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So, you think you want to take up mountain biking but you don’t have a clue how to get started. You’ve done some web searching and have discovered the sheer amount of information and advice out there is daunting—you’re overwhelmed. We get it. There’s a lot to learn and you’re having a hard time figuring out what Step 1 should be. You’ve come to the right place. We’re here to help.
It may sound obvious, but to get started you’re going to need a bike—a mountain bike. The temptation some of you will feel is to either go cheap and run to a department store, buy something off the rack that looks like a mountain bike, and then head for the nearest trail. Others among you will go big (because you’ve done some research into MTB) and go to a bike shop, lay down $1,000 or more on a brand new bike, and then head for the nearest trail.
We cannot stress this enough: DO NOT DO EITHER OF THE ABOVE.
Both of the above scenarios are simply setting you up for frustration. In the case of a cheap department store bike you’re going to attempt to ride a bike on a trail that really isn’t meant for serious trail riding. It may do a fine job of getting you down a flat greenway, but once you try to take it onto a trail with any sort of elevation change or technical trail features (such as rocks and roots) a big box bike is not going to handle it very well.
Such a bike may honestly suffer repeated and potentially catastrophic mechanical failures and you’ll end up walking rather than riding your bike back to the trailhead. In addition, if you suffer a severe-enough mechanical failure, you’re putting your own body in danger. What happens if your cheap brakes give out on a downhill, or part of the bike breaks beneath you? It mean you’re going down, my friend.
Now, in the case of going big and spending a bunch of money on a bike, it may work out well for you in the long run, but you’re leaving the door open for a bad day. Why? Well, simply put, how do you even know you like mountain biking yet? Trust us, we’ve seen enthusiastic newbies lay down a big wad of cash on a new bike only to turn around and sell it at a huge loss later on because they discovered the MTB life just isn’t for them.
Even if you do end up sticking with the sport, a new bike isn’t always the best idea because of several factors. First, you’ll likely purchase a bike that’s more capable than your beginner-level skills can even benefit from—features such as full suspensions, carbon frames, and dropper posts. You’ll benefit from those eventually as your skills progress, but a novice rider on a beginner-level trail receives no benefit from those extra bells and whistles. Second, you don’t know what kind of rider you are yet or what types of trails you enjoy riding the most. Different bikes are better suited for different riders on various types of trails. Be patient and figure out what kind of bike will fit you best before spending a ton of money.
So what should you do instead of buying a new bike? If you’ve got a friend who rides trail, see if they have a spare or backup bike you could borrow for a while. If you don’t have an MTB friend then find the local club’s Facebook page and introduce yourself. Tell the members you’re new and want to give the sport a try, and find out if someone in the club has a bike you can borrow or rent for a few weeks for super-cheap.
If borrowing simply isn’t an option, then your next-best bet is to either find some demo days being held in your area where you can try out some bikes, or to hit up the local bike shops and see if you can rent different sizes and kinds of bikes until you find what fits you best. Once you’ve got that figured out, it’s time to see if you can find a similar used bike. You can search Craigslist and potentially have some success, or check out the Facebook Marketplace. Better yet, find out if there’s a bike-centric buy and sell group on Facebook that’s based in your area. Those of you in the Dallas/Fort Worth area are blessed to have PB&J [Pedals Bikes & Junk] where you’ll find fantastic deals on well-cared-for bikes. You can also try out Texas Bicycle Exchange.
When is it time to buy a brand new bike? Honestly, maybe never. You may be perfectly content and satisfied to buy used bikes for years to come. If you get that new bike itch, our advice is to be patient, save up for it, and use cash. You’ll be surprised how much more of a level-headed and well-considered purchase you’ll make when you make yourself wait rather than swiping a credit card or financing a new ride.
Not sure what some of the words in this article mean? Be sure to check out our Glossary of MTB Terms and Slang.
It should go without saying, but you’re going to need some basic equipment before you can take your bike out on the trail. Here’s a quick list of the absolute minimum you need before your tires hit the dirt:
- Helmet—This is one of the places you can go fairly cheap at the beginning. All helmets sold in any store must meet minimum standards for safety and effectiveness. You can purchase a fancy and more-effective helmet later on as your skills progress.
- Hydration—Depending on which direction you go, you’ll either need a water bottle and a bottle cage, or a hydration pack. Either way, you should always take drinking water with you when you hit the trail.
- Eye Protection—Think about it, you’re going to be riding outside within a tree-covered area. This means there’s always the chance to take a stray branch or limb to the eye—especially when you crash. Hint: You will crash.
- Spare Tube—You’ll need at least one spare tube whether you’re running tubeless or not. Even if running tubeless, you may encounter a puncture or slash big enough that your tire’s sealant can’t plug the hole. Make sure you purchase a tube that’s the correct size for your tires.
- Bacon Strips or Plugs (if running tubeless tires)—A stop-gap measure before throwing a tube into a punctured tire that won’t seal up is to have a way to plug the hole. Two great options to consider are the Genuine Innovations Tubeless Tire Kit or the Dynaplug Ultralite Tubeless Tire Repair Kit.
- Tire Levers—You’ll need a pair of these to get your tire off and back on the wheel in case you need to insert a new tube.
- Handheld Pump and/or CO2—You’ll need a way to pump your tire back up after you’ve repaired a flat. Small frame pumps are available that mount to your bike at the same place where your bottle cage mounts, or you can carry CO2 inflators in your seat bag.
- Multitool—You’ll need this is case something comes loose or if you need to make adjustments on your bike.
- Seat Bag/Saddlebag—You’ll need a bag that straps underneath your seat to carry your spare tube and tools.
While arguably not absolutely necessary, the following items are highly recommended:
- Riding Gloves—Gloves help protect your hands on the trail and help you maintain your grip when things get wet, muddy, or sweaty.
- Riding Shorts/Chamois—You may not need this until you’re really starting to put down the miles, but a good quality pair of riding shorts and a chamois will go a long way in preventing soreness and chaffing.
- Road iD—There’s both an identity bracelet you can wear to give emergency responders your basic information, as well as a GPS tracking app that lets family and friends know your current location and send out an alert if you’ve stopped moving for too long. Check out Road iD to learn more.
Now that you’ve got your equipment together, do you know where to ride? Before you answer “yes” to that question, ask another question first: Do you know where to ride that fits your novice skill level? Like snow skiing slopes, mountain bike trails are graded from easiest to expert using a similar system of green circles, blue squares, and black diamonds. Nothing will ruin your day more than attempting to ride a double-black diamond by mistake and hurting yourself first time out.
Again, this is a situation where having a friend who’s already a mountain biker is going to be the absolute best option available. A seasoned rider who’s familiar with local trails is going to be best-suited to help you get started. They’ll likely offer to load up your bike, drive you to the trail, and lead you through to show you how it’s done.
Another great option is to find a beginner clinic being held in your area. In the Dallas/Fort Worth area, the Dallas Off-Road Bicycle Association holds beginner clinics almost monthly. Apart from a friend, there’s no better way to get started riding the trails. Get in touch with the local off-road cycling club in your area and find out if they offer beginner or skills clinics.
A third option is to find the local bike shops in your area and discover if they organize group rides. These shops often host no-drop rides on a weekly basis at a local trail. (No-drop means they won’t leave anyone in the group behind, so it’s a great option for a beginner.)
Mountain biking is a great hobby to do with other people, so we highly recommend gathering some regular riding buddies, especially when you’re a newbie. If you’ve absolutely got to go solo as a new rider, find out where the local greenways and beginner-level trails are located in your area. Check your local off-road cycling club’s listings, or use an app such as Trailforks or MTB Project.
There’s so much more we could cover, but that’s more than enough to get you started. Do you have questions? Post a comment below. Are you a seasoned rider with advice for new riders? We’d love to hear from you as well.
Have fun, ride smart, and keep shredding!