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
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:
- How to Choose the Best Mountain Bike Pedals
- Making the Switch to Clipless MTB Pedals
- How to Switch to Clipless Mountain Bike Pedals
- My Journey from Flats to Clipless Pedals… And Back Again
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.
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.
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.
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!