As of the time of this article, I’ve been riding North Texas trails for about two years and have begun to consider myself something of an intermediate-level rider. I thought it was time to share what I’ve learned with newbies who’ve just started out and help them along their MTB journey. My hope here is to strip away all the jargon and make getting started mountain biking as straightforward and easy as possible.
Don’t Go Alone
Knowing how mountain biking culture operates, I think there’s better than a 50% chance that you started mountain biking due to the influence of someone else. If this describes you then you’ve already got a riding buddy or two willing to take you out on rides fairly often. I’m not saying you should never ride alone—you definitely should—but in the early days it’s always a great idea to ride with others often. So, if you don’t have an MTB-addicted friend you can spin with, find one soon.
There are many benefits to riding with an experienced rider. Not only can they help you with basic skills and show you the best lines to follow on the local trails, they’ll also have a better idea of what trails fit within your current skill level. You’ll simply enjoy the ride much more with friends. Not only will you enjoy the camaraderie, but you’ll also feel better about pushing your limits in the company of others. Almost all of the more difficult trail features I’ve conquered were done in the presence of friends. Not only did I feel better about taking risks—knowing I had help if necessary—but those with more skill and experience could demonstrate how to ride those features.
Beyond riding often with friends, you should also go to beginner clinics and attend group rides. Notice I said clinics plural. That’s right, my suggestion is that you attend beginner clinics multiple times. Not only will you get added instruction and reinforcement, but you’ll also get to see just how far you’ve progressed over time. You should also join your local MTB club and keep abreast of all the latest clinics, group rides, and events. The more you attend, the better a rider you’ll become.
Borrow a Bike
Just about everyone who sticks it out with mountain biking quickly becomes addicted. It’s not uncommon for new riders to foolishly go out and lay down several thousand dollars on a new bike within weeks (if not days) of riding dirt for the first time. In fact, some are so foolish as to outlay that huge wad of cash before their first ride. The first time I road on a bike trail was at a beginner clinic at River Legacy. There was a group of co-workers there who’d gone all out—and not in a good way. Not only did they have matching jerseys made, they also had all bought full-carbon bikes—each one probably worth upwards of $5,000 each.
Needless to say, one dude in the group rode beyond his skills at Funtown and crashed—hard. I don’t know how much damage he did to his bike, but the front wheel was completely mangled. He also injured himself and ended up needing help from his buddies to walk back to the trail head. I heard something about going to the hospital as they walked way. Plus, since his bike was carbon, who knows what kind of unseen frame damage was inflicted on this brand new bike. It’s likely the guy never rode trail again.
Beyond the obvious “beginners shouldn’t buy a super-expensive bike,” there are other considerations at play here. Until you’ve ridden a while, how do you know what you like in a bike? What’s your riding style going to be? What gearing do you prefer? What handlebar width? What about hard tails versus full suspension frames? The list goes on.
Thankfully, I had a good friend talk me off the ledge of just going out and buying a bike and instead let me borrow his backup bike for several months. I was prepared to go out and spend about $500 on a bike and just call it a good day. In the end, his bike served me well. It was lighter, more capable, and had far better components than a $500 bike, AND it also helped me identify what I like and disliked as a rider. I discovered some physical limitations along the way—I have some fairly severe balance issues that I’ve had to work through—and certain bike features could help me mitigate those issues.
I ended up being patient and saving my money for the better part of a year to purchase a Trek Roscoe 8 for about $1,300. I specifically chose it for several different reasons, none of which I would have discovered if I’d just gone out and bought a bike right away. Now I’ve own a quality bike that is upgradable, dependable, and will last me for several years. Even better is the fact that I’ve got a bike that fits me perfectly, compensates for some of my balance issues, and is a pure joy to ride.
Aquire Basic Gear
Now just because I cautioned you against going out and buying a brand new bike right away, or otherwise spending a huge chunk of money, that doesn’t mean you should skimp out on basic gear. At bare minimum you need a helmet and hydration. As long as you’re riding with more-experienced friends that’s all you absolutely need to get going.
You’ll soon find, however, that there’s quite a bit more gear you’ll want to have to make your rides more safe and enjoyable, as well as set you up to be self-sufficient when you start venturing out alone. It only takes scraping your hand against the bark of tree once to make you want to buy a good pair of riding gloves, and getting other various scrapes and bruises will make you look into purchasing additional protective gear. Don’t go crazy. Most of the time just a good pair of gloves is all the protective gear you’ll need beyond a helmet. As you get more adventurous and aggressive in your riding you may need to add more gear.
You probably know you need a good floor pump at home for airing up your tires. You don’t need anything fancy, but I highly suggest buying a pump that has an air pressure gauge. At first, you’ll probably use the tried-and-true method of squeezing your tires to see if there’s enough air in them. The more you ride, the more you’ll start experimenting with varying PSI levels (if your bike is set up tubeless), so a pump with a pressure gauge becomes a necessity.
As you start venturing out alone you’ll need to have a saddle bag or backpack with some basic tools and gear to keep your tires spinning in the event of a mechanical issue. If the bike you’re riding isn’t using a tubeless tire setup, you should get that setup done ASAP. You’ll thank me later. Once you’re running tubeless, you can keep some basics such CO2 inflators and tire plugs handy to keep you going in case you get a puncture. Even so, you should still carry a spare tube in your saddle bag in case you have a puncture so bad your sealant can’t plug the hole. Carrying a small hand pump—either attached to the frame or in a backpack—isn’t a bad idea either.
Other basic equipment to carry in your saddle bag includes tire levers, a multitool, a chain breaker, and some extra quick links. If you’ve got enough space—you’ll be surprised at how much you can cram into those little bags—I’d suggest some extra sealant and a basic first aid kit.
Lastly, as your rides get longer and you log more saddle time, don’t be surprised to find yourself shopping for a new chamois and some anti-chafing cream.
Ride Often—Very Often
When I first borrowed my buddy’s bike, the first thing he instructed me to do was to start riding around the neighborhood. Honestly, so many new mountain bikers are folks who haven’t done too much in the way of physical activity for a while, and I was no exception. He knew that simply riding a couple of miles on the streets near my house would do me in, so there was no way I was ready for even the easiest local trail. I rode the neighborhood streets for about three months, extending my distance a little more each week until I could consistently log about 10 miles without feeling like I was going to fall over.
The next step was to hit some local gravel trails and roads to get an off-road-like feeling without worrying about technical features. Eventually I felt ready to hit a trail and attended the beginner clinic. Soon after, I was going trail riding as often as I could manage. My “home” trails became the Corinth and Frisco trails, both of which are somewhat beginner-friendly. From there, I accepted every invitation and opportunity that fit within my schedule to ride my bike with others, even when I felt completely out of my depth—which is very important.
Here’s the deal, if you ride only simple trails and nothing but simple trails, you’re not going to progress very far as a rider. Sure, you can gain and hone basic skills on those simple trails, and you may even become more physically fit as you ride, but that’s as far as you’ll go. Some riders are content with this. I’ve learned that there is a sort of sub-culture in the DFW MTB scene that is perfectly content to never ride any trail other than River Legacy—not including EKG/AED or Funtown. That’s cool. They enjoy their rides and it’s all they want to do.
That’s not me, and it’s probably not you either. Listen, I’m not saying that my ultimate goal as a rider is to be able to rip down the mountain at Redbull Rampage, or even something “easier” like the slopestyle course at Rotorua. Ultimately I’d like to be a skilled and fit enough cyclist to make regular trips to Northwest Arkansas and eventually complete the Whole Enchilada. I’ll never get there by not challenging myself, which means pushing my skills incrementally over time.
The more you ride—and the more variety of trails you ride—the more skills and fitness you earn. And that’s the key—you’ve got to earn it—and the only way to earn it is with more and more saddle time. The more you ride the faster you’ll gain confidence in yourself and learn to trust your bike. You’ll get better at properly shifting gears. You’ll take your riding to the next level and beyond.
But a quick word of warning. You will eventually hit the wall and have a ride so bad that you’ll seriously consider giving up and selling your bike. You’ll have a serious crash and get hurt badly enough you’ll be shaken to your core and need to rebuild your confidence. In fact, the crash might be so bad that you’re unable to ride for a while, so it might be difficult to psych yourself back up for a ride when you’re feeling better. Push through those down times and get back out there. You’ll be glad you did.
Learn Trail Etiquette
Anyone who has read my articles for any length of time knows I harp on trail etiquette—a lot. There’s a reason why—a lot of reasons. I won’t go into all of them here, but suffice it to say that we’re extremely blessed to have hundreds of miles of trails in North Texas, and we should do everything we can to preserve those trails.
What do I mean? Some of our trails are on public lands managed by the Army Corps of Engineers, Texas Parks & Wildlife, and local counties or municipalities. These governmental entities have graciously allowed access to these lands with the provision that the land will be cared for appropriately and adequately. That means we have a responsibility to care for the trail and the surrounding land as best we can. Not only does our care help maintain and sustain the trails, but it shows the land managers that we are people who will act responsibly like rational, thinking adults.
This means not riding wet or closed trails, and learning how to otherwise properly care for the trail as we’re applying rubber to dirt. This also means going above and beyond when we’re able and volunteering for clean up and trail work days. The local clubs and stewards can’t maintain miles and miles of trail on their own—it takes large groups working together on a regular basis.
In addition, learn how to be an ambassador to the sport. Treat one another well and help fellow riders in need. Understand who has the right of way on the trails. Know the rules of the trail such as proper direction of travel and whether or not trail dogs or e-bikes are allowed. In essence, don’t be a selfish jerk.
Embrace Your Fears
Related to pushing your skills and fitness as mentioned above, let’s acknowledge the fact that you’re going to get scared out on the trail at some point in the future. Every rider has certain technical features with which they struggle and you’re no exception. Just remember there’s no shame in walking—remember, the more you go out and ride the better you’ll get.
Don’t look at fear as a particularly negative experience. Fear is your survival instincts kicking in, which will lend you a certain level of prudence. Fear will keep you from attempting technical features such as jumps and drops that are too far outside your skills and comfort level. Again, this is why it’s a great idea to ride with friends and other experienced riders. Their presence will give you added confidence as well as show you how to approach those technical features.
The problem is when you let fear choke you to the point that you’re unwilling to push yourself. Don’t ever ride your bike with the intent of avoiding a crash. You will crash, so embrace that fact and move forward. Worrying about crashing will make you ride timidly which will in turn increase the likelihood of a crash occurring. Ride for any amount of time and you’ll quickly learn that speed is often your friend. Many technical obstacles are easier to ride when attacked and approached with speed. Yes, you need to learn how to properly handle your bike, but once you do you’ll find that rocks and roots almost seems to melt away at speed—your bike seems to float over the gnar.
Start small with technical features that are just outside your comfort zone and work your way up to larger features. Ride trails that are beyond your current skill set, even if you end up walking large segments of the trail. You’ll find that the next time you see an obstacle that was just beyond your comfort and skill that it appears smaller—simply because you put your eyes on a larger, harder feature. Now, you’ll be more willing to roll over that feature that gave you fits last time you saw it.
Enjoy the Ride
I said it in my last post, and I’ll say it again. If you’re not having fun out on your rides, then you’re doing it wrong. Get out there and enjoy yourself, whatever that looks like for you. Some love riding fast. Some love riding the jankiest line possible. Some just enjoy getting out of the house for and hour or two and don’t care about speed, difficulty, or anything else.
All of those are great options. Just go out and ride!