8 best mountain bike drills

Pro mountain biker Hannah Finchamp shares her favorite skills and drills to improve your riding.

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Photo: Marcelo Rypl

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Have you ever seen those young kids at the bike park absolutely flying through the trails? They seem to have complete control over their bikes and a fearless attitude driving the pedals. I’m sure there are many factors that contribute to these young riders’ skills, but I argue that one reason kids seem to have such a knack for conquering obstacles is their ability to just ‘play’ on the bike.

As adults with demanding schedules, we rarely set aside time just to play. We make everything into a little bit of a job. Even when we are out on the trails, we often have goals for time, pace, or distance. We usually think of riding our bike as a workout. This mindset can be beneficial. It drives us to make fitness gains, but sometimes we miss out on other benefits.

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When is the last time you rode your bike in the park? When is the last time you tried to do a cool trick? One of the best ways to improve your technical skills on the mountain bike is learning what your bike and body can do. You can accomplish that by learning how to ‘play’ effectively on the mountain bike. One of the ways that I like to play on my mountain bike is by setting aside some time in the park to practice some drills that usually leave me feeling like a kid just enjoying my bike.

Here are eight of my favorite mountain bike drills.

1. Forward/Backward drills
This is a great drill to use for a warm-up of your skills during this drill session or even in the parking lot before heading out on the trails.

Begin by gaining a little bit of speed then lean as far forward as possible over the front wheel with your hips pushed up against the bars, then shift your hips backward and lean as far back as possible over the rear wheel.

These exaggerated positions help you learn what your body is capable of and helps you find what positions feel comfortable and uncomfortable on the bike. When you are out on the trails and trying to lift your front wheel over an obstacle, you will need to push your hips forward. When you are descending a steep trail you will need to push your hips back over the rear wheel. This drill will help you get more comfortable in those positions in a controlled environment.

2. Wheelies
This drill will definitely make you feel like a kid again. Use a powerful pedal stroke to lift the front wheel off of the ground then find your sweet spot so that you can balance on just the rear wheel.

While I don’t anticipate you wheelie-ing down the trail. You will frequently lift your front wheel over obstacles. This drill helps you learn what your sweet spot is and will make you more comfortable lifting the front wheel. Additionally, you will learn how to use the rear brake to bring you back down to the ground when you lift up a little too high.

3. Cornering circuit
Set up a slalom course with a few cones. Then sprint into the cones and weave in and out of the cones as fast as you can. Really focus on keeping the outside foot down and leaning the bike as far as possible. Use this drill to learn how far you can lean the bike while still keeping traction through your tires. It’s probably much further than you think it is.

4. Stoppies
During this drill, you will learn to balance on the front wheel. Ride forward then grab the front brake and allow your bike to tilt forward onto the front wheel. Be careful not to go too fast or you go over your bars.

When we first began mountain biking, we were encouraged to stay away from the front brake so that we didn’t go over the bars. This may have kept us safe when we were learning, but to stop quickly with control, we needed to understand the power of the front brake. The front brake provides the majority of your stopping power. This drill teaches you the power of your front brake and it will help you find your balance point on the bike.

5. Fast cornering
Sprint up to a corner and as you turn, grab the rear brake, allow the bike to skid, and stick your inside foot out to catch you. This drill will give you more confidence in your ability to turn on a dime. It will also allow you to be more comfortable when your rear wheel unintentionally skids out on the trail.

6. Bottle pick-ups
Place a water bottle on the ground and while riding, lean over to pick up the bottle. This simple drill will continue to teach you more balance on the bike. You will also likely find that you are much more comfortable with one hand over the other. Exposing weaknesses is the first step to making them strengths.

7. Figure 8s
Place two cones on the ground about 10 feet apart. Then practice figure 8s around the cones. After you get the hang of the tight cornering, take one hand off of the bars and continue cornering with only one hand. Make sure that you are using your neck to look ahead around the cones where you want your bike to go.

8. Skinnies
Practice riding some “skinnies.” Look for a small curb, or even just a painted line, and practice riding perfectly straight along it. As you get more confident, find a skinny obstacle that curves. This drill will give you confidence on the trails when you have to ‘thread the needle.’

Channel your inner child
Go out and play on your bike. If you have a trick you want to learn that isn’t listed here, go for it! Whenever you spend time learning new skills on your bike, you are making yourself a better technical rider. One way or another, it all transfers onto the trail.

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