"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’s “Fit 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.
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
2. Find the right trail.
Just as you wouldn’t attempt a black diamond trail the first time you slipped on skis, you shouldn’t put yourself in the position of log-hopping and the like on your virgin off-road ride. While you’re at the bike store, ask an employee to point you in the direction of any beginner trails nearby. The store may also offer clinics or group rides aimed at beginners.
Another option: a rail trail. The Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, a nonprofit organization based in Washington, DC, has created 15,000 miles of trails nationwide from former rail lines. The trails are flat, smooth, and hugely scenic—perfect for an off-road newbie. Head to www.railstotrails.org to find a rail trail near you.
3. Ride in control.
For your own safety—and the safety of those around you—it’s imperative that you ride with enough control to adjust to the terrain as you pass through it.
Here's what you need to do know to traverse trails like a pro: