Mountain Biking for Beginners: A Useful Guide

Mountain Biking for Beginners: A Useful Guide

I got off the bike, and I walked, much to the amusement of everyone else on the trail. But for all of my experience riding a bike on pavement, I literally knew nothing about singletrack. To boot, I had none of the skills, the wrong bike, and a woe-is-me attitude. So when we hit the part of the trail with the thickest roots and big rocks, I walked because I didn’t think I could do it. 

As it turns out, I did the right thing! As a beginner mountain biker, you need to know what you can and can’t handle with both your bike and your abilities. So you need to start with the easy trails so you can gain bike handling skills and confidence and slowly work your way up to the harder stuff. If I had known this from the beginning, I would have been a lot easier on myself and had a lot more fun riding! 

In this article, we’re going to talk about mountain biking for beginners. We’ll give you the basics so you can get started with ease, know what type of bikie you need, choose the best trails, and build your skills and confidence.

What Makes a Mountain Bike? 

If you are used to road riding, a mountain bike is going to feel completely different! However, mountain bikes have a few specific characteristics that make them well-suited for the bumpy, rocky, rooty terrain you’ll find on mountain bike trails. 

  • Wider handlebars. 
  • Shorter reach. 
  • Upright position. 
  • Suspension. 
  • Tires.

A mountain bike is a setup a little bit differently than a typical road, gravel, or cruiser bike. The most obvious difference is the handlebars. A mountain bike has wide, flat bars to give you the best steering to get around tricky obstacles. It also has what we call a short reach. This means the distance between the seat and the handlebars is shorter than on a bike like a gravel bike. This does two things: it makes the bike more responsive to steering and helps you to have a more upright, comfortable position on the bike. 

You may also notice the tires on a mountain bike. Mountain bikes have very wide, knobby tires to give you lots of traction and comfort over bumps, rocks, and roots. You can also run these tires with a lower tire pressure, or PSI, to make them even grippier and more comfortable. On the other hand, road bikes have thinner, slicker tires with higher tire pressure. Road bikes are meant for speed over smooth roads, while mountain bikes need grip. 

Article written by Jason Luke at 333fab.com

 

The last thing you’ll find on a mountain bike is the suspension. A mountain bike will have a front suspension, and some mountain bikes also have a rear suspension. This is like putting shocks on your bike, much like you would find on a car. These shocks help take out some of the extreme bumps, making the ride more comfortable and the bike more stable as you go over obstacles. 

What’s the Difference Between Mountain Bikes and Other Bikes

Bike Type

Handlebars

Suspension

Tires 

Position

Reach

Road

Drop bars

None

Skinny and higher pressure

Forward leaning to be aerodynamic

Shorter reach for quicker turns

Gravel

Drop bars 

Usually none

Wider and lower pressure

Slightly more upright

Longer reach for stability

Cruiser

Upright bars

May have small springs in the seat

Medium tires with medium pressure

Upright

Longer reach for stability

Mountain 

Wide, flat bars

Front and sometimes rear

Wider with low pressure

Upright

Shorter reach 

 

 

What Are the Different Types of Mountain Biking? 

If you are new to mountain biking, like I was, you might be surprised to discover there are different types of mountain biking. Although there are lots of different types of trails, you can really boil them down to five categories: 

  • Cross-country or XC 
  • Trail 
  • Enduro
  • Downhill 
  • Free ride 

 Different types of mountain bikes

Downhill mountain bike race in full gear. Pic by Paul Jerry from Medicine Hat, Canada.

The Most Common Types of Mountain Biking

Cross-country riding is probably the most common type of mountain biking. It has it all; challenging climbs, long descents, and all kinds of terrain. You need good endurance for cross-country riding. This is the only type of mountain biking you’ll find at the Olympics. 

 Trail riding is similar to cross-country but more extreme. You’ll find single-track, harder obstacles, and you’ll need a tougher bike, too.  

Downhill riding is not for the faint of heart! Chances are, if you are into downhill riding, you won’t have to worry about riding uphills – you’ll take the lift instead. You might find that many ski resorts will offer their trails to mountain bikes in the off-season, so you can take the lift up and blaze back down. You’ll find very aggressive, rough terrain riding downhill. 

Enduro riding combines all of the different elements of mountain biking into a multi-stage race. You need endurance, skills, and the right bike! 

Free riding is similar to downhill but includes more obstacles and opportunities to show off your skills and best tricks. 

It is also helpful to think about what you will be using a bike for, i.e., commuting, recreational riding, or running errands. In a bike shop, you can test-ride different types of bikes. First-time riders who don't have a bike to try out and aren't sure what type of riding they want might have trouble finding the right bike.

Getting back into riding can be challenging, especially for adults who want a bike that is capable of handling a variety of situations, but will mostly be used for leisurely recreation and city riding. There are many entry-level mountain bikes and comfort bikes that can meet most needs in terms of style, comfort, and adaptability.

The Most Common Types of Mountain Biking Obstacles 

When you’re mountain biking, you’ll find some common obstacles. Beginner trails will have less, easier obstacles and sometimes a path to go around them. More advanced trails will have more, tougher challenges. 

You’ll find: 

  • Rock gardens. These are sections of trails with lots of rocks. 
  • Berms. A berm is a turn that is built up and angled to help you corner without slowing down. 
  • Rollers. Rollers are a series of humps that you can ride without catching air. 
  • Drops. Drops are small cliffs or ramps that you can jump off of to get to a lower level of the trail. 

At skills parks, you may also find logs, bridges, and other man-made obstacles to help you practice your skills. 

A mountain biker trail riding

What Are the Different Types of Mountain Bikes?

The mountain bike you choose is really dependent on the type of riding you’ll be doing. Mountain bikes are typically categorized by their suspension and their wheel size. 

 

There are three types of suspension on a mountain bike. 

Rigid. 

A rigid mountain bike does not have any sort of suspension system. These aren’t too common now, but the original mountain bikes didn’t have any sort of suspension system. Instead, they relied on wider tires to handle the trails.  

Hardtail. 

A hardtail is a mountain bike that only has front suspension. The suspension system in the front helps to absorb some of the bumpiness from the trail, making the ride more comfortable and the bike able to grip the trail surface a little bit better. Hardtails are more suited towards easier trails and cross-country riding. They get a little bit more speed than their full-suspension counterparts, have fewer parts to maintain, and cost less. They’re also lighter. 

 

So if you want a fast but not too technical ride, you might want a hardtail. 

Full-suspension. 

A full-suspension bike has both a front and rear suspension. These give you the most shock-absorbing, trail-gripping experience. However, they’re much heavier, more expensive, take more work to maintain, and typically ride slower (except for downhill). 

 

The other way to categorize mountain bikes is by tire size. 

There are four basic tire sizes found in mountain biking. 

  • 24 inch. 24-inch tires are pretty small, and you’ll mostly find these on children’s or youth mountain bikes. 
  • 26 inch. This tire size hearkens back to the ‘olden days’ of mountain biking. You may find these on vintage bikes, but you’ll rarely find them on more modern bikes. 
  • 27.5. This size tire sometimes referred to as 650b, is common on mountain bikes. They allow extra room for wider tires. As a result, they’ll be able to overcome more obstacles than, say, a 26-inch tire, but since they’re smaller, they’re easier to maneuver than a 29-inch. 
  • 29. Sometimes referred to as 29ers, this size tire is becoming increasingly popular because it can roll over larger obstacles more easily. They have good grip and will hold momentum on easier trails, but they are also heavier and slower to accelerate than smaller tires. 

A natural drop on a mountain bike trail

A natural drop on a mountain bike trail. Pic by https://www.flickr.com/photos/mypubliclands/

How to Choose a Mountain Bike? 

To choose the right bike for you, you’ll want to decide what type of trails you’ll be riding the most, then choose your suspension system based on that. Comparing mountain bikes becomes easier once you know the trail type and the suspension system you will be using. 

Trail Type and Mountain Bike Suspension Systems

Trail Type

Ideal Suspension System

Cross-Country

Hard Tail 

Enduro 

Hard Tail 

Downhill

Full Suspension 

Free Ride 

Full Suspension 

Trail 

Full Suspension 

 

What Other Gear Do I Need?

You’ll definitely need some gear to get started on your first mountain bike ride. 

  • Clothes. Mountain bike clothes are more relaxed than road kits; you’ll probably want baggy shorts with a padded chamois, gloves to protect your hands, and a loose-fitting technical t-shirt, socks, and a jacket if it’s cold. 
  • Protective Gear. You need a helmet. The more aggressive the ride, the more likely you’ll need a full-face helmet, too. You may also want knee and elbow ads. 
  • Mountain bike shoes. With or without cleats, depending on the pedals you are using. 
  • Saddlebag and tools. If you are going cross-country, you’ll probably need to have a saddle bag with tools to fix your bike or at least to fix a flat tire.  
  • Hydration and snacks. Many mountain bikes don’t have room for bottle cages. So instead of carrying water bottles on your bike, you’ll probably need a hydration backpack and some snacks in your pocket. 

What about the Pedals? 

It might be hard to decide what type of mountain bike pedals you need. You may hear about clipping into your mountain bike pedals. Clipping in helps you keep your foot on the pedals without having to worry about your feet slipping off. It also enables you to use more of the range of motion of your pedals when you need it. 

However, when you are first starting out, you’ll probably want to stick with flat pedals. Many mountain bikers only ever use flat pedals, so if you do, you’re in good company! 

Look for pedals with a little extra grip on them, and you can even purchase special mountain bike shoes that grip the pedal well without having to clip in. This way, you can quickly and easily put your foot down when needed. In addition, you won’t have to worry about falling and not getting your foot unclipped in time! 

I prefer to use pedals that clip in on one side and are flat on the other. I also wear mountain bike ‘sneakers’ with SPD cleats. This way, I don't have to clip in when I’m riding through more technical terrain. But when I’m riding over a smoother section of trail, I can clip in to get more speed.

 

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