I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: I was a fortunate beginning mountain biker.  I had a great teacher: he was patient and willing to explain everything to me.  Everything.

But maybe you don’t have someone right beside you to tell you some of these things… so I’ll be there for you. Here are 10 not-so-obvious tips that you, as a beginning biker, need to know:

1. Don’t wear underwear under your spandex mountain bike shorts.

I thought I was the only person who had ever done this.  It turns out that several other people that I know tried the same thing.  Nope.  No undies.  Just the shorts. Trust me: you’ll be much more comfortable this way.  Same thing goes if you’re wearing baggy shorts with a liner.

See Also
By Jeff Barber

2. There’s this stuff called Chamois butter… and it’s awesome.

Get some.  You can find it at any bike shop and probably even at your local pharmacy (although Vaseline will work too).  Use this before long rides, or even short rides if you’re just starting out.  Just use it around your nether-regions to prevent chafing.  You will be very glad that you discovered this stuff.

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3. Don’t try to get on the seat before you pedal, or try to rest with your butt on the seat.


This (above) is uncomfortable and looks like you don’t know what you’re doing.  Plus, you’ll discover it’s very difficult to start pedaling like this, or stop and rest like this for long.

I have pictures of me from my first ride standing like this.  Soon though, the BF explained to me a better way to stand and get started pedaling.


This is much more comfortable. To get to this position when you’re coming to a stop: have your pedals at the 12 and 6 o’clock positions.  Slow down and put the foot at 6 on the ground. Step forward and down with the 12 foot once your other foot is secure.  This way, you’ll step down in front of your seat.

When you get ready to start again, adjust your pedals so that one is at about 10 o’clock. Put your foot on the pedal and leave the other on the ground.  Gently push off with the ground foot at the same time you push forward with the pedal foot and up onto your seat .  You’ll get a little momentum and balance yourself this way.  Then you can easily get your other foot on the pedal and start moving.

4. Keep your fingers on your handlebars–not your brake levers.

If you keep your fingers out like this (and I know it’s easy to do because we all get nervous and want to be able to slow down immediately), you’ll go over a tiny tiny drop and flinch.  When you do, you’ll end up grabbing your front brake and fly right over your handlebars.

You don’t want that.

Keep your hands lightly on your handlebars. I can get my finger out and over my brake lever in a split second.  I still feel secure, and I know I’m not going to endo from accidentally grabbing my front brake.

5. Nobody else is thinking about the fact that you’re: going slow, walking, or examining a drop.

I know it seems like everyone is. All those strangers riding that drop as you carefully walk around it?  They don’t care that you’re walking it.  Probably they all walked things at some point in their bike lives.  We all have. I still do. There’s no shame in it.

One day you’ll get tired of walking it and you’ll have enough confidence to ride it.  No one expects that to be right away.

On the same note, this is your ride.  Go at your own pace.

I can remember going out on a mountain bike ride very early in my bike life with some guy friends from work.  I wasn’t fast, I didn’t ride lots of technical features, and I was sure I’d slow them all down.  In the end, it didn’t matter.  I was riding for me.  I rode at my own pace and caught up to them at certain rest stops.  We all had a great time, and I learned that I didn’t have to try to keep up.  I could ride and rest when I wanted.  You can too.

6.  Watch other people.

The easiest way to learn how to ride up or down a feature is to watch other people do it.  You can follow a friend who is a better rider down a drop, follow them up a drop, or just watch them a few times.  You can ask them to show you their line, or to ride it again so you can follow (at a safe distance).  Many times this has been the way I learned to ride features, including this most recent one:


I got my friend to show me exactly where she went down the drop.  Once she did and I was sure of the path I wanted to take, I rode it. For years, though, I applied tip #5 and walked it, without shame!

7. If you ever decide to get clipless pedals, know that the clips can be adjusted so that it’s easier or harder to get your feet out of the pedals.

If you think it’s too hard to get your feet out of clipless mountain bike pedals, have someone adjust them for you. If you think your feet are popping out too easily (like every time you go over a drop) tighten the clips a little to hold your feet in more securely.

8.Sunglasses aren’t just a fashion statement.

In the past 4 days of mountain biking, I’ve experienced rocks, wind, and the need to duck around tree limbs.  Sunglasses double as eye protection when you’re out on the trails.  In fact, mountain biking is what forced me to finally get prescription sunglasses.  I had to have something to wear when I rode!  They don’t just protect you from the sun, but also from scratched corneas.

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9.  Shift before the hill.

Look ahead and see the hill coming.  Shift into an appropriate gear for the hill and start pedaling up.  If you can still pedal comfortably, it’s ok to shift; if you are struggling to keep the pedals turning, don’t try to shift into an easier gear.  If you do, you might break your chain.


10.  Gravity is your friend.

Going fast can be scary.  I know.  I’ve been there; I still don’t like to go fast, but I’ve gotten much better at it over the years.  Sometimes, though, a little speed is necessary.  If you’re out at 18 Road on Kessel Run, you’ll want some speed to get up to the top of some of those berms with enough momentum left over to get you down the other side. If you’re rolling down a drop, sometimes going too slow can cause you to get stuck on a rock you might otherwise just roll right over.  Keep up a little speed. No one is saying you have to break a Strava record, but you shouldn’t be outpaced by a turtle, either.

Mountain biking is a great sport.  It gets you outdoors, forces you to focus your mind on something other than work or politics, and gets you in great shape.  These are just a few tips to help your biking experience be even more awesome.

Your turn: What’s the one bike rule/tip you wish you’d known sooner?

# Comments

  • Greg Heil

    Some great tips here, but there are lots more that could be added! Here’s one: don’t run your tire pressure too high. I think a lot of new riders think that the harder the tires, the faster they’ll go… but hard tires reduce traction and handling, which is much more important on singletrack than having a harder tire. I’d recommend that you run your tires with as low of an air pressure as possible, while still guarding against pinch flats.

    But then of course, a corollary to this would be to upgrade to tubeless so you don’t have to worry about pinch flatting! For more upgrade tips, check out this article: http://www.singletracks.com/blog/mtb-gear/10-upgrades-for-less-than-100-that-will-radically-improve-your-mountain-bikes-performance/

    • maddslacker

      +1 for tire pressure. I was on a group ride a couple weeks ago and a recent convert from road to MTB was complaining about handling and other issues. I finally asked their tire pressure: 65psi …

    • mtbikerchick

      Tire pressure is SO true! As is the upgrading to tubeless. I’m so glad we did that. Granted it’s always wise to still carry a spare tube, but your chances of needing it are greatly lessened 🙂

    • jwood94

      Yes with a lower pressure your gonna have better grip great point, BUT what happens when you do a drop or hit a rock or case a jump. Your rim is gonna take the hit. From my stand point as a bike shop worker your tire is suppose to take the hits not your super $$$ rims. Now your like I wonder if this guys runs his high ? No I don’t I run mine around 35- 45 seems to work best

  • Jeff Barber

    My favorite is #4. It’s true that no one else will care if you’re slow on the trail. We all started out slow and cautious. Just focus on your own ride and let the more advanced folks find their way around you.

    There is a bit of etiquette when walking but it’s pretty simple: try to get out of the way in case someone comes up behind you. And if someone is coming toward you, remember the rider going up has the right of way.

  • maddslacker

    Great article! Takes me back to when I was a noob.

    Not all clipless pedals have tension adjustment. (Crank Bros, for example)

    • mtbikerchick

      Good point on the Crank Bros. One more reason not to use that brand! haha.

    • Scott Anderson

      I can’t think of any reason NOT to use them… they’re such a simple and bullet proof design. I’ve mixed and matched old and new pedals and cleats with no issues. Bashed them on rocks… no worries. Now my old SPDs and SPD-Rs… don’t EVER mix old cleats with new pedals… the first time you come to a stop and CANNOT clip out… not pretty.

    • dgaddis

      I rode Crank Brothers for years. Finally got tired of rebuilding them and unclipping unintentionally as the cleats wore out (I went through two sets a year!). Even in the ‘hard’ setting they were still too easy to clip out of. Finally made the switch to Shimano and couldn’t be happier. Adjustable tension, much firmer hold on the cleats (don’t feel like I’m standing on ice), and better reliability. Only downside is with sticky mud, they do clog up whereas CB never had an issue in mud. I rarely find myself in those situations though, so I’m okay with that trade-off.

    • jpavent

      Try Time pedals. I ride in North GA clay and can easily get the thick mud out whereas with SPD it never would have happened and Time still have a little platform.

    • gar29

      Love my Crank Brothers. Rode them for years. I’ve had them for quite some time and have had 0 durability issues. CB’s don’t have a tension adjustment, but with their design, you don’t need one, in my opinion.

    • Scott Anderson

      Actually, Crank Bros. have 2 settings… based on which direction you mount the cleats. I’ve always set them at the lighter (easier) release and never had a problem with unwanted release. And never a problem clipping in in even the messiest conditions.

    • mtbikerchick

      That’s good to know. I know a lot of people who have trouble with Crank Bros, so it’s good to hear something positive!

    • socaljohn

      Don’t want to start a war here but I moved to flat pedals and love em! Not going back. As in most things it’s a personal preference.

  • roknfnrol

    Great tips. #3 for sure for every beginner I ride with. My wife simply will not heed this tip for some reason.

    • dgaddis

      HA, I came to say the same thing. Growing up as a kid I practically lived on my bike, I rode all the time. I built trails and rode off jumps and through creeks and all over our neighborhood. I rode BMX in highschool and through college. My wife didn’t grow up on a bike like that at all. She knew how to ride, and rode around her grandparents yard sometimes after school, but that was about it, and didn’t ride at all from pretty much middle school until after college. She just can’t wrap her head around getting started from a stop without being seated. I’ve tried to teach her, and it just ends up with both of us getting frustrated at each other.

      Those of us that grew up always riding, little things like that come natural, we’ve never even thought about it. For people who get into it later in life, it’s not as easy.

    • Bubblehead10MM

      Also can’t get my girls to listen on this.
      I think the 12 and 6 description is backwards though. I would say, just before stopping, smothly transfer weight from seat to bottom pedal, then step top foot down as you stop.

    • mtbikerchick

      I like that description.

  • mtbikerchick

    Just a quick note on the whole “thumbs on the handlebars” thing…a lot of comments about it are showing up on the Facebook feed. I don’t always ride like that. If I’m on easier, beginner-type trails I do; if I’m on more technical terrain I shift things around and wrap my thumbs. If I do that ALL the time though I end up with too much tension in my shoulders. It’s a complete personal preference and that’s stated in the article too.

  • ScottW0817

    Haha, #1 killed me. I went through a ton of undies before I found that one out.

  • delphinide

    Great article!!! Like Greg said, there are always more tips. Biking is kind of like playing golf…you have to do about 15 things at the same time to get a perfect swing, but you can’t focus on any one of them too much or you’ll miss the ball. I’ve been working a little with my wife who is a beginner mountain biker, so I have a few things I was thinking about too while reading this article:

    -try to learn to keep your feet parallel on the pedals when not pedaling…especially when coasting downhill. if you get in the habit of putting one foot down, then you will eventually strike a rock or root and fall down. yikes.

    -learn to lean back and squat down when you are going downhill or over technical features. keeping your center of balance low and back will make you more stable, and you can ride faster with confidence.

    -i personally recommend riding with your index fingers ON the brakes. learn to feather them (barely press them). don’t just use your back brake…you will slide and skid more and lose control. the front brake has a lot more power and will slow you faster, and you will only go over the bars if you are going down something steep and grab the front brake hard (but not if you are leaning back^). if you are scared of this anyway, then do what I just said not to: use just the back brake until you learn to feather it well, then do both

    -do what she said: keep your hands light on the bars, and keep your feet heavy on the pedals. if you hold onto the bars tightly, you will get fatigued early and crash

    -steer with your belly button. pretend your belly button is a flashlight illuminating the trail. if you point your belly button where you want to go, your hips and shoulders will follow. trust me.

    -more importantly…look where you want to go, not where you don’t. if you stare down a rock or cactus you want to avoid, chances are you will run right into it.

    -if you think you are going to crash, you probably will. like she said, there is no shame in walking, but if you know for sure you are about to go down, disconnect from the bike–jump away from it–and try to crash without the bike getting in your way. don’t hang on and try to ride it out. your bike will be fine, and most of the time, you can walk out a crash or tuck and roll a little bit with some light scrapes. if you crash with the bike, it usually hurts a lot worse. i wish i knew THAT when I was first learning–because it still haunts me…as I sit here and type with a broken finger 🙂

    • mtbikerchick

      Awesome additions! There are SO many good tips out there and so many that just come with practice and time. The whole thing about crashing is absolutely true…The other day we were practicing the one really hard ledge on Rustler’s loop, trying it from different approaches, etc. Twice I’d made it on a new route: straight up the middle. The last time I didn’t pop up enough, hit a rock, the front tire came up and I don’t know how in the world I didn’t end up on the ground. I was trying to disengage, hop down the rocks around me, spinning around…and finally I was able to let go of the bike and jump back, saving myself from any injuries. ..INSTINCT! Maybe we should add that…just trust your instincts!

    • dgaddis

      re: crashing – all depends on the situation IME. Low speed techy section where you expect to crash and have an ‘out’ in mind, do what you can to land on your feet and/or get away from the bike. But high speed unexpected diggers? Ride it to the ground – keep hands on the grips and feet in the pedals. Trying to catch yourself is a great way to break a collarbone (the most common broken bone for cyclists FYI).

      I just try to avoid crashing all together LOL. Doesn’t always work out, but, what can you do.

      Also, keep the cranks level – another thing I have to remind my wife of. Watching her go around a corner with that inside pedal less than inch off the ground is scary! She’s slowly breaking that habit though, thankfully.

    • mtbikerchick

      Yep, there are some crashes that you just never see coming…those are the ones that afterwards you sit up and say, “WTH?”

  • steeliej

    I still maintain that wearing underwear is no big deal. I sweat a ton when I mountain bike and have yet to find a chamois that wicks it away. I wear performance undies (not cotton – duh!) that dry quickly and put a barrier between me and the soaking-wet diaper that the chamois turns into very shortly into any ride (no one else has this problem? Really?). No chafing issues ever, so I go for comfort!

  • Thomas Steven Mihalyi

    Just transitioned from a roady, something I learned on my first singletrack was to not have the seat as high when riding singletrack vs road. Hard to absorb bumbs when a seat is in your crotch!

  • Fitch

    Great artcile I forwarded to many friends!

    How about “When you fall, and you will, roll with it and don’t try to stop with your hands.” Hands break and wrists sprain, but elbows and shoulders are much more durable.

    • mtbikerchick

      SO true! And yet it seems we all inevitably throw out a hand…I did it hiking the other day and was really surprised I didn’t break anything.

  • maineskiaddict

    #5 (as mentioned already) is my personal favorite. Far too often I get wrapped up in thinking about slowing others down or whether or not they are judging my speed, lack of aggressiveness, etc. In the end, I need to focus on my own fitness level and my own ability level. I think this doesn’t just apply to the novice MTB’ers. I think veterans can also learn from this simple but overlooked tip.

    Great article! Thanks for posting it.

  • LOC831

    Lower your seat on descents. So many people I see go over there handle bars because they can’t get back far enough. Get a gravity dropper seat post if you can afford one. It will be one of the best things you ever upgraded on your bike.

  • kenish

    #5 There’s a group motorcycling saying, “Ride your own ride”. Someone will always be faster than you, and struggling to keep up or beat them is recipe for a crash (motor or pedal powered). Even when you feel far behind it’s really only 30-60 seconds. On the flip side, waiting up for slower or new riders will really help their confidence, learning curve, and safety.

    #8 Essential for night riding (clear lenses of course). Lights attract bugs which always go for your eyes. More important, it’s protection from branch whacks which you’re less likely to see at night.

    • Louis Harris

      That is a great saying. I really feel like that is the most important tip. I have always ridden a bit slow and I really don’t have any loss of ego. The great thing about mt biking is you can go out to a trail and you have a tons of people out riding but everyone is one their own cloud. The also like to ride away from some of the more crowded trails that exist around the Atlanta area. The crowded trails are full of guys riding out of control.

  • katie777

    I started writing at 52. I learned a lot from my biking friends. They told me to pedal pedal pedal and I wouldn’t fall over. I discovered it was true when I ran off the trail and decided I was not going to go down. I ended up blazing a new trail back to the one I was on it rocked! He also taught me things like where I looked is where my bike would go. This was very useful when I was I was biking on paths with narrow trees. Now I ride through them like a pro! I also use gravity as my friend going down hills and Uphill and also for bumpy trails sometimes I stand up on my bike put my butt back over the seat and it makes it easier to ride at high speeds and also over the bumps save my back. I love all these tricks I never learned as a child and I share them with my granddaughter. I taught her how to ride in only 30 minutes she then insisted on going on one of my mountain bike rides with me. We rode my favorite mountain ride and she went eight miles her first day! What a memory we now have!

  • katie777

    these aren’t just bike lessons they are life lessons! and by the way it is is easy when you’re older you just have to listen!

  • Andrew Koransky

    Another tip: “envision yourself beyond the obstacle” – A couple of folks have said something similar, but I think wording it this way empowers you differently. If you can manage to convince yourself that the obstacle is of less concern… in other words, in your mind, you say “that obstacle is no big deal so I’ll start to look beyond it”, you’ll magically find yourself beyond it most of the time. In my experience, this the “zen” of mountain biking, and one of the reasons I love it!

    And one huge safety tip: NEVER ever adjust your shock (or anything else) while going downhill. Always keep both hands on the handlebars (plus brakes when necessary!) when going downhill at all times. Point in case: http://salidacitizen.com/2013/09/fundraiser-to-help-with-medical-expense-of-ramsey-lama/ .. BTW this guy is (nearly?) back on his bike last I heard, but he is very, very lucky. 🙂

  • jasmine_bragg

    I’m almost 2 years into MTB & loving all the learning curves I have with this sport. I have gone over, around, and off my bike in every direction possible. I haven’t broke anything & hope not to but learned from the majority of my crash & burns, thankfully. It has taken me 2yrs to trust the Trail I am riding, to let my bike do what it was made to do and relax my thoughts. To just go with the flo, so to speak.. lol. I have way more fun now, my speed is increasing and my confidence is strong. Because of people like ALL of you who share the Do’s and don’ts and all the suggestions and advice, in this awesome sport! So thank you from a beginner. What I wish I had learned in the beginning ( like my first ride ) lol would have been, to not go so slow and to Leave the brakes alone.

  • Kirk Lepchenske

    Look farther ahead. I had, and still do have a tendency to look right in front of my wheel. Look further ahead. On turns, especially switchbacks, turn your head in the direction you are turning. If you don’t want to hit something, DONT LOOK AT IT!

    And, to the earlier discussion about pedals. I love my crank bros and they are easy in and out for beginners. I have never had any problem at all with them. I have had them on two bikes so far.

  • Viljar Saare

    Theres one more thing. Before hopping on a bike just visit the toilet and empty all your tanks. Push out every little drop of number 1s and number 2s, because if you’re in the middle of the race it’s just not the best feeling if something wants to come out. Also doing all those things before the ride, you are way more lighter 🙂

  • David_Rogers

    I like the comment about walking around certain obsticals. .I am fairly new to mt biking and often ride with more experienced riders,
    It wasnt untill I went over the bars and busted my lip and nose requiring surgery and a three week recover that I put my pride behind and walked. If I dont feel confortable , I dont do it. I short walk is much healthier than busted body parts and no riding at all.

  • David_Rogers

    I would also like to add the neef for proper seat hight. I see a lot of newbees riding with their seat too low,

  • adorkxi

    Keep your index finger on break levers. You just rest them there. When your in over your head a split second is minutes. Also try keeping your elbows up.

  • dan113

    Some good tips here apart from keeping your thumbs on top of your bars. This is a bad idea on trails where a quick pull to avoid a slippery root/rock is required. Sure you can pull with your fingers but it’s not very stable and much more exhausting on the forearms.

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