How Winter Riding can Improve MTB Skills, Part 1

This spring I was planning on learning and practicing a few new mountain bike (MTB) skills to get better and more confident on the trails. I was also wanting to teach my father-in-law a few small things I’ve picked up, since he’s gotten into some trail riding.

My father-in-law was telling me about the friends that got him into MTBing on some local ski hills, but his stories were more scary than exciting. These friends are getting major injuries (brake-lever-impaling and breaking bones) and I really don’t want that to happen to him! I like him too much! It sounded like he wasn’t getting enough guidance and was just being thrown on the trail and left to his own devices. This isn’t really the case, as his friends are really nice and do give him instruction, and some of their injuries are apparently random bad luck on the trails. Although I think with some more basic skills in the toolbox we could be safer on the trails. I really want to learn and teach some of the ground-level MTB skills that develop confidence and safety on the trail. The problem is he lives 6 hours away and I’m not likely going there with a bike nor is he likely to make it here with his anytime soon.

YouTube to the rescue! Specifically MTBtips and IMbikemag have some great how-to videos that teach basic and advanced skills to safely navigate trails, have more fun, and even get faster at it. By the way, the website is also full of great articles to get even more out of your MTB, but I thought YouTube was a great place to get right to the info you need.

I started watching these videos to try to put together some sort of playlist to send to my father-in-law in the spring. Turns out I learned so much from them that I wanted to start practicing right away, even though it’s winter and there’s still 20″ of snow! This post is all about how you can develop and use winter riding skills to improve your summer riding, whether it be MTB, cyclocross, or just general bike handling, which can benefit anyone who wants to get more comfortable on their bike.

I think the best thing about winter riding is that you can try new things without the fear of getting really injured. When that fear goes away, it frees you up to try out some new skills. The price of failure is pretty low when you bail into a soft, fluffy snowbank. It’s much different in summer. Here, I tried to hop up onto a narrow trail, by taking a 90º turn and about a 6″ step-up. I failed.

My failed attempt at a corner with a step-up onto a tight trail. No harm done.

My failed attempt at a corner with a step-up onto a tight trail. No harm done.

Instead of torturing you with a multi-thousand-word post on how to learn and practice MTB skills in winter, I thought I’d break up my new-found skills and drills into a couple blog posts. I’ll start with just one skill, the most important rule of mountain biking.

The Golden Rule

The Golden Rule of MTB is: your wheels will follow your eyes, so don’t look where you don’t want to go. Wow, wish I knew this simple rule earlier! It seems intuitive, but here’s how it really works: you’re riding a trail and come across a plank that you want (or have) to ride across. You look at the edge of the plank (because you’re worried about it), and nearly fall off it because your bike goes where your eyes go. You do the one-foot-off-the-pedal, shaky, OMG I’m going to fall dance with your tire just on the edge of the plank. Or you’re riding between two trees that seem too close, so you look at them and end up hitting one with your handlebar. They weren’t really too close, but you focused on the tree and that’s where your bike went.

This double-wide plank bridge is simple and straight, but can be scary for first-time trail riders.

This double-wide plank bridge is simple and straight, but can be scary for first-time trail riders. Coming off the corner, it’s easy to focus on the left edge of the plank; if you do, that’s exactly where you’ll go!

How to Practice

The main rule is to practice looking ahead at the trail and use your peripheral for things on the side: once you’ve seen them, they don’t concern you; your bike will follow where it needs to go. Winter presents plenty of opportunity to practice as you have to stay in car-tire ruts to avoid slipping down the slanted, icy edge of the ruts. Don’t look at them, but look way ahead and keep your head up. That way you stay in the middle of the rut and not slip out your wheel from the slanted edge. You can also practice staying in a single tire track and there are almost no consequences of leaving that track (in low traffic). By summer, I bet you’ll be able to get over that plank, through the trees, or around a stump without hitting them or falling off. Increase the difficulty by riding the narrow walking paths that people pack down with their feet. You have to stay in the middle, otherwise you’re off sinking into the soft, unpacked snow. Getting going after stopping is very difficult on these paths. Amp it up even more by doing it at night.

It's really fun and tricky to try and stay on a narrow, rough trail at night, in winter, with ski goggles on. If you can do it in these conditions, you can do it in any!

It’s really fun and tricky to try and stay on a narrow, rough trail at night, in winter, with ski goggles on. If you can do it in these conditions, you can do it in any!

Practice the Golden Rule of Mountain Biking every time you’re riding in the winter and by summer you won’t even have to think about it. I’ve already become way more confident and been able to ride harder and tighter “trails” in winter without falling off. Also, by keeping my head up and my eyes forward, I’ve avoided sliding out. When I lose my grip but stay focused ahead, the bike generally gets back on track. So don’t avoid or dread winter riding, embrace it! Have some fun and consider it training for summer.

Want more? Check out these intro videos on MTBtips:

5 Backyard Drills

How to scan the trail ahead: the golden rule explained

How to ride through trees and narrow gaps

How to ride over logs and narrow planks (video at end of page)


About Kurt (Lightning) Bredeson

I am a married man, a follower of Jesus, a Mechanical Engineer, and a lover of cars, cycling and music. Things haven't always been easy; things haven't always been hard. I'm just trying my best in this life to enjoy what's been given to me by God and make the most of it.
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3 Responses to How Winter Riding can Improve MTB Skills, Part 1

  1. -yo' mama, says:

    p.s. love the pics!

  2. -yo' mama, says:

    great post! the golden rule makes absolute sense… same as driving. i could totally see myself doing this when I had a bike & was able…40 years ago, haha!


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