the point you want to reach – as long as you look forward and keep pedaling you’ll manage to go where you’re looking at. DO NOT look at your front wheel or you will follow that instead of where you want to go.
  • Pedal quickly to find enough momentum and balance.
  • Then pace cadence to sustain the distance to clear.
  • Riding steep uphill slopes
  • Keep your upper body leaning low and forward to keep a low gravity center.
  • Remain seated on a moderately steep slope.
  • Keep your elbows close to your trunk.
  • Look forward and focus on a point you want to reach. Always look to something forward, never look at your wheel even you start losing balance.
  • Try to spin faster to gather momentum.
  • Respect an effort and a cadence you can sustain for the entire slope.

Very steep climbs

Climbing very steep slopes put you on a thin line between balance and traction: Lean too far forward and you'll lose traction, spin your rear wheel and stall - Lean too far back and the front wheel lifts.

  • Get off your saddle as soon the slope gets very steep, but remain almost in contact with the saddle's tip
  • Collapse your chest very close to the handlebars, keep your flexed elbows close to your trunk
  • Focus on the next point you want to reach
  • Don't try to hop your front wheel by pulling on your bar in order to go over obstacle - it will destabilize you. Just roll over it. If the obstacle is too sharp to roll over it use your balance instead of your arms to lift the front wheel.

CAUTION: It is common to lose balance on extremely steep climbs. The front lifts and you may flip back and land on your back. To avoid this, cling to your front brake only. DO NOT use your back brake or you’ll flip back.

For very steep slopes do not try to use momentum to tackle it: you will burn out within meters. Instead start slowly and pace yourself.

Graphic: Steep up and downs. The closer your center of gravity gets to the wheel, the less traction or grip your tires will have. For steep uphill the chest gets close to the handle bar, for steep downhill the stomach comes close to the saddle


steep up and downs

Graphic: when it goes wrong. [left] standing too up straight on a downhill brings the center of gravity too close to the front, there is no room to absorb an impact. [right] Standing too far back while going up and the front wheel lifts.


slopes wrong


Downhil slopes: downhill slope start

Starting down a steep slope can be difficult on a narrow or a rutted trail. Train on a clear path first, try to get as quick as you can in a stable posture and to ride down on the straightest like possible.

  • Apply both brakes.
  • Stand on one pedal.
  • Quickly sit on the saddle and release the brakes.Immediatly find a good balance on your feet.DO NOT try to look at your feet when reaching the pedal. Look at the trail!
  • Look forward and immediately adopt a crouching posture by positioning the pedals horizontally, shifting your hips back and lowering your upper body. You must be in balance on your feet

riding downhill -

  • A long downhill trail can be particularly straining if you are tense. The more relaxed you are the faster you’ll go.
  • Get your buttocks off the saddle and shift your hips backward. Flex your arms at the same time. You must be able to slightly pinch your saddle with your inner thighs. You must be as balanced as possible on your two pedals.
  • If the terrain is smooth you won't need to be too far above the saddle, 1 inch is enough. But always be prepared to absorb an impact you didn't see coming. The rougher it gets the further back from the saddle you'll get and the lower your upper body will go
  • Look as far forward as you think you can stop. Constantly scan what’s upcoming and keep your eyes focused only on where you can ride.
Photo: Going down a steep trail section. Neutral and balanced posture, almost no pressure on the handlebars.

slopes down

Photo: HANGING from the bar. Leaning too far back with arms completely extended. Impossible to steer.

steep slope wrong

Fire in your forearms?

Have a tight grip on your handle bar but very relaxed arms. If you feel your forearms and shoulders burning on a long downhill, it means you are not low enough and not in balance on your feet.
Your arms must be used to push you back just before the impact, you must use your balance and weight to absorb the impacts, not just your arms.

Graphic: Lean back right before the impact. If you didn't lean back enough your arms are absorbing the impact.

downhill slope obstacle


NEXT: Steps 

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