Tips To Improve Your Bike Riding

trails Alabama

These little nuggets of knowledge have been collected over 30 years of covering the mountain bike scene. Many of them are classics and some are fresh for today’s riding scene, but they are all gold. Want to ride better? There’s plenty of how-to tips in here for that. Need tips on how to buy a new bike? We’ve got those too. How about becoming a smart home mechanic? No sweat. Enjoy.

1. Always abide by the 80-percent rule when riding an unfamiliar trail. That means ride at no more than 80 percent of what you feel your fastest speed is. We’ve seen a lot of riders crash on unfamiliar terrain.

2. Never assume you are the only one on the trail. You will be less likely to have conflicts with other users and you will help minimize the complaints rangers receive about “reckless” mountain bikers.

3. While coasting downhill, remind yourself to grab a few gears harder, so when you have to pedal, you are in a gear that closely matches your speed.

4. If you ride on trails that are heavily traveled by hikers or equestrians, use a bear bell. Bear bells are mounted to the handlebar and constantly ring, alerting other trail users you’re
coming. You’ll be surprised how friendly others can be if they’re not spooked as you come ripping around the corner.

5. Momentum is your friend on punchy, technical climbs. Carry as much speed as you can, and then let the suspension do the work as you float up and over the obstacles.

6. The quickest and easiest way to get faster is to look farther down the trail than you do now.

7. Remember to rotate your pedals when coasting to determine if you are in the correct gear.

8. When descending, keep your pedals level most of the time. In the corners, the outside foot should usually be down to put more pressure on the tires for better traction.

9. Rotating your hips into a turn will make you faster and more confidant. Don’t think of steering your bike with only the handlebars. Instead, try steering the bike with your legs and hips too.

10. Use your GPS app to find new trails. Apps like Strava have features that allow you to see where others are riding. You may find a new favorite local trail.

11. Avoid late-braking skidding into corners. Not only is it slower than braking early and controlling the corner, it also creates more braking bumps on the trail for the next rider.

12. There is no rule that your feet should be clipped in at all times. On off-camber sections or in loose corners, it is okay to unclip your inside foot in case your tires wash out.

13. If you’ve never ridden a pump track, find one and do it. The skills learned there translate to free speed on the trail. The workout you can get in 20 minutes of pump tracking is also incredible.

14. Always pack enough water, but never pack too much. Jetliners only carry enough fuel to make it to their destination for the same reason. Liquids are heavy. A full 3-liter hydration pack can weigh up to 10 pounds, and you will feel that on the climbs. If you know how long you’re going to be out, there’s no reason to simply “fill it up.”

15. Carry a 26-inch tube as your spare. It’s universal. A 26-inch tube can easily be stretched into a 27.5 or 29er wheel in a pinch. Using a larger-diameter tube in a smaller wheel is not recommended, unless you use the strategy we laid out in “Hard Tales” on page 15.

16. Experiment with tire pressures. While the rule used to be 40 psi to prevent flats, new rim, tire and tubeless technology make that number completely irrelevant. We’ve heard of some riders running pressures as low as 21 psi in non-plus bikes with success.

17. Tubeless technology is the reason we can run these low pressures, but the tires need sealant to work right. That sealant dries over time and becomes ineffective. Pop the beads on your tires at least every six weeks to see if you need to add more

18. Loctite is a better choice than grease for pedal-cleat bolts. It will not only keep them from seizing, it will also keep them from coming loose.

19. Get up off your saddle on descents.

20. Goat-head thorns love to live on the dirt next to sidewalks and streets. Those pokey seeds are eager to grab onto your tires and hitch a ride to the next location to sprout. If you have to ride pavement to the trail, stay away from the dirt that surrounds it or pack some extra tube patches.

21. Chances are you run too much air pressure in your suspension. Some of our editors run as low as 40-percent sag in the rear and 30 percent in the fork. As a rule of thumb, you should bottom your suspension at least once a ride. Otherwise, why
are you carrying the extra weight that you’re not using?

22. Try your favorite descent with your chin about 8 inches above the stem. While that’s far from the ideal position, it will give you a sense of how body position can improve control.

23. Dropper seatposts are not just for steep descents. They help with cornering and short technical climbs too. We find ourselves using our dropper remote lever more often than our shifters on most bikes.

24. A fingernail clipper is the favorite tool of many pro mechanics. We use them for cutting zip-tie ends, because they cut flush and prevent a nasty sharp edge that could slice your knee if you hit it.

25. Duct tape is invaluable on a ride when things go wrong. We like to wrap a few layers around our mini pump that’s already in the pack so we don’t have to carry the whole roll.

26. Pointing a saddle nose down may seem “peter-friendly,” but it’s really not. That will only put more pressure on your hands. Instead, find a saddle that works for your bum and then run it level.

27. Friction paste is like grease with sandpaper in it. It makes slipping
carbon parts stay in place better without damaging them. Use it on seatposts, stem face plates and any other place you don’t want a part to move unexpectedly.

28. The dreaded goat-head thorn plant was used by railroad companies to prevent erosion years ago. There are tons of those devil thorns near any railroad track. Be careful to stay on the trail and away from the tracks to avoid flat tires.

29. Try consciously braking more often and with less power. Panic braking never makes you faster.

30. Torque wrenches are not “dork wrenches.” They’re a necessity in any serious rider’s toolbox. They will pay for themselves by saving you from over-tightening lightweight carbon parts.

31. POV cameras, such as GoPros, are cool and fun to use. But, if you’re going to put it on YouTube, don’t upload footage from the entire ride. Instead, cut it down with the video-editing software most cameras come with. Shorter YouTube videos around 2–3 minutes total will score more views.

32. Chest mounts usually provide the best footage from POV cameras. If you have to mount the camera upside down, the footage can easily be flipped in the computer later.

33. You can prevent the dreaded “bonk” on a long ride if you have just a little sugar and some electrolytes with you. We like Jolly Rancher candy and a packet of salt like you’d get from a deli. They weigh next to nothing, and you’d be amazed how effective they can be to help you get home.

34. Don’t be afraid of plus-sized bikes because they look too heavy. In our experience, they’re often lighter than similarly set up 29ers thanks to the super-lightweight tire casings and rims.

35. Knee pads are never a bad idea, even on XC rides.

36. Measure the distance between your brake lever and your grip. Your lever should fit at the tip of your index finger for the most control. We find that’s usually about an inch in from the inside of the grip.

37. Even though your front brake has more usable power than the rear brake, tech reps at events report that rear brake pads always wear out faster than front brake pads. Go figure.

38. Tubeless tires are better, but not because they are lighter. By the time you add the sealant and extra rim tape, they’re almost the same weight as tubed tires. But, they ride better.

39. Bigger riders should look for bikes with low-suspension leverage ratios. This means heavy riders should not ride bikes with big travel and small rear shocks.

40. If you’re a night rider, do yourself a favor and invest in both a bar-mounted and helmet-mounted light. Using only one will cause shadows and make it much harder to find the right line.

41. Remove the valve caps on your Presta tire valves. They don’t do anything.

42. Never remove the Schrader valve caps on your suspension parts, unless you’re adjusting the pressure. Those are the primary seal for the high-pressure system. Take a look inside of them and notice the rubber O-ring. That thing is designed to handle the high pressures.

43. Don’t think about riding faster; think about riding smoother. The speed will come naturally.

44. There’s no shame in duct-taping or zip-tying a part together to get home. Both of these miracle repair items should be in your pack on every long ride. However, your Mickey Mouse fix-it job should always be properly repaired before your next ride.

45. There’s no shame in taking the “easy” line when it comes to technical features you’re unsure you can handle. Attempting a line you’re not sure you can stick is a recipe for disaster, especially if you’re far away from help.

46. Always keep a rear derailleur hanger on hand or in the garage. Those little buggers bend and break easily, and it can ruin a ride if you don’t have a spare.

47. Never lubricate your cassette or chainrings. Only lube your chain. Any lubricant that’s not on the moving parts of the chain is only attracting dirt and wearing your drivetrain faster.

48. If you haven’t tried wider bars yet, you owe it to yourself to try them. Many stock bars are narrow and cramp your riding position. Wider bars, up to about 780 millimeters, can open up your position and give you more stability and control.

49. If you have noisy brakes, chances are the pads and rotors are contaminated. Do yourself a favor and replace them, and be more careful with the spray lube next time.

50. Transporting your bike on a bumper rack exposes your brakes to contaminants from the exhaust pipe. If you must use a bumper rack, be sure to clean your rotors after any long road trips to prevent contamination of the pads.

51. Moving the cleats on your shoes back slightly can give you more control, since it keeps your heels up on descents. The age-old advice of putting the cleats on the ball of your foot is not necessarily true anymore. Try moving them back for a ride to see for yourself.

52. If you have a regular loop you do, try riding it backwards. You may find that it feels like a whole new trail.

53. There’s nothing better than having some “real food” instead of just energy bars or gels on long rides. We love to pack a PB&J sandwich in addition to our usual energy stuff for all-day rides.

54. Riding the “same old trail” can get boring and monotonous. Riding it at night can make it fresh and fun again.

55. If you are on a tough climb and want to throw in the towel, pick a point on the trail ahead where you can stop. Then, when you get there, pick another one. This little mental trick will get you to the top of nearly any ascent.

56. Force yourself to look farther down the trail rather than looking right in front of your front wheel. You’ll be surprised how much “autopilot” your brain has if you’re looking ahead.

57. If you’re buying a used bike off Craigslist or another site, be sure to bring a friend who knows as much or more than you to check it out. Your friend may save you from being ripped off and making an emotional buying decision rather than a practical one.

58. Dried water spots on your suspension are like razorblades for your seals. When you wash your bike, be sure to either dry these or at least wipe them off before your next ride. Your seals will last longer if you do this.

59. Tubeless tires are porous. Once they are inflated, a small amount of air can escape through the sidewall over time. This type of seepage is not enough to cause a problem during a ride, but check your tire pressure before every ride.

60. If you struggle with getting tubeless or tubeless-ready tires to bead to your rim, try using a bead lubricant. Soapy water works reasonably well, but there are also products, such as Schwalbe’s Easy Fit, that work even better.

61. It’s good for your riding fitness and skills to be the slower one on a ride. It’s also good for your morale to be the fastest one on a ride. It’s best to alternate riding with both fast and slow groups from time to time to take advantage of both.

62. Get in the habit of drinking more water during the day, but don’t go crazy. Your thirst is a finely tuned mechanism that tells you when your body needs liquid. And we’re not talking about sodas or sports drinks here. The accepted rule is about 34 ounces of water for every 1000 calories of food consumed.

63. Rotating mass is the best weight to remove from a bike, since you not only have to carry the heft to the top of the hill, but you also have to use energy to accelerate and decelerate it. Lightweight tires and tubes are probably the most cost-effective way to shed weight from your bike.

64. Removing excess weight is a no-brainer. Things like reflectors, light mounts, lock mounts, unused bottle cages or the seat bag that contains an expired energy bar should be removed for trail riding. This weight savings is free and will make your bike look and feel streamlined.

65. Water can get trapped in your frame if you wash it with a hose, even if you’re not using a pressure washer. Pulling the bottom bracket from time to time to drain it will not only save a bit of weight, it will save your frame and bearings.

66. Bike manufacturers often skimp on components that can’t easily be seen on the shop floor, like cassettes, headsets and bottom brackets. While it’s flashier to upgrade from a Shimano XT to a Shimano XTR derailleur, there’s a bigger reward and lower cost to upgrading from that entry-level cassette to an XT cassette.

67. When you go tubeless, be sure to use the right amount of sealant—and no more. Most sealants come with a measuring cup, and you should use it religiously. Just pouring and saying, “That looks about right,” will almost always add a couple of ounces to your wheels.

68. It is often better to go the new-bike route than to upgrade your old one. Estimate how much you can get if you sell your bike, and then add the money you were going to spend on upgrades such as a fork, wheels, saddle, seatpost and tires. Compare your grand total with how much you would need to spend on the bike of your dreams. The numbers may be closer than you think.

69. There is no shame in getting off your bike and previewing a section of trail before you ride down it. We recommend it. The last thing you want to do is find out that you are in too deep as you’re leaving the takeoff of a drop. Professional downhill racers regularly walk entire racecourses before they ever put rubber to the ground.

70. Handlebar grips are inexpensive and extremely easy to install. They are one of the most hassle-free ways to spruce up your bike. Lock-on types won’t require you to pull out the hairspray to shimmy the grips onto the bar and will be ready to ride as soon as you tighten the pinch bolts.

71. Worn-out cleats make getting out of your pedals more difficult and less predictable. Most of the time, a new pair of cleats will suffice for a rejuvenated connection with your existing pedals.

72. Even if they still have a good amount of tread, old tires can get dried out and hard, which kills their performance no matter how often you check the air pressure.

73. It’s amazing how many shifting problems can be solved with a new $15 set of cables and housing. Installing new cables and housing reduces friction in the shifting system and allows for faster shifts and a lighter lever feel. If yours are a few seasons old, it’s time for a refresh.

74. Custom graphic kits for high-end wheels and suspension parts are easier than ever to find. They’re an inexpensive way to give your bike a facelift.

75. The quick-release lever on any suspension fork should be pointed straight up when fastened—not back, not forward, but up. Most forks have a simple system to adjust and “clock” this.

76. If you are running tubes, pump a few squirts of baby powder into the tire. Then, roll the tire around so the powder coats the inside of the tire. This keeps the rubbers from sticking and helps prevent the dreaded pinch flat.

77. If you’re riding a plus-sized or fat bike, tire pressure becomes even more critical. Even 1 psi either way makes a difference. We’ve had luck with 15–20 psi in plus bikes and 8–15 psi with fat bikes, depending on rider weight and terrain.

78. Some brands opt for a low bottom bracket height to improve a bike’s handling. The trade-off is pedal clearance. This is a good geometry number to consider when comparing different bikes.

79. Learn manualing skills by finding an empty parking lot with painted spaces. Challenge yourself to first manual over one, then two, and continue as your skill increases. It’s the best way we know of to measure your progress.

80. Don’t leave water stored in a hydration pack. Drain the pack to prevent the growth of algae or bacteria. While the bacteria found in the water may not be harmful, we’ve seen some pretty disgusting and slimy reservoirs that can’t possibly taste good to drink from.

81. Turn on the Find My Phone GPS app when you’re riding. We know multiple riders who have gotten their phones back after the phone fell out of a jersey or pack pocket that wasn’t closed.

82. Don’t accept prolonged pain from your saddle. There are so many good options with different widths and shapes now that everybody should be able to ride without pain or numbness.

83. Wear sunscreen, even if it’s not a hot summer day. Your future self will thank you for slathering it on.

84. You will be surprised how many creaks and groans disappear if you simply clean and re-grease areas such as your stem, seatpost clamp and derailleur hanger.

85. Kick back and put your feet up. Elevate your legs when relaxing after a ride. It will help your legs get rid of built-up lactic acid and feel less sore. Pro riders use this trick all the time.

86. If you have a stripped Allen-head bolt on your bike, you can often remove it by using a similarly sized Torx wrench. The star shape can bite into the corners to give you more purchase and may save you a trip to the shop to have it drilled and extracted.

87. Run your lock-on-style grips with the collar bolts pointed down. This will prevent them from rubbing holes in your gloves or giving you a nasty blister.

88. Sugar and carbs alone may not be the best source of energy for long rides. We’ve had the best luck including a healthy dose of fat in our diet, especially for a pre-long-ride meal.

89. Learn how to track stand. Knowing how to balance your bike at a standstill will vastly improve your skills through technical climbs at slow speeds.

90. Don’t drill holes or grind parts down to make them fit or to save weight. We’ve seen nasty component failures as a result of people trying this.

91. If you’re going to a bike park, and don’t have a proper downhill or enduro bike, you should rent one. Many bike rental places will even let you test out several different bikes with a single rental fee.

92. Your helmet’s side retention straps need to form a Y just below your ear. Every helmet has a slightly different way of dialing in this adjustment, so you have to refer to the owner’s manual if you can’t figure out the adjustment piece. The strap that runs under your chin should be snug enough so that when you yawn, the helmet pulls down on your head.

93. To clean helmet straps of their salty, caked-on grime, we like to use a bowl of water mixed with dish soap. Let your straps soak in the soapy water for a couple of hours. When you come back, you can dry them off and they’ll be like new.

94. Don’t try to take 5 pounds off your current bike. Reducing that much weight by replacing components will set you back more than your bike is worth. That type of dramatic weight reduction is best achieved by buying a new bike that sits on the showroom floor at the 5-pound-lighter target.

95. When replacing a tube or tire, check the rim strip to be sure it’s not pushed to one side. If the spoke holes are exposed, the pressurized tube can get pinched and cause an immediate flat, or worse, one halfway into your ride.

96. Nearly every bolt on a mountain bike likes to be greased. This prevents the bolts from seizing and allows them to be properly torqued. Too much grease just makes a mess, though. Don’t go crazy; just a dab will do.

97. There is one exception to tip 96. Bolts with thread locker, such as a rotor bolt, should not be greased. Just install these. The thread locker that keeps the bolt in place works as an anti-seize device.

98. Threaded parts on a bike should go in by hand. If you have to force the part in, there’s something wrong. From bottom brackets to pedals to water-bottle bolts and everything in between, start by threading things by hand before going to the wrench and damaging your expensive parts by cross-threading.

99. When you install a new handlebar, resist the temptation to simply measure your old one and cut the new one down to the same length. Instead, try the bar uncut for a couple rides. You may find a wider bar gives you more stability and control and lessens fatigue. Always measure your preferred width and make note of it.

100. Never tighten a bolt halfway or think to yourself, “I’ll get to that later.” Bolts, such as the one on the stem clamp, are easy to forget if you’re itching to get out to the trail, but not tightening it can quickly put your face in the dirt. While you’re thinking about it, tighten the bolt. Always finish the job now, not later.

101. Pedals are the most over-torqued part on a bicycle. Pedal wrenches are usually huge (for removing over-tightened pedals) and provide way too much leverage. Just gently snug them; don’t “reef” on them.

Bonus tip: Turn off your computer and go ride.