How to Conquer MTB Trail Obstacles: 5 Tips

Sometimes I wish I’d started mountain biking technical terrain in my 20s, or even my teens.  If I had, by now the obstacles that scare me would seem easy.  Most of my friends in their 20s don’t ever seem to fall victim to thoughts about “the penalty for failure.”  I, however, am always assessing the amount of pain that could be inflicted on me if I don’t make it over that drop, down that rock ramp, or up those rock steps.

Still, I think we all have pieces of trail that get stuck in our minds, especially on trails that we ride frequently.  There’s always some piece, somewhere, that you haven’t successfully conquered.

So, these are the best pieces of advice that have been whispered to me as I head over a drop or, more often, shouted back to me from someone who’s already done it and is waiting at the end.

1.  You can’t go over the handlebars if your butt is behind your bike seat.

That’s what Adelle yelled to me as I was heading down this part of the Western Rim trail the other day.  It was the last bit of that trail that I needed to conquer, and I finally did!

Adelle dropping a technical rock section on the Western Rim trail

2. Get your fingers away from the front brake.

I say that to myself on just about every drop I encounter.  I gather momentum, or slow down (depending on the situation) as I approach a drop and then I wrap my left hand tightly around the handlebars.  That way there is no chance of my finger flicking forward and grabbing a handful of brake.  If I don’t grab the front brake, my chances of doing an endo lessen considerably.

I wouldn't want to grab a handful of front brake at the end of this set of drops.

3. Look where you want to go.

I feel like this phrase has been tattooed on my brain.  And you know what?  It’s true.  Do not look off the side of the cliff.  Look 10-15 feet ahead on the trail.  Find your line.  Stop to sightsee.

Sometimes exposure and narrowness can be just as disconcerting as a big drop.

4. Know when to let off the back brake too.

Steep hills (which never look steep in photos) can require a lot of brake finessing.  Knowing when you can use both the front and back brake is crucial, but so is knowing when you need to let go.  On steep descents too much back brake can cause you to skid, and if you skid, you’re likely to end up sideways or even worse, skidding down a hill with your leg taking the brunt of your fall.

If I’m squeezing the back brake and start to skid, I just let it go briefly.  I may not even let go all the way, but I know if I’m going to continue moving straight down the hill I need to loosen my grip.

Joe's Ridge is a prime example of a hill on which too much back brake can cause a skid.

5.  Drop your seat.

I didn’t realize this would make such a difference until I started consistently doing it.  When I know a big drop is coming, I’ll give myself time, stop, drop the seat, and then cruise ahead knowing I can get my rear even farther back now that the seat is out of the way.  At the same time, remembering to raise the seat before climbing a hill is crucial too!

Dropping your bike seat makes it easier to get your body back and away from the handlebars for drops like this.

One final tip?  Bike with someone who challenges you.  I have a few of those someones to bike with and they definitely keep me striving to conquer every bit of trail possible.

22 thoughts on “How to Conquer MTB Trail Obstacles: 5 Tips

      • Ditto again. Living on the Front Range, most of my rides go up and up and up and then down down down, so I only need to adjust the post once and not worry about anomalies inbetween. Then I started riding Palmer Park and other highly technical areas with many rapid transitions between up and down or between smooth and ledgy. The dropper was a fantastic addition allowing me to maintain flow through tough transitions. I’m thinking it would really benefit a Fruita rider where there are more quick transitions than long climbs or descents. I was just out there and found it to be a huge benefit over previous trips, especially on the likes of Holy Cross. I haven’t hit Moore Fun since I got the dropper; I Can’t wait to go back and give it another go!

    • Well, it seems like the BetterRide article is only addressing shifting weight back vs. getting low on the bike so I guess you’re referring to tip #1. While the method Julie described isn’t the fastest or most efficient, it is a “safe” way to get over an obstacle. The BetterRide clinics are geared toward more advanced riders who are looking to improve performance beyond just “getting over” obstacles.

      The biggest takeaway should be that a lower seat is helpful either way.

      • That’s what I was going to say too, Jeff. My method and the tips I’m describing here are simply the ways I get over obstacles and the methods that work for me. Certainly there are other ways and everyone has their own way of riding and conquering obstacles. One way is not better than another if it works for you.

    • As a BetterRide graduate, I didn’t see a discrepancy between the advice in this blog and what I learned in the BetterRide camp. The BetterRide statement that getting your weight back for a steep descent being a myth just lays the groundwork for a more thorough explanation–which is that your focus should be on keeping your weight centered over your bottom bracket. Doing that will naturally place your weight behind the seat in most cases, so it’s just easier for most folks to think of it that way. The larger concept also applies to climbs (weight forward) and side to side maneuvers in sharp turns (swing your hips and/or torso, at least a knee, to the outside to keep weight centered over the BB and maintain maximum traction out of the contact patch between tire and ground).

  1. I was more concerned with the lack of front braking as a result of shifting your weight back. No front brake at all on a descent is pretty out of control as the rear brake can’t do much before it starts skidding. I ran across that BetterRide post a few months ago and it has greatly increased my confidence on step descents — old sulphate pits in Florida.

    Completely agree on the dropping your seat part. It gives you room to keep your weight distributed over the bike. Makes the climbs more difficult, though. And in Florida, the drops are steep but short followed by an immediate climb (up the other side of the pit).

    • I don’t always “not” use the front brake, but if I go over a ledge or something I don’t want to grab a handful of front brake and cause myself to endo because my front tire has come to a dead stop. It depends on the type of downhill or drop ahead of me. If it’s just a steep downhill I do use my front brake. If it’s a giant drop I don’t think using the front brake is a good idea.

  2. Another tip: watch someone else ride the feature.

    We have a local rocky step up/down that 99% of people never even considered trying to ride up, until someone posted a video on the local forum of them riding up it, and they made it look so easy! Now, after seeing it done, lots of us can ride that rock in either direction!

  3. I completely hear ya’ on the wish for having started sooner. I started my son young and he routinely rolls things without hesitation that cause me considerable trepidation. There’s really something to starting young and having the motions become second nature. I alson witenssed it with my girls and their skiing (they didn’t take to the bike thing).

  4. I Sure need more of #2. Good advise for carving turns to. If your already in the turn going to fast grabbing brake is bound to make it worse.
    And it sure would be nice if Santa brought me a dropper post. :)

  5. I started mountain biking just a little over 5 months ago. I too wish I had started at an earlier age, younger people are definitely less fearful. Therefore I am taking it slow and learning to get over my fear. But most important I am having the best time; I know my limitations and I know how much I can push myself. When in double I walk, I rather spend my day riding then tending to injuries.

    We are planning a trip to Blue Diamond, Las Vegas, I’ve been reading some post and it sounds like there are some great single track trails.

    If anyone has any tips for me I would greatly appreciate it.

    • Sounds like you’re on the right track, Blanca! Taking it slow, having fun, and walking what you don’t want to ride are things that I still do, especially on new trails. Exploring and riding with friends with more experience than you will definitely help you improve! Have fun :)

  6. Great tips! These types of obstacles are my weakness. The only thing I would caution on #2 is don’t wrap your left hand around the handlebar so tightly as to make your left arm rigid or stiff which transfers stiffness into your shoulder and other parts of your body, while your right side is relaxed and light. It will throw the rider off balance. I Just did that the other day and lost control (but recovered). I rode the section again with a lighter grip and made it no problem. I know you probably don’t do that but just for other new riders out there be careful. Keep posting!

  7. !st paragraph. Do not confused Scared with Maturity. I think as we get older and take on more of lifes responsibilities our ability to calculate risks improves based on life experiences, pain, responsibilities at work and family and just I don’t need a broken bone this year. So as the youngsters speed by with reckless abandon I say Ride On! But I still enjoy pushing my limits when I feel invincable ( foolish)

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