Mountain Biking 101
It’s easy to understand why mountain biking keeps rising in popularity … the gear keeps getting better, the trail systems keep growing larger, the pros keep pushing the sport further, and frankly, it’s just really darn fun.
If you’re a biking expert, you’re probably not reading a “101” article on biking. So, hi beginners! Welcome. We’ll walk you through a few of the basics so you’ll feel more confident as you get out there.
Mountain biking is a spectacular source of cardio exercise, with all the built-in fresh air, sunshine, and beautiful views we outdoorsy folks are drawn to. It’s about 700 times easier on your knees than trail running—all the leg-muscle exercise actually builds stability for those knees.
There are the risks of injury from crashing. You can minimize these risks by always wearing a helmet and gloves and riding within your ability. As you push your skills to new heights, work up gradually so you can feel confident you’ll execute a turn or a rocky spot successfully. And when in doubt … walk the bike! Anyone who teases you for doing so is karmically asking for a broken collarbone.
Into the wild yonder: where to mountain bike.
Here’s a common misconception: that mountain biking has to be done on a steep mountainside. It’s true, there are downhill-specific bikers who defy gravity, soaring down switchbacks and deftly hopping over obstacles. But, you can also mountain bike cross-country on winding singletrack, doubletrack roads, and gravel roads. So start wherever you’re comfortable.
Here are a few biking styles and terrain types:
- Cross-Country: This style emphasizes climbing and distance. Bikes for these trails focus on being lightweight and efficient. Full-suspension 27.5” bikes are probably the most common type you’ll see.
- All-Mountain: For all-around mountain biking with climbs followed by white-knuckled descents, full-suspension bikes are the ticket.
- Downhill: This type of riding can be found at ski resorts during the summer months or by setting up a vehicle shuttle. It lets you generally avoid uphill pedaling and make it all about the down—often an intense, steep, and technical down at that.
- Fat Biking: Grab a fat bike and you can roll through just about anything from snow to sand. These rides are great for all seasons.
- Single Track: This is by far the most common trail type, offering winding, narrow trails not much wider than your handlebars.
- Doubletrack: Twice as wide as single track, and you’re more likely to find hikers and horses on these trails, as well as fewer technical features.
- MTB Terrain Parks: These are man-made downhill courses featuring custom-built trails with elevated bridges, jumps, berms, banked corners and other technical features that challenge even the most experienced riders.
Gear up: what you’ll need.
Of course, you’ll need a mountain bike to learn on—begged, borrowed, rented, or bought here on Geartrade.
Here’s a very brief rundown of a few factors to consider as you bike-shop:
- Tire size: The most common tire sizes are 26”, 27.5”, and 29”. As a basic rule of thumb, the bigger the tire, the bigger the stuff it can roll over. So a 29” tire is a bit heavier but lets you plow right over rocks and logs that smaller tires couldn’t. A 26” tire is on the smaller end, and a 27.5” tire is a happy medium in the Goldilocks zone.
- Suspension: On the more expensive (and cushy to ride) end of the spectrum is the full-suspension bike, which has suspension on both the front and back tires for a smooth ride and a forgiving feel. The only downside is you’ll lose some energy efficiency pedaling uphill, but on some bikes you can lock out either suspension with the flip of a switch for better climbing efficiency.Hardtail bikes only have suspension on the front tire, which is less expensive and takes care of dampening much of the downhill jostling. Many people go with hardtail bikes and it’s fine for their needs.Rigid bikes are less popular these days—they have no suspension, but are often fitted with fat bike tires that can absorb bumps in the trail.
- Frame size:
The bigger the person, the bigger the frame they’ll want to consider. However, many people choose to “size up” or “size down” a little depending on their personal preference for how the bike will feel and ride. If you’re unsure, it’s just fine to read the frame size recommendations chart on the bike manufacturer’s website and use your height as a starting point. Down the road, you may get a different frame size as you fine tune your preferred riding style.
In addition, you’ll need a helmet, bike gloves, a basic repair kit, and a way to carry water and snacks. (Browse hydration packs here.) Your repair kit will save you a lot of grief in the future, because flat tires and small mishaps do happen. It might include:
- Spare tire tube and patch kit
- Tire lever
- Air pump or CO2 inflator
- A bike-specific multi-tool with a variety of wrenches, screwdrivers, and chain tool
- Chain lubricant
- Duct tape
- Zip ties
Giddy up: How to ride your bike.
First, set your seat position. Some bike seats have a simple lever to release so you can slide the seat up or down. Others require an Allen wrench to loosen and adjust (so good thing you’re packing that bike repair kit, eh?).
One of the first things to consider is your body position. There are two types of positioning:
- A neutral position: When you’re riding on non-technical sections of trail and feeling comfortable, you’ll want to be relaxed with a slight bend in your elbows and knees. Always be looking ahead 15-20 feet so you can prepare yourself for what’s coming next. Always keep your finger(s) on the brakes.
- A “ready” position: When you notice some rough terrain ahead, shift accordingly. Bend your knees and elbows gently to absorb the bike’s movements. Lift your butt off the seat and shift it back a bit so your body weight is centered over the frame of your bike.
Next, learn how to pick your line. The biggest mistake beginners make is staring at what they don’t want to hit. Keep your eyes looking ahead at where you want your tires to go—not where you don’t. (Yep, if you panic and stare slack-jawed at the rock you want to avoid hitting dead-on … you will hit it dead-on.) Keep in mind that your bike is built for this, and it likely will roll over rocks, roots, and drops better than you think it will. Keep a little bit of speed going over these little obstacles so you don’t awkwardly pause or topple over. And avoid picking a line that will require quick, sharp turns. Just let the bike flow smoothly and roll over the terrain.
Then, master the art of braking. It’s not as straightforward as it sounds. When you need to brake, shift your weight back a bit into your “ready” position. Apply consistent, controlled pressure. There’s a right balance of using your front and back brake—the front one will stop you quickly, but don’t clamp it too fast or you’ll go flying over your handlebars. The back brake is a safe bet, but if you apply too much pressure too abruptly, you’ll lose traction and skid out. The beauty is in the balance. And learn to brake before you hit a tricky section—a bit of wisdom that will pay off big-time.
And finally, learn to crash well. It’s the least fun aspect of mountain biking, but it’s important to know how to land so you don’t break something. When falling, don’t reach out to try to brace your fall. Just keep your arms in and let the bike finish its topple. In this case, you’ll probably only damage your pride. Which means there’s only one thing left to do: get back in the saddle.
Beth Lopez is a seasoned writer and creative director who loves to tell tales of adventure and discovery—and finds writing a powerful way to give a voice to people, causes, and places. Beth runs amok in the Wasatch mountains when untethered from her computer. She believes there’s no such thing as a bad ski day and considers animals her favorite people. Don’t tell her mother about her Instagram mountaineering photos.