Things I Learned As a Newbie Mountain Biker

This story is for newbie mountain bikers and an invitation from experienced riders to chime in and share their experience, strength and hope for the newbies.  I will add to the tips as things come to mind or people share their tips.  You can email useful tips to mark@3fbc.com.

I rode my first mountain bike in 1993, but it wasn’t my first time on a bike.  I spent most of my youth riding BMX and later in my teens I whisked around Orange County on a road bike.  One of my biggest rides at that time was a loop from Santa Ana to Long Beach via 17th Street to Newport Beach via PCH and back to Santa Ana via the Santa Ana River trail.  I believe that was around 40 miles and something I did often.  The cycling experience helped later, but mountain biking was really a whole new sport for me.

In my early years of mountain biking, I had a full stiffy GT Karakoram mountain bike.  About a year later I traded in my road bike for one of the first RockShoks spring forks, which at the time was an amazing upgrade.  In those early years, Carbon Canyon and Santiago Oaks (and nearby Irvine Park and Peter’s Canyon) were my go-to destinations.  Sometimes I went to Crystal Cove too.  I explored a little of the Santa Ana mountains, most notably Maple Springs and the Motorway, but looking back, I really had no idea where I was going.

In my mid 20’s, mountain biking took a back seat to school, work and partying like 20 somethings do.  My bike sat there in the garage collecting dust.  It wasn’t until I turned 32 that the passion was reignited.

Around August, 2004, I met a few buddies at a local watering hole who would be my primary riding partners for the next couple years.  We had a copy of “Mountain Biking Orange County” by Randy Vogel.  Each weekend we would explore a new area of Orange County until we had done just about every ride in the book.  It was during that year that I really started learning, and can share some pointers with you, the newbie rider.

A Well Maintained Bike Is A Must

You’re going to spend hours on that machine.  If you notice something needs fixing, fix it right away.  You don’t want to be that guy walking out of the wilderness because you forgot to maintain your bike.  Learning how to do things like changing a flat, adjusting your brakes and derailleurs, and identify strange sounds will make your ride smoother and save costly repair bills later.  Likewise, having the tools to do these things is a must.

A Hard Tail Bike Is Fine For Starting Out

I rode every major trail around Orange County and even some in the San Gabriel and San Bernardino mountains with a hard tail bike.  It was about three years before I upgraded to a full suspension bike.  On a hard tail, you learn how to control the back end of your bike. You learn to get off the seat while descending.  And you learn how to climb while standing.  These three skills you learn will improve your strength and agility on the trails.

Far too often I see people buy a top of the line full-suspension bike with no knowledge at all of how to handle a bike.  It becomes rather obvious when I see them mashing into rocks at full speed.  Worse yet, I see people buy cheap entry level full suspension bikes and watch them get bounced around like a pogo stick.  You’re better off getting a solid hard tail bike when you’re learning.

Full suspension bikes are something you’ll learn to love later, as they introduce more comfort and abilities to do things you would have a hard time doing on a hard tail.   I compare it to buying a high end sports car as your first car.  (Who does that?)  Until you know how to ride, you will be actually handicapping your learning curve with a top-end bike.

Don’t Wear Cotton

Cotton absorbs sweat and doesn’t let it go easily.  It’s great for things like a sweat wipe on your gloves or a head band but not so good on any other part of your body.  You don’t have to buy cycling-specific jerseys and shorts, but you may want to at least get padded undershorts to go under whatever you are wearing.

Any polyester blend clothing will do just fine when you’re starting out.  So whatever you normally would wear to the gym will work.  Later on you’ll probably want to upgrade to cycling-specific clothes and you’ll understand why when you use them.  P.S. Who cares what people think of what you are wearing?  If you like spandex – rock it like it’s coming back in style dude.

You Will Never Have Enough Water

Hydration packs (which are essential to have) come in various sizes with 3 liters still being the largest.  You need to be drinking a liter of water per hour of riding.  You probably won’t find yourself riding more than three hours when you are a newbie, but you’ll be happy to know that you have some extra water to help with things like cuts.

You also need hydration drinks like GU, Cytomax and the like.  Which one you drink is a personal choice and one you’ll learn with practice.  Some people say avoid sugary hydration drinks.  The main thing to remember is to bring a 3 liter pack with pure water and an extra bottle on the frame for hydration drinks.  P.S. Gatorade is NOT a good hydration drink.

Always Bring Snacks

Whether you’re doing a quick spin around the Fullerton Loop or grinding up to the Main Divide, you should always carry energy snacks.  More importantly, you should be eating them.  You are going to burn 300-600 calories per hour while riding.  Once you deplete all the sugar in your blood from last night’s dinner, your body will hit “the wall”.

Most people hit a physical wall at around two hours of riding as newbies.  Over time as you build up your base miles, your wall will extend but you will always need to be replinishing calories along the way.  Like hydration drinks, what you eat is a personal choice you’ll discover over time.  Energy bars and energy packets are designed to provide maximum benefit in minimal time.

Look Where You Want To Be

Your mind has a natural tendency to cause your body to drift into things you look at.  If you see a cactus on the side of the trail, don’t look at it.  Instead focus upon a point about 50 feet ahead of the cactus.  That doesn’t mean ignore the cactus.  Rather, it just means don’t focus on things you don’t want to run into.

It’s OK To Walk

Don’t feel bad when you are not comfortable with a section of trail.  The worst thing you can do is second guess yourself while proceeding through a technical section.  It is those split second hesitations which cause accidents.  At the same time you shouldn’t go full force into a section that you know you’re not ready for.

As a newbie you’re going to find yourself walking up many obstacles and stopping a lot on steep climbs.  You’ll be practicing a lot of quick dismounts and steep starts as you learn.  Just remember that each person’s ride is unique to them.  Just because the person in front of you can clear a section doesn’t mean you can.  A little encouragement (or teasing) from your buddies is fine, but always use your own judgement.

Pay Attention To Your Body

While some pain is normal when (and after) riding, some things should not be ignored.  If your hands are tingling or numb, you may have constriction around the hydration pack straps, the gloves may be too tight, or maybe you are gripping the bars too tightly.  You’re going to need your fingers working as you use the brakes, so take a break and shake out your hands before descending!

If you have lower back pain during a ride, it’s probably because your seat isn’t adjusted correctly.  Make minor adjustments of the seat height and angle.

Men pay attention if you are numb or experiencing pain in the crotch region.  This may mean that you need a different seat

If your toes are getting numb during a ride, it could be that your shoes are too tight, the seat is too high or maybe you’re just pain tired.  If you’re using clipless shoes and you find parts of your foot or ankles are experiencing pain, you might need to adjust the clips.

If you have pain between the shoulder blades after a ride, it could be normal.  But it could also be that you’re carrying too much weight to low in your pack.  Another possibility is that your bars are too far forward.  Changing the stem length might ease up those pains.  You might also try moving the seat a little bit forward on the rails.

If you find yourself at the verge of fainting, STOP!  Use a heart rate monitor and pay attention to it.  Make sure you’re in the right gear.  Don’t try to keep up with the guy in front of you and don’t worry about the guy behind you.  Go at your own pace!

Gear Down Before Steep Inclines

It goes without saying that you should know how to use your gears before you go mountain biking.  If you don’t, then you need to practice on flat ground.  You should not have to look at the indicators on the gear shifters or down at the gears to know whether or not you are in the right gear for the terrain.  You learn by feeling.  If you are spinning too fast, you need to choose a harder gear.  If you are straining too much, you need an easier gear.

When I’m training people on which gear to use, I’ll say things like “shift up” or “gear down”.  The terms “up” and “down” refer to where the chain is on the gears.  Up means larger ring.  Down means smaller ring.  The term applies to either the front or back, however, it means different things.  So if I say “up in the front”, that means I want you to go faster.  If I say “gear up in the back”, that’s because I see a climb coming up and I’m preparing you for it.

You should avoid changing gears while you are climbing.  The reason for this is that you put a lot of strain on the teeth of the gears and the chain when you exert pressure on the pedals.  You could break a chain doing this.  It’s also very difficult to start on a steep section when you are in the wrong ear.  If you see a climb coming, you should already be gearing up in the back and gearing down in the front before the incline gets too steep.

When you first practice when to shift gears, you may shift too soon and end up rolling into the climb because you’re spinning too fast.  This is OK and with time you will learn to do that shifting more closely to when you actually need it.  It is better to shift too soon than to be stuck on an incline because you didn’t shift in time.

If you have two rings in the front, one trick I teach new riders is to stay in “2-1” until you need the “1-1” gear ratio.  That means using the large ring in the front combined with the largest ring in the back until you start to lose momentum.  At that moment, you “drop the front” into the lower ring.  It is OK to drop the front while climbing so long as you ease back on the pedaling for just a moment while the chain drops to the lower ring.

Whenever you are shifting, think like you are driving a manual shift car.  When your switching between gears in a manual car, you let up on the gas, engage the clutch, shift the gear and then release the clutch slowly while you press the gas again.  On a bike, your legs are the gas pedal, the gear shifter on the bar is your shifter, and the gentle movement of the pedals is your clutch.  You’ll need to do all of these things in the right sequence and with the right amount of finesse to shift smoothly.  You will learn that technique in time.  But for now, as a new rider, just focus on shifting to easier gears well before a steep incline.

Lean Back During Steep Descents

The key to not going over the bars is to shift your center of gravity over the back wheel.  Sometimes this will mean shifting all the way off the back of the seat and literally laying on your stomach.  Even a slight crouch is better than having your body leaning forward in a descent.  You should be prepared to ditch the bike without going over the bike.  You can practice this on a flat grassy surface until you are comfortable with jumping off the bike.

Go Easy on the Brakes!

On a steep descent you need to be careful with the brakes.  Think of the back brake as a rudder.  It helps you control the back end of the bike from sliding left or right, but doesn’t stop the bike.  The front brake controls your speed, but too much pressure on the front brake will cause the front wheel to suddenly stop while the rest of the bike (and you) continue forward.

Use your hands to “feather” the brakes in order to prevent your wheels from locking up.  This means you are releasing the brakes at times and applying the brakes at others.  If you notice the wheels sliding on the ground, you are braking too hard.  If you find it necessary to brake that hard, it’s probably because you didn’t brake soon enough.  When you are sliding on the ground (either front or rear wheel), you are out of control: let go of the brakes.

Sometimes, letting go of the brakes will get you out of a problem.  Other times it will add to the problem.  Remember that your bike is a gyroscope.  It will continue in a straight line forward unless you do something to change its direction.  When a front wheel turns too far in one direction, for example, that will thrown the gyroscope off front a straight line and cause a sudden shift in your weight as you are thrown from the bike.

Don’t Fight The Bike

Go where the bike wants to go, following gravity.  Sometimes I compare riding a bike to riding a horse.  You have some control, but a lot of time you’re just going with the flow.  That said, if the bike is heading off into danger, and there’s nothing you can do about it safely, then you may have to jump off.

Avoid Obstacles You Can’t Handle

Rocks, roots, ruts, drops and slick sand can all cause your bike to do things you didn’t intend it to do.  You should be scanning the trail well out in front of the front wheel, looking for smooth lines and anticipating obstacles.  You also shouldn’t be going to fast that you can’t stop before those obstacles.  If you must hit a rock straight on, lift up the front wheel as you’re going over it rather than just hitting it with full force straight on.  You should also be standing slightly over the seat so that when the rear wheel hits the rock, it won’t buck you over the handlebars.

When you see ruts in the trail and cannot simply avoid them, it’s better to come at them perpendicularly, that is at a right angle, rather than trying to ride in parallel with them.  One technique I train people is to rock back and forth over a rut in the middle of the trail so that the front wheel is not getting stuck in the rut.  If you find yourself heading toward a rut, lean back and slow down.  And if you’re in the rut, you can use your feet on either side to stabilize yourself.

Roots can be slippery so proceed over them with caution.  If a root is extending off the edge of a cliff, there’s a good chance that your wheels will slip down the root and off the cliff along it.  Sometimes it’s just better to get off and walk  over roots!

If you can’t see the other side of a drop and aren’t familiar with it, don’t do it!  When you get to the point of knowing when to pull up on the bars, you are probably not a newbie rider anymore.   Before then, just be careful around drops and other obstacles.

Ball Up When Falling

Don’t extend your hands in front of you when falling.  The most common injuries in mountain biking are broken fingers, broken arms and broken clavicles – all caused by putting your hands in front of you.  It may seem counterintuitive, but the right way to fall is to curl up into a ball.  Clinch your fists and bring your arms close to your chest.  This may not save you from a full face plant, but it will help save your most delicate parts from damage.  Even if you put your hands in front of your face, you aren’t going to save yourself from the full weight of your body coming down on top of them.  All you’re going to do is create more injuries on top of your broken face.

Remember to Have Fun

You’re going to make a lot of mistakes as you learn this sport.  If you aren’t having fun, even when screw up, you’re not doing it right.  Mountain biking shouldn’t be stressful.  Rather, it is a way to relieve stress while having fun.  A big part of having fun is riding with others who are patient with you and who enjoy riding the same way you do.

As people progress in mountain biking, they will usually prefer one “type” of mountain biking over another.  Some people enjoy the thrill of all out downhill riding at break neck speeds.  Others prefer the athletic aspects of the sport, and may even want to start racing.  Personally, I prefer a combination of pure XC (cross country) and what I refer to as XC downhill riding.  That means that sometimes I’ll catch a shuttle to the top of a mountain but most of the time I prefer the climbs too.  As such my bike is light and agile.

Your bike doesn’t define how good of a rider you are, but it may limit the types of riding you do.  An entry level bike isn’t suitable for downhill courses, and a downhill bike isn’t a good choice for XC riding.  While you’re first learning how to ride, don’t worry about what other people are riding.  Don’t feel pressured into buying any bike because your friends say you need it.  Over time as you learn what styles of riding you like, you’ll probably add more bikes of different types to your stable of fun.

In Summary

I’ve covered a lot here for a newbie to learn, but really only scratched the surface of this sport.  I’m interested to hear what others learned in their first year of mountain biking as well.  Please send comments to mark@3fbc.com

Happy trails.  Keep the rubber side down!