How to clean tight turns and avoid nasty obstacles

Riding a mountain bike on complicated singletrack is as rewarding as anything you can do on 2 wheels. It is also infinitely challenging, because there will always be plenty of trail that you will not be able to ride, no matter how good you are.

As a mountain biker, you have to make a decision. Do you avoid trails you can’t ride, sticking to those within your comfort zone? Or do you work on your skills and gradually master bits of a difficult trail until you can ride the whole thing?

When I started riding off-road 14 years ago, those difficult sections held frightening obstacles, such as a 6-inch log or a tight corner with a 4-inch rock. Now my challenges are more strenuous, but the thrill of conquest remains.

Bicycling is introducing this column to help you learn the skills you need to ride your mountain bike better. We hope to motivate, entertain, and educate – enabling you to get the most out of your off-road experience. Mostly we’ll work on skills, but we may also offer a humorous or cautionary tale – some even based on fact.

We kick off with one of the most basic skills: cleaning tight corners. Here are the essentials: Be in the right gear, control your balance by pedaling against light resistance from your brakes, choose the right line, and lean your torso forward and to the outside of the turn.

The right gear

This depends on how strong you are and how tight the corner is. But most tight turns respond well to a small chainring/third-largest cog combination (usually 24x21T). This moderately low gear gives you plenty of torque to accelerate out of midcorner trouble, yet isn’t so low that you’re flailing. The small ring/big cog combo is almost always too low; you don’t spin through a tight, technical corner, you push. A higher gear also gives you a better chance to avoid striking obstacles with your pedals.

Pedal against the brakes

Every time you stomp your pedal through a power stroke, you accelerate. In a tight corner, each time you accelerate, you straighten up. Light, delicate pedaling is needed to maintain speed through a tight corner. By dragging both brakes lightly, you can pedal at a more reasonable effort while at the same time smoothing both your speed and your cornering arc with the brakes.

Use your index and second fingers on both levers while maintaining your grip on the handlebar with your thumb and outer 2 fingers. If you need to tighten your line, squeeze the brakes a bit harder. Need to widen the arc? Ease off the brakes. Practice by riding in circles in both directions, first on a level surface then on an incline.

Pick the right line

In general, choosing a path through a tight corner at low speed requires the same strategy as taking a wide corner at a high speed. Enter wide, cut to the apex at midcorner, then return to the outside. Make the turn as wide as possible, because when you add obstacles, things get more complex.

I’ve watched a thousand novice mountain bikers do it wrong. They carefully choose a line through an obstacle-infested corner that will keep their front wheels away from obstacles, but they forget about the rear wheel. They ride around a midcorner rock, neatly missing the glistening, evil thing with the front end, and just when they are starting to puff with pride, the rear wheel hits the rock dead on. (They then stop abruptly and fall over with a puzzled look on their faces.)

Remember: The rear wheel tracks inside the front wheel a little in a medium-speed turn, and a lot in a tight, slow turn. If you ride through a tight corner then go back and look at your tire tracks (or look at the photos at left), you’ll see what I mean. The rear wheel can track inside the front by a foot or more. This means you have to run your front wheel outside that midcorner obstacle to ensure that the rear wheel will miss it – like, say, a foot outside.

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