Change it up: leave the road bike at home and head for the trails

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Want to inject a bit more fun and excitement back into cycling after a hard training block on the road? Perhaps you are looking for a way of introducing your traffic-phobic friends or children to your love of bikes or maybe you just want to boost your bike handling skills? Straying to the dirt could be the answer.

At times there can be a bit of a divide between the various disciplines of cycling, with people quick to segregate into groups of roadies and dirt lovers. But there is no reason to limit yourself to one style of riding. In fact, it may be better of you don’t. Look at Pauline Ferrand-Prevot for example. She just picked up two mountain bike world championship jerseys to add to her road and cyclocross ones she earned earlier this year, making her one of the most well-rounded athletes in the sport. Of course, there are also plenty of reasons other than multiple world championship jerseys to spend some time off-road. Possibly the best is that it can be an awful lot of fun.

“It is fantastic soul reviving riding,” said Jessica Douglas, who has won the 24 hour solo World Mountain-Bike Championships three times. “Imagine how exhilarating it would be being out in the bush, not being at the mercy of cars, seeing all these beautiful trees flow past you and you only have to do 25 kilometres an hour on the mountain bike to feel fast.”

Railing berms, rolling over logs, flowing through twisty singletrack and feeling the childlike glee as you fly into the air off a jump is a great way to put some zing back into your riding. But with different equipment, a different mindset and a plethora of new bike handling skills, it can also be a daunting sport to get into. That’s why we have asked Douglas’ advice to help set you off on the right path.

The 42-year-old Douglas had a taste of mountain biking when she was younger but really threw herself into the sport in her thirties. From there she managed to rapidly build her skill level to the point where she took out multiple world championships and also helped many other riders along the way. The director and instructor at MTB Skills and founder of the recently launched website, Ride Like a Girl, shares her top tips and hints for adding mountain biking to your cycling repertoire.


Jess Douglas MTB 1

Size matters – It may sound simple but no matter what type of mountain bike you decide to go with, make sure it is the right size. When you are already dealing with an unfamiliar discipline where obstacles are part of the sport, the last thing you need to do is add the obstacle of an oversized bike.

“If you are happily road cycling and you have got a bike that fits you well, you know how important it is,” said Douglas. “Don’t shortcut that on the mountain bike. Even if it is your first time, try to hire or borrow a bike that is going to fit you well from the get-go, so instantly you feel confident, you feel comfortable, you are not overreaching, you can put your feet down and the frame is not halfway up your groin.”

To clip in or not to clip in – The security of knowing you can put your feet down versus the security of knowing your feet slide off the pedals.

“A lot say I just want to go with flat pedals to begin with because I want to be able to put my foot down whenever I want to,” said Douglas. “I know that sounds safe but I have always found been clipped in is far safer because when you roll over obstacles your feet don’t clatter about and fall.”

She said if you are opting not to clip in and go for flat pedals, make sure you have a pedal and shoe combination that provides plenty of grip.


Mind on the ride – When you are riding your road bike there can be times when you can go into automatic pilot and just pedal while you think other things over, with mountain biking, however, focus is key.

“Someone can sit there and teach you all the technical skills but at the end of the day you have got to imagine this flow happening as you are riding down a hill or a trail with all these features on it. You are problem solving on the fly. You see this, you see that, you decide ahead of time what you are about to do. Hence why [mountain biking] is such a good meditation because you are not thinking about things, other than what you are going to do next,” said Douglas.

Step by step – You don’t have to throw yourself and your bike off a huge drop straight away. Take it step by step, and take the time to build up the skill levels.

“Too often in life we say I stuffed up, so I’m not going to do it again,” said Douglas. “When I started I realised ‘okay, I have to start small.’ I have to get the technique correct. I have to get my mindset absolutely spot on so that I am doing it without even thinking and it becomes a natural movement.”

Douglas adopted a “one percent goal,” which meant that she had to go out and regularly look at improving one thing by one percent.

“So if that meant I wanted to get off my brakes a little quicker, I only had to do it one percent quicker. I didn’t have to close my eyes and hope that I survived,” said Douglas. She added that it was incredible how quickly the improvements added up and the achievability and sense of satisfaction added extra incentive to go out and do more.

Realistic riding companions – Possibly one of the best ways to turn someone off mountain biking is by taking them so far out of their comfort zone on their first ride that it is completely terrifying. The rocky and steep single-track you will often find at alpine resorts are great fun for your experienced dirt riding friends with dual-suspension bikes. However, taking a beginner out there on a hardtail is probably a good way to leave them with a big bunch of bruises, a massive swear jar debt and a life-long aversion to fat-tyred bikes.

“If you are starting out, choose people who perhaps can support you without overextending you,” said Douglas. “Certainly do surround yourself with people that are going to help you extend and push yourself, but who also know and appreciate what it is like starting out and not being quite sure.”

There are no stupid questions – You may be an A-grade rider on the road but just because mountain biking still involves two-wheels, it doesn’t mean you’re expected to know it all straight away.

“If you open up and are a bit more questioning and verbal about what you want to learn, the mountain bike community is huge and welcoming,” said Douglas. “If you are unsure I always say just ask because no question is ever stupid and once you know it and understand what is going on with your bike you will also trust it more.”


Trust your bike and momentum (not speed) – The automatic response to an obstacle in mountain biking shouldn’t be to go around it and create unnecessary corners, nor should the automatic reaction to a tough section be to grab a handful of brakes.

“The bike is built for this. It’s got knobby tyres. They are fat, they are filled with air, if the bike rolls over things you are in a good position, if you have got the brakes on over things then you are at the mercy of skill rather than momentum,” said Douglas. “But do not confuse momentum with speed. It’s just about carrying correct momentum so you roll over things smoothly.”

Suspension is not the answer to everything – Just because you have a bike with suspension that helps you get over things, it doesn’t mean that you should just leave it at that. Use your body to smooth the ride as well.

“You need to think ‘where am I going? Yes its bumpy, yes it’s got a log, yes it’s got a root, yes it’s got rock, yes it’s got corners but how can I best smooth this out with technique.’ We utilise our body and utilise our vision to actually analyse this. That is what makes it smooth, so in the end we are letting our bike move over and through obstacles by using our technique,” said Douglas. “If we rode over everything without any technique, and we had dual suspension, we would still get over it but our bodies would be awfully sore and we would be awfully tired by the end of it.”

The attack position – Sitting down and pedalling on the flat easy sections may be fine, but it’s different when you are tackling an obstacle or a tricky rock-laden descent.

“The attack position is both feet balanced on the pedals horizontal to the ground and you are up out of the saddle with whatever foot you like to have forward at the front,” said Douglas. “Your elbows are just slightly bent, with a purposeful grip on the handlebars, with your eyes up and your chest out looking down the trails. That is the attack position and that is the foundation of everything,”

To loft not thump – The next technique that stems from the attack position is being able to unweight your front wheel.

“If you are in the attack position with your elbows bent, unweighting the wheel is just a matter of crouching down a little bit lower and bending your elbows a little bit more. As you see the root or the rock or the rut you just push that front wheel away from you to extend the arm, like you are just throwing that front wheel out,” said Douglas. “Then what happens is your front wheel starts to engage in that obstacle before the obstacle hits the front wheel … you will still feel a bump but you have already entered into it. You will find that the front wheel just lofts over it, or kisses the obstacle, as opposed to thumps into it.”


Pedal less and go faster – Often road riders heading into mountain biking have plenty of power and speed, but sometimes it pays not to use it. Pedalling like crazy then grabbing a handful of brakes right before you hit a tough obstacle or rough downhill can not only makes for an exhausting ride, but a slower one.

”What is normal for power output, pedalling technique, sitting down on the bike and having this wonderful smooth ride on the road is not the same for mountain biking,” said Douglas. “The big thing to change as a road cyclist is to understand that you are going to be up out of the saddle more, absorbing all the bumps and not sitting down and pedalling. Once that happens the bike starts to roll freely a lot more and you need to pedal less.”

“As that happens the skills also improve because the bike is rolling without pedal power, so the brain is now engaged in the thinking side of mountain biking rather than the doing and the pedalling and the power output.”

Practice constantly – Whenever you are riding, consciously consider your technique.

“Learning how to get better is a life-long process,” said Douglas. “You will always get better, you will never stay stagnant and you will always improve if you chose to engage. That’s what I find so exciting and why I think I’ll be riding my mountain bike till….well I don’t see an expiry date.”

Now go out there and have some fun in the dirt!

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