Mountain biking is quite possibly the most fun sport you can do on a mountain.
The sensation of speed in nature, working your bike through intricate, rapid movements, the raw thrill - in these ways, it’s closer to downhill skiing than road-riding. And, just like skiing, it’s scalable. It can be a peaceful, meditative cruise through the woods or it can be a terrifying bomber descent and an absolutely fantastic way to obliterate your body.
This is why mountain biking (or MTB) as a sport requires knowledge. You have to know about your terrain, your gear and your own skills so you know what to buy, how to ride it, and where to go. Read on for some tips!
At a minimum, mountain biking requires you to be decent with a bike. Let’s assume you know how to balance, how to shift gears, how to brake and how to turn the bike by leaning it instead of swiveling the handlebars. You don’t need to be an expert and mountain bikes are actually okay to learn on with their big tires, but you should be able to get around pretty well before you start worrying about dodging rocks.
Next, we recommend you find a local bike shop to support. This isn’t a sport where you want to wing it and buy everything online.
A great shop can help you in countless ways. But what bike to get?
MTB is unavoidably a gear-intensive sport. It requires patience and maintenance, or at the very least, money. It’s not as bad as, say, trad climbing or windsurfing, but better gear does make you a better rider (to a certain point).
For a new, decent mountain bike, we’d recommend spending around $1000 if you can swing it. A $600 bike can get you by, but we recommend investing in something solid. Biking technology has improved dramatically since the bike you rode as a kid. Newer bikes are lighter and stronger. They also have sharp brakes and clean shifting. What you’re looking for is a trail bike from a good brand like Giant, Talon, Cannondale, Santa Cruz or others. These usually come with decent components, tires, shocks and so on.
You probably don’t want to spend more than $1000. At a beginner’s skill level, you’re not going to get much out of a $5K Enduro bike other than a hole in your wallet. You won’t know how to maintain it either.
You’re much better off learning on a cheaper bike and upgrading it as your skills improve.
That said, if you do have the funds, the number one MTB upgrade that will make the biggest difference is a dropper post. This will let you adjust your saddle height at will, giving you much more comfort as you traverse up and down slopes. After that, a rear-suspension can make a big difference, but plenty of MTB experts ride on a hardtail.
Prioritize the fit of the bike as well. It should feel comfortable. A cheap bike that fits you is always better than a pricey bike that doesn’t.
You’ll generally be able to feel this out, but keep in mind the type of riding you’ll be doing. A big 29’er is faster, with better rollover, whereas a 27.5’er is more playful, with better maneuvering. The latter just might be more comfortable. Again, a good bike shop can help you here.
You’re also going to want a decent helmet (because a fractured skull isn’t sexy, no matter how great your hair looks), glasses (unless you want bugs in your eyes at 20 mph) and biking gloves. You’ll want a bike pump, light maintenance tools and chain lube as well.
You also might want to upgrade the pedals.
Most likely, you’re going to want flat pedals with pins, and matching “flat” riding shoes.
The pins give the pedals much more traction than the slippery pedals you’re used to while still letting you hop off at a moment’s notice. Beware - the pins are sharp! You will want high socks while you ride to protect your shins.
The alternative type of pedals are “clipless,” with matching clip-in shoes that give you more power. But, as a beginner, you’ll have enough to worry about without being locked into your bike as you slowly fall into gravel.
The other question that a bike shop might ask you is if you want “tubeless” tires.
These are self-sealing tires that are vastly more puncture-resistant. If you can, get them. They require a little more setup, but not having to worry about swapping out tubes is liberating.
From here, you’ll need to do some research on good local trails. Again, your bike shop should be able to help. Otherwise, sites like MTB Project are quite useful. You’re looking for easy rides with fire roads or nature trails.
When getting ready for your ride, check your ABCs. Your Air (in your tires), your Brakes and your Chain. Pick up the bike by the frame and spin the tires. They should rotate freely and respond to braking. Tire pressure is a personal comfort thing but most riders find comfort between 25-35 PSI. Lower pressure gives you traction over rough spots whereas higher pressure will make you faster on easy terrain. If you’re mostly riding on asphalt and well-maintained dirt, higher pressure will work.
When going uphill for an extended length, make sure your seat is high enough for your legs to almost extend. When you need more traction, slide to the front of your saddle and use your weight. Try to think ahead with your shifting. Shifting while going up a steep slope might pop your chain. Once you get comfortable here, you would be shocked at the inclines you can ascend.
MTB is a terrific workout… sometimes a little too terrific. If you’re not in cycling shape, this will be hard the first couple times. Stick with it!
Downhill is where the fun really happens. The most important thing to do, after lowering your seat, is to get your legs into the “attack,” or “ready” position: one foot forward and one foot back so that they’re both standing on the same invisible plane. Depending on if you’re goofy or regular footed, one foot will feel better forward than the other.
The ready position will let you stand up and lean back in a kind of crouch, with your butt hanging back, over the rear wheel. Squeeze the saddle with your inner thighs. This position will give you drastically more control, letting you lean your bike under you. While you might adjust your pedal height on sharp corners, getting comfortable in your ready position should be a top priority.
Another important thing to note, whether you’re on singletrack or wide roads, is to follow a “line.” Picking and nailing this line is very important and requires millisecond moments of decision-making to avoid rocks and take corners at the right edge. There’s a strategy to this, but don’t over-focus on what’s right beneath you. Keep your eyes further down the road and let your peripheral vision do the work.
As for braking, you should have one finger on both brakes. Use both brakes at the same time but beware of your front brake.
It’s stronger than your rear one and if you slam it by itself too hard you can go right over the handlebars. This is traditionally known as “bad,” in the biking community. If you do find yourself falling, try to keep your weight back, behind and away from your bike, and don’t fall on your wrists. Or your head. If you’re nervous about a section, don’t be afraid to hop off and walk it until you feel more skilled.
When it comes to riding, keep in mind that you will be sharing these roads with other cyclists, hikers and their dogs. Go slowly around blind corners, say hello and consider wearing a trail bell if it’s a busy place. Note that the uphill cyclist always has right-of-way. Hop off and let them pass.
While tips on maintaining your bike could easily be its own article, the most important thing to do is to keep your bike clean. A simple rag or brush can do wonders. Your biggest priority, beyond making sure most bolts are tight and the wheels spin freely, is to keep the chain and derailleur free of dirt and well-lubricated. Also, maintain the tire PSI.
A bike shop can do everything else, but if you get at all serious about riding, you will want to learn how to do most maintenance and repairs (fixing a broken chain, adjusting the suspension, etc.).
Lastly, if you have tires with tubes, you’ll need to know how to change them or patch them. A YouTube video will help more than we can, but most riders will ride with a spare tube and tire tools in case of thorns, nails or other punctures. It’s less a matter of “if” than “when” you’ll get a flat.
Everything else will come with practice and riding with more skilled people than yourself. The bike shop can be helpful in finding friends to ride with, too! Good luck and enjoy the open road!