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Most people remember their first time. Maybe it ended with some scrapes and bruises, maybe some muscle cramps, or even a sore butt.
Of course, I’m talking about their first time mountain biking, which often leads to the second ride and third ride and then down the spiral of new bikes, new gear and new trails.
The popularity of mountain biking is proof of how much fun riding is; participation exploded during the pandemic, and is still strong, with just under 9 million riders estimated in 2021. For everyone who has ridden a mountain bike, there was a first ride, and the range of experiences for first time riders can really be broad, from “best day ever” to ending at a local emergency department.
I’ve seen experienced BMX riders with amazing bike handling skills struggle with the larger wheels, I’ve seen super-fit marathon runners out of breath on some easy climbs, and I’ve seen couch potatoes effortlessly float down the trail. Here are a few tried and true beginner mountain biking tips to help you keep your first time from being your only time.
How to Have a Good First Time
There are probably a million variables that will affect that first ride, and while some of those are out of your control, such as the weather or trail conditions, some things are in your control and can help stack the odds in favor of you having a good time.
When asked what THEY wish they had known before their first ride, many experienced riders from the Massachusetts Mountain Biking and the Central Florida Mountain Bikers groups had some great advice, from Peter Nannucci’s “go easy on the front brake,” (many riders will tend to use their brakes far too often when just starting out) to Jeny Gangemi’s simple and succinct, “get a good bike.”
“Ride with a mountain biker that’s better than you,” was one tip from Rebecca Santner and I agree that this is a great idea. Having a more knowledgeable rider with you will also hopefully mean you won’t get lost, and someone will be on hand to help with any bike issues that come up, from flat tires to sticky shifting.
Brittany Williams also added that a more experienced rider, in the lead, can help to call out obstacles on the trail and help you understand when to shift early to prevent shifting under load. Ideally, that lead rider will know that he or she may need to go slow despite their higher skill level.
If an experienced rider is more concerned about keeping up a certain pace or smashing technical sections, the newbie will likely have a miserable time mountain biking. When I’ve taken trail virgins out, my main goal has been to make riding bikes fun, and that’s measured by smiles per hour not miles per hour. My wife might disagree here, but she’s no longer a new rider, so steep climbs, rocky trails, and technical terrain are fair game.
That being said, a certified mountain bike instructor or coach might be within some people’s comfort zone. “I was handed a bike and told ‘don’t die,’” said Misty Mahoy, “[after] five years of racing and trying not to die, I took my first lesson, and it was a game changer.”
Roxzanne Abbott Feagan agrees that taking a class can be important, “you’ll learn everything you need to know to ride safer which will allow you to have more fun; riding scared sucks.” Learning new skills like keeping your index fingers on the brake levers, always having your eyes forward, riding with level pedals, and body position basics will feel like a no-brainer once you can effortlessly use them on the trail, but these tips can be hard earned without a touch of guidance.
Mountain bike instructors can get certifications from the Bicycle Instructor Certification Program (BICP) or the Professional Mountain Bike Instructor Association (PMBIA), and coaches can get certifications from USA Cycling, but you may be able to find a program offered by your local mountain bike club or bike shop.
The Right Bike, The Right Gear
If you bought your bike from a shop, two things that they should cover before you roll out the door are the basic mechanical features of your bike and its fit. You may not need to know how to strip the bike down to its frame or rebuild the suspension, but knowing how to get your bike set-up — things like the appropriate air pressure in your tires for your weight, how the shifting works in general, the settings on the suspension (if applicable), and how to remove and replace the wheels are key pieces of the puzzle that every rider should know.
As for the bike’s fit, hopefully you’ll at least be on the right size frame. From there, you could spend hundreds of dollars on a professional bike fit evaluation, but for the vast majority of riders, a “good enough” fit is good enough.
Over time, you may learn that you want to raise your stem or push your seat back or have shorter cranks, but you really need to know what your riding goals are before committing to a full fit evaluation. Some problems with bike fit or bike handling resolve with better riding technique and better fitness, but there are definitely some painful problems that can occur from a seat that’s too high or handlebars that are too far forward.
Considering nice to have features, like a dropper post or higher end rear shock, can complicate fit but will give you more options when out on the trail.
Speaking of Aches and Pains, Let’s Talk About Butts
“Not sure if it’s just beginner mountain bikers that need to hear this, but after your first ride, your butt will hurt, probably after the second ride too,” says David Harris. “Going out and buying a cushy seat or seat cover is a mistake, your butt just needs to get used to bike riding, and it will.”
Good bikes come with good seats, or “saddles” if you want to be pedantic, and those seats are typically relatively narrow and firm. Millions of riders with millions of miles of experience have pushed seats to evolve in that shape. The seat should be level as well. Nose up and you’ll have too much pressure in “the bits,” and nose down and you’ll be leaning too far forward with extra pressure on your wrists.
Yes, your seat position can cause wrist pain or carpal tunnel syndrome, but back to your butt.
“Get yourself a good pair of bicycle shorts and don’t wear underwear with them,” Anthony Ray Deal says, “the shorts [have] a nice, contoured pad inside that’s antimicrobial, you will pay extra for a good pair of shorts, like $100, but they will last.”
“Chamois Butt’r is your best friend on those long, hot rides,” adds AJ Berry, and as the company’s website says, “Happy Trails start with Happy Bits.” I think Chamois Butt’r is a must, and a healthy squirt on your padded shorts will go a long way to preventing you from feeling like you wiped your butt with sandpaper.
Additional Must Have Gear
In addition to cycling specific shorts, you should also have a helmet that fits well and probably some gloves. Beyond that, what you wear depends on where and when you’re riding, but for a first ride, you shouldn’t get too bogged down in special jerseys, jackets, or shoes, although the latter does depend on your pedals.
If you haven’t considered the two broad categories of pedals, let’s touch on that now. Pedals are either “clipless,” or “flats.” Paradoxically, you clip-in to clipless pedals, and flat pedals are just platforms. I’m sure there are some pedal designers having fits of apoplexy that I would describe a high-end flat pedal, with its special concave shape and meticulously placed pins, as *just* platforms, but I said it.
I’m a clip-in kind of guy and love my Egg Beater pedals, but I think more people are comfortable starting out with flats—easy on, easy off. Clipless pedals require special shoes for a cleat, and getting the cleat properly aligned on the shoe can take some trial and error—or lead to knee injuries or an inability to unclip from the bike. With that in mind, you can see why riders like JT Driver say, “start with flats.”
One more thing to mention as it pertains to what you’d wear on your first ride: safety gear. A helmet is a must, and we recommend spending as much as you can on a high-quality one, but you can choose between a regular helmet or full face.
Less Than Must Have Gear
You can also consider elbow pads, knee pads, shin pads, chest protectors, or whatever other padding or protection you think you’d need to feel comfortable. Your sweet spot is somewhere between being naked and looking like a medieval knight, but only you will know which end of the spectrum to be in.
It’s Just Like Riding a Bike
You may be able to shed some of that safety gear as you get more comfortable on the trail and or want to stay cooler on longer rides — and adding some basic skills will help give you confidence. Bill Byrne suggests that you “look down the trail to where you want to go,” or, as Tim McCrohon says, “look down the trail, not at your front tire.”
Nannucci adds that trail riding “is like reading music, you have to be ahead of where you currently are.”
Your body, front wheel, and bike, really will follow your eyes, so not only should you look straight ahead, but you should look where you want to go. If you look at a rock, you will likely hit the rock, if you look at the trail next to the rock, you will likely go around the rock. Use your peripheral vision to sweep around obstacles directly in your path.
Target fixation is real, and one of the best bits of advice to give new riders is to look at the path you want to follow.
Keeping Your Weight Centered
Your “weight distribution” is also important, says Rick Cintron. This starts by being in a neutral position on the bike with “pedals level, at 9 and 3, when not pedaling,” says Bob Hoyt.
Riders can spend years fine tuning their body English on the bike, but a basic position of standing with the pedals level, with elbows and knees slightly bent, with your center of gravity over the cranks is good for being ready to react to whatever a trail throws at you, offers better control, and helps when you encounter rugged terrain.
Often called the “attack position,” this gives you enough room to maneuver around the bike, allows you to use your legs to absorb impacts and more easily move forward or backward as trail conditions call for it. Some of this might sound overkill if the first ride is on a pump track, fire roads or otherwise easy trails, but if rocks or obstacles comes out of nowhere, Sean Swartz’s tip of “when in doubt, lean back,” will allow you to maintain momentum and save you in a surprising number of situations.
Getting out of the saddle when cornering allows you to orient your body mass in the direction or line you want to take while shifting your weight to your outside foot, which improves traction and helps maintain speed.
Mountain biking can require constant position changes on the bike, sitting or standing on climbs, standing on technical trails or rough terrain, sitting to rest, usually standing for downhills, and keeping your body loose so you can move your center of gravity fore and aft — often back to the rear wheel on climbs to maintain traction. That’s one of the reasons mountain biking can give a whole-body workout, but beginner-oriented trails shouldn’t need you to look like a gymnast on two wheels. That comes later.
Learning how to shift early — getting into an easier gear to make climbs easy and help maintain momentum or shifting into a harder gear to take advantage of what gravity has to offer — will also help you enjoy trails more and help limit unnecessary wear and tear on your drivetrain.
Where’s the Trailside Food Court?
Do you need hydration and food on your ride? That too depends on your fitness, the weather, and how long you’ll be out. Use some common sense, after all, most bike frames should accommodate at least one water bottle mount. And, just like with safety gear, there’s a minimalist to maximalist approach to snacks and hydration.
Maybe you want a 100oz hydration pack that can also hold a cheesesteak sub, maybe you just need one water bottle and bag of Skittles.
For a beginner, it’s probably better to be a bit over-prepared as opposed to under-prepared, but I’m certainly not advocating for having a same packing list for your first ride as one would have launching a solo assault on Utah’s White Rim Trail.
With experience, you’ll know how much food or hydration to bring, but in the beginning, an extra bit of water or an extra Gu or two can help prevent you from feeling hangry or dehydrated.
I mentioned hydration packs because not only are they good for carrying lots to drink, but also for carrying other things you may or may not need on the trail such as a first aid kit, trail tools, or a cat.
One final item to recommend bringing, is something most people don’t go anywhere without, and that’s a phone. Your phone can take some cool riding pics, track your ride, be used to navigate, or in a worst-case scenario, be used to call for help. I know plenty of people want to be outdoors and disconnect from electronic devices, and if that’s you, that’s great, just turn the phone off and put it in your pocket, but have it on hand if needed.
The First Ride is One Step Closer to the Second Ride
I hope this hasn’t made that “first ride” sound too intimidating. Some simple things to think about ahead of time can make that ride go smoothly, but you may want to forsake all of this advice and just head out on your own in cut off jean shorts and neon Crocs, and you might have the best ride ever.
Amy Stephens summarized it best, “go easy on yourself, just ride your bike.”