Mountain Biking Basics: Braking and Shifting

This is the second part of Vincent Cheng’s primer on mountain biking covering braking and shifting. The content of this article is given out as reference material only. Specific component design and mechanical procedure and the qualification of individual readers are beyond the control of the authors. Therefore, the authors disclaim all liability for use of the information given in this FAQ. All risk for its use is entirely assumed by the user. In no event will the authors be held liable for personal injuries or any other damages.

Most of the braking power is in the front brake because when you apply the brake, your weight shifts forward and that gives the front wheel more traction.

To maximize braking power, shift your weight back when braking. In loose terrain, use more back brake than the front. The front has less traction because it is being “plowed”. In very steep downhill, move your weight way back, almost sitting right on the back tire. A skidding tire will give you no control. Therefore, skidding is a very bad practice. There are situations where you don’t want to brake. Never brake when flying. If you are flying in the air (off a jump, drop off, ruts), do not touch the front brake. If you land with your front tire stopped, you can expect a huge endo. Don’t use the front brake in curves (read turning). When going down hill, don’t keep the brakes on. Instead, feather the brakes.

You must pedal in order to change gears. When changing gear, pedal lightly. It will save your drivetrain from wear and tear. If you have “numbers” on your shifter, don’t use them. Instead, calculate the gear inches and use that as your shifting guide. Shift before you think you have to, e.g. climbing. When you have to shift, it might be too late. Do not cross your gears, it will kill it. This means that you do not run a big chain ring with the large cog or the small chain ring with the small cog. Shift lightly on the levers. There is no reason why you need to press the shifters real hard to shift. To save the drive train from wear and tear, make sure it is clean and well lubed.

Others add: A better reason for avoiding use of those silly shifter windows is that if you’re looking at them, you’re not looking at the trail, which is where your eyes should be.

In regard to shifting before you have to I think this can be better expressed: Shift before you have to. For example, when you’re climbing, shift into a very low gear as you approach and start the climb. If you wait until you are about to stall it may be too late to shift.

1. Uphill Shifting
Shift before you hit the climb. The only way to know which gear is best for your terrain is from practice. It is very hard on your drivetrain if you shift in the middle of your climb. Seated is better for long distance and / or loose conditions. Standing is good for hammering up a short steep section with good traction. If you find you are in too easy a gear, upshift once in the back. Do not dump a bunch of gear at once.

2. Seated Climbing
If you are going to stay seated, move slightly forward on the saddle. Move your head close to the stem to keep the front from coming up. Don’t pull up on the handlebar, instead, pull backward with every stroke. Keep your body relaxed, and shoulders square to the trail. Put the bike in a low gear and spin.

3. Standing Climbing
If you decide to stand up, put the bike in a higher gear. You can’t spin as fast, but you can apply more power per stroke. Crouch down so that your butt is right in front of the saddle. Your elbows should be bent and the chest should be just above the stem. For both methods, try to look for the smoothest line and look for slight dips on the climb. These will offer you a great opportunity to rest for a bit.

4. Downhill Shifting
Keep your pedals level (3 and 9 o’clock). Get your weight back. The steeper it is, the more you move your weight. It is not uncommon to see someone riding down a hill almost sitting on their back tire. Think positive. I had the problem of thinking I’m always out of control, but in reality, I’m not even riding close to my limits. Shift to the middle / large chain rings. This will increase tension on the chain and you won’t have so much chain slap. Brake with mostly your rear brake. You will still need to use your front, but the back is used more often and harder. Braking the wheel until it almost stops spinning is good. Skidding is bad. Steer with your shoulders perpendicular to the path you want to move. Sometimes if you can’t ride down some section because it’s too bumpy, you might want to add some speed.

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