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10 Tips for Better Mountain Bike Handling

BY Lee McCormack

World renowned skills author and instructor Lee McCormack shares 10 of the most important bike setup and basic mountain biking skills with you.

My name is Lee, and I like bikes. I’ve had the privilege of teaching riding skills to thousands of riders of all levels, and I want to share some of the most important setup and basic riding tips with you:

1. Ride With People You Like

Seriously. If you feel stress around your riding partners, trying to keep up, trying to impress, etc., that’s going to put you in a bad place. Ride with people you like, people with similar riding goals who support you and vice versa.

2. Flat Pedals are Cool

You do not need to clip into your pedals. Not to pedal better, not to be “serious,” not for any reason. If you’re worried about your feet, use flat pedals. They aid confidence and build true skill. As a matter of fact, flat pedals are the mark of a true master. Look for a pair of flat pedals with a wide platform and metal pins that stick into the soles of your shoes. Wear skate shoes, running shoes, hiking shoes or best of all- shoes that are made for flat pedals.

3. Shorten Your Cockpit

The vast majority of riders enjoy more confidence, better control and extra fun when they trade their stock 90-100 mm stems for something shorter, say 50-70 mm. The stock setup might feel good in the parking lot, but when trails get gnarly you’ll appreciate the increased range of motion and confidence that a short stem delivers. Quality stems start at $30 and go to over $100.

4. Dial in Your Handlebar Width

If your handlebars are too wide, you lose range of motion. If they’re too narrow, you lose strength. The best all-around width puts your elbows at about a 45-degree angle from your torso. Try the old motocross test. Get on the ground and do some pushups. Where do your hands wind up? That’s usually a good handlebar width for you.

5. Set up Your Brake Levers

Most bikes come with awkward brake lever placement. The fix only takes a few minutes, and it really helps your sense of control. Position your brake levers so:

  • You only use your index fingers for braking. Use the other fingers for holding onto the grip.
  • The first knuckle on your index finger is at the end of the lever.
  • The lever is angled about 45 degrees down from level.

Most of you will have to move your levers inward away from the grips. If you can’t reach your shifters, switch them around so they’re between your brake levers and grips.

6. Learn to Pedal Efficiently

We’re all as fit as our lifestyles allow, right? So let’s get as much power as we can from these bodies of ours. Start with this pedaling tip: As your pedal reaches the top of the stroke, drop your heel. Before 12 o’clock, push across the top from your hip. This will lengthen the power phase and erase the opposite dead spot. By the way, this technique is pedal agnostic. It works great with clips or flats.

7. Heavy Feet, Light Hands

This is the key to safe, effective riding. When you’re riding downhill, stand with all of your weight on your pedals. Keep your hands neutral on the bars (no pull, no push). Constantly adjust your position to keep your hands light. Keep your butt away from the seat! If you’re sitting on the seat or clenching the seat with your thighs, and your bike goes down a drop, it’s taking you with it. Which reminds me…

8. Set Up Your Suspension

Suspension, both in the front and back of your bike, is a great way to increase comfort, control, confidence and fun. However, the wrong setup will make your bike handle poorly and it’s really easy to get your suspension settings wrong. Have the bike shop where you bought your bike set up your fork and shock for your body weight and riding style. If they can’t or won’t help you, follow the directions in the manual you got with your bike (or that you find on the frame and fork makers’ websites).

Suspension setup can get complex, but here are some basic rules:

  • Set the sag (the amount your suspension compresses when you’re on the bike) per the fork and frame maker’s specs. Some forks and shocks have markings to help you.
  • Set the rebound as fast as possible without it feeling bouncy.
  • If it’s smooth where you ride, set all compression and “platform” dials to the middle or stiffest setting. If it’s bumpy where you ride, set them to the softest setting.
  • Make sure the front and rear are balanced. They should feel equally soft, and they should rebound at the same rate.
  • Once your suspension feels good, stop tinkering with it and HAVE FUN!

9. Drop Your Seat

The remotely adjustable seat post (aka dropper post) is a great advancement, but a quick-release lever or an Allen key will work too. Climb with your seat at optimal pedaling height. When it’s time to ride downhill, drop your seat a few inches. This will give you more room to move, which makes riding a lot safer (and more fun). Once you learn to descend with your seat down, you won’t tolerate “high posting.”

10. Are you Nervous or Afraid

If you want to ride a particular section, and you know what to do, and you can see yourself doing it, but you feel nervous, usually a tightness high in your chest, I encourage you to go for it. Nervousness is your body getting ready to perform. If you feel fear, usually in the pit of your stomach, stop! You’re likely to execute some bad old habit, and you’re likely to get hurt. If you’re afraid of something, do not do it. Period.

Take the time to set your bike up for you. Ride with people you like on trails that are challenging but not scary. Balance on your feet. Have fun!

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About Lee McCormack

Lee McCormack is a world renowned skills author and instructor, as well as the skills development director for the National Interscholastic Cycling Association. He has trained thousands of riders, including beginners, pros and high school coaches throughout out the United States. During his newspaper career, Lee was on the team that won the 1997 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service. For his 12 week off season training plan, free articles, skills books and skills clinics, check out Lee’s site: