The sport of mountain biking has changed immensely over the past 10 years. The transformation is commonly explained using the downhill ski analogy. We can’t ski a new shorter-shaped ski like we did a longer straight ski from years past. Technology in the bike industry has brought many amazing changes. The introduction of carbon fibre, tubeless tires, larger wheels, simpler over-sized gearing, complex suspension designs, frame geometry, e-assist and the dropper post are to name a few. All these advancements have influenced factors like bike fit, setup, adjustability, specificity and feel.
Feeling overwhelmed? Well don’t. With these five key steps and a little dedication to the process, you can safely ride all the fancy new bikes in no time.
Get the right bike and gear. Bikes come with specific configurations to accommodate the four styles of mountain riding. In each category the angles of the frame, amount of suspension, wheel size and tire width will vary.
On the lighter, more agile side of things, the bike category known as trail or cross-country is the bike you want if you’re just starting out. Moving up to the all-mountain category, we see suspension increase and angles of the frame being more capable of going downhill rather than up.
One level above all-mountain is enduro. This category is growing rapidly due to the capability of these bikes being pretty good at climbing and exceptional at descending steep, tight and technical terrain.
Finally, the biggest suspension category is the pure downhill bike category. These bikes are built tough with one thing in mind: going down. Lift-access resorts and shuttling are where you will find these bikes ripping around.
To make the decision of what type of bike you might be after, visit a reputable bike shop that sells a variety of mountain bike types. Through explaining your riding experience and long-term goals, a good shop will get you on the right bike. At the same time, a good bike shop will introduce you to the basics of safety gear like helmet, gloves or knee pads. They may also show you some multi-use tools, hydration systems or maintenance items like lube and cleaner. All these are great additions to your bike kit to keep yourself safe and your equipment running smoothly.
Invest in a proper bike fit and set-up. Mountain bikes have infinite adjustments and unless you have a bike industry friend, it can take months if not years to dial in your bike’s fit and set-up.
Some bike shops offer free suspension set-ups that usually follow the manufacturer’s guidelines. These are great starting points for most riders. Some bike shops may also have an in-house bike fitter that can help you with all your contact points—hands, feet and bottom. Spending extra time and money on the front end of your bike purchase for the extra explanations, set-ups and fits can help you avoid unwanted overuse injuries, crashes or falling out of love with the sport all together. Once your bike’s suspension and touch points are dialled in, you’re ready to ride.
After a few weeks of what I like to call “getting to know your bike riding,” you may find yourself moving down the trail with the desire to go a bit faster or tackle bigger obstacles. This is when I like to recommend a clinic or private lesson. If you’re shy, a clinic with others is a great way to acquire new skills. If you’re a keen rider looking for the biggest return, a private lesson with a good instructor can take your riding to the next level. This is when fitness and technical riding skills come together for a superior mountain biking experience.
There are several great instructional programs that certify riders to teach mountain biking skills. Not all mountain bike instructors are created equally. Take the time to ask around and try to get an instructor that does it through an organization and has proper insurance, first aid and most of all, a professional mountain bike instructors’ certification.
Be kind to yourself. Taking a lesson, riding in a group or riding a trail for the first time can be overwhelming. Mountain biking is a complex sport that uses all of our senses, energy systems and eye coordination, at high speeds and in a constantly changing environment. Set goals for riding for time rather than distance. A 20-kilometre road ride isn’t much but the same distance on single track can take four times as long.
I like to tell all my clients and athletes that they need to learn to go slow to go faster. Develop proper slow-speed skills and muscle memory in a safe environment, which will translate directly to the trail.
Now that you have some directed experience under your belt, why not consider joining a weekly no-drop group ride. These types of rides are a great way to meet other riders, see how your skills are developing, get in better physical condition and have a great time. Every shop or club will have a different format to the rides but most will have keen leaders who will break the group up into appropriate energy and skill levels. Most cycling clubs or bike shops have a regular ride that meets weekly or even more frequently and may even finish at a local craft watering hole.
Now that you’re getting to know your bike, body, skillset and local trails it may be time to take a road trip. Taking a mountain bike road trip is a great way to work on your expanding skills as a rider. New terrain, elevation and rocky, rooty surfaces all help hone our riding skills. Dedicated trails for mountain biking can be found in just about any mountain town in North America so the possibilities for road tripping are endless.
So go ahead ask yourself, what step am I currently on and what’s the next step in my successful mountain bike journey?
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Photography by Ryan Draper
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