How To: Bring a Beginner up to Full Mountain Bike Speed

I made a mistake 28 years ago.

I told my girlfriend, Diane, who would soon be my wife, that my obsession with mountain biking would not withstand attempts at intervention.

It was, I suggested, my singular path to happiness and enlightenment.

Being the tough, independent-minded gal she was (and still is), it didn’t take long for her to end up at the bike shop to buy a mountain bike. Togetherness, she surmised, should crest whatever hair-brained scheme I was likely to come up with over the years.

I was pumped.

I dug being with her and the thought of her being a kick-ass bike chic was more than I could’ve hoped for, really.

I took her to the one and only trail around Kansas City at that time and right off the bat she cratered – hard – on the infamous limestone that litters the trails in Kansas City. She was hurt… badly. The injury happened to the two most important instruments in her profession of dental hygiene. Her hands.

Pre-dating Tom Hanks in A League of Their Own, I yelled, “There’s no crying in mountain biking.”

Obviously, I was a real jackass.

The mountain bike train was leaving the station and Diane was on it. And she wasn’t so much waving goodbye as she was flipping me the bird.

That was then, this is now

A few months ago we quit our jobs to travel for roughly a year and go in search of adventure. Our collective midlife crisis had all the markings of the perfect road trip. But one thing still nagged at me…

Diane would continue being a mountain bike widow.

After about two months on the road we were headed back through Kansas City and I encouraged a visit to our local shop for a look at a mountain bike. To my astonishment, she agreed.

Big Rock in DuPont State Forest. Showing a beginner the rewards of working a bit harder is one way to encourage the journey.

Now she has become an actual mountain biker. She’s got Durango, Moab, Hurricane, Las Vegas, Pisgah, DuPont, and several others under her belt.

She doesn’t rip or roar, but she’s genuinely excited to ride and loves looking up places that meet her criteria here on Singletracks. With her help, we put together these five tips to help bring a beginner into the world’s greatest sport.

Training table: Good post-ride beer is a must for the budding mountain biker.

1. Spend the money for the right bike

My idea for a starter bike was to spend a few hundred dollars on a basic hardtail and call it good. If it didn’t take we wouldn’t be out that much money. But a better bike comes with better components, is typically lighter, and chances are it will fit better.

We ended up with a 27.5 plus hardtail because, as Diane said after riding it for the first time: “This bike is really stable and it rides more smoothly.”

The bigger tires are confidence inspiring. And they cushion the ride.

Look at plus size tires for exactly that reason. They’re stable, they have extra grip, and they cushion the trail nicely. I suspect there’s a mental edge they provide just by being there – they look like monster truck tires ready to conquer anything.

You could go full suspension, however, spending more on a better hardtail with bigger tires meant getting a better bike for the money. And after your newbie gets some time in the saddle, think of how fun it will be to upgrade. Also, and this is a personal opinion, but riding a hardtail is a great way to learn about picking lines and developing skill. Ultimately, I believe, this makes someone a better rider.

Finally, make sure the bike you pick has really good brakes. We ended up with some decent hydros, which enable easy stopping; great for beginners who might find themselves grabbing for a fistful during a panic stop (pays to discuss front brake vs. rear and the potential for endos, too).

I pushed for clipless but flats will be more comfortable for most beginners (if not all).

2. Use your experience to teach AND be patient doing it

Nothing is more fun than being around someone who is experienced and enthusiastic about riding and is patient enough to just hang and offer advice.

But… I’m not that guy.

Not sure if I hold the world record but one thing is clear: I lack even a modicum of patience.

What has worked for us is this: I get out and ride (sometimes hard) for a couple of hours with friends or by myself. After the piss and vinegar has been wrung from me, I meet Diane at the trailhead so we can go out for a five- to 10-mile ride. At that point it’s really fun to ride with and watch someone who is just learning because they get such joy out of making it through or over something for the first time.

Best not to drag your newbie down something like the big chunk you’ll experience on Bennett Gap in Pisgah.

Focus on that. You’re building confidence in your budding mountain biker. And remember how it felt for you as you learned and got better. This is the fun part for you: watching the joy spread across someone’s face as they master a challenge. But whatever you do, don’t push. Be patient, offer advice, even show them how it’s done. Session things that seem easy to you but are a challenge for your new riding partner. Be willing to help with anything they want to try but if they’re not comfortable, it’s okay just to move on.

Remove the pressure and it becomes easier to learn.

3. Help your beginner find a ride with people who are slightly better

Chances are you’re a lot better at riding than your newb.

This is a problem. And that’s because you’ll struggle to find a pace that pushes, but not too much. Go too fast and your familiarity with one another will breed resentment. After all, it’s easier to tell someone you know and care about that you’re taking your ball and going home.

Tap into the local club and see what they’ve got to offer for group rides. The local shops, too, will often organize no-drop rides that can be beneficial.

Mike, from Squatch Bikes and Brews, in Brevard, North Carolina, leads rides from the shop that (most) people can tackle.

The idea is to find a ride that is going to push your beginner, but not too much. Being tasked with rising to the challenge builds skill and cardio. But since it’s with strangers, the competitive spirit will kick in and give a new rider the opportunity to rise up.  Chances are there won’t be any “piss off, I’m going home” moments.

It ain’t easy to give in when a group of people you don’t know is watching.

4. Don’t go big… go with the flow

This should be obvious, but you probably don’t want to drag someone new to the sport down Captain Ahab in Moab. Aside from the drops that can exceed three or four feet in a few spots, rock hurts when you land on it. Breaks bones, even.

Don’t hammer double blacks off the bat unless you want to send your beginner straight out of the sport.

Instead, find a trail that flows and build some giggles and grins before you take it up a notch. This will help get the feel for how the bike responds to inputs, what it’s like to move around the cockpit, how it balances, and what reaction times are like (for the bike and the rider).

Easier trails help build confidence.

Pay off a smile with some work, meaning that if you go down a trail that flows and brings on the big grins, then add in a little climb, some work, maybe some chunky sections to negotiate. Then go for the smiles again.

This back and forth shows that the two go together. It’s the whole carrot and stick thing.

5. Clinics are worth it

This is somewhat akin to the group ride, except that your beginner will get to practice skills over and over with some instruction thrown in. And that instruction will be delivered by someone who is not you.

That removes the pressure of meeting your standards, which your novice desperately wants to do. That’s a lot to live up to… but in a group of other folks who are also learning, it becomes fun without the pressure.

Clinics, too, are often taught by people who have a certain level of skill at teaching. Through trial and error (or just mad talent), they’ve learned what works when helping others build a skill.

This is also a great way to meet others with whom your rising star can get together and ride. The tribe aspect of mountain biking is one of the best things about it, and the sooner your beginner is connected to others in the sport (besides you), the more and more he or she will want to ride. And, of course, the quicker those skills can blossom.

The more the merrier

This sport is incredible for so many reasons. But for some people, the bar seems a bit too high. A few simple steps can help lower it. And once they get the bug, they’ll probably end up raising it themselves.

This is all about the smiles …

The more folks we have out enjoying trail, the more folks we’ll have advocating for trail, building trail, and protecting the singletrack we do have. And what’s not to love–the world’s a darn far better place when we’re one big, dirt lovin’ family heading outdoors to commune with nature and each other.

Your Turn: Jump down below and leave some thoughts about the things you have done or would do to help a beginner get into the sport.

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