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7 Ways to Gain Confidence on a Mountain Bike

Mountain biking is largely a confidence game. Obviously, it's a highly technical and incredibly demanding sport, but most great riders (and coaches) will tell you that most of the secret to mountain biking success is feeling confident. A confident rider is one who can look ahead on the trail, assess what's coming, and make a smart decision (even if that decision is to walk a section) based on their ability level and how they're feeling on the bike that day. A confident mountain bike rider can still be nervous about new obstacles, or opt to take a B-line on occasion: Confidence on the mountain bike means knowing your limits, and constantly working on your limiters. 

Here, we're looking at seven ways to gain true confidence on the bike in a way that will help you grow your technical and fitness-based capabilities at the same time.

Find An Easy Trail You Can Crush

The easiest way to gain confidence is to feel competent. So, before you tackle the toughest singletrack in your area, look for the easiest loop around—and that can include the trails that are built in and around a local park, or even a rail trail if you've never mountain biked before. Get comfortable riding on the bike on different easy terrain, like dirt, grass, bumpy gravel roads, and up and down grassy hills before you start stressing about singletrack. This may only take a single afternoon, or if you're newer to cycling in general, this could be a month of riding before you're ready to head into the woods. If you've already mountain biked in the past and are just feeling a little low in the confidence department, simply choose an easy trail at your local trail network and spend time on that, learning every twist and turn and feeling like a boss as you navigate it with ease.

Start Small

Keep your first forays into the woods short, and head out armed with a GPS or map as well as plenty of snacks and water, in case you do end up getting turned around and taking longer than you planned. Mountain biking requires a lot of strength and endurance, as well as mental skill, so if you're coming from a road riding background, expect to be much more tired in an hour of mountain biking compared to an hour of endurance-paced riding on the road. Because we tend to make more mistakes as we get tired on the bike, it's better to keep rides shorter so you finish still feeling fresh and excited, rather than finishing exhausted and making careless mistakes.

Image via Robb Thompson

Take Technical Terrain Slow

Once you do get onto the singletrack, take your time. Often, this step gets missed by riders who are eager to progress in mountain biking, and the temptation is to get out and cover as much ground as you possibly can on every ride. Don't be afraid to stop at a feature like a rock garden, take a look at it, walk over it with your bike and think about the best line choice to ride, then go back and try to ride it. If you don't make it on the first try, go back and try it again, and again, and possibly again (mountain bikers refer to this as "sessioning"). Even the top pros will do this when they're previewing at a race course for the first time, so don't consider pausing and reflecting to be a sign of weakness.

Image via Fred Marmaster

Learn to Eat and Drink As Needed

A bonk—that feeling you get when your body starts to crave food and water—can lead to both a decrease in confidence and a potential increase in making more mistakes. A lot of new mountain bikers suffer with this because the usual water bottles and back pocket snacks are much harder to access when pedaling in technical singletrack. It sounds almost comical, but the ability to eat and drink enough during your ride can help keep you focused and feeling good about your riding—and more confident that you won't drop your bottle. Consider swapping your bottle cages for a hydration pack that holds your water and makes it much easier to sip from a hose while pedaling over tricky terrain, and stash snacks in the front pockets for easy access. Little changes can make a major difference.

Image via Robb Thompson

Don't Be Afraid to Get Off and Walk

Most new mountain bikers feel embarrassed when they need to get off their bikes to walk over a tricky obstacle. But even the best in the world occasionally need to pause and walk over a weird, slippery rock. If you find that you're constantly getting on and off the bike to walk, rather than stressing about it and getting upset every time, learn to be okay with it. And if you want to speed up your ride, consider practicing a cyclocross-style dismount and remount on your bike (don't try this on a trail, try first in a soft, grassy field!). This style of getting on and off your bike speeds up the walking process significantly, so even if you ride with people who can easily ride over obstacles while you walk, you won't be struggling to catch up as much.

Get Expert Help

The best way to improve your confidence is to continue to practice and build your skill repertoire, which means seeking expert guidance. Whether you're looking for help online or in real life, there are thousands of awesome skill-building options available. From YouTube tutorials to carefully curated online skills instruction to in-person clinics and private skills sessions with coaches in your area, the options are endless. And even if you're already the most confident mountain biker around, there's always something to work on, whether you want to bunnyhop a bigger log, wheelie for 100 yards, or simply get through the rock garden that always forces you to put a foot down. Getting some guidance doesn't mean you're a bad rider, it means you're a smart one.

Ride With People of Different Ability Levels

Image via Fred Marmaster

Remember, often one of the best ways to gain confidence in a skill is to teach it to someone else. This doesn't mean you should teach your best friend how to huck off of a boulder if you can barely bunnyhop a stick, but what if you took your young niece out on a gentle trail and helped her learn to corner a little smoother? And on the flip side, riding with a more experienced mountain biker can give you insight into new lines on a tricky section. You'll be able to emulate their body position, their tactics for handling surprises on the trail, and you may even find that you're able to keep up much easier than you expected!

And remember: no matter how or where you ride, you will ride better with Osprey. Written by Molly Hurford for Matcha in partnership with Osprey Packs.

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