10 Pro Mountain Biking Tips For Beginners — Plus Essential Race Day Intel

Because it's FNB Wines2Whales this weekend baby!


Amy Hopkins |

Just started mountain biking and want to improve your skills? Or maybe you’re doing your first mountain biking race? Here are 10 top mountain biking tips from SA pro and coach Sarah Hill.

Elite mountain biker Sarah Hill is based in Joburg, but competes all over the country… and world. She and her partner won the ABSA Cape Epic African Jersey this year. As she and many of us — including myself and my WH colleague Cally — gear up for the FNB Wines2Whales starting this weekend, we’re sharing her top mountain biking tips.

1. Invest in good mountain biking gear

Mountain biking can be expensive, so how do you buy gear wisely? “Make sure you buy the right stuff first,” says Sarah. “Get a good helmet, a comfy pair of shoes, gloves and at least two sets of kit. Your bum will take a while to get used to the saddle, so rather buy  a pair of cycling pants with  a shammy that will last!”

2. Try different mountain bikes before buying

There’s a lot of intimidation around mountain biking and so much information about equipment that it can feel quite daunting. The first thing Sarah says is not to let bike sellers sway you into buying something. “Try out different brands, different sizes and different style options.”

Many cycling parks hire bikes out. So, before you throw money at the sport, hire bikes and play around. Go on some guided group rides. “Think about what it is that gets you excited about riding,” she says. “One of the best brands to check out is Liv Cycling. They make female-specific bicycles that check all the boxes: dropper posts, speed, control, saddle comfort…”

3. Go for a mountain biking lesson

The biggest mistake a new rider can make? “Not investing in skills lessons. Don’t learn bad habits from the start. If you’re going to do this, do it properly from the beginning.” If you’re a beginner or even want to improve your skills, get in touch with Sarah and book a coaching session with her: hillsarah81@gmail.com

READ MORE: How Mountain Biking Can Change Your Body (And Your Confidence)

4. Trust your mountain bike

Much like yoga, mountain bikers get into a flow when they ride. You trust your body and bike and everything just happens. It’s kind of magical. But when you’re a beginner rider some of the tricky sections might cause you to doubt yourself. “Too many of us associate the terms ‘technical’ and ‘scary’ together,” explains Sarah. “The bike is designed to ride down techy single track.”

Sarah rides a Giant Anthem Adv 0 2018. “It has a geometry set-up that was built just for speed.” Even though Giant is a men’s brand, Sarah was looking for a light, aggressive bike with 29’er size wheels (most female bikes are 27) and max climbing comfort for The Epic. However, Sarah has been working with women’s bike brand, Liv, and their global team on a new bike: the 2020 Liv Pique Advanced Pro 29. Out soon in SA!

mountain biking

Riders during the 2018 FNB Wine2Whales Chardonnay three-day mountain biking event stage 3 from Oak Valley to Hermanus. Photograph by Dwayne Senior

5. Remember your form

“Find your neutral position, elbows out, eyes up and heels down! Book a skills session to learn the basics.” It will boost your confidence.

READ MORE: The 3 Most Important Things You Need To Know As A Beginner Mountain Biker

6. Breathe

“One of the biggest lessons I teach my clients is how to breathe while going through the ‘commitment barrier’. Often we tense up when we get scared. We brace ourselves for impact before even attempting an obstacle. We have this massive sense of anxiety instead of just being present and enjoying the moment. As soon as you make the decision to try, breathe out. It forces your shoulders down, makes you think about your breathing rather than how steep something is and allows you  to take control of your bike.”

7. Confidence is key!

“You can do this! For real! There are plenty of times where I have that slight bit of doubt in my mind. Shake it off and tell yourself that ‘you’ve  got this’.”

READ MORE: Your Essential Cycling Race-Day Checklist And Survival Guide

8. Have a mantra

“These activate that inner strength that boosts you to overcome something that is challenging! Some people have quotes on their bikes or have a trigger word that they say and their body responds with relaxation and excitement. Here’s an example: ‘I am Strong, I am Tough, I am Epic’, which we created at The Epic this year while climbing for hours and hours in a row.”

mountain biking

Riders during the 2018 FNB Wine2Whales Chardonnay three-day mountain biking event stage 2 in and around Oak Valley and Paul Cluver. Photograph by Dwayne Senior

9. Pick a race that suits you

Then, when it comes to entering a race, Sarah says: “Find a series that gives you different distance options. Think about where your fitness is right now and enter the distance that is a good challenge. Invite some friends and complete your first event as a team!”

Here are some of Sarah’s fave mountain biking races:

  • FNB Wines2Whales (25 October to 3 November 2019)  – “A stunning way to end the year!”
  • Nissan Trailseeker Series (9 November 2019) – “It’s perfect for the family!”
  • Attakwas (18 January 2020) – “It’ll create a new level of tough in your mind.”
  • Tankwa Trek Stage Race (6 to 9 February 2020) – “Rocky single track…  A true test of overall ability.”
  • Knysna Bull Stage Race (19 to 22 February 2020) “Ride in the most beautiful forest!”
  • Absa Cape Epic (15 to 22 March 2020) “So tough, oh my word! Do it for the sense of accomplishment!”

10. Train

Some mornings, Sarah is up at 3:45am to be out on the road by 4:20am. Some days it’s anaerobic intervals in 2°C weather. But she doesn’t mind. In fact, she says, her coach has to slow her down. The hard part, she confesses, is maintaining structure.

“It’s too easy to have fun on the bike. “But,” she says, “sometimes you need to put in the hard suffering kind of work to get yourself to the next level. I have to tell myself that this session is on purpose. It’s put there to prepare me. I also find that this practice of motivation reflects so positively into my life outside of riding. I find myself more positive when I’m under pressure and can handle stress way easier.”

READ MORE ON: Cycling Cycling Tips Fitness Fitness Advice Mountain Biking SA Women In Sport