Experts give us the rundown on the gear and skills you need before you hit the trail.

By Locke Hughes
August 03, 2018
Photo: Mark Scardilli

To anyone who has been riding a bike since they were a toddler, mountain biking doesn't sound *too* intimidating. After all, how hard can it be to translate road skills to the trail?

Well, as I quickly learned the first time I went barreling down a single-track trail, mountain biking requires more skill-and more of a learning curve-than one might think. (More on that here: How Learning to Mountain Bike Pushed Me to Make a Major Life Change)

But after the first ride, I also realized mountain biking is super fun-and not nearly as intense as it seems. "Mountain biking doesn't have to be scary," says Shaun Raskin, a guide at White Pine Touring in Park City, UT, and founder of Inspired Summit Retreats. "People see it as super hard-core and they hear about people getting hurt, but it's all about how we approach it."

Plus, more and more ladies are hitting the trails. "It's definitely a women-friendly sport, and I'd say a majority of people I see on the trails these days are women," says Halle Enedy, a mountain bike guide at REI in Portland, OR.

And if you're worried about breaking a wrist or scraping your legs, know it's not a requirement. "We can choose to be kind to ourselves and learn the skills that give us a nice easy progression into the sport that can allow us to have fun-and stay safe," Raskin explains.

But there are a few non-negotiables for heading out. Here's what you need to have, know, and do to ensure a positive first mountain biking experience.

Photo: Mark Scardilli

The Gear

  • Set yourself up for success with a pair of chamois, or padded bike shorts, Raskin says. (She's 100 percent right-I discovered these one day too late. But the pair I invested in after the first day saved my butt-literally-over my next two days of riding.)
  • Wear sunglasses and a good helmet, ideally with a visor to prevent glare from the sun.
  • Bike gloves are also a must-have, Raskin says. Go for either full- or half-fingered gloves to prevent your hands from fatiguing.
  • Bring a good hydration pack or water bottle to stay hydrated on your hot, sweaty ride.
  • Forgo the clip-ins for now and start with just regular sneakers, Raskin advises.
  • You want to ride a cross-country bike to start. "As the name implies, you'll be going across hilly terrain, up and down hills," Raskin explains. "Cross-country bikes are more lightweight, so it's easier to go uphill but the descent is fun and playful as well." Don't start looking to buy yet-you want to test out a few options before you drop a couple Gs on a frame, Raskin says. Instead, head to your local bike shop where they'll fit you with a rental mountain bike suited to your skill level and size.
  • A class or lesson is another smart investment. "The biggest mistake beginners can make is not taking a lesson," says Jacob Levy, a downhill coach at Trestle Bike Park in Winter Park, CO. Many bike shops offer guided lessons, as do most local REI stores. Your guide will ensure your bike properly fits you so you have the most efficient stance. They'll explain the technology, such as how the gears and brakes work, Levy explains. Plus, if you have instructors who can make it approachable, it'll be much more fun, Raskin says.

The Technique

The ABCs of Mountain Biking

"A" stands for "active stance." This is the position you'll be in as you descend on the bike. In active stance, your pedals stay level; you're standing up on long, slightly bent legs; and you're bending at the waist so your chest is over the handlebars of the bike. "Think about striking a power pose," Levy suggests-you want to feel confident and strong so you can tackle the obstacles you'll encounter on the trail.

"B" stands for braking, a crucial component of mountain biking. "You want to have a light grip with just one finger on each brake, without pressing too hard on either one," Jacob explains. "Use them both together, but be gentle." In other words, you don't want to lock the wheels up when you stop, which could mean you fly over the handlebars. Instead, you just want to come to a slow, graceful stop.

"C" stands for cornering. This skill comes up when you encounter switchbacks on the trail. Cornering involves three components: line choice, entering, and exiting, Levy explains. To choose the proper line choice, imagine rolling a bowling ball down the trail. "If you send it fast and straight, it's going to hop right over the edge, right?" Levy says. "Instead, think about sending it slowly down the trail, on the upper side of the turn, allowing it to slowly cross to the lower side and make the turn-that's what you want to do on the bike." Try to go into a turn slowly (like a jogging speed), starting on the high side of the turn, then crossing into the lower part as you exit the turn and regain speed.

Photo: Mark Scardilli

Other Beginner Mountain Biking Tips

  • The uphill climbs take a lot of cardio, while the downhill sections take a lot of skill.
  • You don't steer with your handlebars as much as by shifting your weight around, Levy points out. As you're going around a turn, lean into the turn to help your bike round the corner, keeping your eyes further down the trail where you want to go. Think about looking through-not at-the turn. In fact, looking ahead one most important tips to keep in mind on the trail. "Keep your eyes 10 to 20 feet ahead of you at all times," Enedy suggests. This will help you get over obstacles, like roots or rocks, on the trail rather than getting stuck on them.
  • Your body position is going to change when you're ascending a mountain vs. when you're descending a mountain. When you're going uphill, you want your momentum to move forward, keeping your chest to the bars, Enedy says. When you're descending, you'll shift your hips back over the back tire, Enedy says. Think: elbows out, butt back in that active stance. This backward shift counteracts the downhill momentum so it's less likely you'll go over the handlebars. (Remember, we're all about not getting hurt here!)
  • Start slow. This may be the most important thing for beginners to remember. "Slow is smooth and smooth is fast," is one of Raskin's favorite expressions. If you can keep an even cadence on the trail, you'll eventually start to gain speed-smoothly and safely.

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