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Friday, September 2, 2016

Tips for Beginner Mountain Bikers

I developed such a love/hate relationship with mountain biking while living in Utah.  I love the feeling of accomplishment, the beautiful places my bike can take me, and calories burned at the end of a long ride.  I hate the large boulders that are often in my way, the way my legs and lungs BURN, and the hairy turns and cliff edges I face along my ride.  I have to admit, when I first started there was a lot of hate and very little love for my mountain bike and the trails.  But after a lot of trial and error, a few hard lessons, and some endurance and tolerance built up over time, the scales switched.  I started to log more miles, ride more challenging terrain, and get excited for an after work ride in beautiful Utah.  

Mountain biking is a hard sport to get into because many people are intimidated by the sport, especially women.  The idea of throwing yourself down a rocky mountain on two wheels, or propelling you and your bike up a mountain just isn't very welcoming.  We all have the mental image of flipping over our handlebars or ditching our bike mid-mountain.
  During my first few rides up the mountain, I started to daydream about throwing my bike off the mountain and walking the rest of the way up, unsure why anyone rode bikes up mountains for fun.  I soon learned that Mountain Biking was  like snowboarding (according to all the successful snowboarders out there), you were going to hate it the first 3 times but once you got to ride number four or rive, your feelings would change.  Sadly, I didn't stick with snowboarding long enough to learn that lesson, but with Mountain Biking I did.  Thankfully, I stuck with it and with a few helpful tricks and tips, a new expensive hobby was added onto my list. 

Chamois: Protective padding worn while biking to prevent chaffing. Usually built into shorts or underwear.
Single Track: Trail wide enough for one bike at a time
Double Track: Trail wide enough for two bikes to travel side by side,
Saddle: Correct term for the bicycle seat.
Hard Tail: A bike with only front suspension.
Clipless (referred to often as Clip-Ins): Associated shoes and pedals that allow you to actually clip your shoes into the ped
Slickrock:  Smooth weathered sandstone- terrain mountain bikers in Moab love!

 This is probably the most important tip.  A sure way to make sure someone has a terrible time on their first ride is to put them on a challenging trail.  Mountian biking is nothing like road biking, and going in its important to realize you are going to have to start in the easy section, the kiddie pool if you will. I highly recommend finding some beginner friendly trails for your first few rides on your bike.  You want to leave slightly challenged yet excited, not broken and discouraged.  The best trails to start have rolling hills (instead of steep incline) and nice easy passes (no challenging rocks, turns, or really technical terrain). Trails are often rated online like ski slopes (green, blue or black) and find the greens to start.  Round Valley in Park City was where I first learned to bike, gentle rolling hills and easy terrain.  Shoot for nice hard packed dirt trails with few rocks.  Sand, gravel and boulders are definitely more challenging terrain.  I think that trails with slickrock is also a nice terrain for beginners. 

Like many sports and hobbies, getting the right gear is important.  I don't mean you need top of the line best of everything to have fun, but instead, some solid basics and safety gear.  

For starters, you need a bike that has been semi-recently tuned and that at least has front suspension (a "hard-tail").  While full-suspension is nice (suspension on the front and back of the bike), it is not necessary.  However, having suspension/shocks in the front of the bike are absolutely necessary (please don't take your mom's old road bike out on the trails).  Make sure your tires are properly inflated and the bike is the right size for you.  It is also good to have a bag with a few tools, an air pump and spare tubes (you will get a lot of flat tires, like a lot a lot).

For safety gear, you will at a minimum need a helmet.  I also highly recommend gloves for grip and to protect your hand, and a set of glasses for the sun and or bugs. A sturdy pair of sneakers is key and don't even think about attempting clip ins until you are a seasoned biker.  A pair of chamois (pronounced sham-ee's) is also a really good idea.  Chamois are the protective padding (usually built into a pair of underwear or shorts) between you and the bicycle seat, extra padding  between you and the seat and a good tool to prevent chaffing.  These are an awesome idea if you are going to be on a bumpy trail, or normally get a little stiff and sore from a standard bicycle saddle. More about chamois and appropriate gear here.  While I like to bike in standard bike shorts, longer sleeves are pants are a good idea for single track trails (only wide enough for one bike at a time) to prevent getting all scratched up in the brush.  

The correct seat height is really important if you want to have a good and injury free day on the trails. If your seat is too low, you will burn out your quads fast.  If your seat is too high your balance will be off, your risk of injury increases, and your pedal efficiency will be all wrong.  When adjusting your seat height, you want to sit on the bike, with one pedal at the bottom of the rotation, and the ball of your foot on the pedal. When your seat is set at the correct height, your leg should stretch down with a slight bend in the knee (it should not be completely straight or bent at a sharp angle).  You should aim for 80-90% leg extension, as shown in the figure to the left.  The wrong seat height will throw you off balance and even worst, cause a plethora of injuries including knee problems.  Here is a great video teaching you how to adjust your seat height and associated injuries with setting the wrong seat (or saddle) height (Here is one specific to mountain biking). Pay attention to the saddle angle as well, most people prefer a flat seat while biking. Once you find the perfect spot, use a permanent marker to mark the post of your seat in case your seat shifts (you will already know where the sweet spot is without trial and error). 

Especially in the beginning, biking with someone who is familiar with the sport and more importantly the trail is really helpful.  Your first few times out will be tough enough on their own, never mind trying to navigate trails, climbs, and trailheads.  Having a "pro" will take navigation and the stresses associated with the technicalities of the trails out of the equation.  They will also likely be able to warn you when climbs are coming up, or some more technical spots.  

Most importantly, they will be able to give you some great tips.  So much of what I learned while biking was simply from watching people more experienced than me.  I watched how others approached hard turns or tricky climbs and simply copied what they did.  It is also nice to have someone to ask questions and motivate you to push a little further and challenge yourself as you start to get better on your bike.  Make sure you find someone who is patient and understanding that you are a beginner rider and may have a few too many questions or take a lot of breaks.  When I was first starting, I was really excited to be able to bike with my friend Lauren.  It was great to have another female in the group, and someone with more experience to answer my questions and motivate me on the trails. 

I know it sounds cliche but this may actually be the most important piece of advice.  If you go in with a bad attitude about it all, I promise you are going to leave the mountain defeated and maybe even without your bike. It is really important to understand that this is a challenging sport.....that you will be really frustrated, that you will most likely fall (or at the very least brush against some serious twigs sticks and brush).  Oh, and you will definitely get dirty.  Stay positive, stick with it, and come out smiling because you probably spent a decent amount of money and time to be out on the trails and it is only as fun as you make it. 

This is a lesson that took me a little while to learn.  Mountain biking is confusing because you are shifting gears constantly. You want to always start in the lower gear (least resistance, think faster easier pedal strokes).  You can always increase your gear but it is good advice to start lower than you think you may need and notch it up.  So many times you will see mountain bikers heading up the steepest inclines, their legs moving rapidly but their bikes sloooooowly climbing.  This is because they are using that lower gear to slowly climb without burning out their legs too quickly.   Do it. 

This one kind of goes along with Tip #6.  When you are biking along and see an incline approaching you want to down-shift to that lower gear EARLY.  Not when you start to hit the incline, but before it.  This allows for a much smoother transition.  When you are shifting gears you want to be moving your pedals (and therefore the chain) while shifting.  If you wait too long to shift your gears, you will burn out your legs and most likely be unable to downshift early enough.  You also dont want to pull a Katie and shift too late and too hard on a steap climb, breaking your chain and leaving you to walk your bike two miles back to civilization.  Shift your gears often, and early.  

Ego often gets in the way of many things we do.  And it can definitely get in the way while mountain biking.  I often tell new bikers that walking your bike is completely acceptable and not to be too proud.  Too much pride in this hobby will definitely get you hurt and frustrated.  If I come across a climb that is too steep for my comfort level, or an area that is too technical for my skill level, I just hop off my bike.  It is much better to be safe and walk my bike around an area I am not comfortable with, than fly off my handle bars into a rock wall.  A lot of great riders follow the same motto, walking sections of trails they aren't comfortable with.  Maybe you didn't sleep well or didn't fuel right and that climb you always conquer just isn't in your books today.  Especially if you are new to the sport, putting your pride aside and safety first is important. 

You are going to be frustrated your first few rides, that I can guarantee.  Trying to propel your bike up a mountain, or over challenging terrain through the woods is not easy.  It is challenging and exhausting, but I promise it will get easier.  If you have a tough ride the first few rides, give it a few more.  I would say it was ride number 4 or 5 where it really clicked for me and I started to agree with the group that mountain biking was fun, not some form of self-inflicted torture. 

It is the kind of thing you really have to do a few times a week and stick with it for a few weeks.  If you do this, I promise you will notice a big change in the way you bike.  It takes a while to build the lung capacity (especially if you are at altitude as I was in Salt Lake City) and even longer to build the muscle.  So many rides I felt like my legs and lungs were on fire.  But slowly and surely, that burning started to fade and I was making progress.  A climb that I would normally stop and rest a few times, I was able to do in a straight shot.  My legs were on board with my brain and my lungs were adjusting to the cardio and the altitude.  Running and road biking are two great additions to help you build the endurance needed to power up those climbs and build the lung capacity while in the mountains. 

There you have it, 10 Tips for beginner mountain bikers, and some new vocabulary so you have a little bit of knowledge when you walk into the bike shop.  It is a challenging sport but the feeling of accomplishment as you reach the peak is worth all the sweat you put in.  

Check out some of my rides I have blogged about below, and feel free to ask me any questions.  And yes, there will be a "Mountain Biking with Dogs" post coming up soon. 

Katie Wanders - Mountain Biking Trails and Tales 


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