Even if you're an experienced street or bike path rider, mountain biking requires a special set of skills unique to the terrain and off-road riding experience. Even if you've ridden through the woods many times before, these tips can help hone your talent and enjoy yourself even more!
1. Lower your tire pressure
The general rule for cycling on pavement is that you want to have the maximum recommended air pressure in your tires. This provides the smoothest, most efficient rolling, and the best protection against flat tires and wheel damage if you run into a pothole.
When riding singletrack mountain bike trails, however, you want to do the opposite--your tire pressure should be at or just above the minimum recommended pressure. For typical mountain bike tires, this is around 35 to 40psi. This gives you the most possible traction when pedaling over slick roots, rocks, and loose dirt. Even if your mountain bike has suspension, your tires are really the first line of defense against bumps on the trail. If your tires are inflated to too high pressure, you'll feel like you're being bounced around like a pogo stick. Lower tire pressure helps to smooth out the ride, allowing you to maintain more control, not to mention you'll feel less beat up in your hands, arms, and the rest of your body.
Keep in mind that this is a trade-off situation--the lower tire pressure you use, the more likely it is that you will get a pinch flat if you run hard against the edge of a rock or other sharp obstacle. But most experienced riders feel that the risk is worth it for the increased traction and control you get.
2. Apply front and rear brakes evenly
This is a good rule of thumb for any type of cycling, but it's especially important for several reasons when mountain biking. Applying balanced pressure on both your front and rear brakes allows you to control your speed with less chance of locking up either wheel. If your front wheel locks up, it's an almost assured recipe for an "involuntary dismount" over your handlebars. If your rear wheel locks up, your rear tire will skid, causing you to lose control, as well as damage the trail surface.
Some situations call for rapid pumping of your brakes, to alternate between quick stopping power and releasing to avoid skids, simulating the "anti-lock braking system" found on many modern cars.
3. Uphill: weight forward; downhill: weight back
When you're pedaling on a steep uphill, your front wheel will have a tendency to lift off the ground, doing an unintentional wheelie. To counteract this, lean way forward, with your nose hovering just above your handlebar. Keep your butt on the seat, but scoot way up on the nose of the seat. This moves your center of gravity forward, while still keeping weight on the rear wheel to keep it from losing traction and spinning out.
When riding downhill, you have the opposite problem--your bike bike will want to flip back-end over front. To help prevent this, stand up on the pedals (keeping your knees slightly bent and flexible) and move your body back beyond the back edge of the seat. In extremely technical downhill conditions, some riders will even lean so far back that the seat pokes them in the gut, and their butt hovers precariously just above the rear wheel. This moves your center of gravity towards the back of the bike, putting more weight on the back wheel and helping to keep you and the bike upright.
4. Speed is your friend when trying to ride over obstacles
When you approach a tough-looking section of trail or an obstacle, your first impulse might be to grab your brakes and slow down, the idea being that if you think you can't cleanly ride through, it's best to scrub speed to minimize the impact of a crash. As you get more experience, you'll find that maintaining a steady speed can help you more easily clear the tough stuff, whether it's a log jump, a large rock, or a patch of small rocks or roots. Your forward momentum helps carry the bike over the tops of the obstacles, with less chance that you'll be bounced around from side to side.
To choose a good line through obstacles, it can be helpful to think of this principle in reverse. In other words, ask yourself "What path do I need to take to get through this section as fast as possible?" This leads to the old saying, "The shortest distance between two points is a straight line." Sometimes, you have to maneuver your way around in the spaces between obstacles, but keeping speed and efficiency in mind, you'll eventually find that's it's usually easier to go straight over, rather than around, trail obstacles.
Don't get discouraged if you're just starting out and aren't always able to pick the best line to get through a hard part of the trail. As you ride your favorite trails over and over, you'll start to remember what works and what doesn't work in each section. Plus, you'll develop the experience and skill to "read" the trail to pick the best line, even on unfamiliar trails, just like a pro golfer can read the subtle undulations on a green or an expert kayaker can read the currents while paddling a stretch of whitewater.
5. Look where you want to go, not where you don't want to go
Imagine you're cruising along on the trail, and you see a big tree very close up ahead. If you stare at it and start saying to yourself "Don't hit that tree, don't hit that tree," chances are, you're going to hit that tree. At times, our bodies can be smarter than our brains. The body will tend to guide itself where the eyes tell it to. So, the trick is to get your brain to point your eyes in the right direction, and your body has a better chance of following.
Pretend that you are The Terminator, with laser beams coming out of your eyes. Make those laser beams track along the trail, following the best line that you believe provides you the quickest, smoothest, and safest path based on your experience. In sharp turns, look to the inside edge of the trail. If you keep your eyes on that line, your bike has a pretty good chance of staying on that line, too.
This principle applies to other active sports, such as skiing, rock climbing, and even ball/target sports like tennis, baseball, and hockey. It's an application of what sports psychologists call "positive imagery." That is, if you can build a mental picture of yourself executing a difficult maneuver, you actually increase your chances of successfully achieving it.