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There’s nothing like the adrenaline-pumping thrills and the sense of childlike joy that comes with mountain biking. For beginners, however, getting into the sport as an adult can be daunting. Aside from the physical demand and the inherent risk involved, collecting the necessary gear, procuring an appropriate bike, and locating suitable trails nearby is enough to deter many would-be enthusiasts.
Fortunately, if you take it step by step and listen to the experts, you can start tearing up single track in no time.
There are many types of mountain bikes, but you’ll mostly see one of two options. Hardtails feature suspension only on the front, so they won’t be able to fully absorb the impact when you’re riding on rough trails. On the flip side, hardtails come with the benefit of being easier to maintain and having a smaller price tag. But this doesn’t necessarily mean they’re cheap: You could find a used one in good condition for $500 or spend more than $2,000 for a new, high-end model.
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If the thought of a hardtail doesn’t convince you, maybe you’ll want to go for a full-suspension one. As the name suggests, this type of bike has suspension in the front and the rear, which offers a cushier ride with less jostling and softer landings. But as you’d expect, comfort comes at a price, and a full-suspension bike could leave a hole in your wallet of anywhere between $1,500 and $8,000.
Dwight Follien, president of Groveland Trail Heads, an organization that builds and maintains mountain bike trails in Groveland, California, implores beginners not to assume one type of bike is better than the other. Instead, he recommends considering what types of trails you’ll be riding and how often. For example, if you’ll only be riding occasionally and almost always on smooth or non-technical trails, you may not need to splurge on a pricey full suspension.
On the other hand, if you’re sure mountain biking is going to become a full-time hobby and you hope to start conquering difficult trails sooner rather than later, it may make sense to invest in a nice full-suspension.
Don’t shell out for the first shiny metal steed that catches your eye. Bikes come in different sizes, typically ranging from extra small to extra large. Finding the right fit is important when choosing a road bike, but it’s crucial when it comes to mountain bikes, as you’ll be out of your seat and moving around a lot more.
“You could have the nicest bike in the world but you’re not gonna have much fun if it’s not the bike for you or it doesn’t fit right,” says Tom Fure, owner of MQT Bike Rentals in Marquette, Michigan.
If you have no idea what size bike you should ride, online size charts can be helpful. But to ensure you get the best fit, Follien says going to a local bike shop and getting sized by experienced staff members is a great idea. Whether you buy used or new, they’ll be able to help you dial in the perfect dimensions by measuring your height, and the length of your legs and torso.
Before you commit, Fure recommends test riding several bikes. Going for a spin around the parking lot or borrowing your friend’s for the weekend will help you find out what features you like, what size you’re most comfortable with, and if any particular brands stand out.
Hitting the trails with a rental a couple of times will not only help you get a feel of what you like in a bike, but it’s also a great way to see if you enjoy the sport before making the investment. Just look for a reputable company that will help get you fitted and is on call in case you run into a problem or overestimate your abilities on your first time out.
In addition to a bike, there are a few other things you’ll need to bring on every ride, says Follien. These include a helmet, pads for knees and elbows, and a compact multi-tool for quick repairs. Complete your kit with a spare tube, tire levers, a patch kit for small punctures, and a portable bike pump.
You’re more likely to get a flat if you’re mountain biking on rough trails, so having a way to perform repairs yourself is a must. Plus, getting stranded in a hard-to-access area is no joke, as friends and family won’t likely be able to swing by and pick you up in a car if something goes wrong.
Plenty of snacks and water are also important, as is a small first aid kit for if (and when) you suffer scrapes or other injuries.
When you’re ready for your first ride, Follien recommends sticking to easy, flat trails until you gain confidence, build endurance, and get comfortable with your bike. Mountain bike trails are rated with colors and shapes, like ski slopes: Green circles are the easiest, followed by blue squares, black diamonds, and finally double black diamonds. You’ll also occasionally see white markers, which indicate extremely easy trails or adaptive trails for differently-abled riders. To find trials near you, ask around at bike shops or use apps like TrailForks (available for Android and iOS), AllTrails (available for Android and iOS), or MTB Project (available for Android and iOS).
For safety reasons, you should always hit the trails with friends—ideally ones that have more experience than you but remember that you’re still learning.
“The worst thing that happens to beginners is going out with advanced friends,” Follien warns. You may not be able to keep up, tackle advanced features, or have the endurance for long climbs. Getting left behind can be frustrating, but trying out jumps and drops you’re not yet ready for could be dangerous.
Taking a beginner-friendly mountain bike course and joining group rides can also help build both skills and confidence. To find one, look for local mountain biking groups that state if and when their rides or classes are appropriate for beginners. As a bonus, Fure says group rides often attract experienced riders, mechanics, and bike shop employees who may be able to answer questions or give you a hand.
Once you’re ready to put tire to track, make sure you know the rules of the trail, which you’ll likely find posted at the trailhead. Typically, other than following leave-no-trace principles, the main thing bikers need to be aware of is the right-of-way.
In general, riders should yield to hikers and horses on multi-use trails. If a hiker or trail runner steps out of their way for you, make sure to thank them and let them know how many riders are coming behind you if you’re riding in a group.
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Trail etiquette also dictates that riders headed downhill should yield to those riding uphill, explains Follien. Sure, racing downhill is fast and fun, but it’s a lot harder for a rider going against gravity to start again after they’ve stopped.
Then all that’s left is to get out and have fun. “You don’t have to be an all-star or pro rider to enjoy the trails,” Fure says. “The more time on a bike you have the more comfortable you get and the more fun it becomes.”