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 …

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.