7 Tips for Road Cyclists Moving to Mountain Biking

7 Tips for Road Cyclists Moving to Mountain Biking

Make your transition from road to trail easier, safer, and more enjoyable with these simple tips.

Road cyclists may assume it is easy to move from road riding to mountain biking. While it is true that the transfer of fitness is an easy move, some of the skills learned in road cycling can get in the way of successful mountain biking. In order to help your transition to mountain biking easier, let’s look at my top seven tips for success. 

1. Begin on Easy Trails 

Well-intentioned friends may be eager to get you on their favorite non-beginner trail — and while it may seem like a blast to dive in, resist the urge. I’ve seen this happen time and time again, with disastrous outcomes. It’s almost certain that you will have a better experience if you begin on a relatively easy trail and increase difficulty as you improve in skill. If you do find yourself in a sticky situation, swallow your pride and be willing to walk your bike across the scary, cliff-to-the-left sections.

2. Look Ahead and Trust the Bike

Decide where you want to go and keep looking ahead on the trail. Avoid selecting your line and keeping your eye on that section or obstacle until it’s under your front wheel. If you’re focused on what’s under your front wheel, there’s no way you can be ready for the next section of trail.

Once you’ve decided where you want to go, trust your bike. Mountain bikes, unlike road bikes, are designed to go over rough terrain. Know that your frame, tires, fork, and shock can happily handle the rough treatment. 

3. Over the Rock May be Your Best Choice 

This tip is completely counterintuitive for roadies. On a road bike, we all try our best to avoid obstacles — including rocks. But in mountain biking, sometimes aiming right for the rock and riding over it is the best line.

4. Use a Bigger Gear to Climb

On the road, most riders use a relatively low gear so they can “spin up” a climb. This doesn’t translate to the trail. While mountain biking, a bigger gear often allows you to get over obstacles and prevents spinning out. Be willing to try a bigger gear on some sections that give you trouble and see if it helps.

5. Get Off the Saddle and Move Around

In the same vein as the last tip, sometimes it takes a combination of a larger gear and a change in body position to help you clear an obstacle. Standing up, for example, allows you to move yourself and the bike to a position that can help you better ride a particular section. This can be true going uphill, during a power move, and downhill where your position is often more over the rear wheel. Remember that your body position is much more dynamic on a mountain bike than a road bike. 

6. Pedal, Pedal, Pedal

Power to the pedals and momentum are your friends. It is tempting to stop pedaling right before an obstacle. Your inner voice is telling you that the obstacle looks scary and you need to take a second or third look at the thing. Assuming you are riding a trail that is appropriate for beginners, much of the time just keeping the pedals moving with some force will get you over or around the technical section. Also, steady, even power is the best way to ride a loose section of trail. Coach yourself by saying, “Pedal, pedal, pedal!”

7. Equipment Selection and Set-Up Makes a Big Difference

After you find a bike that fits correctly, get your local shop to help you set up the fork and shock pressures. If your suspension system is set up correctly, you’ll be capable of riding much more of the mountain — and you’ll do it more comfortably. Know that your suspension set-up will likely change as you gain more experience riding, improve your skills, and increase the difficulty of the trails you ride. Some riders have to change their suspension settings during the season as their fitness evolves.

In addition to suspension, tire selection and tire pressure have a big influence on your ability to ride different types of trails. Of course, a larger and more aggressive rider will want to ride higher tire pressures on technical trails compared to a smaller and more timid rider that is staying on easy terrain. 

If you feel exposed and less confident on technical descents, a dropper post will help. It is a seat post that lowers at the press of a button. Lowering your body position and being able to easily move back — possibly behind the saddle — can help you navigate descents with confidence. No matter the terrain or your riding style, you want to set up the equipment for you. It’s all about optimizing performance and making it easier to ride the terrain that makes you smile.

Having the Patience to Enjoy Dirt

If you are a strong road rider, you can be a strong mountain biker — with a bit of patience. Implementing some of these tips will help speed up the learning curve. Also, riding with other people that are interested in helping you succeed can make a big difference, and watching other riders navigate a technical section of trail will make it less intimidating. Riding off-road is not only fun, but it will also make you a better road rider. Now go get dirty!

Gale Bernhardt

Gale Bernhardt has coached Olympic road racers, triathletes, World Cup mountain bike riders and Leadville 100 racers. Some want to go faster, some want to cross the finish line and others want endurance sport as a lifestyle. TrainingPeaks hosts many of Gale's ready-to-use, easy-to-follow training plans for cycling and triathlon.
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