Three mountain bikers riding a trail in the forest

A first-timer’s guide to mountain biking

I ride bikes, but until recently, they weren’t the mountain kind. Instead, they were the ones that require shaved legs, a superhero outfit, clip-in shoes and paved roads. But after some convincing from fellow MEC staffers to give this whole mountain biking thing a try, I found myself slowly pedalling an enormous bike up a climbing trail for the first time ever.

What did I learn on the trails? A lot. There were many things I was surprised to discover about mountain biking, and a few tips I wish someone had passed along before I dropped in for the first time. To help all the beginner mountain bikers out there, I asked MEC staffers and riders what they wish they’d known before day one of shredding.

So here it is: the first-timer’s guide to mountain biking (that I wish I had many months ago).

1. Don’t stress

Watch any mountain bike video, and you’ll assume it’s only for those with high-octane energy beverages in their blood. But that’s not true at all. Sure, the best riders are talented maniacs, but for the rest of us, mountain biking represents something really fun. I learned that with almost any trail network, there’s something for everyone. Yes, for the first while you’ll be cruising green and blue trails – but who cares? If you stick with it, you’ll look back fondly on the green and blue days of your mountain bike youth.

2. Trust the bike

You’ll be amazed at what a modern, full-suspension mountain bike can handle. When you come across obstacles and trail sections that make you pause, trust the bike. Chances are you’ll be blown away by how easily a mountain bike handles gnarly, rough looking terrain when you let it do the work for you (especially compared to your commuter bike that bumps through gravel and potholes). Note: this tip assumes you’re either renting, borrowing or have purchased a competent trail bike.

3. Don’t be bummed when a 10-year-old passes you

Trust me. It’s going to happen. You’ll be “flying” down a trail, feeling like a true hero, in-tune with your surroundings and the bike between your legs. All of a sudden, a very small child will squeak, “On your left!” and dart past you with feline-like precision and grace. This is normal. Do not be disheartened, and focus on where you’re at (this will keep you stoked and prevent you from bailing).

Mountain biker fixing a flat tire

4. Bring a repair kit

Flat tires and mechanicals happen to everyone. Few things are more demoralizing than walking your bike with a flat tire or broken chain back to the parking lot, so kit up with the right bike tools and a pump. Need tips on how to use them? Check out our bike clinics.

5. Rest. Rest you need.

You might be the 328th-most-fit person in your province, but you’re still bound to feel the burn. I thought I’d be fine as a seasoned roadie, yet I was absolutely shattered after 45 minutes. Expect your forearms to get exhausted from braking, and your legs to feel like ground meat after a 5-minute run. The solution? Take breaks. Riding with pumped-out arms isn’t just exhausting, it can be dangerous (grabbing a handful of brake lever with pooped arms can lead to aggressive over-braking). Stretch, sip some water, and give yourself a few before you tackle another stretch of singletrack.

Three mountain bikers planning their route

6. Use the buddy system

A patient friend or guide can make a huge difference to keep your stoke-level high and prevent you from getting in over your head. Just be sure that they don’t mind easing up the pace, waiting for you, and showing you the ropes. Which brings up another good point…

7. Don’t fake it

Just because you’ve ridden on gravel roads or through the park doesn’t make you a mountain biker. If someone asks if you’ve ever been riding, don’t lie. For one, they’ll know within 30 seconds, but there’s also a chance you’ll get in over your head. “Fake it till you make it” is a great motto for certain things in life, but mountain biking isn’t one of them.

8. Appreciate the difficulty

If you’re cross-country riding, you may have to walk your bike up tricky, technical climbs. When riding more aggressive trails, you might be spooked by certain features or sections. Don’t worry! Mountain bike skills take time to develop. Ease into it, appreciate the challenge and trust that you’ll improve over time.

Mountain bikers look at picture on a phone

9. Don’t film yourself (yet)

When you’re cruising flowy singletrack, you may feel like you’re travelling at warp speed – effortlessly darting through berms and across gnarly sections of root and rock. And when you hit that jump? You were flying! Truth is, it might have looked a little like the “sweet jumps” scene from Napoleon Dynamite. And that’s okay. Do yourself a favour, and save the video footage for when you’re just a little further down the line. (When you are ready to cut some sick edits, we’ve got video stuff to make it happen.)

10. Wear the right gear

That old helmet you’ve been using for commuting and weekend riding since 2005? It’s no good, especially not for trail riding. Make sure you wear a solid helmet designed for mountain biking. On top of that, armour is a good idea. If you do happen to go over the bars or slide out in a berm, you’ll be thankful for the extra protection.

Close-up on legs and shoes of mountain biker

11. Wear good shoes

Something with grippy tread is best, like trail runners or trainers (you don’t need to invest in mountain bike shoes for your first rides). They’ll give you a touch more grip on the pedals – most pedals feature aggressive pins to help keep your feet in place – and you’ll appreciate the traction when you hike the bike up or down hairy sections. Also expect your shoes to get very, very dirty. Best not to wear your most stylish kicks.

12. Realize the power of DEMO RIDES

Trying to decide which new bike is the right one for you? It’s a great idea to take a bike you’ve got your eye on for a test ride to get a solid feel for how it rides. Some bike events and trail areas host demo days, which gives you the chance to try different bikes, and a number of MEC stores have an Intense bike demo fleet (models vary by location) to help you narrow down your decision on what bike to get.

13. Keep your bike dialled

Mountain biking puts a bike through its paces. As a result, bolts can gradually loosen, linkage systems can get sloppy, and wheels can go out of true. Stay on top of your bike maintenance before you head out. Rule of thumb: before each ride, make sure your headset bolts are snug, your quick releases/thru-axles are tight, and that your handlebar isn’t flopping around. MEC bike shops offer everything from quick safety checks to complete overhauls.

14. Age doesn’t matter

Countless publications, websites and Youtube montages may suggest that it’s a young person’s sport. But in reality, there’s something out there for everyone regardless of age, skill level or perceived bravery. It’s never too late, so kit up, hop in the saddle and get at ’er!

Jonathan Johnson

Writer, resident coffee addict and spandex expert. Tirelessly seeking the perfect writing/riding playlist.