I love spending time on trails and there’s a metric crapton of options where I live, so giving mountain biking a shot seemed like an obvious choice. I’ve wanted to try for a long time, I just never managed to get around to it. Recently, while knee troubles sidelined me from high-impact activities, I decided it was high time I get some trail time on wheels.
I’ll be the first to tell you that mountain biking can feel intimidating. It’s always been easy for me to come up with excuses not to try it. There’s a reason it took me years of living here to make it happen. It’s never felt especially convenient, after all. That said, I’ve written before about my thoughts about not waiting for the perfect moment and not living in the shadow of the fear of what could go wrong. I had to face both of those mental blocks to get myself out there.
So I went. By myself, on a random Sunday, armed with a rental bike and a little knowledge I’d picked up from some googling.
I felt totally unsure of myself at first–I hadn’t ridden a bike at all in something like 8 years. In contrast, I used to love riding my bike around the neighborhood as a kid and would go out for hours (click for evidence) and I wanted to see if I could find that joy again. With a couple decades between that time of my life and now, I felt like a fish out of water.
It took me nearly 3 hours to cover 10 miles. I made a wrong turn and found myself in over my head before I realized my error. I wiped out a few times. Basically, I felt like a total clown with no idea what I was doing. But at the same time, I had a great time. I knew I had to go again.
Since then, I’ve been out around a half dozen times, and each time I go, it gets better. It doesn’t take years or even months to get comfortable; I already feel SO much more confident from just a few rides. On my most recent ride, I covered 9 miles in only an hour. And I don’t fall so much now. :)
Insights from bumbling around on a bike
Falling isn’t as bad as you think. The first time I went out, I fell a lot. I fell sideways and took a handlebar straight into my thigh. I fell into a cactus and had to spend a few minutes plucking prickly bits out of my leg. I fell off the side of my bike while dismounting and got friendly with a bush.
But you know what? Aside from some colorful bruises, I was just fine.
It’s easy to imagine that falling down is going to be this horrible, hard, terribly painful thing that’s going to ruin you, no matter how minor the fall. The first time I rode, I was gritting my teeth in anticipation of my first inevitable fall. After I took some spills, I was surprised by how resilient I felt. Sure it hurt a little, but it wasn’t that bad, and I was on my way again within moments.
Although I obviously work to keep the rubber side down as much as possible, biking became a lot less intimidating once I realized that falling isn’t always this horrible, traumatizing thing I’d made it out to be in my head. I’m sure there’s some analogy for life here.
You can cover so much ground. You don’t have to be a long-distance runner or spend all day hiking to treat yourself to many miles of beautiful scenery. Just get on a bike! I don’t get to go out on long runs or hikes very often, so biking makes longer trails a lot more accessible.
You’re never bored. A common complaint that I hear about running is that it’s boring. But with biking, there’s SO MUCH MORE going on. Rocks scattered around the trail that you barely notice while running become brain-bending puzzles from the perch of a saddle. I’ve never felt the urge to put on a podcast or music to keep me occupied. It’s a really mentally stimulating way to be active. Even when your skills start improving, there’s always more challenging trails to keep you on your toes.
You get to go fast! Admittedly, I’m a chicken when it comes to speed. I’m not exactly one to berserk down a mountain at 30 mph. But even on flat ground at moderate speeds, it’s such a great feeling to cruise while the air flies by.
Suggestions for first-time riders
Don’t forget all the basic rules of preparedness: bring water and snacks, wear your helmet, tell someone where you’re going if you choose to go solo, respect trail rules, etc. Besides those, here’s a few things that might be a little less obvious.
Wear clothing that covers your knees. I don’t recommend short shorts, even if it’s warm. Until you get comfortable and confident, it’s not worth a skinned knee. If it’s cold enough for it, try to cover your arms, too. You don’t need to go out and spend a ton of money on special cycling gear for your first few rides. Your normal activewear is good enough for some newbie rides. Personally, I’ve found that my Alala captain tights and heroine tights work really well. I’ve wiped out a couple times in them, and they have not torn! With that in mind, don’t wear your all-time favorites. Pick something older, well-loved, or otherwise replaceable in case your clothing gets snagged on a branch or damaged during a wipeout.
Wear gloves. On a similar note, I highly recommend gloves! Scraping your hands hurts and can make daily activities a literal pain. Since you usually fall hands first, hand scrapes are a definite risk. Skip that nonsense and just grab some gloves. I wore running gloves at first (which I tore, oops) and then bought some actual MTB gloves since they’re not very expensive. I wear ridecamps by 100%.
Find a beginner-friendly route. It’s important to find something appropriate for your skill level; biting off more than you can chew can easily leave you feeling demoralized. Set yourself up for success! Sites like MTB Project or Strava’s route builder are really helpful for finding a suitable spot for your ride. Local bike shops are also good resources for advice. And remember, if you feel like something is too steep or too rocky for you to get up or down, it’s ok to hop off and just walk your bike past the sketchy bits.
Be sure you know the (really basic) basics. Which side is your rear brake? When do you shift gears, and which way should you shift? You don’t need to know any fancy tricks to make it through your first few bike rides, but if it’s been a while, be sure you brush up on the bare bones of how to operate a bike. YouTube is a great resource for this.
Experience is the best teacher. Just get out there. You can read all you want and watch all the tutorials in the world, but at the end of the day, you just have to start. Don’t wait for permission! You have the power to make it happen, so go make it happen!
If you’re an experienced MTBer, do you have any advice for newbies?