Mountain Biking 101: Read the Path Ahead

How do you conquer those trail loops in one shot without having to stop over and over again to correct mistakes and catch your breath?

You start out all excited to hit the singletrack today. After a bit of riding you are dodging tree trunks, going over bumps, and going around some curves. You slam on the brakes to avoid a boulder. There is a really sharp downhill turn right after that so you stop, straddle-walk the bike down past the turn, hop back on the pedals again and start trying to pick up some speed. You dodge some more trees, go through a dip, and go over a branch across the path.

Before you even pick up enough reasonable speed to shift out of the lowest granny gear, there is a daunting hill right in front of you. You are already breathing so hard that making that climb looks impossible. You pull off to the side of the trail to catch your breath. You start to think, “Holy jeepers! I’m so out of shape that I need an oxygen tank to recuperate from that super short ride.” Now that is just frustrating.

CraigCreekRider climbing the Turkey Trail. 55 and still killing it! Photo: mtbgreg1.

If that wasn’t enough, a couple of other riders round the bend behind you. They look like they’re gray-haired gentlemen, roughly 60 years old (if not older). They sail by you at more than triple your previous speed, straight up the hill. You even hear them chatting to each other: “…This is such a great day for a ride. How are the grandkids doing?” as they climb the hill. How in the living heck did they do that!? Now that is WAY beyond just frustrating.

In order to attain the god-like mountain biking skills of those senior citizens, you must first master the most basic of mountain biking skills: reading the path ahead.

When I started mountain biking, I struggled with always looking at my front wheel, every tree trunk near the path, every root, every side-sloped drop-off, every divot, twig, branch, bump, stone, squirrel… you get the picture. This was back in the days when bikes had rigid frames with no suspension, and the tires were not nearly as high volume or grippy as they are now-a-days. Almost any one of those almost insignificant obstacles could potentially wipe you out or send you straight over your handlebars if you hit them wrong. I was dodging, hopping, and negotiating every little thing that came at me for everything I was worth. However, that short-sighted view made me over-compensate for everything, and it would also quickly burn me out because I was forcing the ride and fighting the trail trying to conquer it.

Read the Path Ahead

I then remembered the first time that I tried auto-crossing (racing your car between cones in a parking lot against the clock) a few years before. My first attempt was absolutely horrible. I stopped the car more than two times during the run, and spun out near the end facing the opposite direction while also taking out a bunch of cones. The most valuable advice that was given to me was: “Look at where you want to go, not at what you are trying to avoid. Don’t look at the cones. Don’t look at the curb coming up. If you tunnel vision your focus on one cone right in front of you, then you will get the whole section wrong. Look at the riding line of where you want your car to be for next set of turns coming up.” Once I started visualizing it that way, my driving was radically transformed.

So I took a page out of my auto-crossing lesson. Constantly dodging stuff on the trail and over-compensating for everything is exhausting. Make yourself look a long way up the trail so that you can “read the path ahead.” Look at the riding line where you want your bike to be for next set of turns, hills, or obstacles coming up. Some call this projecting (looking and thinking further ahead of the bike).

Short-sighted view, looking at the next obstacle.

Same location, reading the path ahead.

By “reading the path ahead,” you can:

  • Smooth out your riding line. You should not be fighting the trail to conquer it. When you are doing it right, the trail will flow even with sharp corners, hills, and obstacles included.
  • Relax more to better absorb the bumps. It allows you to have a softer grip on your handlebars and more precise control with your brakes and shifters. Death gripping your bars is a big no-no. Stay loose with a soft grip, and you will not waste so much energy. These are sometimes called “soft skills.” Staying smooth and relaxed is the key.
  • Give yourself more time to make smart decisions for the next thing on the path. Constantly reacting at the last second to something that is about to happen is not the preferred method.
  • Make better decisions to help maintain your momentum. Energy management is important. Slowing down too much will “kill” the flow and rhythm of your ride. It will also not allow you to negotiate some of the obstacles because you will not have enough momentum to clear them. In addition, you will have to spend more energy to build your momentum back up.
  • Anticipate a smooth flowing section ahead, so you have time to up-shift and build some speed for it.
  • Set yourself up for tight turns and other obstacles.
  • Build momentum and/or downshift if you see a hill coming up.
  • Concentrate on maintaining a steady breathing rate so that you don’t “gas out” so quickly.

So stop looking at those trees and squirrels, and instead look at the line that you want to take for the smoothest, fastest ride possible!

Tony Cotto (blundar) road biked from high school all the way through college and does all of his own maintenance and repairs. He started mountain biking in 1996 on a first-generation rigid 29er that he still owns and rides to this day, and recently purchased a full-suspension rig to tackle technical trails.

Related posts:

  1. Trail 24: Arabia Mountain PATH
  2. Mountain Biking Durango: Overend Mountain Park + Log Chutes
  3. Mountain biking + Unicycle = Muni
  4. Mountain Biking Harrisonburg, Virginia with Shenandoah Mountain Touring: the Enduro Supremo Pre-Ride
  5. One is Enough: Why You Should Give Singlespeed Mountain Biking a Chance

16 thoughts on “Mountain Biking 101: Read the Path Ahead

  1. Nice write up. While I know of what you speak, I am still guilty of getting too short sighted sometimes, especially on new trails or when I start getting tire.

    Good to see CCC getting some props!

  2. At the same time, I would say there are times to stay short sighted. This is true on long climbs for me. If I am to look ahead too much it is very easy to get discouraged with how much climb is still left. Keeping your head down to just looking 30 ft. or so in front of you can play a big role in the mental game

  3. Excellent write-up and a very important and worthwhile topic. Mastering this can pay huge dividends on days spent on the trail.

    Practice it at home, local parking lot, while warming up, and other times when you can’t make it to the single track. Try and tighten your u-turn ability by initiating the turn and looking back over your shoulder to where you want to go. You’ll be surprised how easy it is to reverse direction without using a lot of space.

    All told, this is an excellent tool to have for riding and other applications where seeing the road/path/trail/whatever ahead can be beneficial.

  4. Excellent tip, Blundar! Possibly the #1 thing most bikers can do to improve. But, as Fleetwood noted, it’s easier said than practiced!

    You ever look straight down over the hood of a car while driving? It looks disturbinly fast and makes you want to hit the brakes. But when you look down the road a bit, the same speed seems perfectly managable. Same effect on a bike. What’s more, if you’re looking ahead, you’ve already seen what’s right in front of your tire a few seconds ago; you’re brain has already identified, catalogued and prepared for it and it’s still in your peripheral vision, so you don’t need to stare down at it. You can look downfield and plan your next maneuver while floating through your current one.

    +1 for AJs comment as well. Looking around the corner is critical to managing tight switchbacks, up or down. Pick a reference point (a tree or rock on the side of the trail) around the bend and you will seemingly magically complete the turn–just be sure to release your gaze from the reference point and shift it downfield as you complete the arc–lest you become one with said reference point!

    For those whith lights, I’ve found night riding can really help develop this practice. Having a narrow beam eminating from your helmet give you immediate, effective feedback as to how well you’re keeping your focus down trail.

  5. Thanks all for the compliments! It was a fun write up.

    Like they say “Look at where you want to go”.

    This article always reminds me of a trail years ago where I rode along a very narrow ledge section. I found myself admiring the beautiful creek down below. Next thing I knew, WHOA! Hard brakes and countersteer! My front tire was headed down the cliff. =)

  6. Good article. When I started racing, I had to do the same thing, and I found that to maintain momentum, it was all about how you set yourself up for the corners and obstacles – it wasn’t always about going in hard and slamming on the brakes, it was anticipating the best approach to hit the corners/obstacles.

    Sometimes, you just have to trust your skills, too. :)

  7. Excellent write up. I’m one of those gray haired riders leaving the kids in the dust, and I still have to keep reminding my-self to look further ahead. I have actually quit riding as much, and am spending more time working on skills. Makes the riding much more enjoyable. Riding up, and over a 2 foot ledge requires much less energy than getting off the bike carrying it up, and getting back on. I’m a lazy MTB’er

  8. thanks for the info I’ve been doing it all wrong death crib, focusing on the tree stumps rocks puddles. now I know what to do appreciate all the info.

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