top of page

The Ultimate Guide to Mountain Biking

Updated: Oct 20, 2023

Blog Intro Image of a mountain biker and the blogs title

Introduction to the Ultimate Guide to Mountain Biking

Mountain biking is an exciting and adventurous sport that allows you to explore spectacular off-road trails while enjoying the thrill of riding on two wheels. If you're new to mountain biking, it's essential to have the right gear and learn some basic techniques to ensure a safe, comfortable and enjoyable experience.

In this ultimate guide to mountain biking, we will cover the minimum recommended gear, the mountain bike trail grading system, different mountain biking disciplines, important skills and techniques like body positioning, reading the trail ahead, braking and cornering. Let's dive in!


Gear Guide

Shoes for Flat Pedals

  • General Sport Shoes: If you're riding on flat pedals, a good pair of outdoor sports shoes with a robust sole is the minimum requirement. These shoes are an acceptable interim alternative to specialised MTB shoes and provide fair to decent support and grip on the pedal platform.

  • MTB Flat Pedal Shoes: These shoes are specifically designed for flat pedals, featuring a flat sole with sticky rubber for optimal pedal grip. They offer enhanced control, durability, and versatility on the trails. The stiff midsole ensures efficient power transfer, and reinforced toe boxes provide added protection.

Shoes for Clip Pedals (aka Clipless*)

Clip pedals require the rider to "clip-in" with especially designed cleats, so sport shoes won't work for these specialised pedals.

There are two types of clip pedals:

  • MTB Shoes for Narrow Platform Pedals: These shoes are designed for narrow platform pedals found in XC and road riding. They have stiff soles and lightweight uppers to support the foot and improve power transfer. However, they are not comfortable for walking due to the stiff sole.

  • MTB Shoes for Wide Platform Pedals: Wide platform pedals, commonly used in trail, enduro, and downhill riding, provide more foot support. The shoes designed for these pedals have a soft sole to ensure contact with the entire pedal surface. They are similar to flat pedal shoes but with a cleat underneath and a slightly stiffer sole. These shoes offer both comfort while walking and efficient power transfer on the bike.

Key Point: Choosing the right shoes that match your pedal type is essential for optimal performance and comfort.

The different types of shoes worn by mountain bikers

The different types of pedals used by mountain bikers

Mountain Bike Clothing

When it comes to clothing for mountain biking, you don't necessarily need to wear tight-fitting lycra, not unless you've a keen focus on racing or aerodynamics. The key is to prioritise comfort, flexibility and breathability in our South African conditions.

  • Shorts: Opt for lightweight and flexible shorts that allow for freedom of movement. Look for materials that are breathable and quick-drying to keep you comfortable during your ride.

  • Tops: Choose a lightweight and breathable top that provides good ventilation. Cycling tops with storage pockets can be convenient for carrying small items, but they are not necessary. Alternatively, you can consider wearing a hip pack (also known as a belt bag, bum bag or fanny pack) for comfortable storage while riding.

An example of belt bags worn by mountain bikers
Comfortable attire with belt bag for storage

Key Point: The most important thing is to wear clothing that allows you to move comfortably on the bike and keeps you cool in warm weather conditions. Find the right balance between functionality and personal preference to enhance your mountain biking experience.


Note: For detailed information on helmet technologies, see this article.

One can choose to ride without gloves but one can never ride without a helmet. A mountain bike helmet is crucial for riders of all skill levels.

  1. Your health and safety is by far the number one reason for wearing a helmet.

  2. Compliance with rules and regulations: Wearing a helmet is often mandatory in mountain biking areas and events, ensuring a safe riding environment.

  3. Proper fit and standards: Choose a helmet that fits well, snugly covering your head and meets safety standards to ensure effective protection.

  4. Ventilation for comfort: Look for helmets with good ventilation systems to keep you cool and comfortable during rides.

  5. Advanced protection technology: Consider helmets with 360 Turbine, MIPS or WaveCel technology. This technology adds a layer of safety and protection against multi-directional forces during impacts.

  6. Regular inspection and replacement: Inspect your helmet regularly for any signs of damage and replace it if necessary to maintain its effectiveness.

The different types of MTB helmet protection technology

Key Point: Wearing a helmet is the most important piece of protective gear and is an essential item every time you venture out on a bike.


The Mountain Bike Trail Grade System

Please note that the trail grades mentioned here are a general guide and may vary between different trail networks and regions in South Africa. Always check specific trail descriptions and local signage for accurate information.

Here is a breakdown of the mountain bike trail grading system in South Africa, starting from Green (easiest) and ending with Double Black (most difficult):

  1. Green: Beginner-friendly trails with smooth surfaces and gentle gradients.

  2. Blue: Slightly more challenging trails with obstacles, steeper sections and moderate technical features.

  3. Red: Intermediate-level trails with varied terrain, including technical sections, roots, rocks and steeper descents. Red is, however, seldom used as a grade marker and riders will typically only see green, blue and black.

  4. Black: Advanced trails with demanding features, larger obstacles, technical descents and challenging terrain.

  5. Double Black: Extremely difficult trails with highly technical sections, steep descents, and large drops. Advanced skills required.and riders

Key Point: Choose trails that match your skill level and gradually progress within your comfort zone. Enjoy exploring South Africa's mountain bike trails!

The Five Mountain Biking Disciplines

Mountain biking offers various disciplines, each with unique characteristics and bike requirements.

  1. XC (Cross-Country): Focuses on endurance and speed, with long distances, varied terrain and a balance of climbing and descending.

  2. Down-Country: A blend of cross-country efficiency and trail capability, down-country focuses on lightweight bikes with efficient climbing prowess and more aggressive descending capabilities.

  3. Trail: involves tackling a variety of terrain, including flowing single-track, technical sections, climbs and descents. Trail riders seek a bike that offers a good balance of efficiency, agility and stability to handle diverse trail conditions.

  4. All Mountain/Enduro: Technically demanding discipline that combines elements of downhill and trail riding. Riders tackle challenging terrain, including steep descents, technical climbs, and varied trail features, requiring a bike that balances climbing efficiency with aggressive descending capabilities.

  5. Downhill: Gravity-focused discipline with intense descents, steep terrain, jumps, drops, and high-speed sections, often using chair lifts or shuttles.

These descriptions provide a brief overview, and each discipline can encompass a wide range of riding styles and terrain variations.


Ok, Bike Check

Setting up your mountain bike properly is crucial for a comfortable and enjoyable riding experience. Here are some basic guidelines to get you started:

Tyre Pressures

Note: These values are starting points. Adjustments may be needed based on weight characteristics, personal preference and trail conditions. Consult your tyre manufacturer's recommendations and experiment to find the best pressure for you.

A tyre pressure guide in PSI and Bar

‘Cockpit" Controls

Position your handlebars and controls levers for comfort and easy reach, ensuring you can access your brake levers without stretching on challenging sections. Modern braking systems require only one finger positioned at the end of the lever to deliver sufficient braking power.

Saddle Height - Quick Setup Guide

There are many methods to setting up the proper seat height, some being quite scientific. We'll deep dive into the topic of saddle height in an upcoming article, but for now let's keep it simple.

When sitting on your saddle, you want a slight bend at the knee when your foot is on the pedal at it's lowest point.

The correct angle of the leg when setting saddle height.
Aim for a 25-30° bend angle in the leg

This will ensure you are able to:

  1. Utilise the full extent of your power generating capacity

  2. Prevent discomfort, pain or potential injury

  3. Maintain complete control of your bike at all times

If you feel you're reaching at the bottom end of the pedal stroke, your seat is too high. Other indicators are body sway, where you are rocking at the pelvis and leaning to reach the bottom stroke. Incorrect seat height can result in saddle discomfort, knee pain, lower back pain and muscular tension and cramps in the hamstrings.

If your seat is too low, you will not be able to utilise your full power potential.

Here are some simple guidelines to get your seat in a good position.

Step 1: As an initial general guideline, while standing next to the bike with your riding shoes on, set the saddle height to the top of your hip bone (Iliac crest) level.

Step 2: Jump on the bike and pedal and, with your heel on the pedal. If the seat is at the correct height, your leg should be just about straight. Make any necessary adjustment to the seat height if required.

Step 3: Return your foot to the correct riding position to check if you have that comfortable 25° angle. Else repeat.

Tip: Once you've set the seat to your Iliac crest position, make only minor adjustments. Why? Because every degree of the angle of your leg equates to 1mm. Meaning that if you move the saddle by 10mm, your leg angle will change by 10 degrees. Once you're near the desired position, make small 5mm adjustments to fine tune for the perfect setup.


As a general guideline, the recommended sag range for mountain bike suspension is around 25-30% for the rear shock and 20-25% for the front fork.

The correct sag setting in total shock travel percentage.

Wait, what is SAG?

Sag refers to the amount of suspension travel (the amount the suspension moves up or down) that is used when a rider is in a normal neutral riding position. Sag is typically measured as a percentage of the total available travel in the fork or shock.

Setting suspension sag will be specifically covered in another article. As a beginner to mountain biking, it would be advisable to have the suspension setup done by someone experienced or at a reputable MTB shop.

Key Point: Bike setup is a personal preference, and these guidelines serve as a starting point. Fine-tuning your bike to suit your comfort and riding style will enhance your overall experience.


Skills and Techniques

Riding Position

Maintaining the correct riding position on a mountain bike is crucial for balance, steering, and traction. The neutral or attack position serves as the default stable position on the bike. Here's what you need to know:

Neutral, Ready or Attack Position

  • Stand tall on the bike with a relaxed stance and with a slight bend in the knees.

  • Most of your body weight should be on your legs and over the pedals.

This position allows for easy movement in any direction while maintaining stability.

Engage Your Core

Core strength and engagement is probably the most overlooked, yet profoundly important factor to good mountain biking.

These are the results of core strength and engagement:

  1. Improves stability and balance.

  2. Enhances power transfer to your legs.

  3. Maintains proper posture and alignment.

  4. Enhances manoeuvrability and bike handling.

  5. Reduces fatigue and strain on other muscle groups.

By activating your core, you'll ride with more control, efficiency and endurance.

Your Hips are the Control Center

  • Your hips are the centre of gravity on a mountain bike, not the bike itself.

  • Use your hips to control weight distribution for optimal handling.

  • When riding downhill, position your weight back to keep the rear wheel planted and maintain control.

  • On uphills, position your weight slightly forward to prevent the front wheel from lifting and losing traction.

Balancing weight distribution between the front and rear wheels enhances traction and steering control.

Key Point: Practicing and getting a feel for shifting your weight and maintaining the correct riding position will improve your overall control and confidence on the trails.

Shifting Weight

  • Practice shifting your weight on the bike, particularly from front to back.

  • When shifting forward, dip your toes forward and keep your shoulders behind the handlebars.

  • When shifting back, drop your heels. Be aware of the position of the rear tyre. You’ll want to avoid unintentionally slamming into it, as this can act as a sudden unexpected brake when you least want it.

  • Practice leaning your bike to the side while creating a counter weight by shifting your body in the opposite direction.


When it comes to pedalling on a mountain bike, saddle height and body positioning play significant roles in maximising power. However, the way you pedal also has an impact. Here's what you need to know:

Applying Power Throughout the Pedal Stroke

Whilst the downstroke phase (between 12 and 6 o'clock) delivers the most power, it doesn't mean the other parts of the pedal stroke are insignificant.

  • Focus on the entire 360-degree circle and apply relative power throughout the entire pedal stroke.

  • Avoid simply stomping on the downstroke only. Instead, aim for a consistent delivery of power throughout each pedal cycle.

  • This technique provides better balance, trajectory and momentum, while utilising a wider range of muscles for improved energy efficiency.

  • It is particularly beneficial for climbs and delivers optimal traction and power when combined with proper body positioning.

The following image might appear complex, but it serves as a good visual that power is exerted throughout the pedal cycle.

The different types of muscles used throughout the pedal stroke.
Leg muscles used in the pedal cycle

Pedalling with Clip Pedals vs Flat Pedals

Using clip pedals makes it easier to maintain an effective full circle pedalling technique, as your feet are securely attached to the pedals at all times. However, even with flat pedals, you can achieve a similar effect by employing a specific technique.

Try "scooping" the pedal with your foot from the 5 to 7 o'clock positions and "scraping" it through the 10 to 1 o'clock positions. This motion helps maximise power transfer and efficiency, even without being physically attached to the pedals.

Key Point: Practising and implementing a smooth and efficient pedalling technique, regardless of pedal type, will enhance your overall performance and make your rides more enjoyable.

Trail Reading: Look Ahead, Trust Your Bike and Ride with Confidence

Reading the trail ahead is a fundamental skill in mountain biking that helps you anticipate and navigate obstacles effectively. Follow these tips to enhance your trail reading skills:

  1. Adjust your focus with speed: Adapt your gaze based on your riding speed. Maintain a balance between looking far enough ahead to anticipate changes and reacting to immediate trail conditions.

  2. Trust your bike's design and momentum: Mountain bikes are designed to handle obstacles. Learn to trust your bike's capabilities and use your momentum to carry you smoothly over rocks, roots and small drops.

Additional tips for trail reading:

  1. Maintain a forward gaze: Keep your head up and focus on where you want to go. Your peripheral vision will help you navigate obstacles near to you.

  2. Anticipate trail changes: Look ahead to anticipate changes in the trail, such as turns, descents, or technical sections.

  3. Ride with confidence: As you become more skilled at trail reading, your confidence will grow. This will allow you to ride more smoothly and enjoy the trail to the fullest.

Key Point: By looking ahead, trusting your bike, and utilising momentum, you'll become a more proficient mountain biker. Embrace the thrill of the trail with confidence as you navigate obstacles and enjoy the exhilaration of mountain biking.

Mastering Braking Techniques for Mountain Biking

Modern mountain bike brakes offer exceptional stopping power and control. Designed for efficiency, they require just a single finger to deliver maximum braking force. With precise modulation, riders can confidently navigate challenging trails while maintaining optimal speed management.

Proper braking technique is essential for maintaining control and safety while mountain biking. Follow these guidelines to improve your braking skills:

Understanding Brake Lever Configuration

In South Africa, as in most countries, we have the front brake lever on the left hand side and the rear brake lever on the right hand side.

  • Familiarise yourself with which brake lever controls which wheel. This action needs to become automatic, so it’s important to build muscle memory early on.

Braking Sequence and Modulation

  • When braking, start with the rear brake followed by the front brake.

  • When coming off the brakes, release the front brake first and then the rear.

  • Avoid slamming on the brakes. Instead, practice gentle brake modulation or feathering to effectively manage speed and control.

Trail Reading and Exit Speed

  • Read the trail ahead to anticipate corners, obstacles and identify the optimal line for exiting a corner.

  • Prioritise exit speed over entry speed.

  • Maintain control of your bike's position on the trail to enhance control and speed.

Steps to the Right Braking Technique

  1. Read the trail and plan your line for the optimal safe and speedy exit out of an obstacle or corner.

  2. Apply brakes, when appropriate, to achieve the desired speed to maintain the line.

  3. Release the brakes as soon as possible, starting with the front brake and then the rear.

Proper Body Weight Positioning

  • Maintain balanced weight distribution on the bike for effective brake performance.

  • Avoid excessive weight bias on either the front or rear wheel.

  • For increased braking power, shift your weight to the rear, drop your weight behind the pedals and bring your arms behind the handlebars. This position channels energy downward. This technique allows for faster and safer stopping, while reducing the risk of you going over the handlebars.

Key Point: By mastering braking techniques, understanding trail dynamics, and maintaining proper body positioning, you'll enhance your control, speed, and overall riding experience on the trails.


Hands down, cornering is the most important skill to learn on a mountain bike. Effective cornering involves maintaining optimal traction while maximising your speed through a corner.


The following instructions will help you lower your centre of gravity, while placing your body weight directly over the tyre contact points on the ground, ensuring maximum traction.

1. Upper body positioning

  • On flat corners, lean the bike into the corner while keeping your head upright and your upper body weight perpendicular to the ground.

  • For berms (angled gradient corners), adjust the bike's lean and body position according to the berm's gradient.

Note: The amount of lean to use through different corner types will be discussed, in detail, in an upcoming article.

2. Arm positioning

  • Lower the upper body and extend your elbows far outward before entering the corner to increase flexibility for bike leaning.

  • Place weight on the outside hand grip, while keeping the inside arm extended and the inside hand relaxed.

3. Feet positioning

  • Lower the centre of gravity and shift weight to the outside by placing the outside foot down at the 6 o'clock position.

  • Experiment with adjusting the rear foot position based on the corner's requirements, that is, in the range between 9 to 6 o'clock. The foot positioning varies depending on the specific corner and situation.


Bonus Information

Dropper Posts

Dropper posts provide riders with the ability to adjust their saddle position while riding. This handy feature is controlled by a lever on the left-hand side of the handlebar, connected through cables, hydraulics, or wireless technology.

Freedom of Control

Dropper posts are a valuable asset for mountain bikers, granting them the freedom to manage their weight distribution and choose the ideal centre of gravity. By modifying the saddle height on the go, riders can find the perfect position for different trail scenarios.

Lowered Saddle for Stability

Lowering the saddle allows riders to drop down and lower their overall centre of gravity, enabling greater stability and control. It also provides the ability to shift the body's weight more freely, enhancing manoeuvrability and responsiveness in challenging terrain. This improved freedom of movement empowers riders to navigate tight corners, technical descents and obstacles with confidence and precision.

Raised Saddle for Efficiency

On the other hand, raising the saddle facilitates efficient pedalling and balanced weight distribution during uphill climbs or when riding on flat terrain. It ensures a comfortable and optimised riding position for maximum pedalling power.

Key Point: Using a dropper post enhances the riding experience by offering greater adaptability and versatility on the trails.


* Footnote:

The term “clipless pedals” can be confusing because it seems counterintuitive. The reason for this terminology is rooted in the historical development of bicycle pedals. Prior to clipless pedals, there were pedals equipped with toe clips and straps that secured the rider’s feet to the pedals. When clipless pedals were introduced, they eliminated the need for toe clips, hence the name “clipless.” Instead of using toe clips, clipless pedals use a cleat system on the bottom of cycling shoes that locks into the pedal mechanism. So, ironically, “clipless” refers to the absence of traditional toe clips and straps, while clip-in pedals would be a more accurate term for pedals that use a cleat system. The term “clipless” has become widely adopted, despite the potential confusion it may cause.

Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page