Mountain biking involves developing different skills to road riding. One of the most important is how to ride singletrack – here’s how to master those narrow technical trails…
Riding off-road on an MTB, gravel bike or electric bike arguably involves developing more technical skills that road cycling. Both disciplines require a good level of aerobic fitness, and the ability to climb, descend and corner at speed. But knowing how to ride singletrack is key to mountain biking.
Leaving the black stuff behind and heading out onto technical trails will mean you’re faced with a number of challenges. The terrain can change from grass or dirt to mud, gravel, stones, rocks or roots in an instant.
Hills tend to be steeper off-road too, so you’ll need to put the power down in lower gears and higher cadences. On descents that’ll mean braking into turns more than you would on the road. You also need to shift your body weight around more to allow for greater control on uneven surfaces.
On top of that you’ll likely encounter obstacles on the trail. Those can range from off-camber roots and rocks to drain bars and drop-offs. Often riding off-road means pedalling on wide non-technical paths, byways or fire-roads. But when the trail starts to narrow, twist and turn, what’s the best way to ride this technical terrain?
How to ride singletrack
There are a number of factors to consider when riding technical trails on a mountain bike, gravel bike or cyclocross bike. Learning how to ride singletrack will test and develop all your bike handling skills.
When riding at speed through singletrack it’s easier to weave through shallow turns using your bodyweight rather than turning the bars. Make sure you pull up your inside pedal to avoid striking the ground at the apex. It’s best not to sit planted on the saddle either; instead hover above it, allowing you to shift your centre of gravity left and right to negotiate the turns. Of course, you’ll need to turn the bars on tight, technical turns. But make these turns as smooth as possible and use your bodyweight to lean into them too.
Get your sighting right to avoid obstacles and negotiate twists and turns. On tight turns try to look through to the exit of the turn, not down at your front wheel. Likewise, when trying to avoid trees, stumps, rocks and roots, don’t look at the obstacles; rather, look past then to the path you need to take to avoid them. When travelling off-road at speed if you look at an object long enough you’re likely to hit it!
The temptation when trying to scrub off speed is to grab at your brakes. Instead, it’s better to ‘feather’ them – keeping one or two fingers over the brake levers an applying pressure gradually and evenly when you need to. This way you’ll find you use your brakes more for control than slowing or stopping. Counter-intuitively, using your brakes little and often is more likely to help you go faster overall.
There are two main elements to climbing well off-road – gearing and body position. Shift down into a climb so you’re not grinding too high a gear. Try to keep a steady cadence and don’t drop into too low a gear that your candence becomes quick and uneven.
Getting your body position right will help you climb too. Shift your body forward so you are perched on the nose of the saddle and your centre of gravity is over your bars. If the climb is particularly steep or technical you may be tempted to get out of the saddle. Again, nudge your centre of gravity over the front wheel and use your arms to lever the bars as you climb.
Be careful of slippery terrain though – if you’re out of the saddle, your rear wheel is more likely to slip and lose traction. So shift your body position back (or rest on the saddle) if you need to.
There are three things to bear in mind as you descend on singletrack – eyeline, braking and body position. Remember to look ahead on the trail and through any turns – don’t look at what’s right in front of your front wheel. Feather the brakes to increase grip and control. And shift your bodyweight to the back of the saddle. If the descent is particularly steep, you may want to drop off the back of the saddle altogether and get your backside over your rear wheel.
Some bikes come equipped with dropper posts, allowing you to lower your saddle’s height on the fly to give you a lower centre of gravity when descending. This also makes it easier to drop off the back of the saddle without your shorts getting caught on it!
Obstacles on the trail can be daunting at first, but with practice you’ll be able to ride over many of them. Rocks or small craters can often be soaked up by your arms, your bike’s suspension (if it has any) or tyre volume. Fallen branches and other obstacles perpendicular to the trail are best attacked with confidence. So use this technique with small branches or tree roots until your confidence grows.
Approaching a root or branch, assess your speed, taking a little off if necessary. If it’s small enough to roll over, let your suspension and your arms soak up the impact and raise yourself off your saddle as you roll over it. If the obstacle will need a bit more clearance, keep your pedals level and push the bars up and away from you, which will ‘pop’ the front wheel up over the obstacle.
As you grow in trail confidence, you’ll be able to pop the whole bike up off the ground this way (if you’re clipped into your pedals you can lift your legs to assist you).
Drop-offs are sudden, stair-like changes in a trail’s level. If you hit one unaware, it’s likely to flip you over the bars as your front wheel drops and any front suspension you have bottoms out. So look out for drop-offs or craters on the trail and as you approach then, feather your brakes. Like descending, the best way to tackle drop-offs is with your weight over the back wheel.
You’ll probably not have time to activate your dropper post but stretching your arms out and shifting you backside to the back of your saddle as you feather the brakes will help you soak up the drop without flinging you over the bars.