Mountain Biking: A Beginner's Guide

 

Mountain biking is a great sport, but starting from total-beginner is a bit scary and confusing. No one likes to feel stupid and clueless and we all hate looking bad. Unlike this guy...

mountain biking beginner's guide

Mountain biking is another one of those outdoor (sometimes) extreme sports where a lot of experts and bike shops give wildly unhelpful and unrealistic advice.

So, I will give you my best and most practical advice.  I am assuming you know how to ride a bike already.  And I am also assuming we are talking about single track mountain biking on trails. More about riding styles

Let’s start with the gear.

The bike. The most important and obvious piece of gear is the bike. Now, here I am going to tell you something quite different than you are going to read on everyone else’s online “mountain biking guides” : I find that most bike shop sales people are not helpful in my estimation (but finding the right one is absolutely essential). Prepare to stand up to the onslaught of what I will call, only-2000-dollar-plus-bikes-have-wheels-that-turn-bullshit. When you are a beginner you do not need an expensive bike, with high-end components. But on the other hand you don’t want a cheap low-quality bike that will have a short life once you quickly advance from beginner to intermediate to advanced. Cheap bikes with low quality components will be heavy and will not shift smoothly. This combination will quickly have you on the road to Quitsville. Used bikes seem like a good idea but they are a TERRIBLE IDEA. You need to go to as many bike shops as you can until you find a special bike shop guy/gal that is really helpful. You need to find a shop guy/gal that will honestly, humbly, and enthusiastically show you good priced entry-level performance mountain bikes that cost between $500-$1000. What you are really paying for is the right to bug the living shit out of a really helpful person who’s going to be able to answer all your clueless questions about trails, bikes, bike maintenance and everything else today, tomorrow and forever! He/she is the key to making this all work.

 

What kind of mountain bike? There are several types:

1- Rigid: A rigid bike that has no suspension on the front fork or rear. Not much to say here other than you’ll just get beat to a pulp and hate mountain biking before you get a chance to like it. Bad idea.

2- Full-suspension: Full-suspension bikes have suspension in the front and rear, which improves comfort and helps you ride more technical terrain. The problem here is cost and weight (light, like a hardtail, is really expensive here) when you’re not sure whether you’re ready to commit to big new sport. I’d definitely wait for your second bike to get a full-suspension bike (unless you’re swimming in cash). Better idea.

3- Hardtail: a bike with suspension shocks on the front fork, but not the rear. These are more affordable, which for your budget, will allow you to purchase a bike with better components that are lighter. Hardtail bikes also have better handling than entry-level full-suspension bikes. Best idea.

mountain bike types

Bike fit and sizing?

This is where your best-buddy-for-life-shop-guy comes in. Listen to him/her.

Listen to him/her.

A bike that is not the right size for you is torture. And may lead to immediate overuse injuries that kill your budding new love for mountain biking. More advice on bike injuries

Learn more about the different types of mountain bikes

Helmet. Listen to your shop-guy, but think affordable-priced helmets from the good manufacturer’s like Giro, Fox, POC, Bell , etc. Get the lightest, most vented helmet THAT FITS THE BEST in your budget range. Your helmet should be level on your head, just above your eyebrows, and fit pretty snugly. No excess movement. The chin strap should be pretty snug and the straps should go on either side of your ears and not cover them.

mountain bike helmets

Gloves . Here you have basically three choices, full-fingered padded, full-fingered non-padded and half-finger. Full-fingered gloves give you the most protection from blisters and the ground (should you wreck) and dramatically improve grip. ALWAYS WEAR GLOVES. Padding can relieve stress on your palms, but often create hot spots and numbness due to the fact it compresses between your handlebars and hand. Half-finger gloves keep your hands cooler, for the sweaty hands people. Free the Powder makes all three designs. Our focus is on breathability, fit and best-possible grip.

mountain bike gloves

Shoes and pedals. Decisions on these two items always go together. When you are just starting out mountain biking you need to avoid clip-less pedals. Use flat platform pedals. Clipless pedals more-or-less connect you to your bike with a metal cleat. They release by twisting your foot. Eventually, when you commit to a clipless shoe-pedal combination and get SKILLS this will become reflexive but until those skills advance you’re going to get trapped a lot in your pedals and hit the ground. Lots and lots of practice on flat pavement is needed before you take the plunge into clipless pedal shoes. Don’t let your shop guy tell you different. Buy dedicated mountain bike shoes, which are different from hiking/walking shoes in that they have a stiff, inflexible shank which makes pedaling easier and lessens foot fatigue. These “touring” mountain bike shoes should be softer, shoe-like shoes, not racing-looking cycling shoes.  They’ll also be a lot easier to walk in during the inevitable trials and tribulations of learning to mountain bike.

mountain bike shoes

Sunglasses. Absolute necessity. Trees, branches, dust and rocks are going to hit you in the face so you’ll need protection. Try to find sunglasses with a bit bigger lenses for protection and consider getting glasses that have multiple inter-changeable lenses. That can be really helpful in different light situations. Make sure they are comfortable with your helmet.

mountain bike sunglasses

Hydration pack. Forget water bottles and any desire to be minimalist cool. Hydration backpacks are great for carrying all your extra required gear.

hydration pack for mountain biking

Extra required gear that goes in the hydration pack: you are going to get flat tires, so you’re going to need to learn how to change a flat with your hand pump, (compressed air gadgets are nice, but when you run out of them you’ll be SOL), spare tire, and puncture patch kit. You’ll also need a muti-tool for all kinds of random fixes, a small FIRST-AID kit and a minimalist rain jacket that NEVER leaves the backpack (unless you’re wearing it).

mountain biking essential gear

Clothing:

    -Tops. Don’t wear cotton t-shirts because when they get wet, they stay wet. Get a reasonably-priced cycling specific jersey that has rear pockets and a zipper in the front. Some fabrics are a little better than others but they more-or-less work the same in terms of moisture wicking, etc. There are lots of designs and cool graphics to choose from.

    mountain bike jersey

    -Bottoms. Mountain bike / cycling specific shorts are pretty essential for protection from saddle sore. They have a padded chamois that helps a lot. Baggy mountain bike shorts have become the fashion trend lately, but functionally, they are the opposite design from what works best: lycra spandex bike shorts. I cannot wear anything else.

    mountain bike shorts

    -Socks.  Bike-specific socks are great because they are made of breathable materials that help wick moisture away from your skin. But you can always find cheaper athletic socks at Walmart or Target. Just make sure they have ZERO cotton in them. Polyester, nylon, etc… is essential unless you prefer terrible, painful blisters and cold feet.

    mountain bike socks

    OK, so now you’ve got your gear and you’re ready to go mountain biking!

    How and where? Stay tuned for our upcoming post!