Mountain Bike Riding Tips for Beginners

A bicycle leaning against a tree

You don’t need mountains to go mountain biking. Just about any off-pavement riding will reward you with fresh air, great exercise and—if hills or mountains are present—the exhilaration of scenic views and long downhill stretches. Mountain biking does require some different skills than road cycling. This article shares basic techniques to help you get started.

Body Position 

A bicycle parked on the side of a mountain

Perhaps the biggest key to successful mountain biking is your body position. Mountain bike trail surfaces include rocks, roots, ruts, sand or mud. The variable terrain and the potential obstacles are all part of the fun but can be unnerving to beginners. Being in the right body position helps you get through tricky sections of trail. There are two primary body positions: neutral and ready.

Neutral Position

A couple of people that are standing in the grass

When you’re riding non-technical sections of trail, you want to be in a neutral position on the bike. This keeps you rolling along efficiently and comfortably while allowing you to easily transition into the ready position for technical terrain. The neutral position includes: 

  • Level pedals that are evenly weighted
  • A slight bend in the knees and elbows
  • Index fingers on the brake levers 100% of the time (rim brakes often require 2 fingers)
  • Eyes looking forward about 15 to 20 ft. ahead; look where you want to go, not where you don’t

Ready Position

When the trail gets steeper or rockier, it’s time to move into the ready position (sometimes called the attack position). The ready position gets you mentally and physically prepared to take on technical sections of trail. The ready position includes:

  • Level pedals that are evenly weighted
  • A deep bend in the knees and elbows (think of making chicken wings with your arms with a 90-degree bend.)
  • Rear end off the seat and hips shifted back
  • Your back is flat and nearly parallel to the ground
  • Index fingers on the brake levers 100% of the time (rim brakes often require 2 fingers)
  • Eyes forward looking about 15 to 20 ft. ahead; look where you want to go, not where you don’t

Adjusting Your Seat Position

Positioning your seat properly can help you get in the correct body position for climbing and descending.

Climbing: For climbing, position your seat for maximum efficiency while pedaling. With your foot at the bottom of the pedal stroke, you should see a slight bend in the leg, reaching about 80-90 percent of full leg extension. This helps you pedal efficiently and powerfully using your major leg muscles.

Descending: When it’s time to descend, drop your seat about 2 or 3 inches from the height you set it at for climbing hills. Lowering your seat lowers your center of gravity, which gives you better control and more confidence through steep descents. You may need to experiment with different seat heights to find what feels best.

Picking a Line

A beginner’s mistake is looking at spots you want to avoid rather than focusing on where you want to go. Pick a path and stick to it to get over and around tricky sections of trail. What hazards should you look for? That depends on your skill level. A log that will stop one cyclist may be a fun bunnyhop for another. Generally, look for loose rocks, deep sand, water, wet roots, logs and other cyclists, hikers, and animals.


Braking seems simple: you squeeze the levers and the bike slows down. That is the gist of it, but learning more about how to brake goes a long way in making you more comfortable and secure on the bike.


Since most mountain biking involves at least some ups and downs, it’s good to know how to shift your gears properly. Proper shifting habits not only save wear and tear on your bike (especially your chain, front cassette and rear cogs), they enable you to power yourself more efficiently up and down hills.

These are some tips to keep in mind.

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