He looked at me one last time and placidly said, ‘You know you’re going to get hurt, right, Laila?’ My friend then started pedalling and took me on my first ever mountain bike trail. Well, what do you know, three minutes later his prediction came true: he jumped over a small, OK, not exactly small, tree trunk lying in the middle of the trail. Looked easy enough, so I wanted to show him what I’m made of. Cocky much, I know. What did I get for all my trouble? The biggest possible bruise on my right thigh as a small souvenir for my first mountain bike trail excursion. Turns out it was a long-lasting memento, as it gradually went through various shades of blue, purple, pink over the course of two weeks. I got back onto the bike anyway, as I’d caught the trail bug already back then, even though as a complete mountain bike novice I may have caused the occasional bottleneck or two.
Highlights of the technical course
What’s best: trial and error, or proper studying? I’ve learnt that a bit of both won’t do any harm. You’ll have more fun if you learn some mountain bike basics and then try them out on a trail as well as improving your personal safety while riding. I fully subscribe to this philosophy after completing my first season and taking a brief technical course.
Siegmund, my technical course leader, states that helmet and knee pads are compulsory, and the same applies to gloves, elbow pads, and a rucksack to protect me somewhat should I fall. Contrary to the road bike, you don’t have to wear skin-tight clothing when mountain biking, there’s actually some great pieces in the ladies’ mountain bike collection.
Most people place their saddle way too low. To find out your ideal height, for the start of the excursion, that is, place your arm across the saddle, letting it hang until the saddle fits under your armpit. The saddle will have reached the correct height when your hand touches the middle of the bottom bracket. If you’re more into numbers, then use the Hugi method. Measure the length of your stride and multiply it by 0.885. You’ll obtain the difference between the middle of the bottom bracket and the top edge of the saddle.
The right posture
Default position: keep your pedals horizontal and place all of your weight on them and not on the handlebar. Maintain a relatively straight upper body, relax your knees and arms and bend them ever so slightly, while the body’s centre rests above the bottom bracket, and always keep a finger on the brake lever.
Practise breaking. Boooooring. It sounds lame at first, I know. Sprint, then brake; pedal off slowly, then brake; alternate between using only the front and rear brake respectively. Develop a feeling for how the bike reacts to the smallest twitch of your index finger. Tip: women often mix right and left, so placing one finger on the front brake lever and two on the rear brake lever solves the problem for rookies with coordination issues.
Moving on: gradually engage both levers, then slightly engage each one; sprint off and engage both of them just as quickly, as though you were performing an emergency brake manoeuvre. I was nearly catapulted off the bike when I first tried it.
Remember: emergency brake = shift all of your weight to the back and get off the bike by hopping off the back of the saddle while still holding on to the handlebar.
Strike a pose: lifting your front and rear wheel
Look at you, being all cool and that when lifting your front and/or rear wheel in the air, am I right? And it’s practical, to boot, as you can overcome small hurdles — such as my bruise-causing-tree trunk, or a low kerb — by lifting the front wheel. Better practise it when on a flat patch of the trail: drive off in the default positing, bend and stretch your legs, thus delivering a push to the bottom bracket and, at the same time, lean in to the handlebar and stretch your arms, lift your upper body et voila, the front wheel will swing into the air. This works in the off-road too after a couple of test rides; timing is essential as you need to raise the handlebar right before the hurdle if you want to overcome it.
To lift your rear wheel in the air, bend your knees and swing the wheel backwards with your feet firmly planted on the pedals. At the moment of the rise, your feet will be nearly vertical to the ground. The upper body remains relatively straight, and by slightly engaging the front brake lever it becomes even easier. Combine both techniques and the whole bike will be in the air: I believe I can fly!
Going down steep tracks
Timing is key whether you’re cycling down a brief steep track, or on a proper downhill: as soon as the ‘chasm’ opens up before you, embrace it in a relaxed manner by maintaining the default position and keeping your centre above the bottom bracket. As soon as you start descending, ‘push’ the handlebar to the front while your upper body and knees will slightly drop, and place your backside behind the saddle, but not too much or you’ll lose your front wheel’s road grip. It cost me a bit of effort the first times to dive down into the depths with my bike, but it’s a blast as soon as you get the hang of it.
Riding down steps
As soon as you encounter one or more steps, react by slightly shifting your weight to the rear as soon as the front wheel lands on the second step. When both wheels are on a step, the weight shifts completely behind the saddle and towards the bottom, the arms are stretched out to ‘push’ the handlebar to the front, your body and core have to be engaged and the bike, in theory, will roll on its own. Better you break before or after the step, if it’s necessary during the descent, by slightly engaging both levers. I’m still practising this bit. Ouch …