While I grew up riding bikes along forest trails for fun, more recently it became a professional pursuit when I began reviewing electric mountain bikes. It wasn’t long before I realized I still love to hit the trails, particularly with modern bikes and modern bike gear. It turned out that there was something of a learning curve to the whole MTB thing.
There’s a lot to learn, and not learning not only makes you look like a doofus in front of more experienced riders, but it can actually place you in physical danger. To that end, here are some beginner tips for mountain biking that will help you on your way.
Get the Right Safety Gear
Mountain biking is fun because it’s thrilling, but that thrill comes with risk. Plunging down a trail through a forest full of obstacles at high speed is an endeavor with inherent dangers, so you need to be properly protected.
At a minimum, that means getting a helmet specifically made for mountain biking. You should also consider protecting yourself with gloves, knee guards, and other padding. Goggles or sunglasses are key for keeping branches and bugs out of your eyes, and brands like POC and Smith make products that provide outstanding visibility combined with protection.
For specific product recommendations, check out our list of the best bike safety gear.
Know the Rules of the Trail
Mountain biking is increasingly popular, and there can be a lot of cyclists buzzing up and down the trails in addition to hikers, runners, horseback riders, and bears. Accordingly, it’s important to know proper trail etiquette. Right of way is typically given to the weaker riders to ensure their safety, but all riders are supposed to yield to those on foot. Established biking trails usually have specific rules posted, so read these carefully.
As for bears… if you stay out of their way they’ll stay out of yours.
Understand Trail Types
There are two types of mountain biking trails. “Flow trails” are generally fast, untechnical routes designed for speed above all else. (Though you don’t have to go any faster than you’re comfortable.) “Technical trails” are paths that are more like obstacle courses. They have a series of “features” like jumps, drops, bridges, log rides, and other elements that force you to test your technical cycling capabilities.
Most regions rate their trails using the IMTB Trail Difficulty Rating System:
- White circle = easiest
- Green circle = easy beginner
- Blue square = more difficult
- Black diamond = very difficult
- Double black diamond = extremely difficult
- Double orange diamond = extremely dangerous professional level
For starters, you’ll want to keep things to the white and green circles, though you’ll increasingly want to push yourself to try the blue.
Practice Your Turns
One of the most satisfying parts of mountain biking involves whipping around a hairpin turn, but it’s certainly not for the faint of heart nor the unpracticed. Practice taking turns, again and again, building speed as you go.
Remember that in turns, you lean the bike, not your body. Your body should remain upright while the bike tilts into the curve, allowing the big side traction on the tires to snag the soil. Braking can cause you to skid, so try to get any braking done before you go into the turn.
Learn Your Hops
You’ll need to hop over obstacles like rocks, roots, logs, and so on, so learn how to pop a hop. That means jerking the front of your bike up so that the wheel clears the obstacle, then maintaining balance when you land. The only way to learn this is by repetition, so practice often.
Electric or Traditional?
These days e-bikes are all the rage, but do you need them for mountain biking?
If you’re like me, you hate the uphill climb, and that’s where eMTBs really excel. Blasting down the trail they have less to offer, but really take the punishment out of getting to the top. On the downside, they’re very expensive. If you hate struggling to the top, however, they might be worth the investment.
Where to Find Trails
While you can theoretically mountain bike down any trail, the booming MTB scene resulted in an explosion of outdoor and indoor trail parks specifically made for mountain bikers of all skill levels. You can find these all over the world, but a few of the most popular destinations include:
- British Colombia, Canada: Specifically North Shore, Vancouver, as well as Whistler and Squamish
- New Zealand: Particularly the Gorge Road dirt jumps in Queenstown
- Norway: Especially its famed Hafjell Bike Park
- Moab, Utah, USA: Less about up and downhill trails and more about backcountry access
- Finale Ligure, Italy: Known for offering some 150 MTB trails
You can probably find great MTB trails close to home wherever you happen to live, but if you have the opportunity to visit one of these renowned places, do it.