So you’ve been watching Red Bull TV and fancy shredding with the rad lads… or you’ve simply been enjoying riding a bike around and keen to hit the trails… Or you’ve never even ridden a bike and fancy checking out mountain biking? Regardless, here are my thoughts on getting into the sport (and I thoroughly encourage you to give it a try!).
For context first of all, I bought a mountain bike in April last year after signing up for a multisport race which required some serious mountain biking, amidst trail running and kayaking. If we’re going to do the whole pigeon hole thing, in April last year I was very much a “trail runner”. In fact, I wasn’t really even interested in mountain biking. I had discovered trail running and ultra distance stuff (upwards from the marathon/42km/26 mile distance) and was in my element. I was 100% of the mindset that I’d learn to mountain bike for this one race, and then that would be it, back to running I’d go. So much so that while I bought the mountain bike in April and rode it a few times, clashing my pedals around the “easy” track numerous times and thinking how much faster I’d be if I just stepped off and ran the trail, I popped my bike (Sparkle McKnight) back into the garage and continued to train for a running stage race out of Alice Springs, and another ultra distance race. It wasn’t until September that I really committed to riding, while still running, and what can I say – a lot has changed since then. In short, my running miles have dropped to zero and I’m riding as much as I can amidst work and life. I’m hooked.
So, regardless of your background or reasons for thinking about giving mountain biking a crack, here’s my advice:
1. The bike. While I’m no expert, if you have a bike which will withstand a bit of bumping around on the trails, ride it. You don’t need to head out and buy a flash bike from the start. In fact, if you don’t need to do so, even better, because you’re just starting out so who knows what you want – there’s a myriad of options when it comes down to it. If you’re starting out and need a bike, get some good advice. Speak to other riders; speak to your local bike shop. Don’t be overwhelmed by the lingo but look at (and if you can, although it’s not always easy to, demo) the range – your main choice initially will be whether you go for a hardtail (no suspension in the back) or a dual suspension rig. Then there’s a whole rabbit hole of travel, drivetrain, wheelsets, geometry etc etc. Ideally, if you can just borrow from a friend to start with – I’d say that’s your best bet. I personally knew I’d need a bike for the race so I bought second hand from Facebook marketplace, but in all honesty – it was a lucky strike as I had very idea of what I was looking at in a second hand bike. With so many styles of riding open to you, the choices can seem endless, but some good advice will quickly narrow that down for you.
2. Gear. Well, to be true to the name of the blog, I should cover off a little bit about gear. A pair of shorts and a t-shirt, plus a pair of gloves (especially if you’re riding rocky, rough stuff) and a helmet are pretty much the essentials when it comes to clothing. If you want to go a little further, you could find yourself tossing up between lycra and baggies. Since I’d dabbled for 18 months or so in triathlon, I had a wardrobe of lycra to wear, but that being said, having said I’d never be seen in baggies, you may catch me occasionally crossing over to the looser side of life. Regardless – don’t stress. If you’re having fun and wearing a smile you’ll always look great. One thing I would say though is, it may look like a nappy if you’re not from a cycling background, but lycra shorts (or bibs ie/. with braces) or a liner for under your baggies with a chamois (pronounced “shammy”) are not to be overlooked. And no, no undies underneath them. That extra padding is worth its weight in gold to keep you out on the trail longer if you’re finding life on a saddle uncomfortable. And yes, bibs may look funny… but trust me, heaps of us have them hidden under our jerseys as they’re comfy as anything. Finally, don’t skimp on the helmet – your head is precious, trust me.
3. Trail choice. Where you choose to start riding will have a massive impact on your initial experience. If you’re fortunate to live near a mountain bike trail network, the trails will most likely be graded according to colour – just like on the slopes if you’re a snowboarder or skier. Green (around these parts at least) is your friend. Also be aware that there are “A” lines and “B” lines – regardless of the grade of trail, the A line will be the more advanced option. Never be embarrassed to ride the B line. Also, never be embarrassed to get off your bike and simply walk the line to check it out first. Line choice can often be made via a walk through – this was something I found super alien initially. I mean, don’t we just ride for it and hope for the best? Nope. If you don’t live by a trail network, a lot of fun can be had riding fire trail, gravel roads or even just a pathway bash. You can learn and challenge yourself on any terrain.
4. Community. One of my favourite aspects of trail running was the network of fellow trail runners. Mountain biking is no different. There’s something about people who are happy to adventure off road that, in my experience, makes for a welcoming bunch of folk. Tap into this by checking out Facebook for local groups; finding out about your local mountain bike club, or speaking to your local bike shop. Thursday night Hit Bikes shop rides followed by food and a beverage or two afterwards have become a staple in my week. Mountain biking is a sociable sport and a great opportunity to meet, hang out with and learn from likeminded people. In a week’s time I’m heading to Western Australia with a friend I recently met through riding, to race a stage race – thank you mountain biking for new connections and travel opportunities!
5. Coaching. Okay, so, there are different camps when it comes to coaching. If any of the following apply to you: “I don’t need coaching”; “I’ll ride for a while before I get coaching”; “I’m not serious enough to need coaching”, then trust me – try a coaching session. I promise you you’ll have more fun on the bike if you’ve had a little help with the basics. Hell, even if you know the basics, I guarantee there’s always more to learn.
As someone who has grown up playing sport my whole life, and spent time on a road bike, mountain biking still didn’t come super intuitively to me. Jumping into a group coaching session with a local club, which then led me to sign up to a series of one on one sessions, has played a huge part in my continuity in the sport. If I was still banging my pedals around the trails and – or as you’ll often here people say on steep stuff “lean back” – I highly doubt I would have found the enjoyment I have in this past year. A few tips can open up the door to enormous progression, and with that pure and simple FUN. Try it – what’s the worst that can happen?!
6. Riding solo or in a group? Riding with others is awesome – great company; an opportunity to learn or help others and someone to share a coffee or beer with afterwards – it’s hard to beat. However, I love to ride by myself too, so here’s where you may or may not agree with my outlook. As someone who has come under some criticism about how much I ride solo, I fully appreciate that it may be perceived as risky. What if you’re out on the trail and something happens and you’re all alone? I’ve heard these comments from both guys and girls, although while those guys will happily ride solo, it does tend to be the ladies who shy away from it. Do whatever makes you feel comfortable.
I don’t always want to be organised enough to ride in a group. I also love trail time on my own – I always did when I was running and I still do on the bike. Being in nature is a huge part of my trail enjoyment. Riding solo doesn’t need to be perceived as reckless (quoting words thrown at me previously). You can tell someone where you’re going and how long you plan to be. Carry a first aid kit, water and snacks. Carry your phone in case you need to make a call. And in this day and age, if you’re a Strava summit member or have a Garmin or similar, you can even set up live tracking for a friend or family member to follow you.
As someone who came off my bike at the start of the year and apparently used my head as a brake, I fully acknowledge I was incredibly fortunate to receive the assistance I did from other riders on the trail, when I wasn’t entirely sure of who I was, or where I was… but this doesn’t change my approach to riding. While I choose not to live in fear and know the precautions I can take to mitigate risk, I don’t judge anyone who would make a different choice. It’s up to you how you want to live your adventures. And – back to community, I’m extremely grateful for the help I have received out on the trails. Thank you.
7. Bike maintenance. Anybody who knows me will now be laughing. “Does Sarah even know the meaning of bike maintenance”. I’ve been a little slack this past year in the whole maintenance department, beyond getting Sparkle serviced (with the main appeal for me being that she gets checked over and a cracker of a wash). However, I don’t want to be that girl who doesn’t know anything about her bike. Yes, I can change a tyre and whack my chain back on. Yes, I an inflate my tyres. And the air in my shocks gets an occasional check too. I would say though – don’t be as slack as Sarah. Learn how to maintain your bike. And in the meantime make sure you’re riding with a multitool (which may be required to take a wheel off if you get a flat and don’t have a quick release set up; a spare tube; a set of tyre levers (to get the tyre off) and a pump (or a CO2 canister and inflator). You can either strap these to your bike; potentially stick them in the back of your jersey if you’re in a lycra number; or put them in a backpack (handy for carrying water too).
8. Drop the ego. Some days you have it; some days you don’t. As time has gone on, I’ve really found confidence in knowing that some days I’ll be feeling great and riding well (relative to my ability). I’ll be keen to try new features and push myself. Other days I’ll be feeling shaky, all over the shop, and looking at sections of trail or features that I rode the day before, thinking I don’t fancy it today. And you know what, if you don’t fancy it – while I’m all for pushing outside your comfort zone – feel free to leave it for another day. Commitment is key and I guarantee if you’re not committing, the chances are, you won’t pull it off. That being said, don’t be afraid to fall. I come off my bike all the time and for the most part, it’s nothing more than a good laugh and a reminder that I’m only human. And next time, if I stay upright, it’ll be a win.
9. Live in possibility. When I used to run around the mountain bike trails (yep, sorry) I’d look at features like wooden ramps and rock gardens (albeit I didn’t know it was called a rock garden) and think, why on earth would anyone want to ride over that. I was absolutely, 100% convinced, that this would never ever, ever, ever appeal to me. Let’s just say, I did a solid 180 on that and find so much pleasure in trying out new features, over and over… Also, don’t underestimate the travel opportunities that a bike can bring – I certainly never thought I’d be helibiking in New Zealand in year one, with trips to WA and Tassie now in the pipeline. I’m even taking my bike back home to Scotland next month. Stay open minded, go with the flow and seek out opportunity. Don’t rule anything out!
10. Have fun. Yep, simple as that. If you’re not having fun, why are we doing it? Yeah there’ll be some harder days but whether it comes down to the riding itself and/or the community you’ll meet, make sure it’s putting a smile on your dial.
As ever, any questions or thoughts, fire away! Message me here or DM on Insta @allthegearnaeidea