How to Scan the Trail Ahead



If you want to learn how to ride a mountain on a wide range of terrain, then learning how to scan or read the trail ahead is an essential part of learning how to mountain bike.  Scanning, or reading the trail is what we all do as we’re riding along on our mountain bike.  It’s the act of looking ahead to see what’s coming up next and deciding how we’re going to ride around, through or over it.

But do you know how to do it properly?  How good you are at reading the trail ahead and adjusting to the conditions largely determines how easy your forward progress will be.  Just like any other beginner mountain biking tip…

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It’s how you do it that really makes the difference…

Listed below are the four mountain biking basics every beginner mountain biker needs to know to develop good trail reading ability.  Practice these four tips until they become an automatic part of the way you ride and you’ll find your riding confidence, your speed and your mountain biking skills will soar.

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1. Look Further Ahead Along the Trail

Looking further ahead along the trail gives you earlier notice about what’s coming up next.  But how far is far enough?

For general trail riding look somewhere between 30 to 60 feet ahead (approx. 10 to 20 metres). Start practicing looking further ahead by looking a bit past your comfort zone, on any section of trail.  Increase your speed and reach forward with your eyes to the point where you can still interpret what’s just coming into view.

Extending your view and increasing your speed might make you a bit anxious at first but the increase in adrenaline should boost your senses.  This will help you become more alert and it will push you to think and respond quicker than before.

Super Tip: Reach forward with your eyes. To advance your mountain biking skills it’s not enough to just let the trail come to you.  You need to really look ahead into the trail and ‘reach forward with your eyes’ as you ride.

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Reach forward with your eyes

Looking a good distance ahead gives you

  • more time to think and adapt before you get to that spot
  • more time to prepare for the bigger obstacles
  • more time to choose which line is best

But if I look further ahead then I’ve got even more of the trail to think about…’

Not necessarily.  You just need to learn to…

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2. Judge Quickly and Dismiss Often

Train yourself to make quicker decisions and to make fewer decisions.  How?

By only focusing on obstacles and trail features that really matter to your forward progress.  In other words,

‘Only give any trail feature the attention it deserves’

Sure there are some little step down ledges up ahead.  But, you know you’ll ride down them no hassle.  So put most of your focus to the riding the corner that’s coming after the ledges.  This way you’ll be able to position yourself for a good entry and a fast corner exit.

And what if you don’t know what to ignore and what to give your full attention?

With each mountain bike ride you’ll grow your knowledge bank of trails, terrain types, obstacles and the way to ride them.  And as this bank of experience grows you’ll get better and better at judging trail features and knowing the best path to take.

And sure…

you’ll still need to glance regularly at the trail and obstacles just in front of your front wheel but, as soon as you’ve seen enough to get you past that point effectively, immediately boost your eyes forward and up the trail again.  And, always remember to follow the Golden Rule of Mountain Biking…

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3. Your Wheels Will Follow Your Eyes

Look straight up the middle, and that's where your wheels will go

Yes, that’s the Golden Rule of Mountain Biking.  Lock it in your memory.

Sure there might be a huge rut on the left side of the trail, but you’ve chosen a line or path on the right.  So keep your focus on the right side and ignore the rut.  You don’t need to look at it again.

Likewise if there’s a nasty rock up ahead that your derailleur needs to miss.  If you know there’s room for you to pedal through then focus on the gap, not the rock, and look only where you want your wheels to go.  If you focus on that rock too much there’s a greater chance you’ll hit it.  Why?  Because, like I said ‘Your wheels will follow your eyes’.

And the fourth important tip when learning how to ride a mountain bike…

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4. Ride Hungry

Ride with a hunger for the challenges that lay ahead.  A can-do attitude.

  • Expect the unexpected and be ready to change your gears, your position, your speed and your mind
  • Enjoy the challenges, the changes in the trail, and the way that it all puts you to the test

Then ride home happy with the knowledge that everything you experienced on this ride, whether it seemed good or bad, is going to help you on your next ride.

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Super Tip: Night rides make you a better reader. You can’t rely on your peripheral vision as much at night because there is no sun lighting the whole countryside. For this reason mountain bike night riding is the perfect way to boost your trail reading ability.

Night riding will teach you to focus only on what really matters on the trail and not the distractions to the sides.  Start night riding with some buddies and you will advance your skill of following the golden rule of mountain biking fast.  Grab a set of mountain bike lights and find out for yourself why mountain bike night riding is so much fun!