You’re standing under the forest canopy in a local park when in the stillness you hear a harmony of sounds: the crunch of rubber on loose stone, a rustle of movement among the trees, the unmistakable whiiiiiir of a freewheel, animated talking and laughter.
Suddenly, a group of brightly clad bikers appears on a nearby trail, scrubbing around tight corners and floating over gnarly roots and rocks. Their bodies bend low and loose over their steeds as they sail down the dirt path and then vanish back into the vegetation — more talking and laughter in their wake.
Until you’ve had a similar experience on two wheels, you may never quite understand what mountain bikers mean when they talk about “shredding” or finding the “flow” of riding. There’s quite simply nothing else like it.
We know what you’re thinking. Yes, getting started in the sport can seem scary. Trails that are easy to hike take on riskier quantities when you’re on a bike. Even the equipment and terminology can be confusing. (Full squish enduro, what?) The good news is that mountain biking, while serious business, boasts an outgoing community that loves nothing more than to convert new enthusiasts.
This article won’t tell you everything you need to know about mountain biking — there are entire books written on the subject — but it will provide you with enough knowledge to get started in a fantastic outdoor activity that is rewarding in many, many ways. It could be the best thing you ever do.
BUYING A BIKE
Mountain bike manufacturers design and categorize their models based on the most common styles of riding. Knowing these styles is a good launching point to deciding which rig is right for you. Here are three that fit our rolling Midwest landscape:
Trail – This category is all about fun and confidence on a mix of climbs and descents. Trail bikes can handle most obstacles yet aren’t overly heavy. They typically come with front and rear suspension of about 120 to 140 millimeters, though trail hardtails are also available.
Cross-country – Called XC for short, these bikes are made for efficient and fast riding, with an emphasis on climbing prowess. They’re lightweight, and normally hardtails, with a suspension fork of up to 100 millimeters. The most popular wheel size is 29 inches (see below).
All-mountain/enduro – Think of an all-mountain bike as a trail bike on steroids, made to tackle bigger obstacles and hairier descents, with front and rear suspension ranging from 150 to 180 millimeters. These bikes are beefier and heavier for more aggressive terrain.
The style you prefer and where you’ll ride will largely determine the bike you should choose. Consider this before investigating brands and models. While mountain biking isn’t the cheapest of sports, you don’t have to drop $5,000 on a new rig — you can get a great entry-level hardtail for less than $1,000.
Be forewarned, though, that a bike from Wal-Mart or Costco isn’t recommended and won’t leave you excited for your next ride. Hit up your local bike shop instead. Bike shops offer a wealth of expertise and support, and the staff there will be happy to listen, answer questions, and walk you through the ins and outs of hitting the dirt.
TIP: Always try before you buy. Most bike shops have a demo fleet or host demo days. Get on the model you’re considering and take it for a spin on the local trails. Be sure a bike technician fits you in order to ensure the right frame size and dial in the most efficient pedaling position.
You’ll almost always have a better purchase experience when you buy from a bike shop and can take full advantage of deals on service and labor. If you prefer to buy online, be sure to check whether or not your chosen brand partners with a local dealer to complete the purchase. If so, the manufacturer can have the bike shipped to the dealer, who will then assemble it and help you get set up to ride. If not, you’re on your own.
Another viable option is buying second-hand. Riders often sell their current “whips” to fund new ones, and a pre-owned bike is an affordable way to get started. Some shops have trade-in programs or sell used bikes on consignment. You can also purchase direct from a seller on eBay, Facebook, etcetera. In the latter case especially, be sure to bring a knowledgeable friend along when viewing the bike to check for damage and to make sure it’s a good fit. See if the seller will allow you to have a test ride. Note any quirks and have them checked out if you buy it.
Features: More or Less
Along with riding style and terrain, there are lots of features to consider when shopping for a mountain bike. Not only will these design aspects influence the bike’s capabilities, but also its price. Following are three core features to take into account:
Hardtail bikes have a suspension fork up front that softens trail bumps and chatter, but a rigid tail end. Traditionally, these bikes are less expensive, easier to maintain, lighter, and climb more efficiently. A full suspension or “full squish” bike, on the other hand, has suspension in the front and rear, offering a more comfortable ride and the ability to absorb larger impacts on roots, rocks, jumps, and drops. Full suspension bikes can also slightly hinder the energy transferred when pedaling, which could be a factor if all-out speed is your goal.
Years ago, 26-inch-diameter wheels dominated the trails. Today, you’ll see 29- and 27.5-inch alternatives. Like suspension designs, each has its advantages: 29ers offer excellent grip and roll over obstacles easily; 27.5 wheels (also known as 650b) maneuver better and accelerate faster. While 26-inch wheels still exist, they’re becoming harder to find on new models.
Tire width has also evolved in recent years. Up until now, a traditional mountain bike tire ranged from about 1.9 to 2.3 inches. But the introduction of “fat bikes” and “plus-size” tires has popularized rubber up to 5 inches wide or more. Wider tires improve traction — great for riding in sand or snow — and absorb bumps for a more forgiving ride. On the downside, they’re heavier, cost more, and may not fit on all bikes.
A bike’s frame is foundational to how it rides. The goal is simple: to provide extraordinary strength in a sturdy and lightweight package. Aluminum is the norm and, unless budget is no object, this is most likely what you’ll want for in your first bike. This frame material is light, strong, stiff, and more affordable than carbon fiber, titanium, or steel.
It doesn’t take much gear to get you mountain biking. We’ve seen riders rocking everything from cutoff T-shirts and jeans to hiking boots (along with a helmet, of course). Still, it’s a fact that sport-specific clothing and equipment can keep you pedaling longer and in more comfort. When you’re ready, here are some upgrades to ponder.
There’s simply no excuse for not wearing a helmet. Prices start around $50, with more expensive options tending to be lighter and better ventilated. Mountain biking-specific models have extra coverage on the back of the head, but all helmets have to meet the same U.S. safety standards. Wear what fits best and provides you with peace of mind.
Look for a top designed to wick moisture away from your body. Athletic or “technical” T-shirts will keep you cool and fresh while looking casual, or you can go for bold and get a jersey emblazoned with your favorite brand logo.
Mountain bikers have traditionally favored baggies over Lycra shorts. Most baggies are breathable, offer pockets to hold essential gear, and provide comfort and protection via a padded chamois and abrasion-resistant fabric.
We recommend starting with flat shoes (as opposed to cleated/clipless) to learn fundamental technique. In either case, a pair of mountain biking kicks will provide a stiff pedaling surface and armoring where it’s needed.
Shorts and jersey pockets can only hold so much. A hydration pack can carry liters of water to keep you hydrated, along with all sorts of other stuff. They also take the weight off your bike and transfer it to your back.
What to Pack
At some point, you’ll need to tackle trailside repairs, and having a multitool will be a godsend. Also be sure to bring a spare tube, tire levers, patch kit, and pump (and know how to use them). Even if you’re only going for a short ride, pack some snacks and your phone in case you get lost. Depending on the conditions, you may want to be prepared with a lightweight waterproof jacket and/or bike lights. Sunglasses are also optional, though we always like to have them for their ability to reduce glare as well as protect eyes from debris, bugs, and airflow.
SKILLS & ETIQUETTE
For those wishing to master mountain biking, or simply hoping to get safely underway, taking a clinic is a good idea. Many local bike shops offer instructional classes and group rides (check their individual websites), and St. Louis also has a number of excellent coaches who specialize in teaching mountain biking to all ages and levels (see below).
The first skills most riders will learn are focused on safety, body positioning, and movement. Here are four techniques you can practice in your backyard that will allow you to build your talents confidently.
Body Positioning – The correct posture is key to comfort as well as performance. There are two basic positions for beginners: neutral and attack. Neutral is the standard for smooth, flat sections of trail. You can be either seated or standing with your back erect, knees slightly bent, pedals level, elbows relaxed, and index fingers on the brake levers. Attack position is for when the trail gets rockier or steeper and gives you better control of the bike. You should be standing in a crouch and leaning slightly forward, knees and elbows deeply bent, with your feet evenly weighted on level pedals and index fingers on the brake levers. Practicing going from neutral to attack position and back will help with muscle memory and balance.
Look Where You Want to Go – Keeping your head up and eyes focused on the trail ahead gives you time to spot hazards, slow down without panicking, set yourself up for turns and obstacles, and shift your bike to the proper gear. Arrange some sticks or cones in a twisting pattern and practice riding around them while looking where you want your bike to be for the next turn coming up.
How to Brake – It’s natural to want to grab a handful of brake when you’re in a dicey situation, but locking up can cause a skid and put you on the ground in a hurry. As mentioned above, looking down the trail is important. This gives you time to spot hazards and slow down gradually. Apply your brakes smoothly — both brakes, front and rear —and keep your weight low and centered. Dropping your heels and pushing the pedals forward and away will help keep you in a neutral position while decreasing your bike’s forward momentum.
Falling Safely – Falls come with the territory, but a wise mountain biker knows how to handle a spill in order to minimize injury. Try to keep your arms in rather than reaching out to catch yourself, which can result in arm and shoulder injuries, and roll with the fall if possible. Keep your chin tucked to your chest to avoid head trauma. Going limp can help, as can finding a soft landing, but both are easier said than done. After a crash, be sure to take your time getting up; check yourself and your bike for damage; and evaluate why you fell — there’s no teacher like experience.
You’ll most likely be sharing the dirt with other outdoor enthusiasts, not just mountain bikers, so it’s important that you understand the “rules of the trail” in order to be courteous and safe. Practicing Leave No Trace principles is always a good idea, and along these lines it’s important to not trespass or ride on trails that are closed, protected, or prohibited to mountain bikers. Be sure to stay on the trail — don’t shortcut turns or create needless spurs — and if you encounter an obstacle you can’t ride, walk it rather than try to ride around and widen the trail.
Stay alert and ride within your limits in order to keep control of your bike and not endanger yourself or others. The common convention is to yield to mountain bikers who are riding uphill. Also be sure to yield to non-bike trail users like hikers or equestrians. (We like to step off the trail and give a friendly greeting, especially with horses.)
Coaching, Camps & Guides
Roots Mountain Biking – Clinics for beginner, intermediate, and advanced riders, plus women’s retreats, in Missouri and throughout the Midwest. rootsmountainbiking.com
St. Louis Area Mountain Bikers – A welcoming meetup group that offers guided rides for all levels as well as social events. meetup.com/st-louis-mountain-bikers/
St. Louis Mountain Bike Camps – Teaching children about nature and exercise, with an emphasis on mountain bike programs, summer camps, and adventures. stlmtb.com
Spread Adventure – Focused on getting more women out on the trails with guided mountain biking and outdoor personal training sessions. spreadadventure.com
Wheels Up – From youth rides and camps to adult classes and special events, it has been helping riders get their wheels up since 2008. wheelsupmtb.com
The St. Louis area has nearly 100 miles of mountain biking trails within its county and state parks, ranging from flat and wide to downhill and chunky. Most of that mileage comes courtesy of Gateway Off-Road Cyclists (GORC), a grassroots club dedicated to building multi-use trail and advocating for mountain biking in both Missouri and Illinois. Here are three of the top go-to trails for beginner riders.
Cliff Cave Park (806 Cliff Cave Road) – Expanded in 2018, this 525-acre park in South County offers two trails: Spring Valley Trail and Bluff Trail. The former consists of two loops, an outer and an inner, tied together by three short connector trails that allow users to weave a variety of routes. The packed-dirt trail is mostly flat and twisty, and orbits several sinkholes that attract deer, squirrels, rabbits and fox. When you’re ready to practice your “technical” riding skills, Bluff Trail has four banked turns that lead to a series of large, exposed rocks.
Creve Coeur Lake Memorial Park (13725 Sailboat Cove) – Bootlegger’s Run Trail in the park’s upper reaches spans 5.5 miles and showcases long, straight dirt sections, moderate elevation changes, switchback turns, and a few fun dips. What makes it so great for beginners is that it can be ridden as fast or as slow as the rider’s speed allows. Do be mindful as you approach the cement staircase that connects the upper and lower sections of the park, as there’s a tricky transition here with crossing foot traffic.
SIEU Trails (1 Hairpin Drive) – This trail system is made up of more than 7.5 miles of tight, twisty, all-dirt “single track” in six separate trails. Modest elevation gain, thick forest, and smooth hardpack make for rides that will satisfy every rider. The trails were designed in such a way that they would be a place not only for beginners to try out mountain biking, but also to allow more advanced riders an opportunity to test their bike-handling skills by riding the narrow trails at a more rapid pace.
GORC’s website (gorctrails.com) features a comprehensive collection of trail information, real-time conditions, and printable maps for the region and is an indispensable resource for beginner and veteran riders alike. The organization also hosts regular trail builds to maintain and improve trails and welcomes volunteers, providing a great way to get to know other mountain bikers, learn the trails, and give back to the community.
Welcome to the tribe and enjoy the ride!
Author: Nick Brennan and Brad Kovach
Featured Photo: Riding on Zombie Trail in Wildwood, Mo., by Alex Noguera