If you’re just getting into mountain biking, you probably have lots of questions about the sport.  For example, what kind of bike do I need? Why do I need gloves? How do my experienced biker friends go so much faster?  Hopefully the questions (and answers) below will help you to improve your biking skills, and feel a little bit more knowledgeable on the trails.

What kind of bike do I need?

To be honest, I started mountain biking in college, about 18 years ago, on a bike I bought at Toys R Us.  I don’t recommend that, but at the same time, you don’t have to spend a ton of money on your first bike. When I got back into biking in 2007, the BF and I bought a used bike from the rental fleet of a local bike shop. It was a Rocky Mountain Element 30 and it was the perfect first bike for me. If you wreck and scratch it, it’s ok!

There are lots of great brands out there, and you can certainly find lots of bikes online, but for your first one, head down to the LBS (local bike shop) and ask lots of questions.  Try out several if you can, by renting different ones for a day here or there, or even borrowing one from a friend if you can. No one says you have to buy one right away.  Finally, do your research and start with Maddslacker’s 2012 post “How to Choose Your First Mountain Bike.” And be sure to follow that up with Greg’s two-part budget buyer’s guide, for hardtail and full-suspension mountain bikes

26" wheels? 29" wheels? In the end the "right" bike is different for everyone.

26″ wheels? 29″ wheels? In the end the “right” bike is different for everyone.

What kind of pedals do I need?

I think it’s always best for beginners to start on flat pedals. There’s no point in causing unnecessary wrecks right from the get-go with clipless pedals. As you progress you can decide for yourself if you want to stick with flats or try the many varieties of clipless pedals that are available.

For more information on pedals, be sure to check out these articles:

Do I need special shoes?

Not at first. A good pair of light, grippy hiking shoes or running shoes will work when you first start out. Just make sure to tuck the laces under so they don’t get caught on anything!

How do you go so fast?

When I first started biking my BF was so much faster than me on some trails.  I just couldn’t figure out how he was going so much faster when I was pedaling as fast as I could.  Then I discovered the secret: shifting. It’s hard early on to focus on body position, braking, not falling over, and shifting all at the same time, but each is important for various reasons.  If you’re on a mostly flat trail and your friends are way ahead of you, chances are they have shifted into a harder gear. As Ned Overend says in his book, How to Mountain Bike Like a Champion, “shift early and often.”

On downhill trails, I think speed just comes with practice and comfort on your bike.  Once you start to bike more often and get more experienced, you’ll be comfortable going at faster speeds.

18 Road's Kessel Run in Fruita is a great place to get comfortable with speed.

18 Road’s Kessel Run in Fruita is a great place to get comfortable with speed.

But really, why should I bother shifting gears?

I have a friend who just started biking a month or so ago.  We’ve taken him out on some tough trails and he’s a great rider, but he never, ever shifts.  His bike is in his middle ring in the front all the time.  When climbing hills, he’s sometimes forced to stand up and climb; this can tire him, or any rider, out quickly. You should bother shifting gears because using a variety of gears helps you to be a more efficient biker. Using easier gears for climbing can save your leg strength if you’re doing a long ride; using harder gears on flat terrain helps you to utilize momentum while you’ve got it! Shift. Shift. Shift.  Practice just riding around the park or up and down a dirt road.  Shift through all your gears to see how they feel and which ones you like best. I tend to have a few gears that I use most often, but I use a wide variety of gears on longer rides depending on the terrain.

Then again, there are those bikers who love singlespeed bikes… but I suggest you make that decision for yourself after biking for a while first!

Do I really need gloves?

I suppose you could ride without them, but they certainly help to prevent not only blisters and calluses while riding, but they protect your hands during crashes, too. From my experience, the first thing to hit the ground during a crash is often a hand–whether we want it to be that or not! If that hand is protected by a glove, it’s much less likely to end up bloody.

How much space should I leave between me and the person in front of me?

I like to aim for a car length of space between me and the person in front of me.  Some might say that much isn’t always necessary, but if you’re riding a rocky trail where someone might have to stop in the middle of an obstacle, being a little further back will keep you from running into them. On long, flat stretches I might ride closer so that I can talk to whoever is in front of me, but when I’m not sure of the terrain I tend to stay back a little bit. The last thing another rider wants is to feel like someone is breathing down his or her neck. If you don’t know the person in front of you and you realize you’re going faster than them, politely ask if you can pass.

How do you find “the line”?

Often when bikers talk of riding a particularly gnarly section, they’ll tell you to “look for the line.” What does that even mean? How do you find the line? Here’s what I do: If this is a brand-new obstacle, I get off my bike and go look at the obstacle itself. I look for a path that will be the easiest way down.  Usually, I’m looking for a line that doesn’t require too much steering into the obstacle and that will allow me to avoid getting my tire caught between rocks or in crevices. Sometimes I may use one line through an obstacle for several rides and then find a different line that I like better. It’s different for every person: some people like the straightest possible line even if it means running over bigger rocks. Others like the path that avoids big drops, even if it means a little more steering.

Looking for the line on a big drop on Fruita's Horsethief Bench trail

Looking for the line on a big drop on Fruita’s Horsethief Bench trail

What if I fall?

Well, you will.  It’s just like when you first learned to ride a bike: you fell. But you got back up, you got back on the bike, and you tried again because you wanted to learn how to ride.  It’s the same with mountain biking.  I’ve been fortunate (knock on wood) to not have too many bad crashes. Most of them could have been avoided, but they still happen. So you’ll fall, yes, but you’ll get back on the bike and keep riding.

Why do you need so much “stuff” to go riding?  

As this article showed, it’s always good to be prepared with tools for repairing your bike, your tires, and even your shoes.  You really don’t need very much stuff: a good multi-tool, a pump, spare tube, and patch kit are what you’ll use most. Add in water, a few snacks, and your phone for emergencies and photos, and you’re all set!

In all those bike videos riders are always jumping and riding really hard stuff. Do all bikers do that?

Mountain bikers come in all shapes, sizes, and personalities, and their ride types are just as varied. Some people love smooth, fast trails. Others love really rocky, technical rides. Still others prefer epic 30-40 (or more) milers. The point is to have fun. No one says you have to jump or ride something you don’t want to. We all go out there and have fun. That’s what all bikers do.

Eventually, "fun" might include riding drops like this. But no one says you have to jump them!

Eventually, “fun” might include riding drops like this. But no one says you have to jump them!

How should I climb a steep hill? Seated or standing?

I thought standing was the way to go when I first started biking, but many times that can end up wasting valuable energy and it can cause your bike tire to spin out. I try to stay seated as much as possible, but if I’m climbing a steep hill and I have to also go over a small ledge or obstacle, I might stand up then. For the most part, though, I believe a slow and steady grind in a comfortable gear while seated is the way to go. For more information, be sure to check out “9 Ways to Climb Better on Your Mountain Bike.”

How much front brake should I use when going down a steep hill?

Learning to brake when going down a steep hill is a case of trial and error. If you use too much back brake, your back tire will start to skid; if you use too much front brake, you might cause your front wheel to come to a complete stop, which could cause you to go right over the handlebars.  When thinking about your fingers on your brake, think of it this way: two fingers is probably too many. One finger on each brake should be enough.  When going down a steep hill, keep your weight centered over your pedals and gently use both brakes to control your speed and any skidding. You want to have enough speed to keep rolling over any rocks in your way, but not so much that you feel out of control. For more information, be sure to check out “How to Brake Your Mountain Bike.”

Every beginning biker has different questions, and every more experienced biker has a different answer/opinion/anecdote for you. Try different bikes, different trails, and different riding partners, and eventually you’ll find the answers you need.

Your Turn: What thoughts or tips do you have for beginning bikers? If you’re a beginning biker, what questions do you have? We’ll try to answer them in the comments below!

# Comments

  • jkldouglas

    I thought this was a great article. So many of us have been riding for so long that we forget what it was like when we first started out. The article did a great job of addressing many of the questions that beginners are sometimes to affraid to ask.

    • delphinide

      I agree, great job Julie! It addresses a lot of basic, but important, questions without making anyone feel like a newb…and a good refresher for seasoned riders too.

    • mtbikerchick

      Thanks guys! I appreciate it 🙂

  • delphinide

    By the way, the “line” is usually where most of the tire tracks are. In your photo, the “easier” line is on the right, which you can roll, the “harder” one is on the left, in the shadows…which you should huck with reckless abandon.

    Also, the best bike for you is the one you can afford.

    The correct number of bikes you need is N+1.

  • Doomed

    Correct number of bikes is n+1-d where d equals divorce

    • John Fisch

      It’s always about striking the right balance.

  • Jared13

    Great article!
    I find the key to going fast is to not use the brakes. 😆

    For the two fingers on the brakes, brake type and brake lever placement play huge parts. If they have v-brakes, they may need two fingers to pull the levers with enough force to get the bike to stop. If they can adjust their levels in far enough to grab just the end with one finger, that should allow them to use just one finger. Or they might not have the hand strength and still need two. If they use two, I recommend using the middle finger and the ring finger. That leaves your pointer and pinky to (death) grip the bar. That how I rode for a year before someone told me to move my levers in.

  • BigBri

    Love the article, I would like to add a few thoughts;

    1) When looking to by a new bike, it can’t hurt to take an experienced cyclist friend with you, they can sometimes help you spot things about you and the bike that others may not notice. For me, when it comes to buying a bike, how it feels when I ride it is the most important thing, not price, Brand name or gadgets and equipment.

    2) When it comes to braking, here again I think it is a matter of what you are comfortable with. I prefer using two fingers on the levers and for steep down-hills I like to do a series quick, rapid pumping of the brakes. This helps to prevent locking up the wheels and causing skids or the over-the-handlebars thing and helps to maintain your speed. The two finger technique also puts my index fingers up by the shifters (My bike has thumb-index finger shifters) if I need to do some quick shifting as well.

    I’ve been cycling for over forty years and things I do instinctively today have come from years of trial and error and finding what works best for me. Just keep in mind that there is no one right way to do anything so find what works for you and have fun.

  • adelatorre

    Should I get protective gear?
    Highly recommended if you’re a geezer like me. And the more the better.

    It lets you crash/fall and go riding the next day rather than “healing” for a week or more.

  • Keith Leppanen

    I enjoy your articles! Thank you for the good information! I have a lot to learn and am having a good time! I would love this style of article for fat biking/winter riding too! Thanks!

  • roadandmud

    “But really, why should I bother shifting gears?”

    Funny how many times I heard this question from new bike riders and people who never rode a motorcycle or driven a car with a manual transmission.

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