Keep your backside over the back wheel. That’s the golden rule when you’re going down a steep hill on a mountain bike. You can then freewheel over rocks, roots and ruts that would stop the bike (but not you) dead if you were sitting on the saddle. With your centre of gravity hanging off the stern like a sea anchor, you can keep rolling through choppy terrain.
This lesson was drummed into us one morning as we slalomed around traffic cones in a sunny glade in Surrey’s Holmbury Hills. “In effect we’re giving you a downhill ski position on a nursery slope,” said the course instructor Kieran Flynn. As a 37-year-old cycling expert and the editor of Cycle magazine, I never expected to find myself being taught how to ride a bike again. But knowing and doing are rather different, as I found out when I crashed into a tree 400 yards into my first mountain bike race.
“You might think it looks ridiculous,” said Flynn, “but you will use this skill on steeper slopes. Like that one up there.” He was right. After lunch most participants were tackling sheer descents — backside dutifully off the back of the saddle — that they would have balked at before. Riding a bike might be a skill that most of us have mastered by the age of 10, and proverbially never forget, but riding off-road requires different skills and they have to be learnt. You can pick them up slowly by learning from your mistakes, or you can save time — and bruises — by taking a course in mountain bike skills.
For the uninitiated, mountain biking is freedom: you can head out cross-country, follow trails through parks, forests and rough terrain, and get a much harder physical workout than if you keep your two wheels rigidly on the road. The course that I was on is run by CTC, the national cyclists’ organisation, and is aimed at mountain biking beginners, from the age of 14. The dozen participants included a couple of fathers who had been booked on the course by their daughters as Father’s Day presents, women who had mountain-biking partners and those, like Robert Johnston, from London, who wanted to extend their riding skills.
“I was biking around Richmond Park, fell off and injured my shoulder,” said Johnston, 50. “I thought I’d better come along and learn the basics before I go on any off-road excursions.”
The weekend course was split into two sessions of three hours in the morning and afternoon on both days. Each afternoon we put into practice on single-track trails the bike- handling skills we had learnt that morning in the glade. The one skill we thought we knew was steering.
“You don’t steer a bike with your hands,” said Mel Alwood, a co-instructor. “You steer with your eyes: you go where you look. So don’t look at that tree stump in front of you or you’ll ride straight at it. Look down the trail at the line that you’ll be taking.”
Key mountain-biking techniques included staying loose rather than rigid, and moving your bodyweight around the bike rather than just sitting on it. That was fundamental not only to descending but also to braking, climbing and balancing at slow speed.
“If you are completely balanced,” said Flynn, “you can come to a stop — a trackstand — without needing to take your feet off the pedals. Other than showing off at traffic lights, it gives you a chance to get a view of the trail, to see what you want to do.” Shifting your bodyweight was equally important at higher speeds. “Once you get over a certain speed, you have to steer by leaning,” Alwood added.
We practised at length around the traffic cones. It didn’t seem much like mountain biking until we hit the trails that afternoon, when the various elements came together in a moment of Karate Kid clarity. Instead of going through the motions with distinct manoeuvres, we were doing joined-up mountain biking, weaving confidently down a rollercoaster section of single track known locally as the Yoghurt Pots.
“Three days ago I wouldn’t have been able to ride that, or only very slowly,” said Johnston, after racing down it. “All the skills that they’ve taught us we’ve used on that route. Keeping your body loose is the most important thing. It’s the difference between sitting on the bike like a passenger, holding on for grim death, and being in control.”
Other participants went from riding over traffic cones and stalling on tricky sections to whooping down long, rock-strewn trails. Even those with some previous experience gained confidence and ability, such as Carmel Quinn, a computer journalist in her early thirties, who hoped to narrow the skills gap between herself and her partner. “I tackled things such as ‘bomb-holes’ (steep-sided bowls) that I would never have dared to try before. And I learnt what my weaknesses were. But most of all, it made me excited about riding off-road.”
Excitement is what mountain biking is all about: it’s a rush, more thrilling than skiing and easier to go and do. In Britain there are even courses, if you want to stick to a route, that are colour-graded for difficulty: from green (easy) to black (expert), through blue and red. Green routes can be tackled by children of primary-school age or nervous parents. Blue and red ones may tempt teenagers away from the PlayStation and into the realm of outdoor exercise. Black routes are really hard, I’ve since discovered, although you’d be surprised at what you can ride down on a mountain bike if you keep your nerve — and your weight well back.
Dan Joyce learnt to mountain bike with the CTC. For more details phone 0870 8730060, or visit www.ctc.org.uk
Cycle of health
- Mountain biking burns about 550 calories an hour, more than swimming, aerobics, or pedalling an exercise bike. Take a drink and cereal bars to avoid running low on energy.
- On difficult terrain it makes sense to wear a helmet. Make sure it fits securely and protects your forehead.
- Real mountain biking requires a real mountain bike. Either hire one, or expect to pay from about £300 for a suitable bike with either a rigid fork or front suspension, and from £750 for full suspension. Double that (or more!) for high-quality bikes.
- Mountain bikers must stick to bridleways, tracks and roads, and always give way to horses and walkers. Never ride more than two abreast.
JOIN THE CHAIN GANG
There are increasing numbers of mountain-biking courses for beginners and enthusiasts alike. You will need to be reasonably fit to do one, but if you take 30 minutes of exercise three times a week, you should be fine. Here is our pick of the best for those in search of mud, sweat and gears.
Mountain Bike Instruction runs courses in the scenic surroundings of the Lever Park, Rivington, Lanchashire, the site of the 2002 Commonwealth Games Championships. You don’t have to be a “free rider” — a proper pro — to cycle here, though: the one-day beginners’ courses will teach you the basics in off-road biking, from the correct use of gears to the best way to sit. Once you are ready to hit the road, you’ll be guided through a variety of terrain, from gentle slopes to more “technically challenging” areas. You must have your own bike, as hire is not available.
Where Lever Park, Rivington, Lancashire.
Cost One-day beginners’ course, £79; one-day intermediate course, £59. Suitable for anyone over 12, although children need to be accompanied by an adult. Special courses can be arranged for groups of under-12s.
Contact 01942 747964, www.mountainbikeinstruction.co.uk
CTC OFF-ROAD WEEKENDS
For those who want to try out tough terrain, CTC, Britain’s largest cycling organisation, runs “dirty weekend” mountain bike courses in Surrey and the New Forest. A minimum of two instructors per team guide you through tracks and trails, and there are appropriate levels of instruction for everyone, whether you are a complete novice or a wheelie-poppin’ pro. The skills taught include everything from climbing techniques to map reading, and bikes are provided if you don’t have your own. CTC also runs women-only courses.
Where Surrey and the New Forest.
Cost From £199 for a weekend, including accommodation.
Suitable for adults and children over the age of 14, although under-18s must be accompanied by a parent or guardian.
Contact 0870 8730060, www.ctc.org.uk
If the scenery is important when you are saddling up, CycleActive runs mountain-bike courses from Ambleside in the Lake District. The two-day Ride Skills Weekends involve powering through an incredible network of natural rock, stone, hardpack and slate trails — this is mountain-bike speak — under the instruction of qualified leaders. There are no more than eight riders per class, and once you have mastered the basics of technical biking, you can begin to tackle steeper descents and tougher terrain. If communing with nature is important to you, you will have plenty of time to take in the views over lunch.
Where Ambleside, Lake District.
Cost £175 for two days’ riding and accommodation. Bike rental is an extra £50.
Suitable for age 13 upwards, although children must be accompanied by an adult. There are separate courses for under-13s.
Contact 01768 840400, www.cycleactive.co.uk
DALES MOUNTAIN BIKING
If you are new to extreme cycling, Dales Mountain Biking offers a two-day riding skills course that briefs you in the basics, from bike maintenance and repair to gear selection, body position and balance. Classes are limited to six cyclists, and once you have earned your stripes, you are let loose on tough terrain to twist and turn to your heart’s content. The classes take place in Swaledale, North Yorkshire, which has a bridleway network that is apparently unparalleled in the Dales. Bed and breakfast accommodation is in local pubs or inns.
Where Swaledale, North Yorkshire.
Cost £165 for a two-day course.
Suitable for adults only, although 16 to 18-year-olds are welcome if they are accompanied.
Contact 01748 884356, www.dalesmountainbiking.co.uk
Fancy pedalling through the peaks? Peak Days runs private, one-day courses for a maximum of six cyclists at a time. The instructor, Chris, drills you in the safety aspects of ascending and descending before you get to try out the steep gradients around some of the most spectacular cycling terrain in the country. If the gravitational pull of the hills isn’t enough for you, you will also go biking through copses, woods and valleys.
Where Peak District.
Cost One-day beginners’ mountain bike skills course, £69.
Suitable for over-16s only.
Contact 01623 757894, www.peakdays.co.uk
According to pros, the Scottish Borders offer some of the best mountain-bike trails this side of Colorado. Macs Adventure runs courses through Glentress Forest, which is just outside Peebles. The purpose-built trails offer superfast single-track descents, banked corners, jumps, drop-offs and switchback climbs — basically, everything a mountain biker could ask for. The one-day Introduction to Trail Riding Course is the place for a beginner: you’ll learn essential skills before navigating increasingly dramatic descents. Bike hire is available at £18 a day.
Where Glentress Forest, Scottish Borders.
Cost A one-day introduction to mountain biking costs £65.
Suitable for over-18s, although children over 12 are welcome if they are accompanied by a parent or guardian.
Contact 0141-945 4945, www.macsadventure.com