Summer is in full swing and you might find yourself looking for new ways to recreate in the outdoors. I got into mountain biking while living in Florida (weird, I know) and it has become a consistent and important part of my life. It’s a great way to experience nature, stay active, and quench the thirst for speed.
That last part may not be so important to you, but hearing the sound of your tires rolling over dusty singletrack can be quite addicting and I highly recommend anyone give mountain biking a try.
Before you do, I have a few tips that I feel are worth sharing. As you and others start to get out on the trails, this increased usage means more people on the trails and more wear and tear on the areas we love to enjoy. Keep that in mind as you head out and use the below as general guidance for getting yourself into mountain biking.
Know the Rules
There are signs posted at every trailhead, but in the age of instant gratification and Instagram, no one pays attention to those anymore. Before you scroll off to one of the other 37 tabs in your browser, here are a few important rules to follow when on the trails.
- Hikers (and equestrians) always have the right of way
- Hikers will usually yield since it’s easier for them to hop out of the way. Let them make that decision though
- Uphill bikers have the right of way
- Even if you’re getting your sick shred on, get it under control and let the mouth breathing climber have the trail
- Announce yourself to pass
- Or, get a loud ass freehub
- Skids are fun, but tear up trails that are already getting a ton of use. Save the big skids for the bike park
It’s not a common occurrence, but I’ve seen riders without helmets enough to have to make this statement: Get a helmet.
And don’t be a cheap ass. If you balk at a $100 helmet, do you really think your own brain is not worth $100? If you don’t then I guess by all means ride without one. But if you value consciousness and full motor functions, get a helmet.
Another thing: Don’t start yourself on the harder trails. Know where to go as a beginner, and know that there are plenty of options for riding that can provide you with a relatively safe experience. If you’re in Denver, try Bear Creek Lake Park for some fairly mellow singletrack. When you’re ready to spice it up, go to Green Mountain or North Table Mountain.
For a real test of skills head to White Ranch, but only after you’ve tackled a number of other trails in the area, Boulder and Fort Collins included. I’ve seen plenty of riders hiking down the trail, or digging their bike out of the brush after being separated from their machines.
Golden is a fun town with quite a few options, so here is a guide to our favorite trails in the Golden area.
Start with More Than You Need
Then lighten the load from there.
When I started, I had a camelbak full of gear. It was stuffed with tubes, water, sandwiches, maps, trail books, and all sorts of other goodies. Now, I ride with a single water bottle for most rides between 2-3 hours and occasionally take a snack bar just in case.
As you get more comfortable riding, gain skills, and understand your hydration and nutrition needs you can pare down your riding kit. Until then, don’t get yourself stuck out there with no food or no idea how to fix things.
So, start with more than you need and as you ride more and realize what you don’t need to bring with you, start to leave things behind.
Bring a Friend
Friends have the ability to make you do stupid things, and that might be beneficial when it comes to mountain biking. We’re not talking 20 foot sends over a road gap here. We’re talking riding features that you might be uncomfortable with.
If you’re riding with a friend who has already been mountain biking, or find a local group to join, you can see how others ride certain features on the trails and feel more confident giving it a go yourself.[list resources and organizations]
Choose Components Wisely
The discussion around ‘what bike do I need?’ has the potential to take hours, or even span weeks, so to simplify a little bit, we’ll just assume you’ve selected a type of bike and are narrowing it down based on components.
Fancy bike components look nice, and they sure do work well, but rocks don’t give a damn about your $200 rear derailleur. Mountain bikes get beat up so it’s important to know where to spend your money as certain parts have a greater benefit per dollar spent. What are those parts?
Start with your touch points. Choosing grips, a saddle, pedals, and shoes that fit you will make your ride much more comfortable and therefore way more enjoyable.
Another area to splurge a little is suspension. Most entry level bikes have front suspension that is a spring inside of a tube. This is going to wreck your wrists and make you question why you wanted to try this activity in the first place.
Find a bike that has decent air suspension, or even coil, and give it the ol’ bounce test before you buy it. If it feels harsh in the bike shop, imagine how it’ll feel on the trail.
Now, if your budget doesn’t allow for going with a more expensive model, get what you can afford then attempt to make adjustments to your suspension. If that still doesn’t work, look at picking up a used fork on craigslist or even last year’s model on sale. Most bikes under $800 or so have terrible suspension and as you start riding harder trails replacing that anchor of a fork will change how your bike rides – for the better.
We did this with Brandi’s bike and it was a world of difference. The Suntour fork the bike came with was even too stiff for my 200lb self to compress it much, so we scored a used Fox F100 on craigslist, changed its oil and seals and now it’s a plush dream. You don’t have to go spray painting yours like we did, but who doesn’t love a custom bike?
If you’ve got your touch points and suspension where you want it, another area to look at are your tires. While buying new tires can be an expensive proposition, when they’re sometimes $70+, they can last a decent amount of time and will help give you more confidence when riding. This is because the tires your bike comes with are often a little more generic in that the tread pattern is made to be suited to a number of riders and a number of riding situations.
For example, an entry level hardtail will likely have a low profile tread that is useful on bike paths, mellow trails, and gravel paths. If you want to ride it on trails, where there is more dust and rocks, those treads won’t provide the grip you need.
Finding tires that suit the type of riding you’re doing and the terrain will provide better traction, in turn giving you more confidence to ride new things as your skills progress.
Other than those areas, most components these days are pretty damn good and it’ll only be over time that you start to figure out what you like and what you don’t like. Years ago I had SRAM drivetrain components on all my bikes, but now I’ve switched over to Shimano for everything.
Keep an open mind and don’t judge your friends because they thought buying a Reverb dropper post was a good way to flush their money down the toilet.
Know the Basics
There are three main things you’ll need to learn to successfully wrangle your mountain bike: braking, shifting, and cornering. Once you have an understanding of how these three things work together, your trail riding experience will be much more enjoyable as you’ll have more control over what you’re doing.
You have two brakes for a reason. Don’t only use your rear brake – that’s how you skid all over the place and lose control. As is the case with motor vehicles, the front brake will always be doing the most work and has the greatest impact on how you slow down, so you can use this to your advantage.
One important note: try not to grab your front brake too hard while in the middle of a corner or when your weight is too far forward. In the corner you’ll end up washing out and if your weight is wrong you’ll go over the bars. Use the front brake to your advantage, but learn to modulate, which means adjusting how much pressure you apply to the levers, by practicing front braking in different situations.
Most bikes have at least 9 gears in the back, with drivetrain manufacturers offering options from 8-12 gears, and another 1-3 in the front. Depending on your riding style you’ll figure out what gearing you need, but even if you like to smash the pedals, shift every once in a while to make life a little easier for you.
Also, just because your bike comes with a granny gear (the little tiny one that lets you spin up everything) doesn’t mean you use it every time the trail gets a little steep. Some riders like to spin to win, but on loose surfaces you’re going to lose traction and spin out at the first hint of a little bump in the trail.
When mountain biking, try a slightly harder gear to get yourself some extra traction.
There are a lot of little knobs on your tires that help provide you with grip, but the knobs for cornering are located on the outside of the tire. To get to them, you need to lean the bike over and this will allow those knobs to dig in and maintain traction through a corner. The knobs in the center of your tire are really only there for braking and straight line grip – they’re fairly useless when it comes time to make a turn.
Cornering is something you should always practice and it is one of the things that separates a good rider from a great rider. There are tons of how-tos on YouTube, so search for how to ride flat corners, ride berms, and cornering when it is off-camber. Learning those three techniques can be applied to most situations.
Practice in a Parking Lot
Don’t get clipless pedals and head straight to the mountains. Practice goes a long way in keeping you safe on the trails and is best done in a controlled environment.
You can practice technique in your neighborhood, a local park, or in your driveway and what you’re trying to do is minimize the variables so you can learn the technique.
On a trail, you’re dealing with uneven surfaces, loose terrain, and lots of other things. Instead of launching yourself down the trail and figuring you’ll deal with it when you see it, practice with homemade stuff first. You might think you look stupid bunny hopping water bottles in your driveway, but you’ll look (and probably feel) even stupider when you mess it up on a trail and send it over the handlebars.
Here are a few things to try:
- Use cones, or even empty craft beer cans, to set up a cornering course
- Roll off of a curb to feel what happens to you and your bike when descending and dropping off little ledges
- Place a pinecone or some other small object on the ground and try pop the front of your bike up and over it
- Find a gentle slope and practice braking: what happens when you only grab the front? The rear? And both at the same time?
- Practice trackstands, especially if you have clipless pedals
The #1 piece of advice I could give for any rider, at any skill level, is to look ahead as far as the trail allows. Staring at your front wheel puts you in a reactive state, where you’re only dealing with what is in front of you at that exact moment.
Lifting your gaze lets you look down the trail and spot obstacles before you get to them. This allows you to ride in a proactive state, creating a safer, smoother ride. It also helps slow things down, much in the same way looking down the road while driving feels slower than when you look out the side window at the trees and telephone poles whizzing by. This gives you time to spot a line, stay relaxed, and keep an eye out for the hikers you need to yield to.
Get yourself a pair of chamois shorts – and don’t wear underwear with them. Trust me on this one.
Now go get out and ride.