Mountain Bike Skills Training Advice From the Pros – Part 1

A few weeks back I sent out a few questions to some of the mountain bike skills coaches I know. I was wondering what their answers would be to a couple of basic questions so my blog readers could get an idea of what to think about and work on when it comes to improving their technical skills.

I was lucky enough to get four of the top skills coaches to give me their answers. So, over the course of the next few weeks I’ll be giving you’re their responses. Starting in no particular order here is our first installment in the series…


These answers come courtesy of Lee McCormack. Lee is the author of Mastering Mountain Bike Skills, which he wrote with Brian Lopes, and runs a popular mountain bike website at Lee is also one of the most passionate riders I know and is always happy to help fellow riders learn to have more fun on the trail.

What are the top 3 basic skills that feel all mountain bike riders should have?

I’d say all riders should start by mastering the three dimensions of movement:

-Forward and backward – Complete and fluid access to the front and rear of the bike, as well as the ability to stay balanced over the bottom bracket.

-Up and down – The ability to get very low, extend very high and operate fluidly everywhere in between.

-Side to side – Be able to lean the bike to a great degree, in both directions, independent of your body.

Taken together, mastery of these three dimensions forms your neutral attack position and gives you complete access to your cockpit — the base of everything you do on the bike.

What is the number one skill you see missing from most riders in your camps?

It all starts at the bottom of the skills tree, which is position. Most riders are too far forward, too high and too stiff.

What is the number one mistake you see riders make with cockpit set up?

The most common mistake is a stem that’s too long. Riders are running stock stems, which are fine for a skilled XC rider, but the longer stems gobble up arm range and pull already-forward riders even farther forward.

A shorter stem makes it easier for most riders to stay neutral and move effectively on the bike. Once you master that 3D movement, you can go back to a longer stem to improve your pedaling/climbing. But the benefits there are questionable.

What is the number one mistake you see riders make with bike set up (tire pressure, suspensions settings, seat height, etc.)?

Ninety-plus percent of suspension systems are set up improperly. That creates a sketch factor most riders can’t pinpoint until the issues are fixed. After their suspension is dialed, they realize, “Oh, this is why I just paid $X thousand. This bike is sweet!”

What is your favorite technical skills drill?

Depending on your level, figure eights while pedaling or — turbo — figure eights without pedaling. That drill transcends the pump track and works your kung fu in all three dimensions.

What is the number one thing that every rider should do today to gain more confidence and speed on the trail?

Go outside on your bike, even if it’s just rolling up and down your street, and pay attention to your position. Practice moving in all three dimensions, then find the middle. Practice that. Make it your default neutral attack position. Everything you do on the bike — pedal, corner, manual, hop, pump, drop, jump — will improve.

For James’ readers I’ll provide a handout highlighting the keys to body position. Just email me at, and I’ll dial you in.


That’s it for this installment; keep an eye out for the responses to my next skills coach, Katrina Strand.

-James Wilson-

Social Comments:

WordPress Comments:

  1. Vito says:

    Very nice collection of fundamental “Lee’s principles”!

    James, regarding the latest teleseminar, could you please elaborate a bit more on shoulder action in regards to core stability? Also, regarding hip action for cornering, I just found out that (at least for me) is a lot easier to turn them if I think “shorten opposite hip” (the one that’s opposite to the corner, ie shorten right hip for left hand corner) rather than just trying to turn them. What do you think?

    Reply • December 29 at 9:48 am
  2. Karmen says:

    A helpful thought for me regarding turning my hips is to point my belly button – that turns the hips.

    Reply • December 29 at 5:53 pm
  3. bikejames says:

    @ Vito – I think that you want to turn your hips and the “point your belly button” advice from Karmen is what I use. If you point your belly button where you want to go your hips will follow.

    As for the shoulders, your entire body is connected through connective tissue and the fascia that surrounds muscles. Your shoulder is connected through your core to your hips. When you core is weak it will affect how strong your shoulder can be because the core provides the platform for the shoulder to work.

    Reply • December 30 at 6:59 am

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James Wilson
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James Wilson