How (Not) to Introduce Newbs to Mountain Biking


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!