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How to Start Mountain Biking: A guide for beginners

Kayla Nelson, LPC


Maybe you’ve been a road biker for a while and you see how much more fun people are having on the trails. Maybe you are a hiker and see mountain bikers smiling more than you. Of course, road biking and hiking are fun too. Whatever your reason for wanting to get into mountain biking, I’m here for it. Mountain biking is one of my favorite activities and will change your life for the better! It is a great way to see new places, be with friends, build confidence, get outside, and even learn about life. I’ve always loved biking and I started mountain biking 12 years ago. Even though it has been a long time, I remember how intimidating it was to get started with mountain biking. I appreciate the people that helped me along the way and I still love helping beginners get into the sport. I was broke as a joke 12 years ago too and I scrimped my way to make it happen, so this guide will give you some ideas of how to get into mountain biking on the cheap(er) too. Mountain biking is an investment of time and money, but well worth it. A cool thing about mountain biking is that you can always be learning, which I still am, but I’ll pass on some knowledge I’ve gained to help you get started.


Is mountain biking hard/scary/dangerous? Sure. It is up to you to decide if the rewards of mountain biking are worth the risk. Mountain biking does take effort. It is physically challenging to pedal uphill, especially in the Front Range. Think about how good you’ll feel after physically challenging yourself to climb one hill, the next one, and the next one. Sometimes, it feels scary to go downhill at a fast pace, but it is confidence boosting to face a fear head on and learn you can get through it. There is also an element of calculated risk with mountain biking.

Something I love about mountain biking is the progression that happens with the sport. The more you ride, the more confident, and stronger you will get. Like any other sport, you will progress and have setbacks. There are different types of mountain biking and one might feel comfortable than others. There are also beginner to advanced trails. Some people like to continue to progress and some people are forever happiest on the beginner trails, which is totally okay. So, yes, mountain biking can be dangerous and you probably will fall a few times, but you’re in control of the risks you take. It is also a good idea to wear knee and elbow pads. What do I wear? Wear what you want! You will probably have the best time if you wear some athletic gear that is breathable and moisture wicking, but I wouldn’t get too caught up in finding the exact right clothes. Starting out though, the minimum gear you need is a helmet, gloves, and shoes. There are fancy helmets and there are 20 dollar helmets that you can get at Target. Buy what you can afford and upgrade when you can. I don’t recommend a helmet from Target, but it is better than no helmet. Please buy a new helmet though. After a crash or after 5 years, the foam in the helmet will no longer protect you. If you can afford it, a helmet with MIPS protection is worth the extra money to prevent a concussion. Out of all the gear, your helmet is something to prioritize and if you have x amount of money, I would put the most money toward a helmet. We only get 1 brain and they don’t snap back to normal after concussions. Shoes that keep your grip on the pedals are also important. You can ride with the tennis shoes you already have. Some people ride clipped in and there are special shoes for that. Many people ride mountain bikes with flat pedals and there are mountain bike specific shoes for this. However, you can get by with a pair of skate shoes that will work pretty much the same at the beginning. As you progress and become more advanced, you may want to upgrade to mountain bike specific shoes that are more rigid and grip better on the pedals. If you happen to go to a TJ Maxx or Marshalls, sometimes they have 5 10 bike shoes, which are the Adidas brand bike shoes, and tend to be affordable. Last, but not least, gloves are part of the basic minimum gear. Gloves help you grip the handlebars and will prevent fatigue in your arms. Once you are riding on rocky, bumpy terrain, there is a lot of vibration in the handlebars and that is rough on your bare hands. That is a good way to start biking and hate it. Gloves are fairly inexpensive and this is the one item that it would be okay to buy at Target. I recommend getting the full fingered gloves, not the ones with the fingers exposed as that could result in scrapes and scratches on your fingers. Other gear that makes mountain biking a more pleasant experience includes sunglasses, tall socks, elbow pads, knee pads, and a backpack to hold water. What kind of bike should I buy? You have a helmet to protect your noggin, some shoes, some gloves, your jean shorts, and now all you need is a bike. I got into mountain biking through friends and was lucky enough to borrow a bike. You can also rent bikes at bike shops. Bike shops sometimes have demo days where you can try out different bikes. I still love demo days to check out the latest bike technology and learn about different brands. If you’re ready to buy a bike though, here are some things to know. There are four main types of bikes including hardtail, trail, enduro, and downhill bikes. A hardtail or trail bike is best for a beginner. Hardtail bikes have suspension only in the front. They’re efficient for climbing, but don’t absorb the impact of rough terrain very well. A trail bike has suspension in the front and back, meaning they do absorb the impact of the trail better. They are also efficient at climbing, but a little bouncier than a hardtail bike. A full suspension trail bike is easier on the knees and the body than a hardtail. A hardtail bike is great for a beginner because they are often less expensive and it is good for learning the basics of mountain biking. In the beginning, you’ll be on smoother trails and a hard tail is perfect for that. As you progress, you’ll maybe want a full suspension bike as they’re more comfortable and capable. If you’re already hooked on the sport, you may just want to start with a full suspension bike. Many of the brands are more or less the same at this point and the differences between them won’t be noticeable when you’re just starting out. Brands I’d avoid include Mongoose, Huffy, and Diamondback. A long time ago, I rode a trail with an old Huffy “mountain bike”. No joke, the handlebars fell off. Used bikes are a good option too and it is probably best to buy something from the last 5 years or so. Mountain bikes have changed a lot and you’ll simply have more fun on a more modern mountain bike. Older bikes like older cars mean more maintenance. The size of the bike is not exact, but you should be able to have your body over the seat with your feet flat on the ground. When you’re pedaling, you don’t want to feel crouched, but also not stretched out. You also get what you pay for. At a minimum, you’ll probably spend $500 on a bike. More likely, a decent bike will cost you $1000-3000. As a beginner, you don’t need the lightest bike, the latest and greatest technology, or a $10,000 Yeti bike. The reason for spending a little more is that at $1000, the bike will likely have good components on it that will hold up over time. The frame is important, but the drive train and brakes are also things worth spending extra money on.

Some other factors in buying a bike are the wheel size and the material. There are carbon and aluminum bikes. For starting out, an aluminum bike will be fine. Carbon weighs marginally less, but aluminum is more durable. Wheel size is also something to consider. The main two wheel sizes on modern bikes are 27.5 and 29 inch wheels. 27.5 wheels are more nimble and agile. 29 inch are faster and more stable. Either one is fun and I wouldn’t worry too much about it as a beginner. Here are some good bikes for a beginner: Guerilla Gravity Trail Pistol, Trek Marlin, Trek Fuel, Specialized Rockhopper, Commencal Meta HT, Liv Intrigue, Canyon Grand Canyon, and many more. There are so many bikes out there.

What else?


You need to figure out a way to transport your bike to the trail. There are roof racks, hitch racks, and racks that you can attach to your trunk. If you don’t want to do all that, you can likely fit your bike in the back of your car. There are some trails in the Denver and Boulder area accessible by public transportation too.


Before you get on the trail, check to make sure your brakes work and that your tire pressure is set where you want it. For the tire pressure, most tires have a marking to tell you the range of appropriate PSI which often ranges from 25-40 PSI. It is up to you how much pressure you want in your tires. If you bought a used bike, I’d recommend having a bike mechanic look at it to make sure it is mechanically sound.


Also, make sure you are in a good space to ride, that you have water, and some snacks for the ride. By good space, I mean not fatigued from leg day, hydrated, and in a space where you can focus and learn. For water, having a liter is probably adequate for a beginning ride. Without food, people sometimes “bonk” meaning they have too low of blood sugar and not enough fuel to keep riding. Cliff bars are a good option.


Other things I’d recommend having in a backpack with you include a pump, tire levers, a multitool, tire plugs, and a spare tube in case of a flat. How to fix something on your bike on the trail could be a separate post. There are also classes, some free, and youtube videos to learn basic bike maintenance. Heaven forbid, you get a flat on the trail, it is helpful to know how to fix it.


Basics of Mountain Biking

There is too much to know about how to ride a mountain bike to cover in one post. There are a lot of little things to focus on and at first, it can feel a bit overwhelming. Choose one thing to focus on and build on that until it comes together. Assuming you already bike, here are some pointers for safely riding a mountain bike:

-Your pedals should be level when you’re not pedaling.

-Like any other sport, you want to be in the defensive position.

-Look up and look forward. Look where you want to go.

-Keep an index finger on both brakes, even when you’re not braking.

-When you do brake, feather both brakes. Don’t grab them abruptly. Don’t just brake with your front brake or just your back brake.

-Your body should be in the center of the bike, not too far forward, not too far back, and not leaning to one side or the other.

-Keep your knees out, not tucked in and touching the bike.


Where do I ride?


This is the fun part! Biking trails, like ski trails, range from beginner to intermediate to advanced. Start on the beginner trails and work your way up. There are apps like Trailforks or MTB project that help you find trails. Mountain biking doesn’t always have to be in the mountains. A good way to practice is just biking on dirt, like a gravel road, or there are bike parks like Ruby Hill, Valmont, and Village Greens that have a dirt path around them you can practice on. Some local beginner friendly trails I also recommend are Marshall Mesa, Green Mountain, South Table Mountain, Bear Creek Lake Park, and Phillip S Miller Park.


Even if you’re an introvert like me, mountain biking is just more fun with people. After all these years of riding, groups still feel intimidating to me sometimes. I worry I’ll be too slow, not skilled enough on the technical parts, and hold the group up. Yet, when I show up, mountain bikers are the friendliest, most welcoming, and encouraging people I’ve met. Joining the Girls, Gears, and Beers group is a great way to start out riding. All of the rides have a beginner group and if you’re unsure what you’re doing, people in the group will help you. If a group still feels too much, reach out on the Girls, Gears, and Beers group. I have found that most mountain bikers love the sport so much that they are excited to help beginners.


If you are able to, take a class with a mountain bike instructor. In the last 12 years, I’ve had to learn a lot of things the hard way, ending with some interesting bruises. When I finally did take a class, I learned what I had to unlearn. I’m still unlearning some bad habits. If a class is not accessible to you, there are some great videos on YouTube to learn the basics of how to ride a mountain bike. The channels I recommend are GMBN and Roxy’s Ride and Inspire.


Have fun out there!


Kayla Nelson is an avid mountain biker who is also passionate about mental health. She is a mental health therapist located in Denver, CO offering both telehealth and in person sessions to support people with their mental health. To learn more about her, you can find her at Kaylanelsonlpc.com or on Instagram at Kaylanelsonlpc.
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