How to ride singletrack

By Michelle Valenti
You can hop on any old bike, bump along a cattle track and call it off-roading, but if you really want to know what mountain biking should feel like, you need to ride singletrack. It does, however, require a more refined set of skills than if you were pedaling down a bike path through the local park.

Mountain bike trails have obstacles, narrow spaces and tight turns. So before you can feel the thrill of dirt peeling away beneath your wheels, there are a few things you need to know.

Cliff Krolick, owner and operator of backcountry excursions in Parsonfield, Maine, walks (or rather rides) his clients through a 45-minute introductory mountain biking course before taking them out on the trails. There are three things he wants to ingrain in their brains—even if they learn nothing else.

#1: Use Your Gears

“Pedaling is just a small part of [mountain biking],” says Krolick. Pedaling in the right gear is what helps you maintain speed, climb hills, and clear obstacles.

Krolick puts his client’s bikes on stands and has them power the bike with their hands, pedaling with one hand while shifting with the other. This way they can see what happens when the gears are put in motion, and they can feel the difference between each gear.
If you shift one way, it gets easier to turn the pedal, if shift in the opposite direction it gets more difficult to turn the pedal.

Off the bike it seems like common sense to say you should climb hills in an easy gear, but beginners don’t always remember to downshift. Alternately, you should shift into a higher gear when heading down the side of a mountain. Beginners again forget to shift on downhills because gravity is doing the work and the cyclist can coast. But when you start pedaling again at the bottom of the hill, the wrong gear will leave you spinning the pedals in circles without going anywhere. The right gear, however, will help you maintain the momentum that gravity provided.

Even on straightaways, the right gear helps you maintain speed. Krolick says one of the reasons people fall behind on a group ride is simply because they forget to shift gears.

Eventually, shifting will become intuitive. Your hands will learn what to do based on what your eyes see ahead on the trail.

#2: Look Ahead

New riders have the tendency to watch the ground as it peels away under their front tire. This leaves your body reacting to obstacles you’ve already passed.

Instead, you should focus your gaze about 15 feet ahead, which gives your mind enough time to process what it sees so that your body knows how to respond to obstacles as you approach them. If you see a tree root, you’ll have time to relax and let your legs absorb the bump. And if there is a climb, you’ll have time to shift down.

In addition to guiding your bike over obstacles, you should use your eyes to carry yourself through turns.
“Your arms do not steer the bike,” says Krolick. “Your eyes steer the bike.”

A sharp turn of the handlebars will send you flying off your bike in the opposite direction. Instead, when approaching a turn, look—and lean—directly into it.

#3: Use Your Body

Body weight is a vital component in mountain biking. Just as it guides you through turns, it leads you up and down climbs. When grinding uphill, lean forward so your weight doesn’t send you toppling over backwards. On descents, shift your weight back so that gravity won’t throw you over the handlebars.

Practice using your body to control the bike by starting on an easy trail. Get out there, throw your weight around, and see what happens when you ride singletrack.

Michelle Valenti is the cycling and triathlon editor at Although she dabbles in multisport, nothing beats a good mountain bike ride.