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Seeing Lines: New to MTB Post

New to MTB: Learning to ride Rock Gardens

Continuing our New to MTB series let’s look at learning to ride rock gardens. Rock gardens are typically defined as a series of rock features spaced such that you will be forced to engage them in some way. The techniques that will help you confidently ride in rock gardens will help other places. Learning to keep your eyes ahead is important in any terrain. Becoming comfortable with a bit of momentum will help with rock gardens, single rocks, holes, stumps, etc. Let’s look at the concepts as well as a touch of the science.

Keep Your Eyes Up

The importance of looking down trail is hard to over emphasis. Rather than riding reactively you can proactively attack the trail. We touched a bit on this in the Sighting Trail Users blog. However let’s take another quick glance at the concept.

The image below illustrates a handful of important concepts.


MTB Tips Momentum and Rock Gardens image shows line choices and where decisions can be made


First – it’s a terrible place to stop on trail. If you’re going to stop and look it’s good practice to think “there’s someone faster than me coming down behind me”. Position yourself off the line and out of the way.

Second – riding at a comfortable pace through this particular section means you’re scanning the trail above the “a” and white shaded zone. Below the “a”, in the shading, there’s not much you can do at this point to change or correct. With the exception of pulling up over the rock at “b” but we’ll come back to that later.

If there wasn’t a rock at “b” you might be able to use your brakes a bit, which if a rabbit or lizard ran out in front of you you might do anyhow. I feel responsible for thousands more rabbits & lizards in the world thanks to good brakes and the occasional crash to miss them.

Third – just because you can “tip-toe” through this section doesn’t mean it’s the easiest way. I liked this section for the illustration partly because it’s relatively flat and you have to actively think about momentum. Compared to steeper rock gardens where the momentum kind of comes with the territory.

Looking Down Trail

On the illustration you see two line options to choose from. You need to be looking ahead to know which you prefer based on skill, speed, whatever. If you have your head down you’re not able to see far enough forward to make those decisions count.

You will also note the split at “a” for the lines. While you get more comfortable riding you probably don’t want to change directions until at least your front tire, and possible the rear, clear the rock at point “b”. Then you can adjust the line accordingly. As your skills improve you’ll start to note what kind of rock compositions and shapes you can change direction on / over.

Keep the Wheels Turning

Let’s imagine you’re going kind of slowly into this section. You see the rock at “b” and think, I’d rather ride in the dirt to the right and turn the wheel. Well, you made your day more challenging, probably a bit scarier (which doesn’t help you improve your riding at all) and possible stalled the front of the bike and went over the bars.

Your balance on a bike is based on forward momentum. If you turn the wheel and touch the rock the front end of the bike will slow lose momentum and deflect. However your body mass isn’t going to react that way instantly. It’s going to try to maintain it’s momentum, past the stalled bike, forward down the trail into somersaults, front flips, running it out, any number of not as fun as riding things.

The closer you keep your momentum and the bike’s momentum the less the bike is “pulled” away. That makes riding more fun.

Momentum, Obstacles & Suspension

I’m going to refer to Momentum but it’s really a combination of velocity, or the changes of, and how that modifies the center of gravity in relation to the lever between you and your front axle. The further forward your weight shifts the more it wants to “pull” over a front wheel that slows down. Since I’m not writing for a degree and just calling it momentum and I think it makes sense – but know velocity and changing center of gravity are at work.

We’ll start with probably the worst option coming at a rock, hole, root, log, rut, whatever. Grabbing a handful of brakes right before it.


graphic illustrating how rider momentum and bike momentum are affected by riding technique. Don't hit the brakes before a rock on a bike it lowers the front end making the impact worse.


Here are the issues with “slowing down” before an obstacle.

As shown graphically in “a” your momentum has the widest gap from the bike’s momentum. This is because of the velocity change by applying the brakes and hitting the obstacle.

Moreover, shown in “b” you’ve compressed the fork. This increases the air pressure on the piston. That increased pressure means the fork requires more force input per increment of travel. Or, the fork’s function will feel much more harsh and hard to control. Not fun right? Makes it harder to want to get better in a rock garden eh?

Let’s look if we don’t apply the brakes.


graphic illustrating how rider momentum and bike momentum are affected by riding technique.


You see the bike will lose less momentum. The closer the bike and your momentum stay the easier it is to control, so that’s good.

The suspension is approximately at sag height, giving it improved bump compliance compared to sitting deeper in the travel. The forks behavior will be more “normalized” and less harsh or punchy.

This technique is NOTABLY better than slamming the brakes before each obstacle. But what’s next?

Want to make it even a bit easier?


Image illustrating advantage of picking up the front wheel over rocks in MTB rock gardens to decrease angle of attack and unloading suspension.


Unloading the front wheel again decreases the bikes momentum loss. This keeps the bike and your momentum closer again. The obstacle exerts less force on the bike as the angle between your front axle and the contact point decreases.

Unloading the wheel also allows the suspension to extend past sag, meaning it is even more supple as it engages the obstacle.

Note that all of the same factors are in play with your rear wheel. Learning to “pump” the bike up and over obstacles, or down and into holes will improve your control while making you a faster rider.

Momentum (err, speed) and Balance

So those are the ways to engage an obstacle. But why does it work? Because your balance is directly tied to your forward momentum.


Image illustrating balance graph showing rider momentum compared to obstacle momentum and its effect on balance and control.


For lack of a more graphically convenient manner lets think of it as a children’s playground teeter totter. If your momentum and the momentum in the opposite direction are exactly equal you’re not going to have forward motion. And, well, that’s find playing track stands but in a rock garden it almost always means you tip over.

Ideally you keep your momentum up where the obstacles can’t pull your side of the teeter totter out of the green or “more” control area.

As the obstacles get taller the angle of incident with your front wheel increases. At some point you cross a line. No matter how fast you are riding you’re not going to straight up a wall. So, don’t email me when you get towed into the side of a building and wonder why it didn’t work…

Rock Gardens

OK, so you’ve got the tips to get over an obstacle. Now, look at the rock garden and repeat as needed.

At some point it really is about practice. If you’re going into new sections you might site down trail to see where the majority of the tire marks are. On some trails like Rock-It in Aliso Woods park you can actually see the common line by the blue groove of tire marks.

Work to maintain your momentum at a speed that keeps you from chalking on each obstacle without going so fast that you can’t confidently pump the trail appropriately. If you ride too fast you miss time pumping the trail and end up ass over appetite or bounce off trail.

Remember crashing hurts, and crashing on rocks tends to hurt even a little more. And crashing over the bars adds like 6 feet or more to any fall, so stay in a position that you can control your body and not lawn dart yourself over the bike.

It’s can be like the story of the three little bears. Too slow, not great. Too fast, um, not great either. Just right? So much fun.

See you on the trails – Nate at

BTW – I almost went over the bars pedaling out of this section after taking the photo as my momentum was next to none and that little tiny rock grabbed my wheel…


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