From Road to Mountain Bike…A Beginner’s Guide


Making the Leap from Road to Mountain Bike…A Beginner’s Guide

By: Mimi Stockton 4x Xterra Age Group World Champion

Those of you who know me know that I am devoted to my mountain bike. I have been known to sleep with it (okay, that’s a slight exaggeration). You’ll regularly find me tearing through trails like a mad woman, competing in both cross country bike races and XTERRA triathlons. Why am I in love? Because mountain biking is pure joy. I find it nearly impossible to not have fun when I’m out on the trails. Each time I hop on my bike I get utterly lost in the moment, with my cycling surges through the forest giving rise to the more natural, intangible surges of happiness felt racing through my body. I don’t feel an overemphasis on performance on my mountain bike like I do when I’m riding on the road. It’s, simply put, more enjoyable and freeing. When riding on the trails I’ve unwittingly unearthed some hidden gems; spots off the beaten path that I would never have discovered while road riding. It also allows me to escape from the traffic-filled roads. The absence of cars means I can concentrate solely on my riding and only the natural obstacles in my path. You won’t find any road rage in the hidden depths of the forest.

But this love affair didn’t start off so smoothly. After having taken a break from mountain biking for about 15 years, I decided it was time to get back on the saddle. I had missed it. I was invited to join a group of guys one evening–they were going to show me how to navigate the local trails. I couldn’t wait. My fitness was excellent and I had been road riding for many years. How hard could it be to ebb and flow through the forest again? I remembered the feeling of sailing close to the wind but always made sure I never lost that sense of control. I knew that when you crossed over this line, you would almost guarantee a run in with a tree. I would play it safe, I told myself. Boldness sometimes breeds mistakes and success requires confidence, but cockiness invites failure.  A mountain bike is a different beast than a road bike. I had forgotten simple things, like sometimes the best way past an obstacle is straight through it, that momentum is your friend and that the thing that nails you is the one you don’t see coming. Those two hours were painful, excruciatingly painful, and I saw my life flash before my eyes more than once. Yet I kept pushing on because I knew without pushing my limits I would never learn how to exceed them. I also remembered Nietzsche’s famous aphorism,

A mountain bike is a different beast than a road bike. I had forgotten simple things, like sometimes the best way past an obstacle is straight through it, that momentum is your friend and that the thing that nails you is the one you don’t see coming. Those two hours were painful, excruciatingly painful, and I saw my life flash before my eyes more than once. Yet I kept pushing on because I knew without pushing my limits I would never learn how to exceed them. I also remembered Nietzsche’s famous aphorism, “That which does not kill us makes us stronger.” It’s a cliche that stands the test of time because of it’s essential truth. I would be okay. I would make it out of the trails alive, perhaps a bit beaten up, but alive nonetheless. After every moment of pain, whether it is a lung-searing climb or a face to face encounter with a boulder, there is always joy: the joy of the summit views, the joy of an amazing downhill, or even the simple joy of the cessation of pain. In life, we grow most during our times of greatest difficulty. I grew a little bit that evening and walked away with a smile on my face. A tiny part of me kept saying “I’m never doing that again,” but I knew deep down I’d be back. Most importantly, I remembered that yes, love hurts. But don’t let that stop you from falling in love.

It was a few days later that my mind and body agreed to venture back into the wilderness. I vowed to be better prepared the next time I went off with the boys. So I practiced. And practiced. And practiced some more. And I learned a few very important things that every beginner mountain biker needs to understand. For every person out there who is thinking about hitting the trails, this list is for you. Read it, digest it, memorize it, live it. I guarantee you’ll fall in love too.

1.Pick a Trail That’s Suitable for Beginners

Don’t do what I did and hop on a trail that is above your ability. Many roadies have been directed to a mountain bike trail that is much too hard for beginners. You’ll have a better experience if you begin on a relatively easy trail and increase difficulty as you improve skills. If this isn’t possible, for whatever reason, don’t be afraid to walk your bike across the hair-raising, death-defying hill sections.

2Figure Out Where You Want to Go and Trust the Bike

You have to be looking well ahead of your bike. Decide where you want to go and keep looking ahead on the trail. Don’t look at a section of trail and keep your eye on that section or obstacle until it’s under your front wheel. If you’re looking at what’s under your front wheel, there’s no way you can be ready for the next section of trail. Mountain biking takes tremendous focus. Look away for just a split second and you might find yourself hugging a tree.

Once you’ve decided where you want to go, trust that your bike can handle the rough treatment. Mountain bikes, unlike road bikes, like it rough. They are built to crash into things.

3. Don’t Stop Pedaling

Most of the time, power to the pedals and momentum are your friends. It is tempting to stop pedaling right before an obstacle. A little voice inside your head is telling you that the obstacle looks frightening and you need to take a second or even third look at the thing. Assuming you are beginning with a trail that is appropriate for beginners, much of the time just keeping the pedals moving and keeping even power to the wheels will get you around or over the technical section. Steady, even power will also help you climb a loose section of trail.

Remind yourself to pedal, to keep the momentum going. Next time you’re out on the trail and you lose momentum you will quickly find out what happens. Prepare to fall over. Prepare to get muddy. I guarantee next time you will not stop pedaling.

4. Sometimes It’s Better (and Necessary) to Aim for the Rock

This probably sounds crazy, especially to a roadie who tries to avoid all obstacles at all costs. But in mountain biking, sometimes aiming right for the rock and riding over it is your best and safest line. Remember, mountain bikes are made to ride over stuff.

5. Pick the Best Bike You Can Afford and Make Sure It Fits You Correctly

Of course, you want a bike that fits you correctly, that’s step number one. After you have the right bike, have your local shop help you set up the fork and shock pressures. If your suspension system is set up correctly, you’ll be capable of riding much more of the mountain and be able to do it more comfortably. Your suspension set-up might change as you gain more experience and start tackling more difficult trails. Thankfully, it’s easy to change.

In addition to suspension, tire selection and tire pressure have a big influence on your ability to ride different types of trails. When you’re just starting out, it’s best to have someone knowledgeable help you with the type of tire and pressure that is best suited to the terrain you will be riding.

6. Move Your Body Weight Forward on Steep Climbs

When climbing steep trails or roads with loose sand, rocks and dirt, you will need to move your body weight forward so your rear wheel stays in contact with the ground. This provides optimal traction. If you move your body weight too far forward, you lose traction, and if you move your body weight too far back, your front wheel can lift off of the ground. After many hill climbs you will find that sweet spot.

7. Move Your Body Weight Back on Steep Descents (Get Your Butt Behind Your Seat!)

You have probably seen photos or videos of mountain bike riders screaming down steep roads and trails where their body position is so far back, the seat is completely visible in front of their torso. You want to mimic them. This is an essential piece of advice…unless you want to endo and fly off your handlebars.

8. Don’t Try to Be a Hero

There are going to be some sections of the trail where you are better off walking your bike.  Yes, even the best riders get off their bikes and walk some of the really crazy technical sections. Don’t expect to ride every section of every trail. In fact, sometimes it’s more energy and time efficient to just get off the bike and walk.

9. Expect to Feel Unstable

On a mountain bike, expect to have a feeling of sliding around on loose dirt, gravel, rocks and tree roots while you’re riding. Unlike road riding, the ground is often loose and moving beneath you. Be prepared for that feeling of sliding out of control. Accept it, try to relax and remain upright. Being scared, hesitant and nervous will cause you to stop pedaling and lose momentum, and you know what happens when you do that.

10. In the Beginning, Plan to Work on Skills and Forget About Aerobic Fitness During Some Rides

What does this mean? It means you will get off the bike and complete several “do overs” on one or more sections of the trail that you want to master. Did you miss the line you wanted to take? Hope off the bike and do it again until you get it right. Your confidence will grow immensely on these types of rides. When your legs get too tired to give a solid effort on tough sections or you find yourself unable to focus, call it quits for that day.

11. Ride With Experienced Riders (But on Ability-Appropriate Terrain!)

Riding with people who want to take you to the toughest local trails on your first couple of outings on a mountain bike will most likely end badly and leave you discouraged and maybe even injured. Find people that will take the time to help you learn new skills on terrain that is appropriate for beginners. Be patient. It takes time and effort to master even small obstacles. But having some foundation skills will help you be a better rider in the long run and will undoubtedly lower the likelihood that you’ll get discouraged, injured or worse still, quit.

So what’s the takeaway?  Get out there! All you need is a bit of practice, some determination and a kick in the butt to face your fears and push your limits…which happens to be a pretty good analogy for just about anything in life worth accomplishing.

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Be Healthy, Train Smart, Have Fun