How (Not) to Introduce Newbs to Mountain Biking

photo: oakridge.kval.com

A TV newswoman in Eugene, OR does a monthly piece in which she engages in and documents her experiences in a variety of extreme, or somewhat extreme, sports new to her and her viewers. Recently, she tried mountain biking. For the piece, she contracted a local MTB guide/shuttle company to provide her with an introductory experience–and the results were disastrous!

Perhaps seeing that she is reasonably fit and athletic, and desiring to show her and her viewers the kind of thrills that we MTB junkies thrive on, the guides took her and her film crew to a trail in the Cascade Range that is known for its fast and fun, twisting and turning, totally rockin’ downhill, but which is also popularly considered to be both technically and aerobically difficult. In fact, it rates as a black diamond, or advanced trail on the MTB maps of this area. Although she is indeed fit and athletic, she was also totally inexperienced and not ready for such a challenging trail.

Their error didn’t end there, however. They also put her on a bike she had never ridden before, locked her feet into clipless pedals which she was apparently totally unaccustomed to, and took her out wearing biking shorts and a short-sleeved jersey when the expectation that she would fall from the bike onto sharp rocks or into bushes was glaringly obvious.

Before they had made it even 2 miles up the trail, she had crashed so many times that they all gave up and returned to the van, without her ever having experienced even a taste of the exciting and satisfying experience we all know mountain biking to be. Watching it all unfold before me on the nightly news was both disheartening and frustrating. I can only imagine how many potential MTB riders were dissuaded from taking their first ride after watching this fiasco on TV.

It was not all for naught, though. There is a valuable lesson here to be learned for those of us who wish to introduce others to this thing we love so much. Namely, we should carefully and intelligently choose just how and where the neophyte’s inaugural experience will unfold. Having successfully introduced a number of now-regular and enthusiastic riders to mountain biking, I believe there are some cardinal rules we should always observe, and some fatal mistakes we should avoid.

Foremost among these is to select a trail that offers some of the features that make MTB so enjoyable and exciting, without subjecting the new rider to undue technical and physical challenges. We must keep in mind that what we are used to grinding up and flying down is most likely too much for an inexperienced rider, and very well may forever taint his or her impression of MTB.

Second, pedals with clips (a.k.a. clipless pedals) should be avoided at all costs for beginners. Even on a flat, paved road being locked into the pedals is a sensation most people find discomforting at the least, and panic-inducing at worst if they’re not used to it. Flat pedals are the way to go; they afford the new rider the psychological comfort and physical reality of being able to put a foot down should the need arise.

Third, we should keep in mind that our outings with introductory riders are not opportunities for us to get a workout or to tear it up on the trails. I know it’s hard to reign in these desires, but our exuberance should never cause our tutees to feel that they need to keep up with us, thus exposing themselves to exertion they are unaccustomed to, or to taking risks they are unprepared to face.

Undoubtedly, many of you are wondering why I would write an article that really only points out the obvious. I pondered the same question myself before putting pen to paper, not wanting to insult the intelligence of the readers of this blog. However, the reality is that for some reason the professional guides mentioned above failed to indentify and avoid the pitfalls this writing addresses. And if professionals, who should have ample experience in guiding people toward appropriate trails to ride, are capable of committing such egregious errors, it seems reasonable to assume that the rest of us might also be capable of the same.

Mountain bikers have to learn to walk, so to speak, before they can learn to run!

38 thoughts on “How (Not) to Introduce Newbs to Mountain Biking

  1. This is something that even the best of us can screw up sometimes. I feel like I’ve been riding for so long that my perception of what’s easy keeps shifting upward, leading to unrealistic expectations for total beginners. There’s also this tendency to “show off” for our non-biking friends when we get on the trail which sours the experience for them.

    I wonder if the TV newswoman situation was partially intentional… like they wanted her to get in over her head for a few laughs. Thank goodness she wasn’t hurt–hopefully it didn’t turn the viewers off from trying mountain biking one day.

  2. Oh man, what TERRIBLE guides! I can’t help but wonder what they were thinking… were they trying to show how difficult MTBing can truly be?

    I love getting newbies into the sport — it’s an easy ride, take them to a fun trail, and get people to enjoy the thrill of it all. The world needs more riders!

  3. I think that perhaps some people thought that the basic premise of a news anchor trying “extreme” sports, with the thought that there was some way she could show what that sport is actually like, is insulting. To think that you can just hop on a mountain bike and ride with the best of them is ludicrous. Some of us have been riding for years and we are self-confident enough to admit that WE aren’t even all that great in the grand scheme of things! Maybe they were trying to show that.

    The fact is, while maybe this did turn people off from the sport, mountain biking is not a walk in the park. Sure, there are easy trails out there, but even those can come back and bite you if you are new or if you aren’t paying attention. Mountain biking is painful… ESPECIALLY when you’re doing it right.

  4. I used to live there and never took a beginner on a difficult trail. I would usually take them out to the Rigdon bike trail and Salmon Creek trail since it was mostly rolling easy terrain. Putting a new rider in clipless pedals is just irresponsible. I used to ride clipless until I started riding with my kids. It got to be too much of a hassle with them stopping and starting all the time so I switched to platforms. There is more than enough trails there to find something that is enjoyable for a beginner without putting them in harms way. All this did was give someone a bad experience and tarnish the reputation of the sport.

    • The North Salmon Creek trail is my very favorite place to take beginners. Have you checked out the description here on singletracks.com? It might bring back some pleasant memories for you. Also, please see below regarding the clipless pedals.

  5. One of our News stations here used to have a very similar segment called ‘Extreme Kellie’ where news reporter Kellie MacMullan would try various extreme sports like skydiving, paragliding, white water rafting, etc. One of the segments was on Mountain biking, and it was completely the opposite of the incident you describe.
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mbfKepg48kY

    She was accompanied by then-president of COMBA Terry Breheny as well as some MTB guides and other riders. They went to Bear Creek Lake Park, which is generally considered to be the tamest MTB trail in all of Denver. (It’s where IMBA hosts the Take A Child Mountain Biking event)

    The piece covered everything from selecting gear, fitting on the bike, basics of riding, etc. (She used flat pedals, but with toe straps, eww)

    Anyway, the complete opposite of the stunt that KVAL pulled.

    On the flipside, if you watched the BBC coverage of the Olympic mountain bike races, they had a BBC news girl try the Olympic course, and she endo’ed, several times. In that case though, I think it was on purpose in a “see how hard this is” kind of way.

    Great write-up, and something we all definitely need to keep in mind when we go out with the newbies.

  6. I also think that both parties bear responsibility for what happened. The anchor for allowing herself to be in a situation that she was obviously over her head in and the guide for letting her go into a situation that was obviously beyond her skill level. You would think that the subject of experience and difficulty would’ve come up at some point before she clipped in and headed down a black diamond trail. Then again I wasn’t there so I can’t really say what actually happened. It’s just a shame that what could’ve been a great experience for her and her story turned out like it did.

  7. It doesn’t appear that she is clipped in. At the beginning of the segment, the Ibis Mojo (Porsche of MTB, HAHA) has flat pedals and she appears to be wearing the same running shoes throughout.

    It is pretty obvious however that she received no instruction beyond here’s a bike, go that way, try not to run over the cameraman. The places where she fell didn’t look all that bad, it’s just that her body position is all wrong and she was looking at what she wanted to avoid. By contrast, the Denver News segment I linked really dives into the preparation, gear selection, etc: basically the things an actual noob would need to deal with.

    For this piece, I guess I can accept the premise of “this is what hardcore mountain biking looks like” but they still could have handled it very differently.

    • This piece aired quite a while ago, and I was relying on my (obviously faulty) memory when writing it. You’re right–those are platform pedals and regular running shoes. Sorry for the error. I wish it had ocurred to me to look up the segment on the internet. The folks here at singletracks.com filled in the blanks regarding the TV station, name of the correspondent, film clip, etc. I sort of intended for it to be anonymous so as not to get on anyone’s black list. Anyway, in the end I’m glad they did the research, and I can only hope I didn’t step too hard on their toes just in case I need a shuttle ride some day when I’m too old and decrepit to pedal to the top of the hill. Another error I made (again, trying to work from memory months after the fact) was that I thought the trail they went to was the Larison Creek Trail, not the Larison Rock Trail. The former is much gnarlier than the latter, although neither is a good choice for beginners.

      • I lived in the area for most of my life so I’m very familiar with the trails in the area. I used to ride Larison Creek regularly but mostly did it as a out and back from bottom by the reservoir. It doesn’t really get techinical until you get up in the old growth or at least it didn’t the last time I rode it which was in ’03 the thing with Larison Rock trail is the steepness of it. When I was there there wasn’t a guide to shuttle you so you either had to go out and back or leave a car at both ends. I mainly rode Salmon Creek from my house in town out to the Camp Ground and back Hardesty/Goodman Creek, Larison Creek and Aubry mountain. I’m thinking about taking a trip back there to see the folks in the spring so I’m sure I’ll get some riding in when I’m there. I do think that it’s cool that there is a bike shop in town and a guide service now. That wasn’t the case when I left in ’03. I love Florida for the weather but I sure miss all of the good riding in Oakridge.

  8. Near the end of the video, the guide did say they wanted some “extreme” trails to ride on.

    And thankfully, they did mention walking some of the sections that were too difficult.

  9. That whole thing brings back some fond memories. When I was a kid (late ’70′s early 80′s) my friends and I used to hike up it with our Homebuilt BMX / Evel Knievel wannabe bikes and ride it back down to the bottom. No pads,or helmets and most of us only had a rear coaster brake. Good times for sure. Only back then you either had to swim the river or ride several miles around to get to the trail head.Now there’s a nice bridge that crosses from the river from Greenwaters Park to the trail if you want to try to go from the bottom although most people shuttle to the top and then ride down then cross the river and it’s an easy ride back into town.

  10. Maybe it’s just the perspective tricks but the parts where they crash looked pretty tame to me. I have to wonder if those guys maybe hadn’t been on a bike of any kind for years.

    That said you are totally right. Mountain biking can be freaking terrifying and you should go lightly with new people. I’ve been doing this for maybe 6 months now and it’s very easy as I develop to lose track of exactly how confusing/terrifying an entirely routine part of the trail was.

    On the other hand, watching better people handle the trail is probably the fastest way to learn.

    • “On the other hand, watching better people handle the trail is probably the fastest way to learn.”

      +1 to that. And getting dropped by faster riders over and over again until you eventually start getting dropped less quickly and then less often, and then eventually never, is the best way to get fast too.

  11. First, how is “Extreme Katie” news? Second, her show is called “Extreme Katie” and your going to diss the outfiter for taking her to an advanced trail. I’m rasing the BS flag on this article.

    • The complaint is that Katie probably convinced any number of people not to try mountain biking because they are convinced it’s horrible. I’d have to say the segment is probably not the greatest recruiting tool ($5000 bikes, falling down all the damn time), I don’t think it really did much damage. Since this is the local TV news I have to suspect that virtually no potential mountain biking converts watched it, since this is one those sports you take up before you qualify for AARP membership.

  12. Having introduced a few newbies myself, I think it is unfair to put all of the blame on the guides. I have had friends show me Red Bull sponsored videos saying “yeah, let’s do that!” only to have them look at me in terror when we finally ride and they see rocks on the trail (gasp!) and they will have to pedal uphill (horror!)

    Yes, the guides need to know how to say no, but a lot of people who don’t take cycling seriously just don’t grasp that “real” riding is a very different animal from what they learned to do when they were kids.

    • Definitely agree! When I tell people I’m a mountain biker, some look at me like I’m crazy, and some just want to lump me in as a “cyclist” with all the road bikers. These are two totally different animals, and even road bikers (at least, in the mountains) are way more hardcore than the general public gives them credit for.

      Mountain biking is fun and is accessible to beginners, but it most definitely is NOT easy.

  13. Well, to be fair to the guides, at the end the piece did include him saying “she wanted advanced so that’s what we gave her.” It sounded to me like he would have rather taken her somewhere else.

  14. I think some folks are focusing on the example of the newswoman and missing the point: that we should chill out when we try to introduce new folks to mountain biking.

    I know I’ve made mistakes in this area; heck, this summer I took my 65 year old dad out for his first MTB ride in years at Phil’s World and he took a nasty spill. I felt horrible and wished we had started somewhere easier. Now it will be a while before I can get him back on the trail with me…

  15. This really is a great blog and I have not watched any of the videos, but must admit I have made some poor decisions when introducing new riders to some of our local trails its tough not to get frustrated constantly having to stop or slow down, but the reality is if I picked a easier trail the new riders would have been able to keep up much better!

  16. My son was actually going on easy family rides when he was 5 and we always made sure that we kept him in the middle of the pack so we could keep an eye on him. When he got older and started riding more difficult trails I always kept him in front of me so I could keep an eye on him. The only down side to this was his frequent stopping to make sure that I was ok which led to me not using clipless pedals any more. I did try to coach him along the way but he generally just slammed into any obstacle head on anyway.

    • Ha ha!
      I did the same thing. My daughter stopped in her tracks, so did I. I then proceeded to do the slow tip over because I couldn’t get unclipped. She looked at me like I didn’t know how to ride. :lol:
      I learned to pay extra attention to keeping a larger buffer between us.
      Then I switched to flats because I had more fun riding that way. Oh well, lesson learned!

  17. I agree that it is very important in teaching a beginner to Mountain Bike, being that when I was a beginner I had no one teaching me, just bought a bike and went riding. I am now teaching my 7 year old daughter how to ride and I have a question. She has been riding without training wheels since 5 and just turned 7 this weekend. She actually went riding on our local trail with a Barbie Bike. I bought her a Trek MT 60 used for 100 bucks for her birthday. We went and rode the same piece of trail she had ridden before and after she got comfortable on the bike she did great. I always let her ride in front of me and I kind of coach her from the back on when to pedal and when to brake. Do you all think it is best for her to ride up front or to follow? I ask because there were several places she asked me to ride first this weekend, but I am afraid of not being able to see her and to get going to fast for her?

    • I struggled with this same issue, but my daughter tends to watch me and other riders for cues on what to do. I finally relented and let her follow behind, and I just stopped when approaching something I knew would be too dangerous.

      She is 11 now and she can pretty much decide for herself what she wants to tackle, but it was a tense couple years when I couldn’t see what she was doing every second.

      Oh, and I also started her at 7 on a similar bike.

  18. Having taught all three of my children to ride bikes (although MTB only to the last two) I can offer you this advice: Take into consideration what arrangement will make your daughter feel most confident and safe. If she asks you to go first on certain sections, it’s probably because she is feeling apprehensive. Although you may not be able to see her as well, she will feel better and you will still be able to control your (both) speed. A little crash here and there will probably less of a deterrent to her wanting to continue to MTB that the fear and apprehesion she might feel if she has to go first on a trail she’s feeling unsure about.

    • I would agree with MarcS. Go with what makes your daughter the most comfortable. The more comfortable she is, the better time she’ll have. The better time she has, (hopefully) the more she’ll want to ride.
      It’ll be tough to have her trail you but you’ll be able to check behind you often and stop and give advice/show her how it’s done for trickier sections.

  19. The point is to make it easy but also fun. Everyone that I have introduced into the sport has fallen in love with it.
    I usually let them take the lead and just let them know which way to go so they may go at their own pace. Of course its most important to start them on a trail which is fun but will not scare the crap out of them.
    Better still…I will not take someone out if I know they will not actually like the fact that its a sport but its also a workout..
    I try and make them feel completely comfortable and they must definately be prepared with a helmet etc.
    The best part is that I now have more riding partners!

  20. Sorry if this was covered in other replies above. I just saw IMBA post this to the Facebook and felt the need to respond because, although I was not involved, I saw it first hand. To be fair, “Extreme Katie” was warned that riding the trail (which was intermediate, but fast with exposure) by everyone: The Guide Service, the Bike Shop Rental, and random people like myself. She argued with everyone that she could do it and the point of her story was to “Go Extreme” in any sport. The whole series is full of her failures. And, she was not riding clip-less. They were simple flats on a Ibis HD.

  21. I was thinking something similar to benjaminbeamer. Never underestimate the power of “good TV” and what the networks are willing to do to achieve it. They wouldn’t film a segment on her riding the “bunny slopes” equivalent, because that’s just boring.

    I agree that both parties are at fault; the news station for not realizing the dangers of what they wanted to do and the guides for going along with the station’s requests, even when they had a good idea of what the outcome would be.

  22. There has got to be a trail though that would allow some regular riding with some extreme sections. Lair o’ the Bear here in Denver comes to mind.

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