Fall Fitness

Fall is the perfect time learn how to mountain bike, and head off-road and into the foliage.

November 1, 2011

"It’s like riding a bike." That phrase is usually reserved for something easy, yet mountain biking—or, riding off-road on rock- and root-strewn trails—can look anything but. Looks, however, can be deceiving, as anyone who wants to learn how to mountain bike can find out.

"There are loads of different types of mountain biking," says Selene Yeager, U.S.A. Cycling coach, Bicycling magazine’s “Fit Chick,” and author of Every Woman’s Guide to Cycling (NAL Trade 2008). "It’s doesn’t have to be a blood sport—in fact, in specific settings, it’s perfect for a beginner looking to get off-road for a change of scenery and a new physical challenge." If you've always wanted to learn how to mountain bike, don't wait. Just follow three simple steps, and you’ll be off-road before you know it.

1. Gear up.
Two things are indispensable for any wannabe mountain biker: a bike and a helmet. And the former cannot be your road bike, or a beater you use to coast around the neighborhood. Mountain bikes need to be sturdier than road bikes to withstand the wear and tear of riding trails, and their tires are thicker and knobbier for the same reason. Plus, many of the pricier mountain bikes have both front and rear suspension systems. The suspension lets the wheels move up and down to absorb small bumps while keeping the tires in contact with the ground for better control. It also helps the rider and bike absorb large shocks when landing jumps.

Since most cycling stores don’t rent introductory-level mountain bikes (some, however, do rent high-end, "demo" bicycles), you’ll need to commit to buying one. The most basic, introductory bike—one suitable for riding on flat, smooth trails—could cost as little as $300. A bike suitable for single-track riding (riding on a narrow trail that’s approximately the width of the bike) with
some rocky sections would run $500 to $600 and could include a rear suspension system. Mountain bikes with dual suspension systems—in the front and the back—start anywhere from $1,500 to $2,000. For help sorting through all the options, check out the bike and gear review finder on

2. Find the right trail.
Just as you wouldn’t attempt a black diamond trail the first time you slipped on skis, you shouldn’t put yourself in the position of log-hopping and the like on your virgin off-road ride. While you’re at the bike store, ask an employee to point you in the direction of any beginner trails nearby. The store may also offer clinics or group rides aimed at beginners.

Another option: a rail trail. The Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, a nonprofit organization based in Washington, DC, has created 15,000 miles of trails nationwide from former rail lines. The trails are flat, smooth, and hugely scenic—perfect for an off-road newbie. Head to www.railstotrails.org to find a rail trail near you.

3. Ride in control.
For your own safety—and the safety of those around you—it’s imperative that you ride with enough control to adjust to the terrain as you pass through it.

Here's what you need to do know to traverse trails like a pro:

  • Keep your weight back. "If you’re on terrain that’s a little bumpy, you have to distribute your weight properly to keep your bike upright and moving forward," says Yeager. Your front tire has to roll, especially if there are roots or bumps to pass over, she says. Shifting your weight off the handlebars is key. "Shifting your weight to the back, so far that your butt is off the seat on steep downhills. Make sure your hands are light on the handlebars."
  • Lay off the front brake. Sure, it can feel scary to let loose a bit. "But your front brake represents 80 percent of your braking power," says Yeager. "If you jam on it, you’re going to severely slow your momentum and lose control of your bike." Or you’re going to go over the handlebars. Bad news either way, so use a light touch.
  • Shift early. "One of the biggest mistakes beginners make is they don’t shift soon enough," says Yeager. If you're already straining to pedal, you've waited too long to shift into a lower gear. "Look at least 10 feet ahead of yourself at all times, and when you see a hill or even just a rise up ahead, shift early so you can keep your momentum and maintain your traction."
  • Befriend your bike. As a beginner, you don’t need moves that make it seem like you’re in the X Games. But Yeager encourages new mountain bikers to test their bikes a bit in a parking lot or flat area. "Hop up and down on it, see that you can get a little air," she encourages. The more familiar you are with the bike, the more comfortable you'll be watching the trail instead of your wheels. "Your bike wants to roll and stay up—that’s just physics," says Yeager. "If you look ahead on the trail while you’re riding—if you look where you want your bike to go—that’s where your bike will go."