Every beginner mountain biker remembers their first time: You’re on a bicycle, which makes sense. But you’re riding over rocks, across streams, and over all types of different terrain, which (at least at first) feels like it makes no sense at all.
It’s fun and exciting, yet nerve-wracking and terrifying all at the same time. It gets easier—and more fun!—with time. But there are a few tips and tricks every one of us wishes someone had shared when we were just starting out as a beginner. Here are nine tips on mountain biking for beginners, for when you’re first getting ready to shred.
Mountain bikes are a fun way to exercise and connect with nature. Compared to road bikes, they have the following characteristics:
- fatter tires with rugged tread for stability and durability on off-road terrain
- a more upright cycling position that lets you enjoy the view
- suspension systems on some bikes absorb shock for a more comfortable ride
There are many ways to enjoy mountain biking, and you don’t even have to be in the mountains. Trails vary from pleasant rides on wide, flowing logging roads to high-adrenaline challenges on technical singletrack.
In this article, we’ll tell you the basics of what to expect before your first ride, including an overview of different types of mountain bike terrain, styles of mountain biking and basics for getting geared up for a fun time on the trails.
Tips for Beginner Mountain Bikers
1. Stay Loose
Your bike’s job is to roll over technical terrain. Your job as a beginner mountain biker is to let your bike do its job. That means keeping your body loose, so it can move beneath you. Hover your butt off the saddle when riding over obstacles like roots and rocks. The more technical the terrain, the more room your bike needs to move. When ripping down a descent, think: “pushup arms” and “cowboy legs,” and flare out your elbows and knees so your body lets the bike flow rather than fighting it.
2. Maintain Momentum
It’s going to feel counterintuitive, but holding speed—and even speeding up—when the terrain gets challenging makes clearing tough sections of trail easier because your bike has the one thing it needs most to keep moving forward: momentum. Momentum is your best friend out there, maintain it whenever you can.
3. Shift Your Weight
You’re going to hit some extreme terrain, including steep inclines and declines. When climbing a tough pitch, shift your weight forward and lean forward to keep your center of gravity over the rear wheel to maintain traction.
When the trail tilts downward, go in the opposite direction, shifting your weight behind the saddle and over the rear wheel (dropper posts are a godsend for this) to avoid going over the bars.
4. Go Easy on the Brakes
You will be tempted at some point as a beginner at mountain biking to grab both brakes and pull ‘em to the bars with all you’ve got. Resist this temptation! Mountain bike brakes are powerful enough that you need just one (maybe two) finger(s) to modulate your speed.
Adjust your speed before the tricky stuff, like rock gardens and corners, and then maintain your speed through them. If you do find yourself going into a turn too hot, stay off the front (left) brake. Stopping your front tire will send your front tire into a slide, which is likely to send you over the bars and onto the ground. Hit the rear (right) instead; you might skid, but you’re more likely to stay upright.
5. Use All the Gears
Mountain bike trail profiles tend to look like Jaws opening wide for his next snack. In other words, they cover undulating terrain that shoots up and down often. Anticipate changes in terrain by shifting before you need to. It’ll help you keep your momentum, which as you already know, is your best friend.
6. Set Your Suspension
Most mountain bikes today have at least a front suspension fork, and most have a shock absorber in the rear as well. These are magical inventions that make big bumps nearly disappear as you roll over them. But they only work if you have them set to their active positions.
As a beginner, you can take a little time learning the finer nuances of setting your sag (how much travel you use just sitting on the bike) and rebound. But take a moment to know how to lock out and/or open up your suspension, so you don’t accidentally roll out onto a crazy technical trail with a fully rigid bike (it happens!).
7. Look Where You Want to Go
Staring directly at that rock you don’t want to hit will nearly ensure that you’re going to smack right into it. It’s called “target fixation;” your bike goes where your eyes are directing it to go. Instead, look past obstacles to where you actually want to go. Keep your chin level to the ground, eyes forward, and try to look as far down the trail as possible, using your peripheral vision to avoid and negotiate obstacles immediately in front of you. Upgrading to a trail-specific helmet will protect your head if an obstacle does trip you up.
8. Brush Up on Basic Repairs
Because of the rugged nature of the terrain, mechanicals tend to happen more off road than they do on the pavement. Tubeless tire technology has helped minimize—but not eliminate—flats. So brush up on some basic repairs to be sure you can get out of the woods when something breaks. At a minimum, you should know how to fix a flat. Other good skills to have include repairing a broken chain and replacing a bent or cracked derailleur hanger. Your local shop (or a good friend) can show you how.
9. Carry More Than a Credit Card
There aren’t many convenience stores in the forest or desert. Mountain bike rides will often take considerably longer than you anticipate, as you often run into rugged terrain, have a mechanical, or just get lost. Always pack more food and water than you think you need. Similarly, it’s sometimes impossible for someone to come pick you up if something goes wrong. You may not have cell service even if they could. Always carry the tools you need: a spare tube (or two), pump, and multi-tool. You’ll be more relaxed and have more fun with the peace of mind knowing you have everything you need.
What is the easiest trick to do on a mountain bike?
Types of Mountain Bikes
What type of bike you ride is usually decided by where you plan on riding. Suspension type and wheel diameter are two key features that determine what type of terrain the bike is capable of riding. You have a wealth of options when it comes to types of suspension and wheel diameter (denoted by such terms as 26, 27.5 (650b), and 29ers).
Rigid: While not the most common type of mountain bike, “rigid” mountain bikes don’t feature any suspension. They are easy to maintain and usually less expensive, but most riders prefer bikes with suspension for greater comfort. Most fat-tire bikes are rigid, and riders find that the wide tires and low tire pressure provide all the squish needed to absorb bumps in the trail.
Hardtail: These bikes have a suspension fork in the front to help absorb impact on the front wheel, but the rear of the bike has no suspension—ergo a hardtail. Hardtails are typically less expensive than full-suspension bikes, and have fewer moving parts (which often translates into less maintenance). Most hardtails have the ability to lock out the front fork for times where a fully rigid bike is desired.
Cross-country riders typically gravitate toward hardtails as they allow more direct transfer of power between the pedal stroke and the rear tire. Hardtails can also be at home on all-mountain trails, and the lower cost and easier maintenance make them a solid option for everything except serious lift-serviced downhill trails.
Full suspension: There are many variations of full-suspension bikes, but the general idea is for the front fork and rear shock to absorb the impacts of the trail. This drastically reduces the impact on the rider, increases traction, and makes for a more forgiving and enjoyable ride.
A full-suspension bike can soak up a lot of a trail bumps and chatter, but the bike can also “bob” a bit and you lose some of the energy transfer when climbing uphill. As a result, most full-suspension rigs have the ability to lock-out the rear suspension to offer better power transfer and more efficient climbing.
Bikes designed for downhill riding typically boast a lot of travel—the amount of movement in the suspension—compared to bikes designed for cross-country and all-mountain riding. As much as eight inches of travel front and rear is fairly common.
26 in.: In the not too-distant past, all mountain bikes were equipped with 26 in. wheels. It is still a popular wheel size for its responsiveness and maneuverability, but now when you walk into a bike shop and inquire about mountain bikes, you are likely to be asked, “26 in., 27.5 in. or 29 in.?”
27.5 in. (650b): Offering a middle ground between standard 26 in. wheels and 29ers, these bikes apply a “best of both worlds” solution, more easily rolling over terrain than the 26s, but more maneuverable than 29ers. As with 29ers, this wheel size can be found on both full-suspension and hardtail rigs.
29ers: These bikes feature 29 in. wheels that are typically heavier and a little slower to accelerate, but once you start moving you can conquer considerably more terrain easier than on a bike with standard 26 in. wheels. They generally offer excellent grip and they have a higher “attack angle”—meaning the wheel rolls over trail obstacles easier. These bikes have become extremely popular for the cross-country crowd. 29ers can be found in both hardtail and full-suspension rigs.
24 in.: Kids’ mountain bikes typically have 24 in. wheels to accommodate the shorter legs of children. Most are less-expensive versions of adult bikes with simpler components. Generally speaking, these suit kids ages 10 to 13, but this depends more on the size of the child than the age. Younger/smaller children can get started biking with 20 in. wheels.
Frequently Asked Questions
Is mountain biking hard for beginners?
Just like any form of exercise, mountain biking can be physically challenging especially when you’re just starting out and your muscles aren’t conditioned to riding a bike. As you explore more trails, you’ll also come face to face with features that you can’t fathom ever being able to conquer.
What skills should I learn first on a mountain bike?
Learning to lift the front wheel and “manual” is an essential mountain bike skill to learn. It might seem easy to do but there’s always the chance to do it better. This skill is probably the easiest skill to learn, as well as being the best skill to develop further (along the lines of a manual or riding a drop-off).
Are mountain bikes easy to pedal?
Mountain bikes are harder to pedal and slower on pavement. But they have a cushy ride, an upright riding position, and can travel easily on a wide variety of surfaces. Hybrid or cross bikes are almost as fast and easy to pedal as a road bike, while being almost as comfortable and versatile as a mountain bike.