how to mountain bike

How to Start Mountain Biking

Fall is the perfect time learn how to mountain bike, and head off-road and into the foliage.

By Megan Othersen Gorman

How to Start Mountain Biking

Mountain biking combines great exercise with great scenery.

RODALE NEWS, EMMAUS, PA—"It’s like riding a bike." That phrase is usually reserved for something easy, yet mountain biking—or, riding off-road on rock- and root-strewn trails—can look anything but. Looks, however, can be deceiving, as anyone who wants to learn how to mountain bike can find out.

"There are loads of different types of mountain biking," says Selene Yeager, U.S.A. Cycling coach, Bicycling magazine’sFit Chick,” and author of Every Woman’s Guide to Cycling (NAL Trade 2008). "It’s doesn’t have to be a blood sport—in fact, in specific settings, it’s perfect for a beginner looking to get off-road for a change of scenery and a new physical challenge." If you've always wanted to learn how to mountain bike, don't wait. Just follow three simple steps, and you’ll be off-road before you know it.

Get fit and have fun this fall!
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Try sculling: How to Start Sculling for Exercise

#1. Gear up. Two things are indispensable for any wannabe mountain biker: a bike and a helmet. And the former cannot be your road bike, or a beater you use to coast around the neighborhood. Mountain bikes need to be sturdier than road bikes to withstand the wear and tear of riding trails, and their tires are thicker and knobbier for the same reason. Plus, many of the pricier mountain bikes have both front and rear suspension systems. The suspension lets the wheels move up and down to absorb small bumps while keeping the tires in contact with the ground for better control. It also helps the rider and bike absorb large shocks when landing jumps.

Since most cycling stores don’t rent introductory-level mountain bikes (some, however, do rent high-end, "demo" bicycles), you’ll need to commit to buying one. The most basic, introductory bike—one suitable for riding on flat, smooth trails—could cost as little as $300. A bike suitable for single-track riding (riding on a narrow trail that’s approximately the width of the bike) with some rocky sections would run $500 to $600 and could include a rear suspension system. Mountain bikes with dual suspension systems—in the front and the back—start anywhere from $1,500 to $2,000. For help sorting through all the options, check out the bike and gear review finder on

• Lay off the front brake. Sure, it can feel scary to let loose a bit. "But your front brake represents 80 percent of your braking power," says Yeager. "If you jam on it, you’re going to severely slow your momentum and lose control of your bike." Or you’re going to go over the handlebars. Bad news either way, so use a light touch.

• Shift early. "One of the biggest mistakes beginners make is they don’t shift soon enough," says Yeager. If you're already straining to pedal, you've waited too long to shift into a lower gear. "Look at least 10 feet ahead of yourself at all times, and when you see a hill or even just a rise up ahead, shift early so you can keep your momentum and maintain your traction."

• Befriend your bike. As a beginner, you don’t need moves that make it seem like you’re in the X Games. But Yeager encourages new mountain bikers to test their bikes a bit in a parking lot or flat area. "Hop up and down on it, see that you can get a little air," she encourages. The more familiar you are with the bike, the more comfortable you'll be watching the trail instead of your wheels. "Your bike wants to roll and stay up—that’s just physics," says Yeager. "If you look ahead on the trail while you’re riding—if you look where you want your bike to go—that’s where your bike will go."

Filed Under: BICYCLING

Published on: October 16, 2009

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