How to Shred: A Beginner Mountain Bike Guide
Words by Anna Maria Wolf
Picking up mountain biking can be a frightening proposition at any age, but if you've been riding track or road, or even just commuting for any length of time, the prospect of riding a bike through the woods can seem especially daunting. Technical terrain, a staggering amount of new equipment, terminology you’ve never heard before, connecting with a community where you perhaps don't know anyone, it can all seem a bit overwhelming. I found myself at a crossroads this past summer, no longer wanting to spend my weekends on the side of heavily traffics suburban highways, coming home covered with road grime. I wasn’t inspired to race cross or take on a particular tour. So I headed deep into the mountains of Northern New Jersey and got on a mountain bike for the first time in my life. There are a million ways to get into the sport, but I’ll share what’s worked for me, in the hopes that it might help you.
Do a clinic.
There is no better way to start that doing a local MTB camp or clinic. Small groups paired with experienced coaches is a winning strategy. MTB is not inherently intuitive, and if you've spent a lot of time riding other types of bikes, you are going to need to learn a new way of doing things. Foot position, arm position, mounting and dismounting, cornering, descending, these are all done very differently in mountain biking. Often times clinics will pair you with rental bikes so you can start getting a feel for what you like in a bike and what to look for in the sport. Whenever possible take a women’s clinic. If that's not possible find one that splits people by abilities. It can be tempting to go out with friends who ride, and just try to follow along. But think of the clinic as your foundation. Months into riding, my coach's words from the first clinic are still my constant mantras when I ride.
Cover your body.
There is nothing wrong with wanting to wear a road kit, and the chamois in your bib shorts can serve you well. But you are going to fall, and fall often. The smallest layer of fabric on your skin is the difference between getting back on the bike, or having scab that keeps you off the bike for weeks. Wear leggings over your kit, ditch the jersey and wear a ¾ sleeve tshirt. Wear kit, but use elbow and knee pads. Or even better, get some baggy shorts and a loose fitting mtb jersey and take a break from spandex all together. If for no other reason that ripped kit can be expensive to replace, and no one is judging your sartorial choices in the woods, they are just happy you're there.
Wear sneakers at first, clip in when you ready.
Any clinic is likely to have you spend time in sneakers. Foot position is key, and cleats can help you cheat. Flat pedals and sneakers are confidence building, it's easy to bail, and easy to walk through technical situations during the many times you will be walking your bike. Even if you’ve clipped in for years on other bikes, sneakers will boost your confidence and increase your skills. After months of practice on the trails, I was finally ready to clip in. These from Pearl Izumi are awesome!
Don’t drink coffee.
I used to start all my road rides with a cup of coffee in my kitchen. Until you get the hang of things, or have absolutely ruled out that caffeine affects you at all, don’t drink it before MTB rides. Trust me, you will feel plenty awake the first time you hit a rock garden. You're trying to stay calm in the woods, coffee isn’t your friend. Same with caffeinated gels and chews, save them for your next road ride.
Get a hydration pack.
They are amazing. No bottles to worry about and you can hydrate without missing a beat. Not to mention you have a place to store an extra layer, and a safe place for glasses, keys and your phone. You’re going to get bounced around, so open jersey pockets are a recipe for disaster. Plus if you are a petite female rider, you might not have that many options for frame mounted bottles. The hydration pack is a simple solution.
Connect with local groups.
No matter where you live, there is a network of people dedicated to building a preserving trails, getting beginners out to ride, and growing your skills as a mountain biker. Connect through your local shop and through Facebook and Instagram. You will find a welcoming community, eager to share the sport with no cliques and everyone excited to share their knowledge with a new mountain biker.
Buy a new bike.
This is the hardest part because it's so expensive, and it's terrifying to buy something you don't really know how to use. Using a hand-me-down bike with outdated tech is not going to do you any favors. Mountain biking is so new, and the technology is changing at lightning speed. Vintage bikes are for nostalgic collectors, not novice riders. Look for end of season clearances on current models, demo bikes and unsold floor models. Ride as many bikes as possible. Ask a lot of questions. If you are petite you should definitely be looking at women’s specific options, and consider 27.5 wheels. Dream big, and buy a bike for your future self. Don't buy a bike for the rider you are today. If you can afford it, dual suspension is a wonderful thing. Alternately a hardtail will focus your effort on skills that you need to build. And if you hate that new bike, there is always eBay, but you cannot get better at riding if you don’t have a bike at all.
Nothing will make you grown more as a cyclist than doing a mountain bike race. It is nothing like other disciplines and it is so much more about powering through your fears than competing with other entrants. When at all possible, race with other women. The kindness, camaraderie and support is like nothing else. Racing takes the mental blocks out of the equation and you will be surprised at what you can do. The community is so supportive and chill. Maybe racing isn’t for you, but decide that after your first race!
My Personal MTB Essentials:
Vans. Maybe the only thing on this list you already own. Use BMX platform pedals and any style of vans will have great traction. I recommend the lace free styles, so nothing gets caught in the chain ring.
Pearl Izumi ¾ length shorts. Ok So these are down hill shorts, but I love them because they cover your knees. They have amazing stretch and don't inhibit pedaling. Wear them over a liner or your favorite bibs.
Sombrio Silhouette Riding Shirt If you're going to ride a MTB, you might as well get some plaid! This shirt is the best way to do it! It feels great on the bike, it moves and has great stretch and vents. Plus, it covers your elbows.
Pearl Izumi X-Project 2.0 When I was finally ready to clip in, these shoes were perfect. Rigid soles, but plenty of traction for slippery roots and rocks. Boa reel makes it easy to dial in the fit. They are supportive and feel super light.
Sombrio Lily Gloves You're going to want some great gloves and you will want to wear them every time you ride. Most break and shifting systems are not dialed in to small hands, gloves with excellent grip and breathability are a must. These gloves are my absolute favorite.
Dakine Hydration Pack I love this bag. It carries lots of water, but is still light enough you can race with it. Pack it up with extra laters and snacks for long rides. It even has a fleece lined pocket for your glasses.
Cannondale 27.5 Trigger over - mountain Finding a bike in New York City is no easy task. In the end I decided on the Trigger, an awesome all-mountain bike. I've ridden trails, raced cross country, and bombed down lift access trails. For anyone with limited space, or who's wanting to explore different styles of MTB, the Trigger has got you covered. And yes, I bought it at an end of season sale.
Oakley Prism Trail Jawbreaker In the dappled light of the woods you need an awesome lens. These trail specific lens provide a perfect amount of shade, and protect your eyes from brambles and branches. Plus, they provide additional cover if you need to have a mini meltdown.
G-Form Pads Undoubtedly the best pads for climbing, they are soft and ultra flexible but are stuff upon impact. Pads gave me some piece of mind that was crucial in my first few rides, and I love that I have them on hand for down hill. Women should go a size up from the measurements they have online.