How to Choose the Best Line

Learning to jump, wheelie or rail a turn is great, but how often have you sat back and thought about your line choice?

Line selection is important in so many ways, and to begin with most novice riders really dwell on their line choice. In fact new mountain bikers tend to overthink their path, steering in and around every rock and root, fearing that it would halt their progress.

With experience, most of us will get a handle on rolling through the roots and rocks, however line selection is something that can always be improved. It is very easy to disengage your brain and follow the well-worn main line. It’s a safe and sure way to navigate along the singletrack but it can often send you on a convoluted route, when there’s a more effective line right under your nose.

So here’s the tip in a nutshell; straight lines are fast lines. In addition to being faster, maintaining a straighter line can often be safer. Being a sheep will have you steering in and around rocks that you could probably roll straight over if you attacked them head-on. The ducking and weaving is more likely to get your front wheel hung up, leading to an awkward OTB crash.

Back to Basics

Before we go into selecting more advanced and creative lines, there are a few basics that need to be dealt with. First up, you need a basic level of competence on the bike. Get comfortable with the ‘attack position’; stand with your pedals level, elbows bent and weight centred over the bike. This should be your default position on the bike when tackling anything moderately technical. You need to remain fluid and relaxed; no death-grip on the bars! This go-to position allows the bike to move around underneath you – don’t fight the bike – and leaves you poised to tackle the terrain ahead.

Part B involves looking ahead. If you scan the trail immediately in front of your wheel, it’s easy to get caught up following the sheep line. You’ll also spend your time focusing on irrelevant stuff that you’ll just roll through if you’ve paid attention to my previous point. Looking well ahead allows you to look for sizable obstacles well in advance and scout for the most direct route along the trail; as mentioned from the outset, straight lines tend to be good ones. If an obstacle is big enough to be a major concern, you’ll see it from a long way off and have lots of time to plan your route around it.

Now we’ve gotten those formalities out of the way, let’s look at the line options in our example. This section of trail is on a popular XC loop and 90% of riders will follow the blue line. On approach they’ll veer right to avoid the rock roll down. All the exposed sandstone looks intimidating but in isolation the drop itself isn’t much worse than a tall roadside curb. What’s more, dry rock is a high traction surface, offering good control.

Heading right takes you on the wide line where you need to make another turn to avoid the bushes, and once again you’d be cornering on loose dirt. This leaves you threading a line between rocks before yet another turn across the tree root at the bottom of the picture.

So compared to the red line we’ve just added three unnecessary turns in a rock infested section of trail. Each of these extra turns forces you to keep your speed down, and with less momentum there’s a higher chance of catching your front wheel on something. You’re also more likely to be turning across the camber of the trail.

Take the Redline

Now for the seemingly more daring but actually safer red line. You’ve brushed up on your attack position and you are in a zen-like state of relaxation, so the bike is free to roll and move around. You let the wheels follow the trail while your upper body remains isolated thanks to your loose arms and legs.

Looking well down the trail you sight the upcoming right-hand corner—can’t miss that one! Hanging left on the trail and rolling down the grippy rocks sets you up perfectly for the corner and you’ve simplified the trail; no unnecessary turns and steady rolling momentum to keep you tracking straight. Letting it roll involves less braking, so it’s kinder on the trail too—a faster and far more elegant solution.

Of course you can continue to follow everybody else’s lines, but where’s the challenge in that? Make old trails new again by thinking outside of the box!

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