Humour: So you want to be a mountain biker?

What every offroad wannabe needs to know

As a road cyclist, you have no doubt asked yourself, from time to time, the following question:


“What would happen if I rode my bike offroad?”

Well, the answer is quite simple. If you took your bike offroad, your brainpan would be shaken loose and your tires would explode, right before your rims crumpled in a heap.

But that may not have been the question you meant to ask. Maybe you meant to ask, “What would it be like to ride a mountain bike on these trails I sometimes see intersecting the tarmac? Would it really be that much different?”

Yes, it would be different. Here are some of the key tips and tricks to help you prepare for your grand offroad cycling transformation.

1. You must get a tattoo. Before you even begin thinking about shopping for a mountain bike, let alone taking your first mountain bike ride, you must get a rad tattoo. It’s the law. There are actual mountain bike police out monitoring the trails, and they are liable to ask you if you have a tattoo. If you don’t, they are authorized to give you one — of their choosing — on the spot.

Now, I’m certain that you are thinking, right this moment, “I’m pretty sure I saw a mountain biker without a tattoo, once.” I assure you: that mountain biker had a tattoo. It was just more discretely placed than most, probably because that biker still lives at home and is afraid his mom will find out.

So the question is, what should your tattoo be? Well, the mountain biking bylaws stipulate that a chainring must be one of the graphical elements, a mystical Asian glyph must be included, and there must be a whimsical third symbol: wings, a skull-and-crossbones, or a cloud are all good examples. I recommend a yin-yang symbol inside a chainring, peeking out from behind a cloud, as if it were the sun.

Feel free to make up your own story as to what this means.

2. None of your existing equipment transfers. You might think that since you already have an outrageous quantity of cycling gear that you would have significant equipment overlap, making it easier for you to get your foot in the door.

That is, naturally, ridiculous.

You will need to buy all new clothes: baggy shorts, jerseys promoting different products, a helmet with a visor. You will need different shoes, and a high volume / low pressure floor pump. You will need different lube and different tools.

And none of the spare bike parts you have a accumulated over the years will be of any use. The wily bike part manufacturers have made certain of that.

3. Your bike will be be too complex for you to understand. Here’s an interesting exercise: sketch out your road bike from memory. Be thorough: draw where the cables go and the where the brakes are.

That was easy, wasn’t it?

Now, ask a mountain biker to sketch out his full-suspension bike from memory. He won’t be able to. The frame is just too complex — The fork moves up and down, the whole back section of the bike flexes around, and disc brakes are black magic that require either a degree in physics or theology (preferably both) to properly repair.

4. You must choose a tribe. When you ride your road bike, the bike type describes precisely what you’re doing: you’re riding on the road. Sure, there are a few outlier bike types (TT bikes, fixies), but even those are minor degrees of difference.

When you decide to go mountain biking, on the other hand, you haven’t yet decided anything. You must still narrow down by these oh-so-important factors:

  • Wheel size: 26″ or 29″? Or one of each? If you go with 26″ wheels, you’re a luddite who can’t accept the winds of change. If you go with 29″ wheels, you’re a sap who believes everything he reads. If you go with one of each, you’re just confused.
  • Your riding style: Cross country, Downhill, or Freeride? “Cross country” means you aren’t very good at riding downhill, and sotell people you like to be able to climb. “Downhill” means that you wish you could afford a motorcycle, and are making do for now. “Freeride” means that you bought into the marketing hype that said if a downhill bike were a pound lighter you could also climb with it.
  • Suspension: Front, Full, or None? Modern mountain bikes have sophisticated shock absorbers that can very nearly negate the bumps on the trail you claim to have come out to enjoy on the first place. Here’s a thought: if you want a smooth, non-bumpy ride, why don’t you try a remarkable new invention called “tarmac?” On the other hand, if you ride a mountain bike with no suspension, you’ll be called a retro-grouch and you’ll be rattled into a state of amnesia.
  • Gears or singlespeed? When you’re on your road bike, of course you want gears. Gears make you go faster. On mountain bikes, on the other hand, it’s becoming increasingly popular to have no gears, because it’s simpler or something. The prevailing wisdom on this theory is that the only people who subscribe to it are those whose brains have been excessively rattled, due to lack of proper suspension on their bikes..

5. You must learn new tactics. When you first start mountain biking, you’ll be tempted to draft, riding as efficiently as you always have. You will quickly discover, however, that this tactic doesn’t have much benefit at 3.5kph.

And don’t point out obstacles. Unlike roadies, who want to help each other stay upright, one of the primary reasons mountain bikers hit the trail is because there’s always a good chance someone’s going to have a good wipeout, and they don’t want to miss it.

Finally, and most importantly, start drinking more beer.

6. Be ready to work harder for your miles. If you go on a three-hour road ride, you’ve probably covered 50 miles or so. If, on the other hand, you’ve gone on a three-hour mountain bike ride, you may not get out of sight of the trailhead.

7. Be prepared to be injured in new and interesting ways. As a road cyclist, you no doubt live in constant terror of road rash. The good news is, as a mountain biker you’ll never have to worry about road rash again.

The bad news is, there are numerous new ways you can be injured while mountain biking:

  • Branches at eye level: On your road bike, glasses are a good idea. On your mountain bike, they’re a really really really really good idea. Really.
  • Branches at other levels: Have you ever wondered what it would feel like to have a branch catch in the crook of your arm as you blow by at 22 mph? Or to have a branch insert itself between your spokes and fork? You’ll find out soon!
  • Dirt is softer than tarmac, but not much: You’ve probably already figured out that turfing it on the dirt is going to hurt less than hitting the tarmac. However, when you consider how much more often you’re going to fall, that may be small comfort.
  • You’re going to get stupid. By and large, people don’t do intentionally stupid things on road bikes. You just ride. This is not the case on mountain bikes. At all. People will look at a nine-foot dropoff and say, “I think I can make it.” I’m pretty sure this has to do with all the brainpan rattling.
  • Nasty creatures: Got room in your jersey pocket for a snakebite kit? Maybe you should make room.

You’ll be glad to know, however, that your big, burly mountain bike is built to take the kind of beating you’re sure to give it, and it will only rarely have mechanical difficulties.

No, I’m just kidding. Your mountain bike will break as (or more) often as your road bike.

So please, allow me to conclude by welcoming you — my roadie friends — into the sport of mountain biking.

I’m sure you’re anxious to dive right in.


Elden “Fatty” Nelson blogs as The Fat Cyclist. He loves mountain biking and road biking equally, which is the same thing as saying he sucks at them in equal parts.