Mountain Bike Skills

Mountain Bike Skills

For me, riding is everything – it makes me who I am. I have ridden a bike for as long as I can remember and started racing way back in 1988. I used to race 100cc karts nationally but I was always frustrated at how inaccessible the sport was, whereas mountain biking was available 24/7. While I was growing up near multiple riding spots, the temptation of leaving my urban surroundings and escaping to the woods was overpowering. My friends and I would spend hours and hours at the local jump spots, messing around riding hills and getting air. We had a ball grow- ing up and the playtime gave us a skill base that we often took for granted.  

As the sport continued to grow in popularity, and more and more people began adopting the mountain bike and hitting trails, there arose an obvious need for guides and tutors. The one thing I noticed about the new breed of rider was their lack of technical ability and general knowledge of the sport. I could only put it down to the fact that they were in too much of a hurry to ride their bikes after a hec- tic week at work: they neglected to practise their core skills.  

There was hardly anyone teaching the basic skills and I needed a new challenge: my company MTBSkills was formed. I set about breaking mountain biking down into a structured skills set and created various methods of delivering the message. I tried and tested my own theories over many years, both on the race course and on the trail, working with top racers, including the 2005 solo 24-hour World Champion Rob Lee. All of this was done before delivering sessions to the general public, and I have had nothing but positive feedback and top results with my work. When the opportunity came to put it all into print, I jumped at the chance.  

The concept of the book is simple: read at your leisure and discover how the sport came to be, or simply dip in and out of the chapters to pick up hints and tips on how to improve your setup and riding skills. All the core skills have been captured in sequences to help you see the detail in body position and technique, and accom- panying the photographs there is descriptive text to help you further your under- standing. I have had great pleasure in producing this book and I hope you enjoy reading it. If you would like to further improve your riding ability, tutors at MTB- Skills are available for skills sessions throughout the year. 

when did mountain biking begin?

As far as recorded history shows, the first bike ridden off road was coincidentally the first ever pedal cycle made. Kirkpatrick Macmillan, a blacksmith from Drumlanrig Castle in southern Scotland, built the first ever pedal cycle and rode it some 68 miles to Glasgow over moun- tainous terrain back in 1842. The bike was crude, cumbersome and lacked a critical component which, rumour has it, led to the first recorded road traffic accident in the British Isles. Fatigued from his epic ride, poor Kirkpatrick lost control of his bicycle on the slippery, cobbled streets of Glasgow and unfortunately injured a small child in the process.

There are rumours in modern Scottish mountain biking that Kirkpatrick conse- quently returned to Drumlanrig and invented the disc brake! As to how much truth there is to this I will leave to your own imagination. Throughout history, people have ridden bikes off road. The Italian army used bicycles in the First World War, and the legendary Annie Londonderry rode a bicycle around the world, starting her journey in 1897 and completing it fifteen months later in 1899, a truly epic off-road adventure which took her across Europe, Egypt, Singapore and back to the US.

What we do know from the available evidence is that, from 1955 onwards, a group of friends in the UK, known as the ‘Rough Stuff Fellowship’, modified bikes to ride off road on byways and dirt lanes. There is also evidence to show that the members made modifications to various existing production bicycles that included the addi- tion of gears and cantilever brakes. Furthermore, custom frames were produced but in no huge quantities. I have also heard tales from some of my father’s friends, brothers David and Ginger Marshall, a couple of guys who build championship- winning racing cars. They were putting front forks from mopeds on modified bikes and riding them in my old haunt Wendover Woods at a similar time.

There is also evidence out there that another guy from the UK, Geoff Apps, was de- signing frames and modifying existing bikes. His first custom creation was named the Range Rider, an off-road bike that incorporated a modified frame, built up with components from overseas. These bikes had knobby tyres, gears and the option of drum brakes or rim brakes. They were only built to order and it wasn’t until the late seventies that small production runs started, which lasted for around 10 years. By

this time, the US – whose off-road bike development had been running in parallel to European development – were starting to dominate the new scene of mountain biking. Their thirst for off-road fun, combined with the Eastern world producing af- fordable components in large quantities, essentially led to the creation of the mod- ern mountain bike. 


History shows the key moment that led to the mass production of mountain bikes and the phenomenon that has grown to epic proportions today. A group of friends in Marin County, California, known as the ‘Larkspur Canyon Gang’, started to ride and create trails on Mount Tamalpais in the late sixties. They lived at the bottom of the mountain and would ride old post-war paperboy bikes – given the name ‘klunkers’, and also known as cruisers, beaters, bombers or bal- looners – up and around Mount Tam, as it was affectionately known. They made basic modifications to the bikes – things like the mud guards, chain guards and kick stands would be removed. The lack of gears meant that they would push the bikes up the mountain and mess around all day riding trails. They even had a few timed competitions for fun to see who was the fastest, just for a laugh: kids’ stuff that inspired me to do similar things when I was growing up in the eighties.

 Marc Vendetti from the Larkspur Canyon Gang joined a renegade group of road cy- clists who created the outfit Velo Club Tamalpais in 1972. Marc used to ride his klunker to club meetings at the Robson Harrington Mansion in San Francisco. The other members of Velo Club Tam showed an interest in his bike and were soon sourcing similar post-war bikes to modify. This key year was, for me, the point in time that man’s sense of adventure and obsession with mechanical engineering fused together and exploded. A primeval testosterone-fuelled urge to push the envelope of mind, body and machine began. Enter the racers and counter-culture roommates from 32 Humboldt Avenue in San Francisco. Great road racers Gary Fisher, Charlie Kelly, Joe Breeze and Alan Bonds were all members of Velo Club Tam. These guys got into the social klunker scene with friends Fred Wolf and Wende Cragg, to name but two. The vibrant music scene of that era influenced our early pioneers and I often relate my love of music to my riding and the rhythm of breathing. Finding a ‘flow’ in a trail can often be compared to musical composition. 

There were obviously other people across the globe creating and enjoying their own scene in their own way, but something special would grow out of Marin Coun- ty in the US. Although the Canyon Gang had a race in 1971, and another bunch of hippy dirt bike riders, the Morrow Dirt Club, were spotted by members of Velo Club Tam at a cyclo-cross race in 1974, it was the racers from Velo Club Tam who started to really push the boundaries. Inspired by the modifications the Morrow guys had made to their bikes, the larger group of friends from the San Francisco Bay area started to source components from local bike shops to upgrade and im- prove their klunkers.


Where you have racers you inevitably have a competitive vibe, and the roommates of Marin County’s new counter-culture pastime soon found themselves bantering about who was the fastest. Everyone was in agreement that the fun bit was the blast back down from the mountain after an all-day ‘klunk’, and that the flowing trails tested everyone’s skills, while the rudimentary technology tested their nerves. Enter Repack, a treacherous access track that runs up Mount Tam. This trail was used to host a series of downhill time trials in late 1976. Repack descends a terri- fying 1,400 feet in just over two miles. The limited stopping power of the rear hub brake meant that riders had to learn to drift the bike sideways in order to slow down through turns rather than into them. This lack of stopping power often led to some skin loss and it was not long until front brakes were added to the old bikes. Limited technology also gave Repack its name – the never-ending job of repacking your coaster brake with grease because it had evaporated from the heat created on each run. Repack was one of the influential components for my own counter- culture experience of goofing around in the woods and tinkering with machines. Without a doubt, Repack started the arms race and the need for technological advantage. Forks were breaking, brakes were failing and the guys became masters at modifying the now-favoured Schwinn Excelsior X frame. But this 1940s hulk of steel was soon superseded by the first production run of custom-built mountain bikes in the US. 

Joe Breeze worked with his father in San Francisco fabricating road bike frames and, when his friend Charlie Kelly asked him about the possibility of making a mountain bike frame, Joe hit the drawing board. Three months later Joe rode the new Breezer bike, as it rapidly became known, to first place in the Repack. At the same time Craig Mitche, an eccentric character known for producing alternative bicycles and recumbants, also fabricated and equipped a specific mountain bike frame. It actually looked quite conventional and similar to a modern cross-country mountain bike, as did the early bikes from the UK.

Joe’s bikes were beautiful. They came equipped with specific components sourced from far and wide, finished with the essential pump, water-bottle cage, spare inner tube, patch kit and tyre levers – all the necessary items to help keep you rolling while out in the wilderness. The global off-road riding experience was growing but the US would lead the way in years to come.

These early mountain bikes had a wider spread of gear ratios compared to road bikes, as the riders soon discovered that the best way up and out to remote loca- tions was by pedal power, something that Gary and the guys had plenty of. The ‘Breezer’ soon got the attention of everyone in the Bay Area and it was Gary Fish- er’s sharp eye that could see the demand and a new market.

Gary, Charlie and Alan had already started to source components and put together bikes for friends, as did many people on the scene. Then one day Gary was intro- duced to Tom Ritchey, who was a fantastic road racer and frame builder. Tom built the first run of bikes for Gary that would become the start of Fisher Mountain Bikes. There was another man on the scene at this time too – Mike Sinyard, a friend of Gary’s. Mike rode some of the Fisher-Ritchey bikes and was very impressed. He could also see the popularity of riding off road for leisure growing on a global scale and went on to create Specialized Mountain Bikes. The first specific mountain bike was released by Specialized in 1981, backed up by a huge advertising campaign. By this time the globe was going crazy for the mountain bike.

As the bomb went off and quality bikes were available off the peg, it wasn’t long until shiny magazines were gracing the shelves of newsstands in the UK. Cue me, aged 11, staring into the pages of Mountain Bike Action, entranced. Like most chil- dren I had to wait (‘patience is a virtue’, as my parents told me), and it was about 18 months after that first contact that I got a real mountain bike. Was this going to be another boom–bust fad that swept the world, or a global fever that would have riders fighting it out for Olympic Gold? I didn’t care – the awe-inspiring pictures of people riding in the wilderness in California had me hooked. I would dream about escaping to the hills and sliding my bike on dirt.


As the eighties moved on, the industry grew in strength, new companies were formed and the Far East rapidly became geared up to produce huge quantities of components over a wide variety of specifications. The US were manufacturing the exotic and desirable; the UK also had a hand in the global development, with estab- lished frame builders Chas Roberts and Dave Lloyd producing custom-built moun- tain bike frames, using components sourced from afar. Gears from Japan, brakes from Europe – it seemed everyone was at it.

The mid-eighties soon rolled around and the arrival of Far East imports in the UK really jump-started things. The availability of advanced technology in abundance opened the floodgates to a wider market, and clever distributors and bike shop owners were buying into the hype created predominately in the US.

Competitions were also appearing here in the UK and on the Continent. Clubs were popping up everywhere – federations like the National Off-Road Bicycle Associ- ation (NORBA) and the British Mountain Bike Federation (BMBF), among others, were formed and the scene flourished. Yet again the US led the way by creating a national series of competitions and heroes were being born on both sides of the Atlantic as the UK and Europe followed suit. Riders like Greg Herbold, Ned Ov- erend and John Tomac were on posters in kids’ bedrooms across the land. Some of the inspired kids of the eighties would later find themselves on posters, riding bikes and inspiring others to follow in their footsteps.


At this stage in the game, riders would have to compete in various disciplines to become National Champion. They had to be proficient in cross-country, downhill, uphill and trials to be crowned the best mountain biker. By 1990 the Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI), the world’s governing body for cycling, sanctioned the first ever World Mountain Bike Championships in Durango, Colorado. However, the first unofficial (non UCI sanctioned) world championships took place a year earlier on Mammoth Mountain in California: Don Myrah won the men’s cross country and Sarah Ballentyne took the women’s. Hans Ray took top honours in the trials, John Tomac won the downhill and Britain’s Tim Gould won the uphill. In the wom- en’s hill climb, Susan DeMattei took top honours and the dual slalom was won by Dave Cullinan of the US.

As the nineties progressed so did the riders and bikes. Just like the early pioneers, people were pushing the envelope, jumping bigger and riding further. The clothes, like the music of that era, were loud, and mountain biking was entering the main- stream in a big way. Corporate sponsors were backing riders and competitions – even new brands like Red Bull were gaining youth cult status through partnering with one of the fastest growing extreme sports in the world. Here in the UK, top men’s magazine GQ even sponsored a race team to compete in the UCI World Cup Series. Similar progress was being made all through the developed world. With large partners on board, the new sport of mountain biking was looking to be more than a passing fad.

Competition was hotter than ever and we were starting to see the sport segregate into the different disciplines and genres you see today. Riders at the top level no longer had to compete in all the disciplines but could become masters and cham- pions in a discipline of their choice. The UCI started to host a yearly world champi- onship in downhill, cross-country, dual slalom and trials – an annual world cup se- ries soon followed. Many nations were running sanctioned events in accordance with the UCI’s rule book, creating national and international champions in the process. 

The UK has always featured at the front of the field in all disciplines. Cross-country racer Tim Gould took Gold at the World Championships in the uphill at Mammoth and long-time friends Tim Flooks and Rory Hitchins also delivered a slice of the UK scene on foreign shores in the early 1990s. Another Brit, David Hemming, took a medal at the 1992 Worlds in Bromont, finishing second in the downhill, riding a full rigid Klein Attitude bike. Then there was the late Jason McRoy, an inspiration to many British mountain bikers. Jason was the first UK rider to sign with a major global brand and featured on the podium at the famous Kamikaze downhill time trial on Mammoth Mountain in the US. A true legend in mountain bike history.

As the scene gathered momentum, there was also a need for new events to test the best. The renegade counter-culture approach of our early pioneers was in full effect in the mid-nineties, when the French outfit UCC (Union Confédérale de Coordination), directed by George Edwards, started organising marathon downhill events in the French Alps – yet another discipline that would inspire people to spe- cialise in a particular field of this fantastic sport. They were not alone in their counter-culture approach, as the UCI failed to recognise the fast-growing scene of endurance cross country. In the US, 24-hour races started to take place and have grown in popularity to become one of the most popular forms of racing today.


The sport seems to have kept up the pace, making mountain biking a hugely pop- ular pastime and professional sport, backed by a multi-million dollar industry. Who knows where it will end up in the years to come? Riders will continue to push boundaries and manufacturers will inevitably develop products to keep up with their demands. To be honest, we have never had it so good, and it just keeps on getting better and better.


By the late nineties, bikes were moving into a new phase, with hydraulic suspen- sion, front forks and specific tyres for various terrains. Specialist clothing was fill- ing the racks in bike shops across the world. Bikes were looking more like space- ships, disc brakes had followed on from hydraulic rim brakes, and rear suspension was everywhere.

The bike geometry had also changed several times as manufacturers established a multitude of standards for frames and components alike: bikes typically had 135mm rear axles, 110mm front axles, 1⅛-inch steerer tubes and headsets. Wheels were lighter and stronger and things were moving at a rapid rate. People would experiment with disc wheels, carbon fibre and metal alloy composites. I even saw a white tyre, produced by the company IRC, on a Japanese rider’s bike in 1994, made from a super-soft compound rubber. A multitude of manufacturers progressed technology at such a rate, to a point where things inevitably started to slow down by the turn of the century.

That’s not to say things are not still progressing – it’s human nature that got us this far and that’s something which is not going to change in a hurry. Rider input has polished all the component parts used in a mountain bike to such a high de- gree that the measurement in the improvement has narrowed significantly. However, as with all things, something comes along once in a while and stirs things up.


As we have discovered in the opening chapter, early bikes ridden in the mountains were just that – bikes. Today’s mountain bikes are a long way away from the late sixties Schwinns but how did they become so? Early bike builders had no reference point when constructing frames. Sure, they knew they had to be stronger and lighter than the old klunkers but, when it came to geometry and its effect on the handling, they only had limited data to look at. Those early production bikes from the seventies and eighties were typically based on road bike geometry but had long top tubes with slacker angles than their road bike cousins. They came equipped with specific components that included cantilever or U brakes, and over-bar seven- speed shifters, some of which were indexed (gears with a solid feel and an audible ‘click’ to them, rather than the previous gear shifters). The bike builders were using the industry standard one-inch steerer tube on the forks and the stem would drop down into this tube, with a quill holding it in place (the tubular section of the stem that inserts into the fork steerer tube is cut at 45 degrees like the end of a quill, hence the name).

We had to suffer the cup-and-cone setup in hubs, bottom brackets and headsets for some years before manufacturers started to use the now-favoured sealed car- tridge bearings. Previous to this development, the rudimentary technology left rid- ers rebuilding these key moving components more often than was desired. Loose ball bearings would have to be replaced and fresh grease applied accordingly, and the seals were poor so water damage was frequent.

Stopping power was limited, but cantilever and U brakes were definitely an upgrade on the old coaster brake and boot-to-floor method used by the early pioneers. One huge problem that rim brakes presented riders with (other than the lack of power in wet conditions) was the inconsistent nature of them. Having inevitably dented and buckled your soft aluminium rims, the brakes had a tendency to snatch or fade as the rim snaked pass them. Soft rims meant you had to make sure your brake pads were not touching your tyres, and this was a day-to-day chore. Hardcore enthusiasts would clean the pads and the rim often to avoid the grinding noise of brake pad on rim, and this also helped to improve the brakes’ efficiency.

Early cantilever designs looked cumbersome and were quite crude, but this would change as the years rolled on: by the late eighties, slimline versions with a slightly more rounded feel were seen on some bikes. Brake-lever design also had a rudi- mentary feel and look to it, showing little evidence of imagination, but soon bikes were equipped with levers that matched the design aesthetic and finish of the can- tilevers. These improved units had cams engineered into them, creating a more powerful, efficient brake. This soon became a common sales point for all major manufacturers.

To add to our woes, we had toe clips to help get some grip on the flat bear-trap style pedals. Shoes specifically designed for riding were just starting to appear in the late eighties. Up until then, people used to ride in skateboard shoes, walking boots and basic bike boots that resembled lightweight walking boots. Toe clips, as cumbersome as they are, definitely helped a whole load with both efficiency going uphill and grip while descending. Manufacturers produced a variety of pedals with slimline bodies and tabs for flicking the pedal round to help you get in the cage. They unfortunately spun on the aforementioned cup-and-cone bearing system.

By the late eighties, upgrade equipment was everywhere and retailers were stocking up on a vast array of new components and accessories for the riders and bikes. Polystyrene lightweight helmets offered more protection than previous options and, for those that could afford it, or in my case fit into it, Lycra was adopted from road cycling. The colours were bright and loud and had a skateboarder/surfer look to them – perhaps another spin-off from our hippie pioneers. Bikes sported neon and speckled paint jobs, and buzz brands like Marin, Kona and Muddy Fox were the talk in the playground for young enthusiasts.

Bike designs were becoming more radical, and frame builders produced specific trials mountain bikes for competition use. These bikes had 20-inch wheels with wide, sticky tyres and looked like long, low BMX bikes, with a mountain bike stem and handlebar combo. Competition led the way in bike development and by the end of the decade signature model bikes became available as stars were being born.

European manufacturers were also in on the game, producing bikes in great num- bers, but the driving force behind development was the US. The company Special- ized were one of the first to mass market complete off-the-shelf bikes with the Stumpjumper. This bike, based on the early Tom Ritchey frame, was hugely pop- ular and still continues to be refined, even today. The industry as a whole learned a lot from the Tom Ritchey built bike, but Specialized had the research and design money to allow them to continue to play with the build parameters. Inevitably, peo- ple were influenced by other manufacturers’ products, even if they were working away on their own small tweak or modification. Big players in the industry from the West worked closely with the industrial giants in the East to develop a series of standards for components – something that is still happening today. This period saw refinement, rather than huge innovation and creation. It was, after all, the birth of the modern mountain bike and it would take some time before walking followed crawling.

Taiwanese manufacturers were producing equipment at a rapid rate and the eight- ies saw a few interesting innovations that included oval chainrings and the U brake. Both of these products became hugely popular with manufacturers throughout this period. Anyone who used a U brake and rode in muddy conditions back then will appreciate just how things have moved on. Rear ends and hub axle widths changed from 130mm to the current 135mm, and bottom bracket widths were established for the time being. I think this also indicates just how young the sport is – at the time it was hard to conceive what the future would bring. But to anyone comparing the standard of mountain bike engineering to developments made previously in auto- motive engineering, especially in motor sports, the future would have looked bright.

Racers demanded better equipment and top teams were working with manufac- turers developing products to give their riders that competitive edge. This was a re- ally healthy thing – the bikes were honestly not up to the job from a design point of view, and failures in forks, cranks and wheels were still commonplace, especially for a new hungry breed of rider who, like myself, had been inspired by those early pioneers. In the late eighties the introduction of aluminium bikes, and even the very rare and exotic titanium frames, would redefine hard-tail race bikes in the years to come. Geometry was being tweaked, and the engineers in companies (usually small and US-based) were experimenting with different fork designs and construc- tion techniques.

As, at the time, riders had to battle it out in all disciplines to be crowned the best, the same bike was being ridden in the cross-country, uphill, downhill and trials. Aspiring riders would practise all the necessary skills and make modifications to their bikes to suit themselves. Handlebar extensions helped in the uphill and wider tyres with softer pressures would help in the trials. It was a baptism of fire and a real trial-and-error era, where concepts and products were coming and going at a rapid rate. Another decade was soon to pass, by which point mountain biking had taken off on a truly global scale.

the bikes and the clothes

As we rolled into the nineties, fashion trends started to change, in both the bikes and the clothes. The mass boom exposed some colourful characters to the scene and, like all recreational sports, mountain biking was developed, pushed and shaped by the players in the industry. When it comes to the faces you see in the media, that means the racers and riders. People were experimenting with different bike setups, handlebar shapes, bar extensions, chain devices and gear ratios as well as the obviously rapidly growing choice of tyres. Components manufactured using computer numerical control (CNC) were everywhere and in every colour imaginable.

Talk to anyone out there who rode in those days and I’m sure you’ll find that they speak about riding back then like it was yesterday. There really were some fancy components and funky finishes to capture the eye and imagination. To go with the new gear, a new language was being born with old-school surf terminology being replaced by a multitude of words to describe the nature of this sport, now so deeply entwined with technology. A new generation of engineers would leave a mark in mountain bike history through the nineties. CNC-machined products by outfits like Ringle, Cooks Brothers, Chris King, Grafton Research and Paul’s Components were on everyone’s must-have list.

For me personally, this benchmark era was so exciting. I was starting to see the possibilities of just how far things could progress now that race-car style manufac- turing techniques were being used. Sure, stuff still bent and broke, but less often than before. Let’s be honest, when you look at top riders and what they do with the equipment, it’s no wonder you have the odd failure!

But what about the overall bike package? Things were hotting up and the global industry was a lucrative place to be for any cycle manufacturer. Bikes now had bet- ter braking systems, although it was not until around 1994 that the V-style brake was introduced. These units were cable-operated but much more efficient than pre- vious cantilevers, thanks to better lever and calliper design. Exotic bikes were being equipped with cartridge bearings where it counts, and manufacturing giant Shi- mano progressed essential items at a rapid rate.

Another innovation in the early nineties was the introduction of a mountain bike specific clip-in pedal – Shimano were at it again. For the racers and the recreational user, this advance in pedal technology was a huge leap forward. SPD clip-in pedals, or ‘SPDs’, made riding more efficient, and for the racers that all-important mount- ing and dismounting process sped up. Other manufacturers followed suit and cre- ative methods of holding a cleat onto an axle were developed. Fancy pedals joined other shiny components that would catch your eye from a nicely lit glass counter in the local bike shop. Another manufacturer, Onza, produced a clip-in pedal system using elastomers as springs. Tom Ritchey was still in the game but now focused on producing quality components. Unlike some products from this era, SPDs, or ‘spuds’ as they became known, were here to stay.

Cross-country bikes started to branch off into different genres of mountain bike, al- though they were still very similar to each other. This was reflected through their geometry and construction material. Lightweight aluminium and titanium bikes were weighing in at as little as 20 pounds – that’s just over 9 kilograms! These bikes were really race bikes – steeper angles in the head and seat tube and tighter rear triangles with shorter chainstay lengths created fast-handling, efficient bikes. Bike shops sold complete setups now equipped with 24 gears. Some models boasted braze-ons (see Glossary) to hang pannier racks on for those who wanted to use their bike for expedition riding.

Sloping top tubes and more compact frame design came to the forefront, and in- novations like the elevated chain stay appeared. Thankfully, round chainrings re- placed traditional oval ones and drive-train components would soon go through a process of being shrunk. At this stage, though, riders competing in downhill were experimenting with larger and larger chainrings to increase the speed. Smaller chainrings and more compact components would not become available until the mid-nineties. Brakes had become streamlined and the overall look of components was slick and smooth.

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