• Road culture is very much about the uphills. Mountain biking is more about having the most fun possible on the descents (Kath Bicknell)Source: Kath Bicknell
When road riders start mountain biking it’s usually because they’re so into cycling that they want to enjoy it in new ways. This gives them advantages in some areas but tends to hold them back in others, writes Kath Bicknell.
Cycling Central
26 Nov 2015 - 9:36 AM  UPDATED 26 Nov 2015 - 12:43 PM

While a lot of the skills and fitness developed on the road make for a good transition into mountain biking, there’s a few things roadies need to learn (or unlearn) if they want to make the most of rides on the dirt.

Read on for a list of eight classic mistakes roadies tend to make when they first take to the trails, and some simple tips for fast tracking the transition period and turning good rides into exceptional ones.

1. Staying glued to the saddle

Mountain biking is all about shifting your body weight in relation to the terrain. In the same way that getting forward on the climbs stops the front wheel lifting off the trail, standing up and getting your weight behind the saddle on the steep stuff will stop you flipping over the handlebars.

While most new mountain bikers think they’re getting behind the saddle, they’re usually hovering just above it. Try riding around a car park or a flat grassy area and getting far enough behind the saddle that you can graze your shorts or knicks on the rear tyre. Ask a friend to tell you how close you are until you have success. This will help you reprogram your brain and improve your awareness of your body in relation to your bike.

2. Losing traction on climbs

Another rookie roadie error is losing traction on loose climbs. While climbing out of the saddle works on the road, you’ll need to keep your weight pushing through the wheels on the dirt to keep traction on the looser surfaces.

Bring your elbows into your hips and slide forward onto the nose of your saddle. This stops you pulling the handlebars from side to side. It brings your weight over the front wheel while keeping enough through the back. Pick a gear that lets you spin up the climb rather than one that requires huge amounts of power.

3. Rigid descending position

You can usually spot a roadie who is new to the dirt because they’re descending like a pole is stuck up their backside. While a tense riding position makes you feel safer in principle, it actually amplifies every bump and makes you feel less in control. 

A looser riding position allows your body to absorb the bumps; like suspension but even better. Give your arms and legs a shake, drop your shoulders, and wear a huge grin. It’s hard to hold a tense body position and a big smile at the same time.

4. Looking down rather than ahead

Where you look is where you go. This golden rule of mountain biking is the one people are most likely to forget when they’re tired or in a panic about what’s happening five centimetres ahead rather than five or ten metres ahead.

If you look further along the trail your head follows your eyes, followed by your shoulders and your handlebars. The reverse is also true: if you look at the rock or tree stump you don’t want to hit, you’ll probably hit it.

5. Frustration at not being amazing

If you’re transitioning from the road to the dirt, you’re probably reasonably fit, knowledgeable and used to being fairly good at the sport. Right now you need to embrace the fact that you have a lot to learn, and that this is half the fun.

One of the best things about mountain biking is no matter how good you are, you can always learn more. One of the worst is taking a friend riding and listening to them make a thousand excuses for not being the best rider in the world.

6. Hunger bonking

Eat more than you think you need to. Mountain biking can be a lot more physical than road riding. There are also much bigger consequences from the reduced mental awareness that comes from low blood glucose.

Try to eat something small every 45 minutes. You might be surprised how much ‘fitter’ you are at the end of long road rides if you do this on the tarmac too.

7. A lack of respect for other riders

On the road it’s nice to be near the front of the bunch. If someone’s fitter than you, you won’t hold them up for long because they’ll overtake you on the hills or snake you in a sprint. 

On the dirt, it’s all about your skills versus the terrain. If you push in front of someone before a challenging singletrack, you’ll both have more fun if you’re not holding that person up.

Ask people for tips if they’ve ridden behind you and listen with an open mind (see point number five). Share the order on the trail. Ask other riders if they’d like to ride in front of you rather than assuming that you’re faster than they are, or that you won’t learn anything from watching the way they manoeuvre their bike on the trail.

8. A lack of respect for the trail

Over time you’ll learn to read the trail in relation to your own skill level. Until then, exercise caution as you discover what trail features lie within your capabilities and which ones you may need to take a longer look at, or build up to, before riding them as fast as your new mates. Walk it if you can’t ride it, and enjoy coming back to it later on and nailing it with the skills you’ve built between visits.

If it’s steep and rocky and you haven’t seen it before walk your bike over it to make sure the front chain ring doesn’t scratch the ground on the way down. If it has a caution sign, or you can’t see the other side of it, for heaven’s sake look at the other side of it before riding it blind. Resist the urge to alter the trail to bring it in line with your skill level at the expense of ruining the fun for someone else.

Respecting the trail also means learning to corner without heavy braking or skidding and staying away from certain trails in the wet. Keep an ear out for a local track work day and lend a helping hand. Once again you’ll be surprised by what you learn. Plus it feels really good to give something back.


Some of the world’s best mountain bikers transitioned to the sport from the road, but that doesn’t mean they excelled on the very first ride. Keep an open mind, move your body in relation to the terrain, and remember to eat. You might be surprised how much a few rides on the dirt can improve your rides on the tarmac too.