WHILE MOUNTAIN BIKING IS ONE OF THE MOST POPULAR OUTDOOR SPORTS AROUND, IT CAN ALSO BE A BIT DAUNTING. BELOW ARE 6 TIPS ALL BEGINNER MOUNTAIN BIKERS SHOULD KNOW, AS WELL AS SOME HELPFUL TRICKS AND KNOW-HOW FROM TWO LONGTIME RIDERS.
Mountain biking is quickly becoming one of the most popular outdoor adventure sports. In fact, according to some studies nearly 40 million people in the US ride mountain bikes (that is just over 10% of the population).
While nowadays the two of us are pretty avid mountain bikers, it wasn't always that way. I (Madalyne) had grown up a pretty die-hard road biker and I had never really had the desire to switch from riding pavement to riding technical singletrack trails (I liked how much distance I could cover on the road). It wasn't until Luke came along that I began to see the opportunities that mountain biking presented (mostly the fact that you can explore the same stunning mountain landscapes as you would hiking, but just at a faster speed).
But in the beginning I wasn't entirely sold. It was a challenge getting comfortable on the bike and I had a very real fear of falling hard and hurting myself (knock on wood nothing bad has happened yet). And even now, so many years later, I still get a bit nervous on some of the more technical trails and especially on the really steep downhill sections (I am an unashamed walker sometimes).
At the end of the day though, I absolutely love mountain biking and am so thankful that I pushed through and really gave it an honest chance when I was first starting out. Mountain biking is challenging - it's harder in many ways than road biking, both physically and mentally. But the payoff is pretty darn amazing.
If you are someone who has always considered getting into mountain biking, then I cannot recommend it enough!
This article below is for those of you who are still on the fence about mountain biking or who are beginner mountain bikers that are still pretty nervous about riding. These 6 mountain biking tips, though somewhat straightforward, are still very important to keep in mind when you are first starting out - especially if you are like me and are a bit nervous about hitting the trails.
➳ If you are curious to learn more about the technical side of mountain biking, then definitely consider checking out this series that REI made about beginner mountain biking. Check out the series here.
MOUNTAIN BIKE TRAIL RATINGS | WHAT TO KNOW
Just like with many other sports - most notably skiing or snowboarding - there is a clear difficulty rating system for mountain bike trails; in this case, the ratings are based on 5 things:
| Trail width
| Tread surface
| Average trail grade
| Maximum trail grade
| Natural obstacles and technical features
Below is a brief outline of what you can expect from each trail rating - which is super helpful to know if you are new to the sport and are trying to figure out what kind of trails you should do (or not do... yet). The trail rating information is according to IMBA (or the International Mountain Biking Association).
GREEN CIRCLE | BEGINNER
Trails that are labeled as green circle will have 36" trail width, firm and stable surfaces, a 5% or less climbing grade and a max of 15% climbing grade. Also, you can expect some small unavoidable obstacles on the trail (like rocks and logs).
BLUE SQUARE | INTERMEDIATE
On trails that are labeled as blue square you can expect 24" trail width, mostly stable surfaces with some variability, a climbing grade between 10% and max of 15%, unavoidable obstacles that are max 8" tall and some natural bridges that you cannot avoid.
BLACK DIAMOND | EXPERT
On trails that are labeled as black diamond you can expect 12" trail width, surfaces that are widely variable, a climbing grade at around 15%, some unavoidable obstacles that are max 15" tall and many loose rocks. Also, there is a likelihood of coming across multiple technical features that can be up to 48" high.
DOUBLE BLACK DIAMOND | SUPER EXPERT
On these expert level trails you can expect routes with 6" trail width, highly variable and unpredictable surfaces, an average trail grade of 20% or more, unavoidable obstacles that are max 15" tall, many sections of loose rocks and unavoidable bridges that may be less than 24" wide. Finally, many trail sections can exceed this criteria and be even more technical (be prepared to test yourself).
Besides these four clear trail ratings, you may also find trails that fit in between - like a trail that is rated Green/Blue, or more commonly, a trail that is rated Blue/Black.
➳ Find the full guide on trail difficulty ratings here.
6 BEGINNER MOUNTAIN BIKING TIPS
1 | Understand That it Will Be Hard and That You Will Likely Fall (At Least Once)
Just like with any other high adrenaline, slightly dangerous sport, you have to be okay with failing - at least in the beginning. Mountain biking is not like road biking. It is usually a lot more technical - both physically and mentally. Know that and be okay with it (embrace the challenge!).
Also, be prepared to struggle… and to fall. But luckily, you very likely will not be riding at such a high speed that your fall will be too painful. Obviously, if you are really afraid of falling and getting hurt make sure to wear proper gear (long shirts and tights, knee and elbow pads) so that if you do fall off you don't get too banged up.
We definitely suggest finding a trail that isn’t too technical to start with and to take your time riding over the more technical sections (like steeply banked turns, over rocks and logs, and on the downhill parts). And if you do fall, just get back up, dust yourself off, take a couple of deep breaths and keep riding.
2 | Ride with People of a Similar Skill… and Then Test Yourself
Likewise, when you are a beginner mountain biker you should first try to find people that have a similar skill level as you or who are at least okay with riding easier trails (green trails are what you are looking for) in the beginning.
When you are first starting out on a mountain bike, it is more about getting comfortable on your bike and being a confident rider than anything else. Once you get there, then start pushing yourself and riding with people that are a bit more skilled than you. One of the best ways to gain more mountain biking skills and to grow your confidence is to slowly start trying harder and harder trails (like a green-blue or just a blue).
3 | Don’t Be Embarrassed to Walk or Go Slow
When you are first getting into mountain biking you might be so excited and have so much gumption that you end up going too fast too soon and something bad happens (i.e. a crash). Obviously, we don’t want to be the ones to tell you to take it slow, but we do want to let you know that it is perfectly fine to start out riding more cautiously if you are afraid or worried about falling (or just uncomfortable on your bike).
Never be embarrassed to walk those steep sections or dismount (get off your bike) when you get to really technical parts.
4 | Learn How to Use Your Gears
Learning the ends and outs of your bike will definitely help you ride better and have even more fun. One of the key things to figure out is what gear works best for you for each situation. For example, you will want to know how and when to lower your gears when you start climbing uphill sections.
But also know that as you get stronger and more confident on your bike and on the trail, your gear choice will likely change (you might not need to go into the lowest gear - “granny gear” - when you start a climb). Playing around with your gears, figuring out what works best for you, and just getting comfortable switching between them is a key step in becoming more confident on your mountain bike.
💬 INSIDER TIP: the same goes with your brakes. One of the most important things to learn and get used to while riding a mountain bike is how to handle your brakes. For example, as obvious as it might seem to just hold both your brakes (tightly) while riding downhill, instead, use your body to slow down and just gradually pull on the brakes. By doing this instead, you are less likely to fly over your handlebars (which is definitely not fun).
5 | Come Prepared with the Tools to Succeed
There are a few things you need to always carry with you when out mountain biking - especially if you are doing it by yourself. Below are some of the basic things to have in either your backpack (we like this style) or in a bike bag.
| A spare tire
| A small bike repair kit (like this one)
| Water and maybe a snack (depending on your expected distance)