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Learning the Safe Way to Ride a Mountain Bike

Think it's a no-brainer? Even experienced riders say a free course can teach them a lot.


"It's like riding a bike," as the saying goes--meaning once you learn, you don't forget. So when I recently got a mountain bike, it never occurred to me to "learn" how to ride it. One harrowing trip down a steep trail after a rain, into washouts that resembled the Grand Canyon from my vantage point, and I was ready to seek a little expert advice.

On the first Saturday of each month, a free "Introduction to Mountain Bicycling Skills" is offered in the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area, one of the Southland's most popular destinations for those seeking backcountry trails. Cyclists 10 and older wanting to learn the basics for a better bike ride can show up at 9 a.m. on Saturday and pay the $2 parking fee at Malibu Creek State Park. Bring a bike and helmet (state law requires helmets for those 17 and younger).

Of the 15 people gathered on a recent Saturday morning, a group of 10-year-old Boy Scouts and their dads was among the seasoned bike riders who didn't appreciate the class until after it was over. The boys belonged to Pack 227 from Agoura Hills. The young daredevils who've grown up exposed to BMX acrobatics and extreme sports made it clear they were taking the class only to earn a Scout badge.

"Why do we need to do this?" Aaron Kovisto asked his dad, David, before one drill. "I ride on a hill to school every day." But like everyone else in the group, Aaron later admitted that he gleaned some valuable information from the drills and instruction.

Gaye Lowenstein, a 39-year-old financial advisor from Santa Monica, said she hoped to learn a few tips for her safety. "I've been riding for about six months, and I've had some pretty major falls," she said. "This is definitely beneficial."

The Santa Monica Mountains provide a gorgeous, rustic "classroom" of old oak trees, rolling hills and meandering rivers, with many inviting dirt trails. Mark Langton, a volunteer instructor and member of the Concerned Off-Road Bicyclists Assn., teaches the monthly bike skills course. His sidekick is Ezra Dweck, a volunteer with a mountain bike unit, a trail patrol sponsored by the California National Parks and the Santa Monica Mountains Recreation and Conservation Authority.

The first rule of mountain biking: Wear a helmet. "I've seen people out there with their helmet cracked open, and people without helmets with their head cracked open," Dweck warned. During our four-hour "crash course" on how to handle a bike over obstacles, going downhill and under road conditions ranging from rocky to deep sand, the importance of a helmet hit home.

The first hour of class takes place in the relative calm of the paved parking lot at the state park entrance. The instructors cover equipment and simple maintenance, including a demonstration on how to replace a flat tire tube. A tip: If a thorn punctures a tire, it's best not to pull it out because "you might get a couple more miles out of the tire," allowing you to return to civilization before it goes flat.

The parking lot provides nice obstacles and a level, smooth surface on which to practice balance and efficient riding techniques. After a quick check to ensure everyone's handlebars and seats were about equal height, we rolled one by one over the cement stops to get individual pointers on hand position and posture. Riders should stay low, with elbows bent and relaxed, and hands always on the brakes, thumbs under the handlebars.

The techniques sound simple, but after repeated attempts, it's obvious that proper posture takes some practice. We learned that going up a hill, your rear stays in the saddle; going downhill, the knees stay bent and rear remains up off the saddle. Trouble can arise going downhill when the brakes are applied and the bike stops but the body keeps going. "It's important to keep your body low, in the crouch position," Langton said. "Keep the pedals level, stand up, bend your waist and arms to get that nice center of gravity."

Climbing requires more finesse than most mountain biking skills, Langton said. The key is to keep the bike going straight forward and to shift early, when you start to feel the pitch of the hill. "Look where you want to go, not at the bushes--don't look at the bad stuff," Langton shouted as we pumped our way up the rugged trail.

Another tip: Be on the lookout for hikers and equestrians. They don't always welcome mountain bikers because they can scare animals or unsuspecting nature lovers. Announce your approach, saying, "Bike behind." If you plan to learn mountain bicycling skills, take the "mountain" part literally. Be prepared to sail down a steep hill and trudge up an even steeper, when-will-it-ever-end trail, which is the grueling class finale. Whether cyclists show up for class with a new bike or one with mud or even cobwebs in the spokes, the instructors assume the riders have a certain level of physical fitness.

"This was a great idea; I learned a lot," said Scott Whelan, who accompanied his son, Adam, to the class. The boy was just as enthusiastic, not only because he earned a Scout badge, but also because the class was actually fun. "My favorite part," Adam said excitedly, "was going downhill."

Mine too--now that I know how.


"Introduction to Mountain Bicycling Skills," 9 a.m.-1 p.m. Saturday. Meet in the parking lot at Malibu Creek State Park, Las Virgenes Road and Mulholland Highway, Calabasas. Free; parking, $2. Bring your own wheels and helmet. Information: (805) 480-0500 or

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