One of the main reasons mountain bikers struggle to maintain a good rhythm during a ride or race is that they find themselves in the wrong gear at a crucial moment and coming back from that mistake is at best frustrating, at worst dangerous and always results in loss of rhythm and pace. You may not even always notice it, but it’s definitely worth knowing these four moves to become smoother and faster.
By Sean Badenhorst
Robyn de Groot (dormakaba) pedals her way out of a dip with composure, which should be the objective of everyone. | Photo: Xavier Briel/FNB Wines2Whales
Most gears on a modern mountain bikes are surprisingly light (easy). They have to be. How else are you expected to get up steep, rough climbs? And because you seldom really go much faster than 15kph average on most mountain bike trails/races, you don’t need many heavy (hard) gears.
I continue to see many mountain bikers, both newcomers and seasoned riders, coming to a grinding halt or struggling up a climb because they are in too hard a gear. They aren’t using those easy gears!
I have lost count of the number of times I have been following a rider down a long singletrack descent and noticed that they have stayed in the same gear they were in when the descent started. Generally, in mountain biking, every descent is followed by a climb, especially if you descend to a river/stream.
Experienced riders develop an awareness of when the base of the descent is near. Things like changes in vegetation, soil type, soil moisture, air temperature and, if there’s a flowing river, the sound of the water before you can see it. It’s the same with a small descent or dip, just over a much shorter time span.
Many riders will finish the descent and as they start the climb, they realise they’re in too hard a gear. They’ll either keep riding in that hard gear, straining physically, panicking emotionally and usually grinding to a wobbly halt, possibly toppling off the bike. Or they’ll start panic-shifting, which puts unnecessary strain on the chain on a 1x drivetrain (can possibly snap) and can lead to chain derailment on a 2x drivetrain, which generally results in stopping and possibly also toppling off the bike.
If this sounds like something you encounter regularly, then try this these four moves:
- While you are on the descent, start looking for any changes in soil moisture (it’s usually more soft/moist in dips/valleys), changes in vegetation (it usually gets more dense in dips/valleys), air temperature (it’s usually cooler in dips/valleys) and sounds (if there is a flowing river, you can sometimes hear it).
- Shift to easy-ish gears while you are descending. As a rough guide, not the top two, but numbers three or four from the top is a good option. You want to be in a gear that’s rather too easy than too hard once you start a sudden, steep climb.
- Look ahead. It’s one of the fundamentals of mountain biking, but most still don’t look up/ahead far enough (I recommend looking ahead 10 metres for every 10kph of speed). It helps you see the upcoming ascent in advance.
- Don’t be afraid to shift when you hit the climb. Mountain bike drivetrains are tough and made to be able to shift under a reasonable amount of pressure. Shifting to an easier gear will help you maintain your momentum and retain your rhythm. If you add these smoother moments up it can make a big difference to your race performance/ride experience.