Riding a bike is freedom, but mountain biking is a completely different beast that pushes your limits while you have fun. While this article is aimed towards teaching children, this advice is applicable to people of any age.
Become a better mountain biker
Let's start with the basics: riding well. Mountain biking is not all about leg strength. Your legs need to be flexible and you'll quickly realize that your abs and arm muscles are equally strained when going up and down hills.
Get centered over the bike. Even though the saddle is normally in the center of the bike, make sure to sit in a central position when on flat ground. Position changes: forwards or backwards, up or down. You need to learn how to raise your glutes and transition into different positions on the bike to find the best one for every situation.
Keep your arms and legs loose. Kids are generally much more relaxed than their parents, which is a guaranteed advantage in mountain biking since your arms and legs will help cushion impacts.
Keep looking ahead, it's common sense. It happens to everyone, especially on technical courses: you forget to keep your gaze straight ahead and look down at the front wheel of your bike. Remind yourself to focus on what is in front of you.
Just like driving a car, you should brake before turning and not while turning. While you might say that your mountain biker isn't driving yet, it's never too early to teach them the right reflexes.
Descents will be much easier when your mountain biker is relaxed. If your child is more of a daredevil on the bike, they're already a step ahead! The more relaxed they are, the better they will descend. Because even if it seems counter-intuitive, descending with a bit of speed will make it easy to ride over small obstacles. This prevents you from skidding, losing balance, or your wheel locking up. So the first thing to do is let the bike carry you down the descent. You need to look ahead to anticipate the decline in the terrain. Then you move back on the bike, bring your glutes back (out of the seat if necessary) and stretch out your arms. You should also keep a good grip on the handlebars: thumb down and keep your hand over the break.
Finally, remember to lower the saddle on your child's mountain bike (or your own) before going down a hill. This way, you re-center weight on the bike so that your child experiences its full power and can descend confidently and push their limits.
Check out the hill: is it long but only slightly inclined, short and steep or long and steep (yes, they do exist and we'll admit they're difficult to take on)? You should analyze the hill with your aspiring mountain biker when prepping for the ride. You can pick the right strategy that will get you up the hill with energy to spare.
No matter the hill, you need to have good endurance. So in addition to mountain biking, it's a good idea to practice other physical activities to improve your endurance. Running, swimming, etc., the goal is to increase your body's capacity to work over long periods. Next, you need to get familiar with the gear ratio! Adjust the gears to the hill so that you can ride without overexerting yourself. Be careful not to switch gears at the first sight of the hill: your mountain biker will lose momentum if they switch too soon, but as soon as they start slowing down, go for it! They need to switch gears to maintain a good pedaling cadence.
If the hill is long: The biker should stay centered over the bike to get the most out of their legs and of course, they can slow down or stand up if it becomes too difficult.
If the hill is steep, the technique for changing speeds is the same. But they need to make sure both wheels maintain their grip at all times. Depending on the hill, they should change their position so that they're not too far forward which could make the rear wheel slip. Too far back and the front wheel might lift up, both can cause a crash. If the hill is very short, they can huddle over the front of the saddle (the nose) to give maximum power to their pedaling.
Help your mountain biker understand how gears work on their bike by having them switch speeds while riding on flat terrain. They'll quickly realize that, depending on the chainring and gear, they will pedal more without . Whereas if you take them on a small hill, the speeds at which they spin fast will be much more suited to finding the right pedaling cadence.
Controlled braking: a basic, yet technical skill
Common sense tells us that we should avoid braking suddenly with the front brake if we don't want to fly over the handlebars. However in mountain biking, the front brake is absolutely essential because it's more powerful than the rear brake. Prevent the wheel from locking up by gradually applying pressure to the front brake. In fact, front braking will slow your speed more effectively than rear braking. Make it easier to brake by changing your position on the bike: sit on the back of the saddle and low enough to lower your center of gravity.
Remember to look ahead so that you brake gradually, NEVER brake on a turn and keep a hand on the brake, just in case.
Take a hairpin turn
Brake before going into a turn and then look ahead to where you want to go (like when driving a car). Looking at the front wheel is like looking at your feet when you walk, you're guaranteed to fall.
Lower your center of gravity on the bike by bending your arms and legs and leaning down towards the bike. And remember to put your body weight on the outside pedal of the turn. This improves the bike's grip on the ground, which prevents you from skidding, and keeps the interior pedal from dragging on the ground.
Do a wheelie
Wheelies are fun and easily impress your friends. But it's actually a very useful technique in mountain biking that makes it easier to circumvent certain obstacles. That being said, you need to practice the wheelie before you can start to show off. Before getting started, lower the seat to make it easier to shift your weight back and raise the front wheel. Start by training on a small hill so that the front wheel is already higher than the rest of the bike. Then pick a medium speed and chainring so that you can ride comfortably while preparing to raise the wheel. Bend your arms and lean towards the bike and, once you feel ready, simultaneously explode with your feet and shoulders so that the front of your bike raises up. Once the wheel is up, your weight should stay back and your arms straight! For your safety, keep a hand on the rear brake (front braking won't do you any good if the wheel is in the air).
Of course, it will take a few tries before you successfully get your wheel up but it's definitely worth the work to have a new technique you can use on descents!
To wrap up, training is essential if your child wants to become a better mountain biker. Change up the trails to develop their technique and get them riding as soon as possible, this will help them develop good reflexes.
Find mountain biking trails while on vacation
If you're going on holiday in the mountains, most skiing areas also offer mountain biking trails in the summer. They are a great option because their difficulty level is rated similarly to ski runs. Your child can choose the right trail for their skill level. And if you're not very sports-oriented, or you're just tired like most adults, you can follow them by renting an electric mountain bike.
Check out junior mountain biking clubs
If your child is a pre-teen or a teen, you may not be the best person to advise or coach your child in mountain biking. Make life a little easier and sign them up for a club or for a few hours of classes. They improve and you avoid family quarrels! What more could you want?
And lastly, what will push them to improve in mountain biking, and sports in general, is motivation. So if your child enjoys descending hills on forest trails but doesn't particularly enjoy rocky ones, to each their own! Let them choose where they want to ride, but check that it is suited to their skill level and supervise them from a distance. Set realistic, suitable goals that will encourage them to do their best.