Beginner's guide to mountain biking, part 1
By Ruth Schofield | Friday, October 23, 2009 12.00pm
Have you ever wondered what equipment you would need to start mountain biking? Or even where to go? For people who love the sport, these kinds of questions are second nature. They already have all the kit and know the best venues and routes for their skill level.
What about absolute beginners though? Those of us who want to get into mountain biking, yet have no idea where to start? Sure we can ride a bike, but the second the trail starts to look anything less than flat it all gets a bit too scary.
Well, this series is for you. Over the next year we’re going to take you through all the basics, help you progress to intermediate level and then teach you some of the 'secrets' of advanced level mountain biking. No longer will you find yourself standing in a bike shop wondering what everyone’s talking about!
Lesson one: You and your kit
There are several essential bits of kit for mountain biking that we would recommend buying straight away, plus a number of other items that are worth investing in if you get the biking bug.
The bicycle is a complicated machine, but when it comes to choosing one all you need are some basic measurements – your height and inside leg – and a trip to your local bike shop (LBS).
Yes, you can find some cheap deals online, but it's all too easy for a beginner to make a bad choice and end up with an unsuitable machine. Your LBS will be able to help you find a bike that fits you properly and is suitable for the sort of riding you'll be doing.
Most shops are run by biking enthusiasts who are only too happy to answer all of your questions. John's Bikes in Bath were brilliant at helping us find the right bike for this series and I’m sure your local shop will be able to help you in the same way.
The first question you should ask is' what is the best starter bike for me?'. There are three main types of mountain bike:
1 Rigid: A rigid bike has no suspension. This saves weight, cuts down on maintenance and means there is less to think about when you are learning to ride off-road. But on rocky or rooty tracks your comfort and control will suffer. A rigid bike is always preferable to a bike with poor suspension, so they're a good buy if you can only afford a couple of hundred quid.
2 Hardtail: As the name suggests, this is a bike with a hard – ie. un-suspended – back end and a suspension fork at the front. This type of bike helps you tackle more technical terrain. They're heavier than similarly priced rigid bikes, but cheaper, lighter and have better handling than entry-level full-suspension bikes. For a new bike with a decent budget fork you should be looking at paying upwards of £400. This is the type of bike we’ve chosen for the start of this series.
3 Full-suspension: Full-suspension bikes have suspension at both the front and rear, which improves comfort and helps you ride more technical terrain. The downside is increased cost – it's difficult to find a decent new bike for under £800, except in the sales – and weight, plus more moving parts to break or wear out.
Once you've decided what sort of bike you want and how much you're willing to pay (you may be able to save money if your employer offers a Cycle to Work scheme), the choice is down to personal preference – although checking out the reviews here on BikeRadar and our Buyer's Guide to Mountain Bikes may help you make up your mind.
It's important to buy the right size frame – your LBS should be able to work this out using the measurements you took earlier – and we'd always recommend taking the bike for a test ride. One thing to watch out for on mountain bikes is standover height – the space between the top tube of the frame and your crotch. If you need to dismount in a hurry, you don't want to get tangled up in the frame.
You can tweak several parts of the bike so it fits you better, and the shop should be able to help you with this. See our beginner's guide to setting up your mountain bike for more details.
For the start of this series we'll be riding a Trek 6700 women's hardtail
Mountain biking is a great sport but it can also be a dangerous one so we would always recommend wearing a helmet. Different brands have different fits so it’s important to try the helmet on before you buy it.
Your helmet should be level on your head and fit fairly snugly. It shouldn’t obscure your vision or cover the tops of your ears, nor should there be any excessive movement if you pull the helmet back and forth. The chin strap should be secure and the straps leading to your chin strap should go either side of your ears and not cover them. If you are unsure, ask questions. For more help, check out our Buyer's Guide to Cycle Helmets.
This mid-range Specialized Tactic helmet is ideal for beginners
Not all mountain bikers wear gloves but it's a good idea when you're starting out because of the high likelihood of crashing. They also help reduce soreness caused by vibrations from the bike.
You can get fingerless mitts for the summer but for winter riding you’ll find full gloves are much better. There are many brands on the market with different levels of padding and insulation. Again, try them on to make sure they fit – your fingers shouldn't feel cramped and there shouldn't be any bunching of material on the palm.
We'll be trying out these SealSkinz' Ladies All Weather Cycle Gloves over the winter
4 Pump, puncture repair kit and multi-tool
Punctures are inevitable but need not slow you down for long if you're prepared. The trusty pump and puncture repair kit are two important bits of kit not to be forgotten. It's also worth buying a multi-tool so you can carry out basic trailside repairs. Your local bike shop should be able to advise you on what to buy.
Although you can ride in just shorts and a T-shirt, there are several items of cycle-specific clothing that are worth considering if you have the budget, because they will make your riding more comfortable and enjoyable.
There’s nothing more annoying than riding along and suddenly being hit in the eye by a fly or some other foreign object – that's why so many riders wear eye protection.
Clear glasses are great because you can wear them all year round and you aren't plunged into darkness when you enter a wooded section, like you can be when wearing sunglasses. Many come with interchangeable lenses, including a yellow one for overcast or poor light conditions.
Spiuk Ventix Carbon Lumiris II glasses have light reactive photochromatic lenses
2 Cycling tops
T-shirts are fine until they get wet – either from rain or your own sweat – when they soon become cold and clammy. A riding-specific top will not only fit better when you're sat on the bike but will also help draw moisture away from your body.
There are tonnes of different clothing ranges out there so shop around depending on how much you’re willing to spend. Just keep in mind that it must fit your body shape and be comfortable when you’re sat on a bike. Make sure you can stretch upwards and the sleeves don’t end up round your armpits, and if you bend over the back doesn’t ride up leaving you with a cold midriff.
The top you go for will depend on the weather. Right now we’re at the crossover between autumn and winter so you’ll want something to keep the chill off and yet not roast you like an early Christmas turkey! It's also a good idea to invest in a decent windproof or waterproof jacket – see our Buyer's Guide to Weatherproof Jackets and Buyer's Guide to Winter Layers.
Ground Effect's Popsicle top is ideal for autumn
3 Cycling shorts/tights
The same rules apply to bottoms as tops. You must be comfortable riding in them so try them on. Everyone has a different body shape so what works for one person may not be what’s best for you.
There are lots of different styles out there, from body-hugging Lycra to more casual baggy shorts and trousers, but remember that a bit of padding can go a long way.
As a beginner your body won’t be used to sitting in a saddle for any length of time. This is something that you’ll get used to but at the start it can be quite uncomfortable. Padded shorts or tights feel odd when you first try a pair on but once you’re sat on the saddle they suddenly become your new best friend.
For more information, see our Buyer's Guide to Lycra Shorts and Buyer's Guide to Baggy Shorts.
For the start of this series we’re wearing Ground Effect Witches Britches knickers
4 Hydration pack/water bottle
It's important to stay hydrated when you're riding so get a water bottle for your bike or, better yet, invest in a hydration pack – effectively a bladder full of water stored in a rucksack with a long straw so you can drink on the move. These packs have a plethora of pockets so there's plenty of room for all your extra bits and pieces – pump and puncture kit, cash, a phone and first aid kit. Check out our Buyer's Guide to Hydration Packs for more information.
Gelert's Hydro Force hydration pack has a water bladder and plenty of pockets for tools, etc
Socks are important for the same reason that gloves are – they help protect your feet from getting blisters and from getting cold. Bike-specific ones will generally have padding in the right places and be made of breathable materials that help carry moisture away from your skin. Some are even waterproof, so you can wade through a stream and still have dry feet.
Ground Effect Toe Rags are great in dry conditions
We'll don waterproof SealSkinz Lightweight Socklets when conditions go downhill
You’re now up to speed on all the basics, so go out there and see what kit suits you. Learn from the experts, ask lots of questions and get ready for next month’s article, when we'll tell you what else to check before you go out riding and how to cope with your first puncture.
Word from the author
The staff of BikeRadar, Mountain Biking UK and What Mountain Bike have vast amounts of knowledge on mountain biking and I’m always left wondering how these guys are so clued-up. Where did they start?
As a complete novice, I had very little idea of what I needed to start riding, or even where I could go to learn how to ride. So I decided it was time to get knowledgeable.
For this series I’ll be riding and writing from a complete beginner's point of view. I’ll visit a variety of locations and take part in skills courses, and then tell you honestly what I’ve learnt.
Follow me through the series and by the end I’ll be aiming to take on the massive challenge of riding down Snowdon, the highest mountain in Wales. This will be the ultimate test of the skills and knowledge I've acquired, and it'll prove that mountain biking isn’t just for the elites!
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