Looking through the corner.

The sport of mountain biking (and especially downhill mountain biking) shares many similarities with the sport of downhill skiing and snowboarding. For the average cross-country or all-mountain biker, most of the congruent skills occur in the mental decision-making department.

I first learned of these similarities from my mountain biking master when I was but a young padawan. One of the fundamental skills of mountain biking is keeping the eyes up, looking down the hill and reading the trail. The general rule is: the faster youre going, the farther ahead you need to look. As a beginner, this flies in the face of the instinctual urge to stare at your front wheel. This deceptive urge must be overcome. If you look down the trail, you know whats coming at you. Your brain will remember what you have already seen and where your front wheel is going and what is directly in front of you. If you are staring at where the front wheel hits the ground, however, you will have no idea what is coming down the trail. Roots and rocks will catch you by surprise and cause you to crash. Quick hills and turns will come up suddenly and if youre not looking ahead, youll shift late, and lose your flow.

This skill of looking down the trail is something that came very naturally to me due to my long history of downhill skiing. My ski skills have served me well and helped me catch onto the sport of mountain biking quickly, becoming a very technically adept rider in a short period of time.


Choosing a line on the fly while skiing.

One of the other major overlaps is the more nebulous art of line choice when attacking the trail. Skiing and mountain biking both teach you how to read the terrain ahead while choosing the line of least resistance (or the most fun line, or the line with the most air opportunities). After interpreting what is coming down the trail into a line choice, both sports require decision making and follow-through to attack and dominate the line. This idea of attacking and riding a specific line is a more general idea and isnt something that can be distinctly taught. It’s basically just a mindset, an over-arching way of approaching riding.

The mental overlap of these two sports can be greatly advantageous for the athlete that practices both. In addition to honing these mental decision-making skills, the avid mountain biker will prevent cycling burn-out by cross training in a different sport during the off season instead of spending all of his time inside on a trainer. It is so much better to come into the mountain bike season refreshed and thirsting for some serious singletrack than being afflicted with cycling apathy.

So next winter, why not give skiing (or snowboarding) a try?

Goo has been a singletracks member since March 2008 and lives in Dahlonega, GA. Check out his blog at GregRidesTrails.com and add it to your RSS reader today!

# Comments


    I have to say this a very truthful piece, i can sertainly agree being that i am a snowboarder and i can see my self scanning the trail when im mtbing just like when im out riding. I think its safe to say that if you do have skills in the snow it helps your skills in mtbing. thanks for putting that out there……..

  • Suvacrew

    Nice one. I’d add that if you come home with snow/dirt stuffed in your clothes..you were pushing your limits and it will add to improvement in technique if not better decisions. I’d like to think there is also correlation with surfing a shallow reef with a crowd….plenty of immediate decisions to be made in a dynamic environment. The further you look ahead the smoother the flow.

  • Goo

    Thanks guys! Glad you agree with me 😉 The sports really work well when you alternate them, if you live in a place with regular seasons that is.

    @Suvacrew: That’s an interesting thought about surfing. Having never surfed, I wouldn’t really know. But it looks and sounds like a ton of fun!


  • trek7k

    Element22 and I were chatting about this yesterday and he mentioned that jumping skills cross over nicely between skiing and biking as well. Takeoff, landing, etc.

    I was also wondering about any crossover between XC biking and cross-country skiiing. I’ve never been XC skiing but I imagine from an aerobic perspective the two are pretty similar. Gut busting climbs, rhythm on the flats, and recovery on the down slopes.

  • fleetwood

    Nice article Goo. It comes down to this advice: look where you want to go. Suvacrew hit on it’s even broader cross-functional application. I try to use that approach whether surfing, snowboarding, or riding. It’s amazing when you commit to this simple rule what can happen. Of course, I am also guilty of not always following the advice (i.e. trails/terrain, when I am fatigued, etc.).

  • Goo

    @trek7k, I imagine the jumping concepts are similar, but honestly in my personal experience, the mechanics between jumping a mountain bike and jumping on a pair of skis are so different that I’m really not as good in the air on my MTB as I feel I should be. On skis I can (or could) throw down grabs over big 70+ foot long table tops, 20+ feet in the air. The biggest cliff I’ve dropped on skis is in the 15-20 foot range. And even after 2 years off, it only took me a day or two to be hitting some pretty dang big jumps again (see this post: http://www.gregridestrails.com/2010/03/ski-day-2-progression-lutsen-mn.html)

    Some of the decision making skills, again, are probably similar. But Personally, the mechanics are so different that skill in the air on skis for me doesn’t necessarily mean skill in the air on a bike. Sure, I can take some air and do some drops. But no 70 foot table tops.

    Also, as far as cross country skiing goes, the two are very complementary on the aerobic/fitness end of things. The guy who got my into riding is in his early 50’s but fast as snot on a MTB! He cross country skis like crazy in the winter, and I hear it’s a serious workout! In fact, many of the mountain bike trail systems in Wisconsin and the Midwest are built around/in cross country ski trail systems.

    @fleetwood, Thanks man! Keeping the eyes up is the crucial issue. But as I went on to mentioned, the type of aggression that it takes to actually conquer and ride/flow down a line are also very important in both sports and cross over well.

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