Jumping into the world of mountain biking can be daunting at best and downright intimidating at worst but it doesn’t have to be. In truth mountain biking is a solitary sport that can be enjoyed nearly anywhere by bicycle riders of nearly any skill level. The following steps intend to provide a starting point for individuals looking to get their feet wet.
1) Be honest with yourself.
An essential aspect for getting started in the sport is to identify the type of riding you plan on doing. There was a time when the concept of an “off-road” bicycle was all-inclusive but these days companies offer up a dizzying selection of options for potential buyers based on riding-style and skill level. Further complicating matters is the simple fact that bikes can cost anywhere from a couple hundred to several thousand dollars. The general rule of thumb is that light recreational and paved bike path riding typically require bicycles with minimal technological innovation/ less-exotic production material. It is in this segment that the most affordable models can be found. Items such as hydraulic disc brakes and long-travel dual suspension are generally more expensive and reserved for advanced riding disciplines such as downhill racing or big hit stunt riding. If in doubt don’t be afraid to go to your local bike shop and ask questions. A shop worthy of your hard earned money will take time to understand your intentions with your new bike and make sure you purchase a model suited to your individual body type.
2) Safety Gear.
Even if you consider yourself a two-wheeled maverick, don’t leave the bike shop without the very minimal protective gear (helmet, gloves, and proper shoes). In addition to the basics, eye protection, kneepads, and bicycling-specific attire are never bad investments. Bikes may be expensive but they can always be replaced. You have only one body to last a lifetime so protect it.
3) Pedal Training
You may be tempted to take your new steed out on the trails right away but in truth the clutter and conditions in the woods are often more than a first timer can handle while simultaneously learning the basics of bike control.
These days pedals come in two distinct styles: Clipless (which locks your shoe to the pedal) and platform (which, as the name suggests, offers a flat platform for the rider’s shoes to push). Each example offers specific benefits but clipless will typically require a bit more practice to get used to. The best advice for beginners is to lean the bike against a solid structure (porch railing, side of the house, etc.) and to practice attaching and detaching your foot from the pedal until it becomes second nature.
4) Shift Happy
While 10-speed drivetrains were the crème de le crème a few decades ago, today’s mountain bikes come standard with anywhere between 21 and 27 gear combinations. It sounds overwhelming at first but the simple rule of thumb is to find the gear combination that makes tackling the terrain ahead comfortable for you. In this line of thinking there is no right or wrong, but rather only what works for a given rider’s skill and the terrain in question.
It is a good practice to begin in an open lot (grass or paved parking lot) and to begin with 1-1 (first gear of the smallest chain ring) and to shift the bike through the gears. Not only will this get you familiar with the physical feedback of a proper shift, it will also provide a solid sense of how much effort a given gear combination will demand.
Unlike a road bike, which rewards steady pedal spinning from a seated position, the terrain beneath a mountain bike’s tires demands a rider who can switch from sitting to standing on the fly. It’s not a bad idea to practice transitioning from seated to standing while performing your parking lot shift-test. When standing, keep in mind that proper attack stance includes a slight bend at the knees and elbows with special attention to keeping a loose grip on the bars. The idea is to let your body flow with the bumps and dips rather than to fight the bike.
5) Curb Hopping
Since its unlikely that your yard or parking lot will contain many actual logs, a concrete curb can act as an adequate simulator. The basic idea is to approach the curb as straight as possible (90 degrees preferably) in your “attack stance” standing position at moderate speed. Just before your front tire is about to make contact with the curb, push down towards the handlebars to get some spring from the front suspension and then quickly tug the handlebars upward. When performed correctly lifting the front tire should lift high enough to reach the upper level of the curb.
The second step, which comes fairly quickly after the first, is to lighten your weight on the pedals so that the rear wheel can follow the front up and over the curb. With clipless pedals, the simplest way to accomplish this is to lightly hop with the pedals at 12 and 6 O’ clock position. The technique is a bit more difficult to master on platform pedals but the idea is the same. Again stay loose in attack stance so as to absorb the bump with your arms and legs. This technique works best when you keep your momentum up.
6) Curb Popping
Going back off the curb is even easier than going up (gravity works best with you rather than against). Line up again as perpendicular as possible and approach the drop in attack stance. Lean your weight back as the front wheel rolls from the ledge. There should be minimal shock impact transferred to your wrists if you’re loose and ready. Quickly center yourself as the rear wheel follows the front.
With enough practice, a simple curb can provide all of the training required to feel comfortable with lightening and weighing down the front wheel to clear unexpected trail clutter.
7) Finding The Trails
Most areas offer legal trails open to mountain bikers. If you are unsure of the hot local spots, head back to the bike shop and ask them if they know where to ride. If the staff themselves do not (which is rare), fellow biking shoppers should be able to point you in the right direction.
8) Learn the Language
Like all sporting subcultures, mountain biking is not without its own special vocabulary. The best way to study up before meeting fellow riders at the trailhead is to peruse one of the many resources available on the web devoted to the subject. I recommend giving the Dictionary of Mountain Bike Slang (http://world.std.com/~Jimf/biking/slang.html) a try.