I'm new to mountain biking, but the magazine advice is confusing me; what should I look out for?

New to mountain biking?

Over the past few week's I've been out with quite a few people new to the sport of mountain biking. That's great to see! Taking new people out actually focuses on your own ability, or, ahem, lack of it. There's lots I can't do - manuals for one.

Anyway, quite a few seem to be a little confused, as to how they should go about learning what to do. Pick up a magazine and the advice will centre around dong 30ft gap jumps. Not very helpful now is it? Thinking about it, here are the most basic things that any person new to this game should really focus on before going gnar.

I'm assuming here that you already own a mountain bike, so will only look at the following areas:

  • Basic fitness.
  • Braking.
  • Cornering.
  • Manuals and wheelies.
  • Do a skills course!
  • Saddles are a not always for sitting on.

1. Basic fitness.

Gosh, the elephant in the room this one. I've been out with an awful lot of people recently who moan that after years of riding, that they cannot get fit no matter what they do. OK, lets go for a spin and build fitness. "Hey, that's great! I'll meet you at the top of the hill." Sure as night follows day, they'll drive there and off-load their bike. Five miles later they are huffing and puffing, asking when it's time to go back. Hmmm.

Yet a slight change in attitude would mean an huge improvement in fitness.

Do some miles on the bike.

Here I don't mean miles and miles of cross country tedium; riding for the sake of riding. You don't want to do dead miles, you want to do quality miles. For instance instead of meeting at the Landslip carpark at Coldharbour, meet in Dorking and ride up the hill. The first time you ride up, it'll be an hours sweaty slog and you'll not thank me.

The fourth or fifth time, and you'll be wondering now why it's only taken forty minutes.

Another way is instead of watching Secret Eaters, Eastenders or some other crap on the telly, dig a bike out and go out for forty minutes. Make a routine of it and again fairly soon you'll be flying. And contrary to what most people think, slowly, slowly builds fitness. Just go for a plod for an hour. Plodding is great. No effort, no sweat yet come that long Sunday ride you'll be fine.

Honest, just a few tweaks here and there makes a world of difference.

2. Braking.

The front brake does pretty much all of the work most of the time. Learn to use it. Find a quiet spot and practise braking until you're not skidding the back all the time. Your front disc is bigger than the rear for good reason.

Here you need to learn that for braking, your saddle is the enemy of stability. If you're braking whilst sitting on the saddle, you're doing it wrong. For hard braking the ideal is to move backwards and off the bike, moving your hips down towards the rear tyre.

Of course if you want to be cool and do a proper long rear wheel skid, you move forwards, almost to the point of sitting next to the handlebar stem.

3. Cornering. It's all about flow.

Loads of good advice in the magazines about this, and I'm still learning and re-learning the basics myself, even after twenty years.

Corners - I'm still learning, and hopefully will always be learning. This sounds mad, but bike technology changes all the time and now we're at a stage where tyres are super grippy. Learn to trust the bike, and use the outside pedal to weigh it all up. Here the magazines do it way better than I ever can, but the essence is to think how to load the tyres up for maximum effect. And in one sense it is counter intuitive, especially if you are from a motorbike background. On a mountain bike, for flat corners, the general idea is to load the outside pedal.

Outside pedal? Sorry, what?

If you're turning left, then the outside pedal is the right hand one. Have the pedal low to the ground, and put your weight onto it.

4 & 5. Manuals and wheelies.

Here I fall fowl of my own advice, and will stand up and admit to being very poor at both. I'm still trying though! Once you've dialled basic fitness, braking and cornering these next two are darned useful. Again tons of advice in the magazines and on-line, so no excuse not to have a go.

A manual is a ride technique where you shove your arse off the rear of the bike, lifting the front in the process. A wheelie is similar, except you remain seated and power the front up through pedalling.

6. Ha ha! Go on a skills course.

If you're new to all of this, and know some guy like me, or even group of riders, who's or have been riding forever, so must be 'The Man' and must be obeyed or copied, well think again. You see mountain biking is one of those lovely sports where often one or two skills courses can destroy instantly a decades worth of experience.

The sport can change quite rapidly when a new bit of kit is introduced. Grippy tyres mean a different cornering style, whilst dropper posts open up a whole new area of ride technique. Some old boy, like me, quite possibly didn't move on and rode through a few Darwinian changes.

Indeed this did happen; I clung on to my Orange Clockwork of 1995 vintage until 2010, putting over 40,000 miles on it. In effect for fifteen years I rode 1995 style.

At the time I also had a unified rear triangle full suspension bike, a Klien Mantra. Full suspension back in 1997? Hey, you're the man! Except it was a crock, a truly awful bike that required it's own ride technique, a technique so far removed from proper mountain biking that I may well have taken up golf for all the good it did.

2014 is a different beast, and the all round style of people like me doesn't cut it anymore. You'll be surprised how many people don't move on. In a sense this isn't a bad thing; they are still out there, and their fitness may well be beyond belief. Show them a few drops, or a rubble chute, and fitness won't cut it. Most of us older riders hide a lack of skills by riding XC for immense distances. Ride huge miles, you must be good, right? Nah, not always.

Muddy Ground is 48 and I have a confession to make; I can't manual. Or wheelie.

New to this, go on a skills course. Indeed old to this, go on a skills course; I'm looking to go on my third one in May. These days a good course costs the same as a single tyre.

One course could easily equate to a decades experience, or you could even leapfrog the limited skills of an old git like me. And don't underestimate the number of old gits out there; we are in the majority. So the next time somebody with huge experience smokes you on a long ride, invite them out to a play area. You may well move them out of their comfort zone entirely.

7. Is it all about gnar these days though? Do I have to do jumps and drops?

Actually no, not at all.

I've already mentioned the miles I did on an old bike. They were all enjoyable to me at the time, and they weren't all a trudge between Reigate and Box Hill. Sometimes cross country is where it is at for a given location, and to get to the remoter areas you just have to put some miles in. I still enjoy going for the longer rides, indeed did 70km last Friday.

Don't knock it until you've tried it, and to be fair if jumps and drops aren't your thing, that's not a big issue as you can still get loads out of this sport. Take the Pont Scethin ride up in North Wales as an example. That's effectively nothing more than a cross country loop, as are many trail centre runs. Much of Coed Y Brenin can be done with the most rudimentary of skills. The South Downs Way is nothing more than 100 miles of a double track meander. One of my bikes is a short travel hardtail suitable for nothing more than a cross country ramble.

Just because the magazines promote long travel bikes and jumping as the in thing right now, that doesn't mean you have to do it. Indeed it's probably very hard to even sell a magazine devoted to what's fashionable in mountain biking as is, let alone try and sell one devoted to riding flat bits of the world.

However..... Learning new tricks and taking that 140mm full suss machine you've just bought to near its' limits isn't half fun. Recently I met a 74 year old on Headley Heath, who does the gnar stuff. If he can do it....

8. The saddle.

The natural thing to do on a bike is to sit on the saddle. That's what it is for, surely?

But not all of the time, especially not on a mountain bike. There are quite a few times when the saddle should be avoided. Like going down hills. Then you need to stand, to be able to not only absorb the rough ground with legs and arms, but also to allow the bike to do its thing. Bikes are not stable off road. Let it move, learn to hover above the saddle or even to move your weight back a bit.

Same under braking. Need to stop quickly? Get off the saddle, move back a bit.

Steep climb? Power those legs! Stand up, stomp.

Quite a few corners are taken out of the saddle as well.

The saddle is fine for long sections or fire road climbs. The saddle is great when you're tired! But it's not your friend going down steep hills off road. Learn to use it sparingly.