If you’re thinking of trying a new sport this year, mountain biking should be at the top of your list. Off-road cycling is a total body workout with a mental component that requires you to dig deep for confidence and aggression you may not even know you have. Plus, it’s an entirely new way to experience Alabama’s trails and a great complement to hiking and other outdoor experiences.
But, no mountain biker will deny the necessary learning curve that stands between you and your singletrack shred session. To stay safe in a sport with its fair share of inherent risks, you need proper respect for the trail and a desire to learn. Avoid rookie mistakes, and potential injury, by following these tips for getting started.
1. Comparing Mountain Biking to Road Cycling
Most likely you’ve spent some time cycling Alabama’s roads, greenways, and other tamer routes in the past, but don’t think that qualifies you to advance beyond beginner mountain bike trails from the start. The heavy frame and knobby tires on your mountain bike are your first clues that things are different on dirt. Balance, weight distribution, and anticipation of the terrain ahead are just a few things you’ll have to learn. Ride the forgiving doubletrack trails at Tannehill Ironworks Historical State Park to get a feel for your bike and how to handle a natural surface trail.
2. Ignoring Proper Form
To feel the trail flow, you should concentrate on body position instead of speed until proper form becomes second nature. Gather momentum while you’re in a neutral position with your center of gravity in the saddle, pedals level and evenly weighted, elbows and knees slightly bent, and grip lightly resting over the brakes at all times.
As the terrain gets more technical, you should exaggerate the bend at your elbows and knees, while keeping your joints loose to absorb changes in terrain. Maintain your weight over the saddle, lifting to a hover position and pressing your hips back to flatten your torso and engage your core.
3. Neglecting to Gear Up
It may seem like all you have to do is climb on your bike and ride, but to enjoy your first off-road experience, you’ll want to invest in a few key pieces of gear. For those inevitable beginner falls, a fitted helmet is mandatory. Cycling gloves and padded shorts will absorb the bulk of the pounding your body will take as you build muscle strength to hover in the proper riding position. Store a repair kit and trail snack in a bike seat pouch and add a water bottle cage or two for hydrating when you’re on the trail.
4. Going Too Fast Too Soon
A generous dose of patience is needed to keep your pace under control and fine-tune your technique. This is especially true on unfamiliar trails where you’re going to come up on dips, berms, and other obstacles to throw you off your game. Before you release the brakes and get in the zone, practice at a moderate pace to test new skills like navigating rock gardens and slicing through water crossings.
5. Keeping Up With the Joneses
It’s great to learn from your more experienced buddies, but don’t expect to keep up with their pace right out of the gate. Make sure your mentors are willing to start you out on beginner trails and stick with you for the duration. If not, find a beginner clinic or group ride, or start out on a pump track like the one at Oak Mountain State Park to get a feel for riding on uneven terrain before losing yourself in the woods.
Inevitably, you’ll come up against obstacles you’re not ready to tackle your first few times out. Don’t let your pride get in the way of taking the opt-out trail around table-top jumps, gnarly rock gardens, and other technical sections. Whether it’s due to fatigue, fear, injury, or something else, everyone hikes their bike at times. Just scope out the section as you pass and pick a line for the next time around.
6. Choosing the Wrong Bike
A properly fitted mountain bike can make the difference between a ride that leaves you wanting more and a career-ending yard sale wreck. Whether you rent or buy a bike, it’s important to get fitted by a knowledgeable outfitter who knows frame sizing, standover and seat height, and reach requirements. Discuss suspension and clip-in options, and do a test ride before you leave the shop to make sure you’re comfortable with your bike.
7. Holding Back Too Much
While it’s smart to be cautious, you’ll end up mud diving if you let fear distract you. Focus your eyes on the trail 15 to 20 feet ahead to pick your line and see it through, putting momentum to work to keep moving through technical sections. Coming into a turn, hit the brakes before the curve, let momentum carry you, and pick up speed on the exit. When you need to reduce speed, squeeze brakes lightly and evenly to avoid skidding or flying over the handlebars. Once you’ve mastered the basics, Coldwater Mountain has more than 35 miles of beginner to expert singletrack to take your technique to the next level.
Written by Ann Gibson for Matcha in partnership with BCBS of AL.