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MTB Skills: How to Ride a Steep Downhill

Whether you’re doing casual trail riding or XC racing, you’re bound to encounter some steep descents. This guide will teach you how to ride a steep downhill safely.

Starting Out – The Attack Position

If you’re going to be a mountain biker, you need to become good friends with the attack position! This is the basic position you’ll be in for most technical terrain, including descending.

Here are the key points to body positioning:

Body weight: You want to stay centered over the bike laterally, but keep your weight shifted back over the rear wheel. (The steeper the descent, the further back you shift your weight.)

Butt: Off the saddle and over the rear wheel. (In the right position, you can clasp the seat with your thighs if necessary.)

Feet: Keep your pedals level. This keeps your weight balanced and helps ensure you don’t catch a pedal on a rock.

Arms and legs: Keep them loose – they’re your shock absorbers. Your knees and elbows should be bent, not locked.

Hands: Maintain a light grip on the handlebar. No white knuckle death grip!

Head and eyes: Head level; eyes looking forward.

 

Look Where You Want To Go

Keeping pointed down the trail is easiest if you are looking that direction. Remember, the rule of thumb is, “look where you want to go.”

In other words, don’t get fixated on obstacles and don’t look at dangers off the trail. If you look at a rock, you’ll probably hit it. If you look at the cliff to your right, you’ll probably ride off the side of the trail and down the dropoff.

So keep your head and eyes up, looking forward. Do not stare at your front wheel! The faster you’re going, the further ahead you need to look.

Most trails will have some rough spots and obstacles, and keeping your eyes ahead will give you time to see the obstacles and adjust for them as necessary.

 

Braking on a Downhill

You will have to brake on almost all downhills in order to control your speed. It’s very important that you do it correctly or it could cause a crash.

When to Brake

This is where you have to fight your instincts. Sometimes you’ll panic and want to grab the brakes, but did you know it’s generally safer to roll through rough sections than attempt to brake? You almost have to do the opposite of your instincts.

That means, brake only when you have a good braking surface. This would be solid dirt or rock where you can get traction. Braking in loose soil or gravel is not a good idea because it disrupts your wheels and doesn’t do much to slow you down.

So, on the good sections of trail where you think you don’t need to brake, is actually when you should brake! On the rough sections where you want to brake, you should not brake!

When you need every bit of traction out of your tires, like on loose rocks and wet roots, DO NOT hit the brakes! Let your bike roll. A rolling wheel is more stable, so it helps keep you upright and gives your tires more traction.

Since you’re keeping your head up and eyes scanning ahead, you’ll know when there’s a rough section coming up. You can plan ahead and brake beforehand. (It’s like cornering – slow down before the corner.)

How to Brake

Here are the general guidelines on how to brake:

  • Don’t grab the front brake too hard – you could flip over.
  • Don’t grab the rear brake too hard – you could skid and lose control.
  • Use both brakes at the same time for maximum stopping power.
  • Modulate (or “feather”) the brakes for the best control.

Getting More Stopping Power

Most of your stopping power comes from your front brake, so you want to use it liberally. However, you don’t want to flip over the bars. What do you do? Keep your weight back! With your weight back, it’s much less likely for the rear wheel to come off the ground, so you can use more front brake.

Also, the further back your weight, the better your braking. That’s because the less weight directly over and in front of the braking wheel, the better it can stop. That’s one reason your butt is basically over your rear tire – you’re trying to get weight behind the back wheel, instead of in front of it.

 

Let the Bike Float Over the Terrain

The rougher the terrain, the more you have to let the bike float underneath you. It will move in different directions as it hits bumps, and that’s OK. Just keep your body upright and the bike pointed down the trail, and it will work out.

This is easiest when your body is in the attack position described above; especially important is the light grip on the handlebar.

Also, braking prevents your wheels from floating over rough terrain. So like I said before, braking in rough sections is not a great idea.

 

Negotiating the Transitions

Starting and finishing the downhill is also something to think about.

If it’s a really steep dropoff at the top, you roll up, and at edge, basically push the bike over the edge as you position your weight back over the rear wheel. You want to actively start the descent, which keeps you in control. Just rolling off the edge lets the hill control you.

At the bottom of the hill, return to your normal riding position and resume pedaling. How quickly you shift your weight forward over the center of the bike depends on how abrupt the transition is. You want to time it so that your bike matches the angle of the terrain, and you’re always in the attack position.

Sometimes there’s a drainage ditch at the bottom of the hill. Keep your weight back off the seat when hitting this, to keep the front wheel light. You may even lift the front wheel slightly to clear it smoothly.

Miscellaneous Descending Tips

A few more quick tips to recap…

Stay upright.

Keep your body upright with your weight centered over bike laterally. You can shift around to negotiate obstacles, but generally, let the bike change angles underneath you. As long as you keep the wheels rolling and your body is centered, the bike will return to its upright position. (This goes along with the “floating” mentioned earlier.)

Go straight down the hill.

Try to go straight down the hill, at least when first learning. Weaving down the hill requires better control since there is more weight shifting and leaning.

Rolling over obstacles.

The less weight on the front wheel, the easier it rolls over obstacles.

Hit obstacles straight on.

Hitting obstacles straight on is your best chance of clearing them. Angled logs are especially dangerous, because you have to use the width of the trail to help yourself hit the log squarely.

 

Start out on easy hills, and as you get better, move on to steeper, more technical descents. When you get good at it, descending will be much more fun than climbing a hill!

If you have any more questions simply post them in the comments below.

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3 Comments
  1. My brother brought me mountain biking twice in the past month and I’m building my confidence up. Had to ditch the bike (executing a clean backwards jump off it) on a downhill section with a lot of loose rock.

    I was trying to brake almost constantly (though trying to keep it light enough) over this section so your advice is very valuable indeed!

    My brother has been giving me plenty of advice too but I reckon the route was a bit beyond me!

  2. @Fiachra

    Thanks for sharing your experience! What doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger! 😀

  3. Great coaching! Keeping my weight toward the back of the bike helps when I hit bumps. Braking before the rough sections helps prevent skidding. I keep my arms & legs loose to absorb bumps. I feel more control with my bike. It works alot better than a deathgrip on the handlebars.

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coach levi
Hi, I'm Coach Levi. I'm a USA Cycling Certified Level 3 Coach as well as Level 1 Certified with Precision Nutrition. Want to feel better, ride faster, and look great? Let's work together!

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