As summer rolls around and the trails start opening up, that means it’s time to dial in my technical skills again. I usually start out small, but quickly gain my confidence back and move on to bigger and bigger obstacles. I have one large rock garden where I live that serves as my checkpoint. I know that once I can ride that rock garden without hesitation my skills are back up to par. Rock gardens are dynamic and each one is different, so even as a professional mountain biker, I often have to remind myself to go through my mental check list of how to ride a rock garden on a mountain bike.
What Type of MTB is Best for Rock Gardens
Rock gardens are bumpy and technical in nature; therefore a full suspension mountain bike will provide you with the best tool to navigate a rock garden. A full suspension bike will better handle the terrain and help to minimize the feeling of the bumps and drops. The more suspension that you have, the smoother and easier the rock garden will feel.
A cross country bike with 100 mm of suspension will not be as comfortable as an enduro bike with 170 mm of suspension. If you have the option, I recommend trying new rock gardens on a bike with a larger range of suspension in order to gain confidence.
You might be wondering about what suspension is best for different conditions. We wrote a complete MTB suspension glossary in our article – What does Travel Mean on a Mountain Bike and is More Better?
How to MTB on Loose Rock
Loose rock can be difficult to navigate on the mountain bike because it can give you the sensation that you are out of control. With a few specific cues you can help to stay calm both mentally and physically.
Create Extra Suspension on the MTB
When riding on loose rock, keep your knees and elbows bent to add a little bit of extra suspension in your body. A slight bend in your knees and elbows will allow you better control over the bike and will help you respond to unexpected bumps.
Push Your Heels Down on the MTB
Next, make sure that your heels are pushing down toward the trail. That will help to ground you. Your heels down will help to keep you balanced on the bike and keep your ankles safe. When your heels are pushed in the downward position, the ankle joint is locked.
Focus on Your Body Position on the MTB
Keep your body weight centered on the bike. Many people will try to push their body as far back as it will go. The problem with that strategy is that your front wheel no longer has any weight on it and therefore loses traction much more easily. If you are too far forward, however, you risk going over the bras if you hit an unexpected rock. Being centered over your bike will be the golden ticket.
Pro Tip: Have someone video tape you riding through the rock garden. Sometimes it’s much easier to understand where your weight is when you can physically see yourself doing it.
Feather Your Brakes on the MTB
Your tires will have the most traction on the ground when they are rolling so you want to keep your tires rolling as much as possible. If you grab the brakes too hard and lock up the wheels then you will quickly lose traction. If you don’t feather the brakes, then you will pick up speed too quickly and will find yourself completely out of control. A light touch on the brakes will give you the best control while also keeping your speed in check.
Keep your brakes in excellent condition. Some simple maintenance will go a long way. Read how to clean and maintain your disc brakes in this article – How to Clean Disc Brakes on a Mountain Bike.
Pro Tip: It will be easier to feather your brakes with they are bled properly. You don’t want the contact point of your brakes to be when the levers are completely pulled against the bars. Become very familiar with exactly how hard you need to pull the levers to slow down and stop.
Hold a Straight Line in the Rock Garden
When you turn a mountain bike on loose rock, you will lose a little bit of traction. Loose rock is extremely unpredictable so you don’t know how it will move under your wheels. When you are going straight over loose rock you are in control, but once you start to turn you are at the mercy of how the rocks will roll and you risk washing out. Avoid turning as much as possible when you are on loose rock. Try to straighten out the trail by taking the most direct lines possible.
Choosing a Good Mountain Biking Line in a Rock Garden
Picking a good line through a challenging rock garden is a skill. It takes time to be able to visually select the smoothest and fastest line. Here are a few techniques to help you become a master line selector:
Tires are super important riding on rocks. The wrong ones will not provide confidence and traction when needed. We reviewed a bunch of tires, then we asked bike shops in the Moab, UT area what they recommend. Read about the results in this article – What Tires are BEST for Rocky Terrain.
Walk the Rock Garden
The first thing you should do when you approach a new rock garden is dismount your bike, place it gently off of the trail, and walk the rock garden. Walking the rock garden allows you to visually take in the entire trail and to analyze every option. You’ll be able to see obstacles at a slower speed, from a new angle, and without the stress of trying to ride them at the same time.
Pro Tip: Don’t just stand at the top of the rock garden and look down. Obstacles can be deceiving from a distance.
Find Visual Cues in the Rock Garden
When you are riding through the rock garden, you’ll be moving at a faster pace and it might be difficult to find your line while also trying to remember your body position and keeping your nerves in check. Find very obvious visual cues in the rock garden to keep you moving in the correct direction. For example, stay right of the large rock, and then left of the rock with moss on it.
Bring a Friend to the Rock Garden
When in doubt, get a second opinion. Bringing a friend or trusted riding partner to a rock garden can help you gain confidence and offer a new set of eyes. Sometimes all it takes is a new perspective to show you exactly where to ride.
Pro Tip: Only bring a friend that you know and trust to help you through the rock garden. If you bring someone that you have never ridden with before then you won’t know the difference in skill level. A rock garden that is not rideable for one mountain biker may feel simple for another.
The Clearest Line is Not Always the Easiest Line
This can take a while to learn. In my experience, new mountain bikers often approach a rock garden looking for a line with the least amount of rocks. Sometimes that is the hardest line, because it forces you to twist and turn all the way through. Look for the smoothest line, which may still have some rocks or small drops, but will allow you to keep your bike straight and your body centered.
5 Tips for Mountain Biking Rock Gardens
1. Dial in your Suspension:
Suspension can make all of the different in a rock garden. You’ll want to check both the air pressure and rebound of your suspension. If you have too much air in your fork or rear shock then you will have a bumpier ride and won’t be able to utilize the suspension that you have. If you have too little air then you risk bottoming out and damaging your bike. The right amount of air will allow you to utilize all of your travel without bottoming out.
You will also want to set your rebound. If your rebound is too fast, it will feel like a jack hammer. If your rebound is too slow then your suspension will pack down throughout the rock garden. The right amount of rebound will allow for a natural recoil of the shock between hard impacts.
Pro Tip: On an easier trail, practice the extremes of your suspension so that you know what you are looking for when trying to fine tune it.
2. Look Ahead:
Make sure you are looking through the rock garden. It can be tempting to look down at your wheel in order to see the rock you are currently on, but that will not benefit you at all. You cannot change where you are, you can only change where you are going.
3. Commit to the Rock Garden:
If you decide to ride a rock garden, then it is important to commit all the way. It’s important to decide that you can and will conquer the trail before you even push off of the ground. If you find yourself going through the rock garden and hesitate, that is a good way to get your wheel caught and go over the bars.
4. Carry Your Speed Through the Rock Garden:
Speed is your friend. While of course you need to moderate your speed, it’s important to have enough speed to get you all the way to the other side. If you are going so slow that every bump makes you come to a halt, you’re much more likely to go over the bars, or simply stall out and fall to one side or the other.
Pro Tip: Brake before the rock garden. You’ll want to check your speed before you enter the rock garden so that you don’t come in too fast. If your speed is in check at the beginning of the rock garden, then you can let off of the brakes more in the middle, gain traction, and carry momentum.
5. Set Your Tire Pressure for the Rock Garden:
Tire pressure can be a game changer for your rock garden experience. If your tire pressure is too low, then you will risk a pinch flat and hitting your rim. A bad rim strike in a rock garden is all that it takes to need a new wheel.
If your tire pressure is too high, then you won’t be able to find good traction on the rocks and you’ll risk a puncture. While most people think that a high tire pressure will help to eliminate flats, that isn’t entirely true. If your tire pressure is too high and you roll over a sharp or pointy rock, the tire will stand firm instead of molding to the rock. The firm tire will place too much pressure down onto the pointy surface and cause a flat.
DIY Mountain Bike has an article all about tire pressure. We surveyed 100’s of riders in a couple Facebook groups to understand what pressure you should run your tires at. Read it – The Best Mountain Bike Tire Pressure
The perfect tire pressure will allow your tires to gain traction on the rocks, while also mitigating punctures.
Pro Tip: Before every ride you do check your tire pressure with a tire pressure gauge. This will give you a much better understanding of how different tire pressures can impact your riding.
Seek Out Rock Gardens
The more rock gardens you ride, the more comfortable you will become. You’ll be able to spot lines more quickly and you’ll discover the tricks that work best for you. Every rock garden is slightly different so there is no limit to the skills and experience that you can gain. Next thing you know you’ll find confidence in knowing that you’ve done rock gardens more technically challenging than the one you are currently standing and looking at. The only way to improve, is to put your helmet on and to get riding!
Hannah Finchamp is a professional mountain biker for the Orange Seal Pro Team. When she isn’t riding her own bike she is coaching others to reach their goals as a Certified USA Cycling Coach and Certified Athletic Trainer. To learn more about the author please visit www.hannahfinchamp.com and follow Hannah on Instagram https://www.instagram.com/hannah_finchamp/?hl=en