This article is part of a series on how-to skills for mountain biking:
Going downhill on a mountain bike requires your utmost concentration in order to reach the bottom in one piece. When your mind leaves the trail, so follows your body. Pay attention to every root, rut, rock, hole and bump. You, the trail and your bike should become as one, seeking true singletrack nirvana as you fly down the mountain. As such...
Set your eyes where you want to go (NOT where you're scared you'll crash)
This means keeping a steady speed, all the way through the turn, until you get where you're going. Keeping your eyes focused on that spot will allow your shoulders, hips and bike to follow, which gives you traction all the way through a turn. Avoid looking at obstacles, other cyclists or that huge tree that’s rapidly approaching on the left. For most people this actually means making an effort to look 10-15 feet down the trail. Looking down at your front tire makes it too easy for you to get scared or lose your balance.
Avoid your front brake to avoid going endo (a.k.a ass over tea kettle)
When you go downhill, your front tire has more weight, and thus more braking power, which means more power to send you flying into the woods.
Do not lock your brakes
This will also send you flying — see aforementioned “overbraking.”
Shift your weight over your back wheel
This will increase the rear brake’s power. This will give you maximum balance and the best control. Learning how to shift your weight is an art as much as a science. The best riders know how to shift their weight between the front and back wheels, depending on the situation and how much braking power they need to avoid going over the handlebars or skidding down a trail.
Let your whole body steer: your shoulders should guide you through every turn and obstacle. Mountain biking has a lot in common with downhill skiing: you have to shift your weight from side-to-side down bumpy, narrow hills. Listen to your body and follow its slight shifts and the movements through the trail.
Stand in the saddle and keep your knees slightly bent
When racing down bumpy, difficult hills, stand up on your pedals and straddle the seat. This way your legs and knees will absorb the shock instead of your ass. Try to keep the pedals mostly parallel to the ground, with the front pedal a little higher to avoid catching it on rocks or logs.
Shift into your largest chainring
If you do this before a rugged descent, it will help keep your chain from falling off. And god forbid you should you crash or your leg slips from the pedal; if the chain is covering the teeth of the big ring, you’ll avoid it chewing up your leg. Ouch.
Next up? Learn how to go uphill without killing yourself (also an art form), plus move over obstacles like a ballet dancer on two wheels.
Jill Hinton Wolfe