The Down & Dirty On Mountain Biking
Like most outdoor sports, mountain biking can be a bit intimidating to get into. The jargon. The list of gear needed before you even step outside. Visions of mandatory airs or boulder-strewn trails. All this can make it a daunting task. So, we’ve created this go-to resource for the beginner mountain biking and those that are looking to accelerate their learning curve. It showcases our mistakes, lessons learned, history, events, and an assortment of other fun things that an expert or a beginner mountain biking will enjoy.
Mountain Biking Disciplines
The first thing as a beginner mountain biking you need to know is that there are multiple disciplines within it. Shocking right? When we started looking for our first bike that’s what we thought too. Like its motorized cousin the dirt bike. It all depends on the type of terrain you’ll be hitting, and it’s even categorized on racing types. They consist of the following:
The most popular, it involves riding what people call “XC” trails. These types of trails can range from fire roads to winding narrow singletrack with very little obstacles. The metal steeds used for these types of trails have a frame that’s similar to a road bike. The difference between a pavement destroyer and an off-road assassin is that your mountain variety has a thicker tire and maybe some front suspension. The focus is on making sure your pedal performance is maximized.
This is THE activity for adrenaline junkies. People who feel the need… the need for speed! It involves jumping off cliffs, rock gardens and everything else a mountain trail can throw at them. Full-face helmets, body armor, and chest protectors are the normal uniform. The preferred choice of weapon for this is less about the pedal and more about full suspension and making sure you can take anything the mountain throws at you. Think big wave surfing.
Enduro / All Trail
Think of this as the half-breed of cross-country and downhill. Similar to a Jeep, it’s when you pedal up to a summit and then get some gravity fed fun on the downhill or a mishmash of everything in one ride. The all utility tool, this is where mountain biking technology is continually pushing the boundaries. Concepts like seat droppers and on-the-fly suspension adjustments make it that you can tackle pretty much everything. Click here to read the full explanation of this awesome match-up and how it works from a racing perspective.
Where To Start
As we said above, starting out on any new activity can be terrifying. We’re not going to lie. As a beginner mountain biking, we felt like kooks. Total dweebs. It was uncomfortable. We realized that these feelings were from growth and trying something different. As we reflected on our mountain biking adventures, we’ve realized there’s a few things to keep in mind when riding. The highest on our list of the 5 tips for your first time mountain biking in the mountains is research the trail ahead.
Begin At Your Local Bike Shop
When it comes to starting off mountain biking, the best place to begin is at your local shop. Be honest and tell them you’re a beginner. They’ll give you ideas on where to ride and make sure you’re fitted correctly based on your skill level without breaking the bank. To read about our personal experience on why we started and find some inspiration, check out our article:
Once you venture out from a trailhead, the first thing to consider is trail etiquette. Most of the trails you’ll be pedaling on are multi-use meaning hikers, equestrian, AND mountain bikers can use it. If you see a horseback rider or someone on foot, yield to them, and if approaching them, announce your presence. For those that are descending, yield to climbing riders. This trail etiquette philosophy has been adopted by land managers since the ‘70s, and it’s one of the reasons why we have access. For more info about common courtesy while out on a ride, check out IMBA’s rules of the trail.
Fueling Is Key
There are many reasons for getting exhausted on a bike, but one that most novice and intermediate cyclists don’t even consider is the importance of fueling up during a mountain bike ride. If you’re only going out for an hour, your body should be good. It’s when you creep past the hour mark that suddenly things start happening. No matter how good in shape you are, you’ll crash after about two hours of exercise. But you don’t want to over feed either. The most your body can process is around 30 – 60 grams of carbs per hour. A great option is to pick up some Gu energy blocks. To learn more about fueling and why it’s important:
Find A Good Teacher Or Coach
Like any sport, what’s the fastest way to get better at it? Get a mentor, or better yet, find a coach. We’re very fortunate that our client and good friend at A Singletrack Mind is one of the best mountain bike coaches in the business. Once we took their two-day core fundamentals skills clinic, the amount of confidence, fun, and overall experience we had on our mountain bikes was a game changer. While the old adage says “it’s like riding a bike”, we found out that’s not the case with mountain biking. If you want to up your game to the next level or even just feel comfortable on a bike, then a mountain bike skills clinic is a great idea. To read about our experience, head over to the article It’s not just like riding a bike… our personal experience at a mountain bike skills course.
Mountain Biking Gear You Need
The amount of technology that goes into bikes these days is insane. While the upper echelon models can be as expensive as a car, you don’t NEED one when starting out. And just like a vehicle, you can continue to upgrade the parts on the bike as you get better or more into it. A good place to start is to pick up a demo bike from your local shop. These usually go on sale at the end of summer / early fall and can take hundreds if not thousands off the price. Or, if you got your eyes on a brand new one, think about buying last year’s model. We bought our current Norco Fluids for around $2K a few years back, and they’ve been great steeds for us to learn on.
As a quick overview, here’s a few of the must own items for mountain biking besides the bike:
You’re going off road which means obstacles, and if you do fall, keep that investment of your brain intact. Simply put, this is one piece of equipment that you shouldn’t be frugal on. The simple rule is if you’re going lift-accessed, wear a full-face helmet (like motocross). For normal pedaling like cross-country or enduro, the Giro Fixture helmet is a great option. It has a visor to block out the sun and MIPS protection. Standing for Multi-directional Impact Protection System, this is the gold standard in helmets and is something you should ALWAYS look for when buying one.
This is NOT optional. At a minimum, they’ll help avoid blisters or calluses. And when you do eventually fall, those hands will hit the ground. Granite rocks, thorny bushes, tree stumps, and a bevy of other surfaces will be there. Look for a pair of gloves that are like a mullet. Mesh party on the back of your hands to keep them cool. Leather palms for business to make sure you don’t skin your digits. DO NOT buy cut-off gloves. We’ve heard horror stories of people losing finger nails due to this.
Just like riding without gloves is a bad idea it’s also true for glasses. The next time you’re on your favorite singletrack take a look around. You’ll find dead tree branches, rocks, and a host of other items that could cause some serious damage if you fell on them with your eyeball or if your tire kicked up a piece of debris. Heck, it wasn’t until we saw our friend smash his face did we realize the importance of shatter proof glasses. Fortunately, even if you want to be frugal and drop only $10 you can still be safe. To get a rundown of the best MTB glasses for all price ranges and what to look for in a good pair peer into our in-depth guide found here:
In’s & Out’s Of Bike Chain Lube
We’ve been mountain biking for years and it wasn’t until our good friend made an off-handed remark “You running wet?” that bike chain lubes are NOT all the same. There’s a few classifications like wet, dry, ceramic, and wax with hybrids in between. If you live in a climate that gets a decent amount of rain you don’t really have to worry. Unfortunately, in Tahoe our conditions get dry. We’re talking Sahara dry. The dust clogs everything including your pores and gunks up your chain like nobody’s business. That’s when we began to research and realized we were running the wrong lube. During this time of year we’ve switched to “dry” and couldn’t be more grateful. If you want to learn more about lubricating the busiest part in your ride and how to maintain it check out our in-depth article: My Profound Realization Of Bike Chain Lube… It’s Not All The Same.
Essentials For Mountain Biking
There’s nothing worse than being miles from the trailhead and you bust a tire, break a chain, or worse, get injured. It’s always good to hope for the best, but be prepared for the worst. We were fortunate enough that when our first emergency did hit, we were less than a ½ mile from our house. At a minimum when you go out for a bike ride, have a spare tube, basic bike tool, and a mini pump. For the full list of what we carry on our rides, check out our article:
This next set of items aren’t necessary for a beginner mountain biking, but can help you enjoy the ride that much more. From innovations like the seat dropper post to a chamois, we listed these upgrades in the order we bought them when we first started riding.
A Chamois & Other Ways To Make Your Ride More Enjoyable
As you begin to creep up the miles from ten, twenty, and up to thirty-five miles in day, something happens. A topic most want to avoid or are too ashamed to talk about… a pain in the you know what. Your bike seat hurts. Well, guess what? You don’t have to live with this agony. It’s called a chamois or padded shorts. These are a life saver! To learn more about what they are and other ways to make riding more enjoyable:
After the chamois, one of the most amazing pieces of technology that has come to mountain biking is the dropper post. Most of the newer bikes come with one, but if you don’t have one, this is a great accessory to pick up. The idea is simple. When going downhill, you want to lower the seat so that you can have better balance. Regrettably, most bike trails are a combination of uphill and downhill sections. Luckily, the seat dropper allows you to raise and lower the seat on a whim by pressing the trigger. It’ll do wonders to your riding!
Just like your bike from grade school, the pedals bikes come with are lacking. The bigger the area, the less likely the foot will slip off. How much of a difference can they really make? Well, when we picked up Deity Black Kat pedals, it felt like we went from a slip n’ slide to a four-wheel drive grippy platform. Game changer for us. We’ve also heard from friends that the OneUp Components Aluminum Pedals are awesome too!
Mountain Bike Shoes
Like any sport, having a shoe specifically designed for the activity will help even as a beginner mountain biking. Mountain bike shoes have a similar style / feel of a skate shoe, except skate shoes are designed to have a soft sole and mountain bike shoes typically have incredibly stiff soles. This is to make sure your feet don’t slip off the pedals. Of course, you can go clipless if you want to be more efficient on your climbs. For us, it’s all about the beers after the day so more pedaling equals more beers. The Five Ten brand is the standard when it comes to mountain bike shoes, but we’re big fans of RC or Ride Concepts. They’re based in Truckee, California and make an AWESOME shoe for an affordable price. For a full rundown on the best kicks for platform pedals, what to look for in a good pair, and more check out our in-depth mtb shoe guide found here:
We haven’t gone this far just yet in our continual investment in products. There are a few big advantages on going tubeless. For starters, they’re lighter meaning less weight. Second, you can run a MUCH lower tire pressure translating to a much easier ride over rough terrain. In addition, lower tire pressure means less work climbing. This is because you don’t lose any traction. Lastly, if you do puncture a tire, it’s a quicker fix. The sealant inside of it will self-seal and all you need is a quick squirt of CO2 and you’re off! For more about this style of tire, check out our article To Be Or Not To Be Tubeless That Is The Question.
Mountain Biking Adventures
The primary reason we fell in love with mountain biking is that it’s very similar to backcountry skiing/splitboarding except you don’t have to worry about avalanches. And just like skiing, each place offers something different for you to experience. From velcro tacky soil up at Grand Targhee to the granite slabs of Lake Tahoe, these mountain biking adventures will make you want to pack up your bike and set out on an adventure to see it for yourself:
Mountain Biking Vacation Ideas
We’re always scouring books, asking friends, or talking to our local gurus to find ideas of places that are a bit different. Even if you’re a beginner mountain biking, these vacation ideas are something to consider or at least dream about.
Let’s face it… who REALLY likes pedaling for hours for an oh so sweet downhill descent? Of course, there’s a small group that are all about the pain or those that are in the “earn your turns” contingent. For the rest of humanity, we live for the adrenaline pumping gravity fed rush of riding down a mountain. Of course, you can hitch a ride via a shuttle, but why not make it a vacation you won’t forget by including some heli-assisted mountain-biking.
Hidden Mountain Biking Destinations
Just like skiing or snowboarding, there are mountain biking mega-destinations that even those that have never mountain biked before know about. The first one that comes to mind is Whistler. Then there’s the next level of cycling hotbeds that avid cyclists will know like Moab, the Flume trail in Tahoe, or maybe even Grand Targhee. When it comes to our vacations, we’re about trying places that are less spoken about – places like:
And if you’re really looking for a mountain biking trip vacation of a lifetime, we suggest checking out the BC Bike Ride North experience. Every year, they head up to the Powder Highway for a week to explore multiple spots across more than half a dozen (or more) trail networks. It’s unlike anything we’ve ever heard of before and should be on any mountain biking addicts bucket list.
Races & Festivals
No matter what type of fun you like to have on a bike, races and festivals turn up the volume. You get to meet like-minded individuals, they create new challenges, and provide an atmosphere that’ll make you want to hop on a bike. We skip the “popular” and delve into historic, classics, and just downright unique events that are more punk rock show than a Lollapalooza festival.
Oldest Mountain Biking Event
Pretty much since the advent of “metal klunkers” heading into the wilderness, there have been bike events taking place. The oldest one in the world is the Pearl Pass tour that happens in Colorado. Sparked by Aspen residents boasting they accomplished a feat by getting up to Crested Butte on a motorcycle. The CB locals did it on old school Schwinn pedal bikes instead. The 39-mile journey features singletrack, frigid creek crossings, tightly packed rocks the size of bowling bowls, and mandatory hike-a-bike segments.
Downieville Classic – The Event That Sparked A Revolution
Right after the Pearl Pass Tour, the next legendary event is the Downieville Classic. Even though mountain biking has been around for decades, the idea of a bike that could handle both rough downhill terrain and cycle uphill well didn’t exist. It wasn’t until the Downieville Classic forced racers to have only one bike for BOTH downhill AND cross country did the evolution appear. Be aware that the 700 spots sell out overnight each year. Even if you don’t make it into the race, it’s a great event to see in person. If you’re wondering what it’s like, check out our Downieville Classic recap.
The Best Mountain Biking Series In The US
In contrast to road cycling, mountain biking races are more regionalized meaning you can actually see professional riders getting after it in your own area. And for the average “Joe” that wants to see just how good they are pitted against the elite, these bike racing series will do just that:
Can’t Miss Bike Events For Every Type of Cyclist
No matter if you hop onto a road bike, explore terrain on an enduro, or get your kicks on a downhill beast, the amount of events that happen across the country are immense. So, which ones are a can’t miss? For starters, we suggest checking out the Nevada City Classic. Instead of road cyclists whisking past you from one destination to the next like the Amgen Tour of California, the second oldest road race in the United States does a loop through the city. It’s fast, and racers reach speeds up to 50 mph. It’s intense too. They’re literally flying past only feet from you. And it’s a good time, featuring a beer festival as well. For a full list of other events to put on your list like ‘Death Ride’ in the Sierra Nevada to the Iceman Cometh Challenge, check out our top 5 below: