Happier Trails to You

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Cycling Special, March 1997

Happier Trails to You

Put in a few minutes of practice, get back hours of carefree mountain biking. Not a bad investment.
By James Rodewald

Your Tutor: Susan DeMattei, 34, won a bronze medal in mountain biking at the sport's Olympic debut in Atlanta last summer. She retired from competition after the Games and now lives and rides in Gunnison, Colorado.
As millions of satisfied riders have learned, mountain biking isn't brain surgery. The basic riding techniques that your muscles committed to memory in childhood still apply. On the other hand, the turn-of-the-twenty-first-century mountain bike, tricked out with sophisticated shifting, brakes, and suspension, is a high-tech animal. So even if you're beyond beginner, you might be surprised how easily a few pointers can help you coax a lot more performance out of your machine--help you work with it rather than against. It's kind of like the difference between just surviving a ride in a Maserati and really learning what that baby can do.

Controlled Descent
Perhaps the best advice when you're peering down from the top of a steep slope through the woods: Trust your instincts. The bike will steer where your eyes are looking, so focus on the path of least disaster rather than fixating on obstacles. As you start your descent, let the bike roll forward, keeping your upper body horizontal. Be sure to keep your weight back--to the point of resting your chest on the saddle for the steepest grades. This allows the front end to surf over obstacles while increasing your rear braking power and keeping gravity at bay. Respect your front brake, but don't ignore it: Slow down by feathering both levers at once, squeezing and then easing off quickly enough that neither wheel locks into a skid.

Smoother Shifting
All those gears may seem a mark of conspicuous consumption, but they really do serve a purpose. On any route whose steepness varies much, you'll find occasion to click through each and every one of those 20-odd speeds, constantly trying to match gear to grade. The goal is to maintain momentum, both by using the terrain and by anticipating changes. For instance, if you're heading down a steep pitch into a gully, first give a few hard pedal strokes to help start you up the other side, and then downshift before you reach bottom so you won't bog down as you start to climb. Heading into long climbs, don't drop into the lowest gear right away; rather, tick off easier cogs as your cadence starts to wane. A useful trick: When you do go for the small front chainring, give a quick surge to your pedal stroke and then ease off as you shift. This prevents chain suck, a phenomenon in which your chain gets jammed between the crank and the frame and that's about as pleasant as its name suggests.

Popping a Wheelie
What might seem like a mere stunt is actually a stepping-stone to advanced riding skills, such as riding over large obstacles and climbing unusually steep grades. Starting on a lawn or equally cushy ground, find a gear that allows a smooth rhythm, somewhere between moderate resistance and wild freewheeling. Slide back on your saddle and yank on the bars to see what it takes to lift the front wheel. Now add the critical step: At the instant you pull on the bars, give a hard pedal stroke on one side and then, as the front end rears up, keep pedaling evenly. Turn your handlebars slightly to one side, which for some odd reason helps with balance, and move your knees in and out--much like a tightrope walker uses his arms--to offset any sudden lurches.

The Uphill Start
If you find yourself stalled on a hill, despair not. First, since chances are you're stuck on a particularly steep section, relocate to a relatively flatter spot. Then, to regain your momentum, choose an easy gear, but not one so low that you spin out on the first pedal stroke. Straddle the bike, keeping both brakes locked. With one foot on the ground, put your other foot on the pedal and position it even with the down tube (two o'clock on the right side or ten o'clock on the left). Now--all together--release the brakes, shove off with your standing foot, and push down on the pedal with the other. Don't get back on the seat right away, but stay poised just over it to maintain traction. If you use clipless pedals, don't engage until you're certain you can make it the rest of the way.

Your Pre-Ride Checklist

If you've ever found yourself barreling down a steep pitch with loose brakes or been annoyed by the clatter of an off-kilter chain, you know the importance of looking things over before you hit the trail. But are you certain that you're touching all the pre-ride bases? Four things to inspect before every outing:

1) Tire pressure. Use 40 psi as a starting point, and then adjust according to the terrain, your body weight, and your style. If you're an aggressive rider or typically ride on hard-packed dirt or pavement, pump your tires up to 45 or 50 psi. If you're on the wispy side or need maximum traction for sand or mud, try the 30-to-35 range.

2) Brakes. Squeeze the levers. If either one touches the handlebar, your brakes need tightening. Turn the adjustment knob on the lever counterclockwise.

3) Rims. Spin each wheel while watching the space between the rim and the brake pad to make sure there's no friction. If there is, you may simply need to loosen your brakes; if that doesn't solve the problem, you'll need to have your wheel trued.

4) Gears. Take a quick spin to make sure each gear clicks solidly into place. If you hear a chatter as you pedal, use the adjusting barrel on the rear derailleur (a quarter turn at a time) to hone alignment: counterclockwise will help the chain jump up to a bigger cog; clockwise, to drop onto a smaller one.


Photograph by Jim Erickson

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