Don’t get Bitter, get Better with these 8 Mountain Bike Progression Tips

Growing up an Evel Knievel fan, I admire riders who hang it over the edge more than the rest of us.

“Man, that dude is crazy,” is a common refrain.

No one would confuse me with Evel, or a King of the Mountain. The few times I’ve scored a KOM, I was among the first riders down a new trail, and the accolades were typically short lived. You also won’t see me launching big gaps or performing for videos.

If I have room to brag a little (and even that’s debatable), it’s that I’m a competent and confident rider who’s been mountain biking for decades, rarely injured, and always finding ways to improve year after year.

Improving your riding means figuring out what you’re doing right, as well as wrong, and breaking bad habits. Don’t assume that riding more guarantees you will improve. You will likely get fitter, but faster and more confident riding may require more effort.

Here are some lessons I’ve learned that anyone can use to improve, stay motivated, and ride better.

Slow and smooth equals fast

photo: Jeff Barber

I recently rode my hardtail after months of riding my full suspension bike, and it felt weird. I was all over the trail and on the verge of out of control at times. Instead of getting frustrated and blaming the bike, I focused on my body position, balance, lean angles, and traction.

I rode at half speed and positioned my body and the bike exactly where I thought it would corner fastest. Before long, the bike was carving perfect, sticky-traction arcs, and it felt like the bike was doing the work and I was along for the ride. That’s what happens when you get back to basics and synchronize your body with the bike.

It may take riding slower and focusing on your technique then progressively speeding up until you get that smooth, confident flow rolling.

Stay in your comfort zone, at least at first

If you’re focusing on your form, you don’t want to ride beyond your comfort zone, or through a technical section where there’s a high penalty for error. You’re likely to be stiff and more worried about avoiding a crash than improving your skills.

Pick a spot you’ve ridden dozens of times and figure out how to ride it faster, even if it’s a short, fairly mellow section of trail. Try braking in a corner later than usual, take a different line, or just push yourself to go faster and try to keep it all under control. Try to build on that muscle memory and stretch your comfort zone.

Practice doesn’t make perfect, perfect practice does

photo: Leah Barber

Whatever skill I want to improve, I pick a trail that will let me focus on it. I’ve been trying to improve my jumping, not to look cool, but because it’s another tool to help me navigate a trail faster and smoother. No surprise, I hit the local jump lines rather than cruising one of my usual 10- to 15-mile loops which feature only occasional jumps.

Sessioning at the local bike park, if you’re lucky enough to have one, lets you spend more time honing that one skill rather than sitting on the saddle, pedaling for miles and searching for the right terrain to help you improve.

If you want to improve your technical riding, pick a technical section of trail and repeat it until you get it right. Find that tricky spot that gets you tensed up and ride it until it’s second nature. BTW: This is a good time to break out knee and elbow pads if you don’t normally wear them. They not only offer protection, they will boost your confidence to take risks.

Watch the pros

Photo: Enduro World Series

I love slow motion footage of pros not just because it looks cool, but because it lets me break down exactly what experts are doing so I can try to duplicate it.

For example, I noticed that pro riders never seem to coast. They’re always pumping, carving corners, and popping off lips, bumps and jumps.

When they’re airborne, they’re setting up for their landing in a spot that will set them up for the next corner. I look at my local trails and think how a pro might ride it. I may not be able to duplicate their riding skills, but it puts me in a different mindset and inspires me to ride at a higher level.

Be honest about your total fitness

Riding builds your legs and lungs, but if you want to be a complete mountain biker, you may need to improve your fitness by exercising off the bike with some strength training thrown in.

Look at the training regimen of pro mountain bikers and it will likely include extensive weight training, which means if solely riding a bike met their fitness needs, it’s probably all they would do.


photo: Gerow

If you want to see improvement, a clock is the simplest way to measure it. I record most of my rides on Strava, and when my skills improve, my speed does too. Competing, even with yourself, will push you to improve.

Upgrade your bike

I’m not suggesting spending thousands and upgrading major components to shave a few seconds because that will likely offer a minor return on the investment.

But there are simple and relatively inexpensive things you can do to make your bike better. Start with your tires, check your air pressure and experiment with what works best for you. If your tires are worn, or have the wrong tread for the terrain you ride, replace them and don’t skimp. The right tires run at the proper air pressure can greatly improve your bike’s performance and allow you to ride with more confidence to push your limits.

Fine tuning your suspension costs nothing, so learn how to adjust your shock and fork. Start with manufacturer’s recommendations for air pressure and sag, but don’t feel bound by them. Experiment and adjust pressures for what works best for you. Again, if the bike is tuned to your preference, you will ride it better.

Also make sure your bike is shifting correctly, the chain is clean and properly lubed, and the brakes are smooth, steady, and consistent. You want absolute confidence in your bike.

Embrace the challenge

Mountain biking can be hard, and if you’re like most of us, you don’t have to look far to see someone who rides better than you. Closing the gap will require some effort and dedication on your part, and it can be frustrating if you don’t see immediate gains.

But embrace the challenge and push yourself. There’s a good chance you will have a breakthrough and will see noticeable improvement, which will make riding more fun and rewarding.

That’s time and effort well spent.

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