By Emily Schaldach

Known best for her infectious smile and giggly personality, Emily Schaldach has countless mountain bike and cyclocross accolades to her name including multiple podiums at a variety of Collegiate National Championships. She works with many up-and-coming mountain bike stars as a coach with Durango’s iconic DEVO program and is excited to share her experience and knowledge to help riders get faster and have more fun on the bike.

Improve Your Mountain Biking Skills

While on a mountain bike trip to the desert a few years ago, some friends asked about my top tips or secrets for tackling technical trails. These friends were new to mountain biking, and while they had some basic skills and could get through some of the rugged desert terrain, I knew that with a little help and some directions, they could experience the trail in a whole new way.

Starting with a solid foundation of mountain bike skills, you'll set yourself up to have more fun on the trails, and you'll notice your riding progresses more quickly once you mastered a few key points. I pieced together these three tips during that desert trip years ago to share with my friends. Since then, I've refined the list and explanations for these skills, and it has completely changed how I understand and visualize technical riding.

Look Where You Want To Go

The first tip is about line choice. On a given trail, there are countless decisions we can make to move more quickly or more smoothly. While it is easy to focus on each rock or root in our way, it’s actually faster and more effective to look up the trail and focus on where you want to go. This means looking at the smooth section of trail where you’d like your bike to go instead of looking at the root you’d like to avoid.

While looking up the trail, also plan for where your back wheel will roll. It's easy to move around a rock or obstacle with our front wheel only to roll over it with our back wheel, slowing us down or awkwardly jerking the bike. If you can look up to where you want to go, and remember this includes where your back wheel will go, you’ll start flying through technical sections of trail.

Bike-Body Separation

The second tip pertains to body position. I think of this as creating space to let you control the bike instead of letting the bike control you. Particularly in mountain biking, advanced riders will constantly shift around on and off their saddle and change their body position on the bike to maneuver quickly through rough terrain.

For example, when descending, you can stand up, bend your elbows and knees and push them out while bringing your chest closer to your bars. Then, if you need to step up over a rock or root, you can lift your front wheel and as it moves over the rock, shift your weight up and forward to help raise your back wheel over the feature. In contrast, when you climb super steep sections of trail, you can shift your weight forward on the saddle, bringing your elbows in and hovering above your seat in a more compact position.

As you ride, start experimenting with how you can move your body around your bike. You can shift forward and back, up or down, and side to side. By combining these different movements, you'll start to feel how crucial it is to practice bike-body separation.

Lean Through Corners

Finally, the last tip has to do with cornering. Intuitively, we may want to steer our bikes by turning our bars. However, steering a mountain bike can primarily come from leaning our entire bike to the side. When you go around a corner, particularly a flat corner without a berm, you can practice bike-body separation from the second tip by pushing your outside foot down and straightening your inside arm. This will tilt your bike to the inside of the corner while your body stays more upright. In mountain biking, this is called counter-steering. As you practice, you’ll start to feel the momentum build as you corner with this technique, allowing you to exit the corner quickly and smoothly.

On smaller turns or bends, think about steering your bike as if there is a headlight coming from your belly button. Instead of turning the bars to steer, point your core in the direction you want to go, and this will easily move you and your bike in that direction.

As you start practicing these foundation skills on your mountain bike, be patient with yourself. You'll likely mess something up or even crash, but that's part of learning, and it'll help you understand how to maneuver on the bike and take on more technical trails. When practicing skills, I find it is most helpful to think about one of these tips at a time. Let yourself get comfortable with one skill before adding on a second or third. As your riding advances, your ability to execute each of these skills will grow, and soon you'll be flying down the trail without even thinking about it.

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