Mountain Biking is one of the best ways to enjoy the outdoors and see the world. Explore, marvel, and soak in nature as you cruise through woods and fields, over mountains and rocks. It is unfettered access to nature! But, if you’re like most people, the rocks, roots, winding single track and steep hills can be intimidating. It should not be a prohibitive sport, limited only to those that are fearless. It can be an amazing experience that brings excitement, fun and exercise to your life. Here a few things to help you get started and hopefully take some of the edge off and teach you a bit about how to mountain bike.
If you’re new to mountain biking, you might look at a full suspension carbon bike and think, “Wow! That must be the best bike I can get!” While suspension is really great, it does not make everything easier, nor should everyone opt to get a full suspension bike if they can afford to do so. The same thing is true about frame materials. While certain materials are lighter than others, you will make a trade-off somewhere: light but not as durable, or say heavy but not as forgiving.
Let’s start with the foundation for any mountain bike, the frame. The most popular materials for bikes are aluminum, carbon, steel and titanium. Each one has its particular strengths and weaknesses as demonstrated below.
Aluminum: lighter and decently strong, but it has little compliance or “give” under very bumpy terrain.
Carbon: light and stiff, but can be easily cracked if you crash on a rock.
Steel: strong, smooth and comfortable all day, but heavy.
Titanium: light and stronger than aluminum, but not as stiff as carbon and expensive.
Now, while they all have their faults, they all make great MTB frames! There are plenty of people riding each kind out there these days, and loving them. There is no best one. You have to decide for yourself which you’d like. (Note: most shops carry Carbon and Aluminum. Titanium and Steel are considered specialty frames).
Once you’ve decided on the material, the next step is to think through what type of terrain you’re going to be riding. Rolling hills? Flat land? Up mountains? Only down hill? Do you want to race? Smooth and flowy trails? Rocky and rooty trails? A mix of everything?
An entire book could be dedicated to the types of off road bikes on the market. For the sake of simplicity, we will break it into 3 categories.
1. Cross Country (XC)
2. All Mountain (AM)
3. Downhill (DH)
An XC bike is designed to go on most trails and to do so efficiently with speed. Uphill or downhill it can handle the majority of mountain bike trails. DH bikes on the other hand, are for just that, going down hill, and fast! Heavy and very durable, these bikes come outfitted with massive suspension that makes going down a mountain a smooth endeavor. AM bikes are designed to be the true “do-it-all” bikes. With big suspension they can take very rough downhill terrain of rocks, big drops and ramps, but can also go uphill if need be. If you’ve ever ridden a MTB before on tame trails, there’s a 99% chance it was an XC bike. For most peoples needs, XC bikes are the way to go, unless you know you will be doing very difficult and technical downhill terrain.
The next biggest piece of a bike is it’s wheels. Until a few years ago, everyone rode on 26” wheels. Some bike manufacturers began producing some larger wheels called “29ers” and they’ve taken off like wildfire. Even more recently, another size was introduced called the 650b wheel which is in the middle of the 26” and 29” wheel.
26” - smaller wheels are more maneuverable in tight spaces and spin up quickly.
29” - larger wheels spin up more slowly but roll over objects more easily because of their larger diameter.
650b - a hybrid of the two attempting to maintain the smaller agility while having an easier time going over obstacles.
Again, they both have their pro’s and con’s. One thing to note is that fewer and fewer companies are making 26” compatible bikes these days as the industry is shifting towards embracing 29” wheels more fully. Since 650b is so new to the market, it is hard to say how it will be taken in, but currently there are only a few 650b compatible bikes, but that number is growing for now.
One mistake I made regularly when I first began venturing out onto the dirt, was pumping my tires up too much. I figured that they should be hard like road bike tires, unable to deflect under my weight. This is simply not true. In fact, you want your tires to have as low of pressure as you can without rolling them off your rim or “bottoming out” by compressing them to the point where your rim hits an obstacle. Pressure for tires is measured in PSI and for me at 165lbs, I always ride 25PSI in the front and rear tire.
The benefit of low pressure is that you gain more traction. The more rubber you have touching the dirt, the greater the friction will be between that dirt and your rubber. This allows you to go faster without sliding across the dirt. Looser surfaces require lower pressure while high pressure grips pavement very well. There is no right PSI for anyone, and ultimately it is a matter of preference. But if you head out, try to get your tires in the 25-30PSI range to start.
Suspension technology is evolving at a rapid rate. Even 5 year old suspension is now considered outdated as designs have changed dramatically. In this day in age, you’ve got three options:
1. Front Suspension
2. Full Suspension
When deciding which you would like to use, think back again to what kind of terrain you will be riding. How many rocks are there? Are there long rough downhills? Any drops? Do you have any medical issues, namely with your back?
Full Suspension bikes provide cushion over rough terrain on the front and rear end of the bike which increases comfort and traction in rough contexts. They also allow you to travel downhill over rocky/rooted terrain faster as they dampen your upward motion which in turn leaves forward motion uninhibited. The downside to full suspension is two fold. First, it is typically significantly heavier, as in multiple pounds. Weight of a MTB is noticeable when you are climbing for an extended period of time and when you are going over obstacles. Secondly, there is what’s called “pedal bob”. When you stand up off the saddle of a bike and pedal, whether it be for acceleration, balance, or more power, you typically want a stiff feeling and predictable feel during each of those three scenarios. When you stand on a bike with rear suspension, the suspension often times compresses a little bit with each pedal stroke leaving what looks and feels like a little bobbing action. To some, this is forgivable, but others can’t stand it. However, the rear suspension does allow you to take more paths through given obstacles without losing speed. Most would agree that for an all day bike, its hard to beat a full suspension bike which will help you save energy in the long haul.
Front Suspension bikes, or Hardtails, are particularly good at what the full suspension bikes fail in. They are predictable in the rear and thus you have good control over the bike, you can feel the terrain well underneath your wheels,, and without the rear shock/bob/weight they climb better. While these are all good things, you will find they suffer on technical and rocky descents as the rider will get bounced around as the back of the bike goes up and over every bump. This will ultimately slow you down in technical sections and force you to expend more energy to keep up your speed.
A Rigid bike is one without any suspension. More and more riders are taking them out on the trails because of how they reduce the weight of a bike sometimes by two pounds and provide exceptional front end feel for a trail. They also eliminate any front end bob that may occur when pressing down on the handlebars while standing. Seasoned riders can become very capable at maneuvering the front end of their bike in such a way as to minimize the impact it takes when going over obstacles. This not only smooths out the ride, but in some cases eliminates the need for a front shock. If you have smooth and flowy trails with little to no technical sections, this can often be a good, maintenance-free way to go.
The rest of the bike is less important as it relates to the overall performance of a bike. What shifters, brakes and derailleurs you use won’t change the overall feel of biking for you. I believe that if you can narrow down what kind of frame you want, what style riding you will do, wheel size and suspension needs you have, you will enjoy your time on the trail regardless of the rest of the bike.
Honestly, my first couple times on the trail weren’t fun. I crashed every couple minutes and walked away with enough scrapes and bruises to last me for the year. It wasn’t until I rode with a couple seasoned riders did I realize that there are a few simple things that keep you upright and out of trouble.
1. Look where you want to go. If there is a tree limb jutting into the trail, do NOT stare at it so as to avoid it! If you look at it, you will hit it. This may seem obvious, but while trying to avoid something in a panicked state, you may glance at something and your hands will take you there. Keep your eyes looking up the trail.
2. Choose the path of least resistance. Mountain biking is all about having fun, not jarring the teeth out of your head. Look up the trail and try to figure out a “line” or path you can take that will allow you to avoid as many bumps as possible. This not only makes your ride smoother, but it will keep your momentum up. Most beginner crashes happen when you’re going too slowly, so keeping your speed up is important.
3. Don’t use your front brake. Unless you are about to hit something, avoid using your front brake. Ever heard of someone going “over the bars”? Usually the front brake is involved in such incidents! The rear brake provides good power to slow you down. Additionally, if you hit a patch of loose terrain and your rear wheel locks up under light braking, it is possible to control the slide. But if your front wheel breaks loose on some dirt and begins sliding, there is very little chance you will recover. Keeping the front wheel rolling at all times is key.
4. Go faster. Again, the faster you go, the less likely you are to crash. When you hit rocks, speed helps you glide over them and keeps you upright. If you are going over a log pile, faster helps you stay balanced. Momentum stabilizes us while riding on two wheels. Thats what keeps us from falling over! Go faster and you will crash less.
Mountain biking is a fantastic way to enjoy the outdoors, regardless of if you’re doing XC, DH or AM. Remember to choose a bike appropriate for your terrain, a wheel size that will allow you to be comfortable, suspension you will enjoy riding, keep your eyes forward, use your rear brake, ride the smoothest lines and go fast! It all takes practice, but keeping these ideas in mind will keep you on your bike and off the ground.