Almost everyone has advice to share with novice mountain bikers. Much of this advice is wrong. In fact, some tips can actually hold riders back or even ruin their long term development.
I know this because I’ve seen and experienced it many times. As a mountain biker since 2000 and a mountain bike coach since 2005, I’ve read a few of these bad tips in magazines and on websites, heard them over the bike shop counter, and been told them at trailheads. Once upon a time, I even believed them.
Over the years, I came to realize that many of the things I’d been told by “experts” weren’t true, and that some of them were actually holding me back on the trail. I’ve since seen the negative impact these tips can have on riders through my work as a mountain bike coach, and helping riders correct these mistakes is now one of my top priorities.
With that in mind, here are the three bad tips I’ve found to be most common (and the most harmful).
#1 – Sitting down is more efficient and gives riders better traction.
This makes sense in theory, but it just isn’t true. There’s no evidence that seated pedaling is more efficient or that it provides better traction than standing.
In this video, a rider alternates between seated and standing pedaling during a 10-minute test. The test finds no difference in efficiency between the two. While standing pedaling may feel harder at first, strong riders can use it without blowing through their energy reserves.
Traction is produced not just by weight on the back tire but pressure. We don’t have room for the finer physics here, but it’s very possible to keep pressure on the back tire of the bike without weighting the seat.
Even when riders are seated, the weight applied to the seatpost doesn’t go into the rear wheel except on flat ground; riders must use pressure to keep that wheel on the ground instead. The process is described in better detail in the video below, with the aid of bad stick figure drawings.
This means riders can be just as efficient while standing and can learn how to apply pressure into the rear wheel when standing as well. Seated pedaling isn’t better, it’s just different—and while riders can get away with sitting down all the time, there are actually several good reasons to stand.
For starters, seated pedaling reduces core strength and function. Sitting down disengages the core and leaning forward puts more pressure on the low back. Standing up, on the other hand, forces the core to engage and allows the spine to get into a better position.
Sitting down also makes it harder to apply technical skills on the trail. The ability to shift hips and weight are at the heart of all bike skills—this is how most riders get the bike to do what they want it to do. A rider’s butt can’t move much on a seat, though, and this keeps all of a rider’s weight stuck in one position. It’s nearly impossible to apply good handling skills this way.
Serious riders should learn how to use standing pedaling, not how to avoid it. Like any other skill, perfecting it requires planning, practice, and patience.
#2 – Riders need clipless pedals for an efficient pedal stroke.
There’s a lot of talk about the need to pull up on the backstroke when pedaling, but not a lot of evidence suggesting it actually helps. Several studies and some recent videos have shown that pulling up on the backstroke is actually less powerful and less efficient than simply focusing on the downstroke.
This means riders don’t need their feet attached to the pedals for an efficient stroke. Instead, they can and should pedal the same way using flats or clipless pedals. For new riders, there are actually some major drawbacks to switching to clipless pedals too soon.
For starters, clipless pedals prevent new riders from really learning to pedal the bike. It’s unpleasant when a rider’s feet fly off the pedals, but this is how the body learns to pedal properly. Just as children learn to walk by falling over a lot, riders’ bodies use unpleasant feedback to perfect the pedal stroke.
Strapping feet into pedals, then, is sort of like putting a toddler in a walker. It’s an understandable impulse, but it’s not great for development.
This is why so many clipless pedal riders struggle to pedal properly on flats—their body never got the chance to learn from and move past early mistakes in the pedal stroke. Without the crutch of the attachment point their legs don’t know what to do. Though they aren’t as noticeable when clipped in, the inefficiencies that become obvious on flats are still present.
Clipless pedals also make it very hard to learn new trail skills. Just the act of getting in and out of clipless pedals is a skill, which demands mental time and energy. That bandwidth would be better applied to skills like cornering, body position, and manualing.
Being attached to the pedals also increases mental stress and makes it harder to relax when learning and practicing skills. This is why every skills coach I know recommends flat pedals in their camps and when practicing technical skills. They know that it is much easier to learn new stuff on flat pedals.
Riding flat pedals gives a rider instant feedback on their pedal stroke and skills while also providing their body the “mistakes” it needs to learn how to perform more efficiently.
Instead of pushing new riders into clipless pedals as soon as possible, we should encourage new riders to spend at least 1-2 years on flats to develop their pedal stroke and skills before considering the switch. Even then, riders should still use flats for periods of the year to keep their skills sharp.
#3 – The best way to improve as a rider is to supplement riding with cardio training.
As a relatively new sport, mountain biking is at a disadvantage. There isn’t a long mountain biking history to draw from, so would-be experts have to look to the training literature of other sports for best practices. This often causes confusion.
It’s often assumed, for example, that training methods for road riding transfer well to the mountain, or that mountain bikers should follow the lead of other endurance athletes.
These assumptions fail to take a critical look at the sport of mountain biking—they just copy and paste successful programs for other sports that often have very different needs.
One of the big things that separates mountain biking from traditional endurance sports is the demand for a high level of technical skill. On the trail, efficiency through things like corners and rock gardens add up to more speed, less wasted energy, and far fewer crashes.
This isn’t to say that riders don’t need to work on cardio, but many riders forget that riding their bikes is the most sport-specific cardio training they can do. No indoor trainer or spin class workout can really simulate the specific demands of trail riding.
New riders should focus instead on technical skills like trackstands, lifting the front and rear wheel of the bike and strong, balanced body position. Spending just 10-15 minutes a few times a week playing around in the driveway with these skills will have a serious impact.
Being able to move well, absorb trail impacts and maintain form in the face fatigue can be the difference between a PR and getting dumped over the handlebars. Focusing too much on cardio training and ignoring the importance of better movement and skills on the bike can keep riders from experiencing mountain biking at its best.
I believed and followed each of these tips when I started riding. And the results weren’t what I wanted. It was only after I started to dig into things a little deeper that I realize that this well-meaning advice I had been given was actually my problem.
When I started to apply the advice I’ve shared in this article with you first to my own riding and then later to my clients I saw major breakthroughs where it matters the most: on the trail.
If you still struggle to ride with more speed, endurance and confidence then maybe applying this advice to your riding can help you as well.