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How do I start mountain biking?

How do I get into mountain biking?

Am I too old to start mountain biking?

What do I need to know to get started?


You've decided you want to try mountain biking, none of your mates are into it, so how do you get started? Well read on, here's some ideas and information on a great way to start, what gear you need and the basic jargon you need to know.


Mountain biking itself has many sub-disciplines: Trail Riding, Downhill, Cross Country, Slopestyle, Free Ride, Dirt Jumping, All Mountain, Bikepacking and Gravel riding to name but a few. There's crossover between these different disciplines, one bike could see you good for many of them.


Which discipline you decide to start with is really up to you, all I can say is be guided by your cycling skills and perhaps your courage! Noting fitness and skills will come the more you ride, start off slowly and build up. If you have a serious illness or injury, be more cautious, listen to your body....... and your doctor!


If you're totally new to mountain biking, take a look at some mountain biking YouTube videos of the different disciplines, seek out low key recreational riders such as me, this will give you an idea of everyday riding. You could also watch some of the more extreme riding on these two channels Sam Pilgrim and Red Bull Bike.


How I started

At 52 years old I wanted to go to clubbing in Ibiza one more time and do something else the rest of the week. I'd been thinking about taking up mountain biking for a while, so I researched mountain biking in Ibiza online and found Ride Ibiza. I stayed with them for a week, and had my first go at mountain biking. You can see from the photo below, that I had no special equipment, the only thing I bought was the helmet. I was wearing my MMA shorts, my normal trainers and no protection. I really enjoyed it, so when I got home I started researching bikes and about six weeks later bought my first mountain bike, a Specialized Stumpjumper Evo Comp it cost me £2500 back in 2014. This was a very high specification bike for a beginner, but it's served me well. The bike's eight years old August 2022, and I'm still riding him, this video's shot in January 2022.


As soon as I got Stumpy, I went to my local downhill trail centre, Aston Hill, and scared myself stupid, but had a great time and learnt a lot, very quickly! When I started riding I didn't know everything that is in this article, I just did it and obviously was a little confused as to what was where at times!


Me mountain bikings
My first go at mountain biking with Ride Ibiza

How you could start mountain biking

  • Hire a bike and book a lesson with a coach at your nearest bike park

  • Book a holiday where you can hire a bike and learn to mountain bike with a coach

  • Buy a bike and join a local mountain bike club, join in the social rides, check Facebook or Google for your local group

  • Buy a mountain bike, start off small, riding off-road routes such as at your local park, woods or bridleways, perhaps get some coaching. Watch some YouTube how to videos such as GMBN and Aaron Gwin, for riding tips

What to do when you go to the bike park or trail center for the first time

  • Research the following online before you leave home:

  • The parking arrangements, parking fees etc.

  • Do you need to sign on?

  • Seek out the trails suitable for you, so you know what you're going to ride

  • Watch some YouTube videos of the trails you're going to ride

  • If you're going to book an uplift, get in early, the places go quickly

  • Arrive early so you're not flustered

  • Park your car and buy a parking ticket if necessary

  • Register and pay any fees in the club house if necessary

  • Go to the loo!!!

  • Get you and your bike ready

  • Take a photo of the trail map

  • Research where the uplift picks up and drops off

  • Don't be intimidated by others, they could be a first-timer too

  • If you're intimidated by others riding near you, seek out the least busy trail or wait until everyone has dropped in and go after them

  • Ride within your limits

  • Get pedalling before the trail sign, so you hit the trail running, don't start pedalling at the sign

  • Don't go straight out on a black trail, and teeter down it, build up from green to blue to red to black. It could take hours, weeks, months or years to be able to ride blacks, only ride the next level up when you're riding the lower one well

  • Have a great time!

What's 'cool' and what's not

Personally I don't give a shit, in fact the people that try so hard to be cool, really aren't in my eyes. I do what I want but here's some things that are considered un-cool in mountain biking

  • Leaving the reflectors in your wheels and pedals etc.

  • Leaving the plastic disc in your rear wheel, commonly known as the dork disc

  • Leaving the bell on your bike

  • Having caps on your valves - why wouldn't you want to prevent shit getting in your valves????

  • Above ankle length socks are the law!! I wear these because I don't like liners or ankle socks. The brighter the colour, the better!

  • Cutting up trails when it's wet or by messing around (unless you repair the damage)

  • Not helping out repairing trails at your local trail centre on 'dig days' - No Dig, No Ride is the motto!

Things you'll need to start riding

  • Bike

  • Helmet (preferably a full face)

  • Gloves (optional)

  • Knee pads (optional)

  • Water, either a bladder or bottle mounted on the bike

  • Multi-tool (optional)

  • Tyre pump

  • Something to carry the water and multi-tool and bits and pieces like phone etc. such as a hydration backpack

  • A street or a trail or a field or a woods, in fact anywhere you can ride

Trail Etiquette

  • Never stop on the trail itself, if you have to stop, move yourself and your bike off the trail

  • Don't drop litter and perhaps pick-up some litter when you spot it

  • Some trails are one way, don't be tempted to ride or walk up one the wrong way

  • If the trail is shared with horses and hikers, be courteous and slow down past them, also keep your speed down on blind bends

  • If you come across someone on the trail with their back to you, whether they are biking or walking, politely shout 'Coming by on your left/right' before you attempt to pass

  • Close all gates that you open

  • If you see someone on the side of the trail that looks like they have some sort of problem, slow down and ask if they need help

  • Mountain bikes are not permitted on some walking trails, look out for signs or research before going to the area, particularly National Parks, State parks, AONB, preservation areas etc.

  • eBikes are not permitted on all trails, look out for signs

Be prepared to fall off

  • If you're trying to improve your speed (or flow as we call it), you are likely to have the odd fall. I used to fall multiple times each ride, and have done lasting damage to my shoulders

  • If you bimble about, and there's nothing wrong with bimbling, you are less likely to fall

  • Invest in a tube of Fisiocrem, this can work wonders with sprains, keep it in your car or somewhere handy!

  • The more protection you wear the less you are likely to get gravel rash but it doesn't always mean you won't get injured, broken bones and soft-tissue damage are common place

  • Be prepared for some downtime due to injuries, so think about whether you can afford time off work etc. before tackling that huge drop on a black that you know you're not really ready for!

  • Carry a first aid kit, at least in your car, it came in handy when I had to get my bike back up the hill to the car park, load it and drive 90 minutes home with a badly sprained wrist

  • There are some super lightweight full face helmets on the market, I nearly always ride with a full face helmet whether I'm trail riding or downhill riding. Open face helmets are commonly used for 'normal' trail riding

Fisiocrem - buy here (I may receive a small commission if you do👍)


Benefits of using an Uplift Shuttle

Of course, they'll be those old farts that'll tell you that you should ride to the top .... ignore them!


The benefits of being shuttled to the top:

  • You get a rest between each run, so you don't get tired too early in the day

  • You get time to think about how you are going to improve on the next run

  • You get many more runs in, in a day, therefore get to know the trails quicker, and your riding progresses quicker

Sometimes when there is no uplift and to get back to your car it's a half hour walk up a steep hill, you're dead on your feet but when you do get back to the top you get a second wind and think it's a good idea to do another run, DON'T. Stop riding if you're exhausted, your concentration may not be good enough, and it could result in a fall

Basic Tips on Buying a Bike

  • Like with cars, you get what you pay for, buy the best you can afford but do your research and always read reviews

  • Covid has changed the mountain bike buying experience, as at this moment February 2022, there are few bikes available and you may be waiting up to 18 months for your choice to come into stock, if it ever does. So compromise your search in these Covid times, by checking what is actually going to be available.

  • Decide on a maximum budget and check out reviews on bikes within your budget

  • Bikes are like cars, each manufacturer will have various models, within that model, there will be a range of different specification bikes. With bikes, usually the more expensive the variant of a model, the higher the specification of the bike

  • You can buy second hand from eBay, Gumtree, Pink Bike, Facebook Market place etc. You could be lucky and get a whole load of superb bike for your dough. Just be careful that the bike's not stolen, that it's not in a poor state of repair and that it's actually good value for money. Some people ask a nearly new price, which is fine if it's nearly new and in top condition and not stolen! Due diligence my friends.

  • Size, each manufacturer has a different size grading, then again each of their models can be different too. Check out the specific size chart for the particular model of bike you are interested in. If you can, try the bike for size and/or get a bike fit before buying. Unfortunately if you're buying online and don't know your size for that model, you could be compromising your perfect fit. So do some online investigations on whether the size chart is 'true', over-sized or under-sized. For instance on the Specialized size chart my bike size should be Medium or S3, but in fact I prefer their Large size, perhaps this is because I have long legs and a short body?

  • There are some well known mountain bike manufacturers; Specialized, Trek, Giant, Santa Cruz, Whyte, Canyon, Cannondale, Rocky Mountain to name but a few. All of these, amongst others, make excellent bikes but they are costly. You're going to be looking at around £3000 or $8000 Aus for a base model.

  • I always buy Specialized bikes, they are one of the most expensive, but I know they rarely have any problems. As yet, touch wood, I have never had a problem with any of my three Specialized bikes, and they get some abuse!

  • All the major manufacturers make good frames, it will be the suspension, brakes, wheels and drive train that differ, specification to specification. Compare all the different specs on all your options of make and model

  • Buy the bike for the specific discipline you want to ride, although if you want to aim for Downhill riding, I wouldn't start with a downhill bike, they are heavy and not great on less steep trails, get a full sus trail bike with a good descending pedigree

  • If you want to go tubeless, look out for tubeless ready wheels and tyres

  • The material the frame is made from; most good mountain bikes are made from either carbon fibre or an aluminium alloy. You can get steel and titanium frames, but it's unlikely that you'll be buying a mountain bike made from those materials. I'd go for an aluminium alloy frame, simply because of cost, if buying new.

  • Is Carbon Fibre a no no? It's fine and the state of the art at the moment. Formula One cars have been using carbon fibre suspension, steering columns, monocoques, gearboxes and pedals to mention but a few of the applications, for over 20 years but bear in mind they are frequently tested to check that the structural integrity hasn't been compromised. Having said that I wouldn't buy a second hand carbon fibre mountain bike, not unless I knew it's history. There are carbon fibre bike repair specialists around, that carry out non destructive testing and repairs.

  • You can spend as little as $100 to $300 on a 'mountain bike' from a 'Supermarket' but it most likely will not be suitable for proper gnarly mountain biking. Unless you have no other option, aim higher. If you can't afford more, make sure you research properly or think about buying second-hand. I'm not rich, but I know value for money, that my 8 year old bike cost my £2500, it is testament to it's quality that it's still in good condition. The only thing I've bought is new wheels, tyres, brake pads and it had one full service 3 years ago.

  • There are some budget mountain bikes on the market, such as Polygon, where for around 3000 Australian dollars you can get a full suspension mountain bike of reasonable specification, check out the reviews

  • Wheel sizes: mostly for mountain biking these are 29" (known as 29ers) and 27.5" (also known as 650b) Some bikes have a mullet setup, different sized wheels


Mountain Biking Disciplines


Trail riding

This can be on any unsurfaced Singletrack or Dualtrack or any width trail for that matter, such as Bridle paths, Fire roads, Tow paths, Woodland trails, Heathland trails, Trail centre maintained trails, Bike park groomed trails, Desert trails, Mountain trails.

Suitable bikes: Hard tail, Full sus, eMountain bike and Fat bike, possibly a Rigid too


All Mountain Riding

This can be anything! Riding a wide variety of mountain terrain, including gnarly natural features such as rocks and boulders on extremely steep terrain

Suitable bikes: Full Sus, perhaps eMountain bike


Gravel Riding

Singletrack or Dualtrack on Bridle paths, Fire roads, Tow paths or Un-surfaced roads

Suitable bikes: Gravel Bike, Rigid Mountain Bike, Hard Tail, Full sus bike, Fat bike, eMountain bike


Downhill Mountain Biking

Also known as Gravity riding, these trails are likely to be at bike parks and trail centers but not exclusively, some hiking paths and off-piste riding of a mountain could be considered downhill mountain biking. The trails will be all downhill, with perhaps a little uphill, where if you're carrying enough speed, little pedalling is required. Often downhill trails are steeply downhill, have jumps, drops and rock features, which can need a high degree of skill to ride safely. There are downhill flow trails which can be easier especially if it's a blue grade. The difficulty depends upon the Colour or Diamond rating. Don't psyche yourself up into thinking it's too dangerous for a beginner, do your research and start slowly on blues

Suitable bikes: Full sus, Downhill mountain bike, eMountain Bikes designed for downhill


Cross Country Mountain Biking

As the name suggests, when ridden non-competitively, this can be across all types of terrain, depending on where you are. It can involve flat terrain, uphill, downhill and natural features such as rocks and drops. The emphasis is on covering ground where puff and power, basically fitness, is paramount. Of course you could tootle along if you so wished!

Suitable bikes: Rigid Mountain bike, Hard Tail, Full sus, eMountain Bike, Fat bike


Enduro

You'll hear Enduro mentioned quite a bit, and bikes can be sold as 'Enduro' but really this is the term for a type of competitive riding, which is really an extreme cross between downhill and cross country, I guess it is All Mountain riding? Check out the Enduro World Series YouTube


Slopestyle and Dirt Jump riding

This is a specialist field, usually ridden competitively, it involves precision riding skills and a great deal of courage to perform 'tricks' such as multiple backflips over massive jumps and drops. It's a cross between gymnastics and mountain biking! I guess it begins with dirt jump riding, which itself may evolve from BMX riding

Suitable bikes: Dirt Jump bike


Free Ride

Again a specialist field, requiring great skill and a lot of courage, jumping massive jumps with steeze. Less emphasis on competition, more for entertainment, although events such as Red Bull Rampage, is a cross between Downhill and Free ride, which is judged on things like technical merit, speed, style, difficulty etc. My favourite to watch!

Suitable bikes: Usually a downhill mountain bike


Bikepacking

Riding mainly unsealed trails for multiple days, where you carry your food, water and accommodation (tent or trap) on your bike, camping as you go.

Suitable bikes: Gravel bike, eMountain Bike, Fat bike, Hard tail, Full sus (but not downhill), rigid


Can't ride a bike?

If you've never ridden a bike, now's the time to learn! Google learn to ride a bike as an adult, and choose the method that suits you. There are courses out there, don't be embarrassed, lots of people can't ride a bike.


MTB Jargon


27.5 or 650b this is a bike with wheels 27.5" diameter

29er this is a bike with wheels 29" in diameter

Attack Position your pedals are level and parallel to the ground, with your favourite foot forward. Stand up on the pedals, knees slightly bent, your bum somewhere behind the saddle, arms bent, elbows wide, with your body bent over, chest low over the handle bars, relaxed and ready for action! As I'm lazy I often assume this position kind of half seated.

All Mountain Trail Bike this is a little ambiguous, for me it's a modern full suspension mountain bike that can cope with uphill, downhill, jumps, drops and extreme natural features

Berm a corner that has an angled bank, gravity allows you to corner much faster than in a flat corner. Do your braking beforehand, ride it high and fast, with your bike perpendicular to the surface. If it's not going to snag on a rock, put your outside pedal to six o'clock (down), sit or stand in the attack position

Bike Park a commercial enterprise where you can pay to ride the trails they have made and maintain, there is likely to be a method of uplift, to take you and your bike to the top of a hill or mountain, so you can ride back down. Also there's likely to be a café, bike shop, toilets and other facilities.

BMX a type of riding, performing tricks and jumps, on a specific type of bike, a BMX bike which is usually rigid. This type of riding can be done on a mountain bike to a certain degree, recreationally.

Braking Bumps When many people brake in the same point, and the bike breaks traction and bounces along the trail with the rear wheel locked up, this creates a kind of waveform on the surface of the trail, sort of corrugations. The more people brake, the worse they get, so the more people have to brake, a vicious cycle! Often found at the entrance to a berm or a steep fast corner

BRP before Ride Poo, if you're not going to a bike park, where there's likely to be toilet facilities, if you're going to be riding for several hours, you need to think about where you're going to relieve yourself!

Chicken run a small route to bypass a tricky feature

Cross Country Mountain bike this can be a hard tail or a full suspension bike, the suspension usually has less travel than an all mountain trail bike

Dirt Jump Bike a bike with a specific geometry, and usually front suspension, suited to riding large jumps (perhaps the bigger brother to BMX)

Downhill a specific discipline in mountain biking, where you ride errr downhill! Note that these downhill trails can be exceptionally tricky, require a high level of skill and a high degree of courage is required when faced with some of the features!!

Downhill Mountain Bike a robust full suspension mountain bike, with extra travel front and rear, with a slacker angle than a trail bike, although some trail bikes are designed to cope with recreational downhill riding

Dropper Post an automated means of raising and lowering your seat, via a level or button on your handle bars

Dropping In when you start riding a particular trail

Dualtrack an unsurfaced roadway on which a car or 4x4 vehicle could drive, such as a fire road

Dual Suspension Mountain Bike this term is used in Australia, it's means the same as a Full suspension mountain bike, where the bike has front and rear suspension

eBike a bike that has an electric motor assisting the pedalling effort of the rider

eMountain Bike or eMTB a mountain bike that has an electric motor assisting the pedalling effort of the rider (different to a commuter eBike, it is specifically made for harsh terrain)

Fat bike a bike with oversized width tyres, often over 3" (75mm), it can be an eBike, have suspension or be a rigid bike. They are particularly good for loose surface riding, such as snow, sand and mud

Flow this is more a feeling, it's when you feel you're putting each feature together nicely, and will result in a big smile at the end of the trail, and an eagerness to ride it again .... even better!

Forward Foot when not pedalling, we ride with the pedals parallel to the ground which allows clearance between your pedals and obstacles such as rocks. As the pedals are set at 180 degrees to each other, this means you will have one foot forward and one foot back. Ride with whichever feels the most natural to you, although it's great if you can ride with either one forward.

Full Suspension Mountain Bike a mountain bike that has front and rear suspension

Full Squish Mountain Bike it means the same as a Full suspension mountain bike, where the bike has front and rear suspension

Gap Jump a jump where there is a hole between the take-off and landing (some people call this a double)

Getting Air a period during a jump when you and your bike are flying!

Gnarly, Rowdy, Chonky, Chunky varying degrees of roughness of a trail particularly in reference to ruts, rocks, boulders and roots

Gnar an expression used as a general term for gnarly trails, for instance you might hear 'I had a rad time riding the gnar at Mount Buller yesterday'

Goggles wearing motocross type goggles is common place in downhill, some people wear them with open face helmets. An alternative is some specialist cycling sun glasses, which are useful when riding in sunny conditions.

Gravel bike a bike suitable for riding non-surfaced roads and trails, they can cope with some gnar but they are not made for extreme mountain bike trails. The come as rigid or hard tail bikes.

Hard Tail Mountain Bike a mountain bike that has front suspension only

Helmet for downhill mountain biking, a full face helmet is often mandatory at some bike parks. Open face helmets are common place for trail riding, make sure you get a mountain biking specific one, with a large peak.

Hydration Pack a backpack or rucksack, of varying sizes, that carries a rubbery bladder in which you store water, it will have a rubber hose that you suck the water through.

Jump a feature where your bike can take off, get some air and land

LBS local Bike Shop, it's cheaper to shop at a large bike chain, but get to know your LBS they may be more expensive but they will get you out of trouble when you need them to! MTB Mountain Bike

Mullet a bike fitted with a 29" wheel at the front and a 27.5" wheel at the rear Off-piste basically riding mountains, meadow and woodland, not on an official trail

Presta Valve a type of tyre valve, most high end mountain bikes have these. You take off the cap, then loosen the very top of the valve and press it to let air out, or put the pump on. Tighten the valve with your fingers, then refit the cap. Caution! Do not unscrew the whole valve from the main valve stem.

Protection unless you are super talented, it's very likely you're going to fall off at one point or another. There are many pieces of protection available: helmet, neck brace, elbow pads, knee pads, gloves, body protection, chest protector, back protector, wrist straps etc. For me, a minimum would be Full face helmet, knee pads, elbow pads and a chest/back protector. Before buying consider the climate you are proposing to ride in, if it's going to be hot, you will perhaps need to compromise. Noting that downhill mountain biking can be a nasty place to have a fall.

Rig bike!

Rigid Bike a bike that doesn't have any suspension

Rollable a feature that is just that, you don't have to jump it or drop down it, you can simply ride it, sometimes with caution!

Roots often trails are in woodland, exposed tree roots can be very tricky to negotiate, especially when wet

Schrader Valve a tyre valve, sometimes on mountain bikes, but rarely on high end bikes, the same as a car tyre valve. Remove the cap and push the little tip in the middle to let air out, or to fit the pump on.

Shuttle Runs at most bike parks there will be a method to get you to the top of a trail, often a bus and trailer, ski lift or tractor and trailer. You will need to pay for this, and often book but sometimes you can pay on the day

Singletrack a narrow trail wide enough for one bike

Slack Angle a bike where the angle of the front fork is less upright to the perpendicular, leaning outwards from the bike, i.e. the from wheel is not under the handlebars, it is way out in front of them on a slack angled bike

Steeze style with Ease! When people do certain things whilst riding and look 'cool'

Table Top Jump a jump where the section after the take-off and before the landing are flat, the idea being you get air over the flat section (a bit like a gap jump with the middle filled in!!)

Trail Name trail centers and bike parks give each trail a name, often they can be a play on words and slightly amusing

Trail Center very much like a down-sized bike park, but it's more likely to be run by a local club, forestry or woodland commission. It's unlikely that there's an uplift method but occasionally a café and/or toilets

Tubeless if you have tubeless ready wheels and tubeless ready tyres, you can opt to go tubeless without too much expense. This not only saves on weight but you will also experience much less downtime with punctures. But it doesn't suit all bikes, so read up on your wheel, tyre and discipline for the best solution. Most bikes are bought new with tubes, you will have to pay extra for your supplier to swap it to tubeless. To go tubeless you remove the tyre and tube, fit a special tubeless valve to the rim, tape up the inside of the rim (probably done already), refit the tyre, seat the beads, squeeze in some tyre sealant through the Presta valve stem (valve removed), screw in the valve and pump up the tyre. This should last up to 1 year before it needs attention. I use Orange Seal Endurance, it's very good.

Uplift at most bike parks there will be a method to get you to the top of a trail, often a bus and trailer, ski lift or tractor and trailer. You will need to pay for this, and often book but sometimes you can pay on the day


Trail Difficulty Ratings

Mountain Bike trails are generally, but not always, allocated a colour or a diamond rating to denote the skill level required to safely ride that trail. It's important to note that not only does this allocation vary country to country, it can vary trail centre to trail centre. I would suggest taking a look at some YouTube films of the specific bike park, trail centre or trail you plan to ride, to see that it's suitable for you. Be sure to carry out a slow ride of any new-to-you trail, before riding it hard, it could have hidden difficult features, beyond your skill level


Green Mountain Bike Trail

Suitable for a family ride or beginners. A cross country style trail, with uphill, downhill, twists and turns on pathways, gravel or woodland or meadow trails, perhaps with some very small features such as rocks and small berms, but nothing extreme


Blue Mountain Bike Trail

Suitable for novice riders - You will find many blue flow trails, these are great and I mostly stick to these. Most flow trails are downhill, but not extremely so. General blue trails can range from smooth and well groomed to naturally littered with rocks, roots and undulations. You may encounter some small drops, as with any jumps, they are likely to be rollable or will have a chicken run. You may also encounter some rock gardens, steep twisty berms and un-rollable very small drops


Red Mountain Bike Trail

Suitable for intermediate riders, there may will be some tricky features such as jumps and drops, that may not be rollable or have a chicken run. You may encounter some small gap jumps. There's likely to be some fast and fun berms.


Black Mountain Bike Trail

These could be denoted by a diamond allocation, 1 diamond being less difficult than a double diamond and so on.

Suitable for experienced and skilled riders, the trail could be loose, steep uphill and or downhill, have un-rollable jumps, drops and natural features, without chicken runs. When you're good at red runs, then progress to the black run. Don't be tempted to try and ride the blacks before you're ready, you could end up injured and in fact you'll probably not enjoy it at all, although sometimes it's unavoidable, if you accidentally end up on a black or it's all there is available. Don't let your ego stop you getting off and pushing around, up/down a particularly dangerous section, getting injured sucks!




Me, bikepacking on my full sus Specialized Camber
Me, bikepacking on Bay, my full sus Specialized Camber


Me on Desmond, my Specialized Demo8 Downhill Bike
Me on Desmond, my Specialized Demo8 Downhill Bike

Me, on Stumpy
Me, on Stumpy

A typical trail sign, you can see Lightning Strikes is a blue
A typical trail sign, you can see Lightning Strikes is a blue


An uplift trailer