Mountain Bike Lingo | Cycling 101

Peter Glassford
by Peter Glassford
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Mountain Bike Lingo | Cycling 101

As a mountain bike coach, I like to compare the experience of new riders to the off-road world to how a traveler might feel navigating a new country. Language is often a barrier — and ultimately the secret — to meeting people, learning about the area and immersing in the culture. For new mountain bikers there is a lot of lingo that can initially be confusing, but once you understand the key phrases, you’ll quickly start making progress and having fun!


The position we get into before we do all the skills we do on a bike. Practice finding this centered position with your elbows and knees bent and the cranks level. Get low and look where you are going. Learning to be strong and balanced in this athletic position is the base for all other motions like cornering and jumping, and it helps reduce how often we crash.


Pedals for mountain biking will either be flats or clipless. Clipless pedals have a mechanism to connect the bottom a cycling shoe to the pedal through a cleat on the bottom of the shoe. Both pedal types have advantages — clipless pedals allow you to be efficient in your pedaling and are used by top racers. I recommend using both in your training to boost your technical skills and fitness.


Flat pedals have no mechanism to connect your shoe to the pedal, riders typically wear stiff-soled shoes similar to skateboarders. Both pedal types have advantages with flat pedals allowing you to easily put a foot out (or ‘dab’) in technical terrain and also force you to learn to push into the ground to execute skills, like the bunny-hop, properly. I recommend using both in your training to boost your technical skills and fitness. 


Manuals (and wheelies, below) may remind you of playing on your bike as a kid but both terms are critical for all mountain bikers. The manual is a move that helps us clear the front-wheel over rocks, roots and rollers on the trail while we are standing up. It can be taken to extremes by holding the front wheel up for extended durations while cruising down a long descent or over a series of bumps on the trail. For most riders, a small wheel lift done by assuming your ready position and shifting your hips back while keeping a strong grip on the handlebars greatly increases your mountain biking ability.


An important related term is wheelie, which is sometimes used synonymously with ‘manual’ but generally describes when we use our pedal stroke to lift the front wheel from a seated position. While you could use this skill to show off, it is more important to get a small front wheel lift when you are moving slowly. Technical terrain or a steep uphill with a step are when you will use this skill. To execute it, maintain a firm grip on the handlebar, look ahead and lean back as you execute your power stroke. Learning to unweight the front wheel for just an instant, using just a quarter of a pedal stroke, is your first step.


The skill of hopping your bike in one smooth motion over logs, rocks and even jumps is called a bunny hop. This term is widely misused because it leads many riders to lift both wheels together — doing their best impression of a bunny hopping. The critical concept here is that you want to be more like a dolphin. Lift your front wheel first using your manual technique and then as you hit the highest point in the front wheel lift, push your front wheel down as you jump up in the air. This is a complex maneuver, especially if you have many years of two-wheel hops to overcome, but spending time on your manual front wheel lifts helps you get there.


These are all related to outcomes of a race. DNF means a rider Did Not Finish. DNS means they did not start. DQ indicates a disqualification, perhaps for missing a turn and going off course or for unsportsmanlike conduct. Finally, a less official term is DFL, which means indicates a rider was very much in last place.


Mountain bikers must be familiar with air pressure, the amount of air in your tires or suspension and two different types of valves. Most cycling tires are now using presta valves. These are skinnier than the schrader valves you see on cars, bike suspension and older bike tires. The Presta valve allows you to easily let air out but requires a special pump, or a ‘’Presta adaptor’ (I leave one on one of my valves).



Tire pressure is very important for traction and comfort. It’s measured in pounds per square inch or PSI. I recommend all of my clients, in all disciplines, get a digital tire pressure gauge (I like this one) to ensure they know what pressure, or PSI, they are running on each ride. If you keep track, you will be confident in what you can run for different conditions, or realize why you flatted or hit your rim. Very few pump gauges are accurate so don’t trust them!


Mountain bikes come in all shapes and sizes. One way to differentiate bikes is by their suspension, or lack thereof. Rigid bikes have no suspension. Hard-tails have a front suspension fork, and dual-suspension, or ‘duallies,’ have suspension for both wheels. Knowing a bit about your suspension can boost your riding ability and enjoyment. Adjusting the air-pressure in your suspension can be intimidating but it is worth learning. Read your manual, ask at your local shop, and check whether your bike manufacturer offers any guidance (i.e. Trek). There will be a variety of setups based on how you ride, your body size and the type of bike you have.


The amount the shock moves when you are on your bike in your normal riding position is sag. Sag ensures your suspension is being used completely and that the shock can move outward to help keep your wheels on the ground. Many manufacturers indicate how much sag should be used right on the shock so you just need to get into your typical riding position, supported by a friend or a wall, and check if the shock compresses into that range (usually 15-30% of total travel). If the shock barely moves, you should decrease your air pressure slightly with a shock pump, whereas if the shock moves a lot, you should add pressure. Take notes and tweak gradually from the stock settings based on how your bike feels on the trail.


This is an unfamiliar word, pronounced as “de-rail-yer” if you are new to cycling, this is simply the part on your bike that moves the chain up and down. You have shifters on your handlebars that pull a cable, or on some bikes, sends an electrical signal to the derailleur to move a set amount up or down to go into a different gear.


Many mountain and cyclocross bikes now have only one front chainring and 10–12 gears in the back, on the cassette. This generally makes the bike lighter, helps the chain run in a straighter line and minimizes some of the mechanical issues that can arise from shifting between chainrings (i.e. chain-suck).



Downshift and upshift are very confusing terms so I prefer to use ‘shift easier’ and ‘shift harder’ with clients to avoid confusion. Downshift comes from manual car/truck transmissions where you would shift from higher numbered gear (e.g. fifth) to a lower-numbered gear (e.g. third) when you came to a hill or slower area. The important thing for a mountain biker is to learn to shift quickly to avoid a cadence that is too low or too high.


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About the Author

Peter Glassford
Peter Glassford

Peter is a cycling coach and registered kinesiologist from Ontario, Canada. He travels frequently to work with athletes at races, camps and clinics. He also races mountain bikes for Trek Canada and pursues adventure in all types of movement. Follow @peterglassford on Twitter, or check out his online and in-person coaching at


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