The mercury has dropped precipitously, the days are painfully short and the trails are buried beneath a thick blanket of snow. But that’s no excuse to hibernate indoors and let your bike skills wither away while pining for warmer weather and dusty trails.
With spring and the mountain biking season just around the corner, winter is the perfect time to hone the foundational bike skills that will pay huge dividends on the trail when the sun starts shinning. We spoke with a group of experts to get their take on the best skills to work on during the off season to elevate your riding come spring. All you need is a bike and a section of dry parking lot or driveway to get started. Or, for some hands-on instruction, check the class schedule at your local REI for everything from mountain biking skills clinics to bike maintenance workshops to group rides.
Meet the experts
Nick Van Dine is a former professional downhill racer who lives in Park City, Utah. After winning the USA Cycling Downhill National Championships in the semi-pro division in 2007, Van Dine rode for the Cannondale Factory Race Team. He’s still uncannily quick, as evidenced by the podium finishes he racks up at local races whenever he dusts off the number plate.
Steph Meyer is an adventure program manager and bike instructor for the National Ability Center, an adaptive sports organization in Park City, Utah, that seeks to make the outdoors accessible to people of all abilities. She has an acute understanding of how to help riders reach their highest potential.
Cortney Knudson is a cofounder of the Truckee Bike Park in California and helped start the FMB Women’s Slopestyle Tour. She’s a trail builder, an event organizer and a bike instructor who’s committed to building opportunities to help more women shred.
Stephanie Nychka is a professional dirt jump and slopestyle rider as well as a mountain bike skills instructor. She won the 2019 FMB Women’s Slopestyle Tour after finishing first at all three stops and was the Canadian BMX Freestyle National Champion in 2019. Keep up with Nychka on Instagram @rideslikeamother.
These shredders have a wealth of mountain bike knowledge, and the skills they recommend are ones they think will help improve your bike handling, even while winter weather keeps you off the trails. As Stephanie Nychka said, “Sometimes all it takes is to hear something explained a little differently, and suddenly it will click.”
That may sound a bit rudimentary, but even the most experienced riders can benefit from dialing in their riding position. Start with flat pedals. It’ll be easier to put a foot down if you need to bail, and it will help prevent you from building bad habits. “Proper positioning … starts with proper foot positioning and separating the movements of your bike from the movements of your body so you stay completely centered,” Knudson said.
The drill: push and pull
Honing the connection between your bike and body through your feet is the foundation for good body positioning. Start by standing up off the saddle and pedaling, first in a straight line, then in circles and figure eights.
“Your toes should just hang off the edge of each pedal. The front of the pedal should be just about where your laces start. Push through your heel on the downstroke, and make a ‘claw’ with your foot to ‘grab’ and ‘pull’ on the pedal on the upstroke. Allow your bike to lean—to the right with the downstroke of your left pedal and vice versa.”
The drill: chop wood
Confidently pedaling with partial strokes is crucial to maintaining momentum and powering through technical terrain.
“Once you feel a solid connection to the pedals, try ratcheting, or ‘chopping wood,’” Knudson said. “Start with your pedals level and do a quarter turn from 12 o’clock to 3 o’clock with your front foot and bring it back to 12. Then switch and try with your other foot.”
The drill: bike body separation
Keeping the movement of your bike and your body separate allows you to corner, climb, jump and tackle technical terrain more effectively while maintaining balance.
“While rolling slowly and keeping your pedals level, lean your bike over far to one side and then back to the other side. You can turn your hip in the direction you’re leaning the bike, which will help turn the bike without steering from the bars, but keep your upper body and shoulders upright and stable,” Knudson said.
Who wants to ride slowly? Anyone who wants to go fast, of course. “The best way to understand how your mechanics impact bike control is by working on them at slow speeds. Without the stability speed brings, you get a feel for how each movement affects your balance,” Van Dine said.
The drill: track stand
Named for how track cyclists start their races, the track stand entails trying to maintain balance on your bike without moving. Mastering track stands will help you in tight switchbacks and spotting your line before steep descents.
“It’s easiest to learn track stands on a slight incline. While facing uphill, but not completely parallel to the fall line, turn your front wheel slightly into the incline, keeping your pedals level. Use light pressure on your front pedal and feather your brakes to create a rocking motion that will help you find your balance point. Pressure on your bars helps too. If you’re losing balance to the left, use upward pressure on the left side of your bar to help regain your balance point,” Van Dine said.
The drill: slow race challenge
Challenge your friends to see who can reach the finish line last, or who can keep their balance the longest without putting a foot down in a small area like a couple of parking spaces.
“Don’t look at your front wheel. Just like on the trail, look where you want to go, or pick a spot in front of you to focus on. Focus on bike/body separation to keep your balance in tight quarters using pressure on your bars, pedals and brakes. At slow speeds you can feel how exaggerated movements help you find a consistent balance point even as your bike moves underneath you,” Meyer said.
Wheelies and manuals
Being able to reliably lift your front wheel using a utilitarian manual and wheelie will go a long way toward helping you conquer technical features and trails. “Consistently getting your front wheel up opens a world of possibilities for what you can do on a bike,” Van Dine said, “both on climbs and descents.”
The drill: the wheelie
A wheelie, which involves lifting the front of your bike while shifting your body weight and pedaling, is perhaps the most iconic flatland bike trick. But even a small wheelie comes in handy on the trail.
“Get used to bailing by jumping from your pedals off the back of the bike a few times. Once you’re used to that, start with your seat set a little below your normal pedaling height and lean back as you pedal on the downstroke of your dominant foot. Think about getting your body weight back over the rear axle with your arms relatively straight, rather than pulling with your arms to get the wheel up. Look well past your front tire, and if you feel yourself losing balance, just grab the rear brake to bring the front wheel back down. Work on just getting a consistent wheel lift and a couple pedal strokes. That’s what you’ll use most often on the trail, and distance will come once you are more comfortable finding your balance point,” Van Dine said.
The drill: the manual
While a wheelie includes pedaling, a manual only uses your body weight to lift the front wheel off the ground. Manuals allow you to confidently go off drops and descend steep and technical terrain without going over the bars.
“You’re not pulling on the bars to do a manual,” Van Dine said. “You’re bringing your body weight down and back while pushing through your pedals to get the front wheel up. Keep your arms mostly straight. If you feel like you’re going to loop out backwards, tap the rear brake to bring the front wheel down. Start on flat ground trying to manual for just a few feet, making sure you’re using body weight rather than your arms to lift the front wheel. Once you have the technique dialed, roll slowly toward a curb, and initiate the manual before your front wheel drops off the edge. Try to land with your back wheel first. It’s a great way to practice manualing off drops in a low consequence environment.”
The bunny hop is your ticket to getting airborne, giving you the ability to clear more trail obstacles and confidently ride jumps with style. The maneuver involves a sequence of multiple techniques: lifting the front wheel, exploding upwards and lifting the rear wheel.
The drill: timing
To master the bunny hop, you need to work on combining the front wheel lift, the explosive phase and the rear wheel lift with proper timing. It’s important to isolate each movement first before sequencing them together.
“Be patient. Don’t rush through it. A good way to learn the timing is to practice with a tiny stick or even a crack in the pavement. Start by rolling slowly and doing a couple front wheel lifts over the obstacle using the manual technique. Next, do a few rear wheel lifts over the obstacle using the claw technique. Once you can confidently do each of those, do a front wheel lift over the obstacle, and when your front wheel hits the ground do a rear wheel lift in succession. After you can coordinate those two techniques to clear the obstacle, it’s time to add the explosive part. While your front wheel is still in the air, explode upwards, both by extending your legs and pulling up on your bars before using the claw technique to lift your rear wheel and level out the bike.” Meyer said.
The drill: more height
Altitude requires perfecting your body position in the explosive phase of the bunny hop.
“A lot of riders who come from downhill, enduro and cross-country backgrounds have a chest down, elbows out style that’s great for racing and trail riding but limits height on a bunny hop. Stand taller, with your upper body more upright, and bring your shoulders back a bit. That way you raise your center of gravity, and you’ll be able to use your whole body as a spring to explode, pull the bike up underneath you and the bars into your chest,” said Nychka.