Intro to Mountain Biking for Beginners

If you’re looking for a fun way to stay active outdoors and get in some great exercise, then mountain biking might be just what you’re looking for right now. And don’t be put off by the name – you don’t have to actually have a mountain nearby. In fact, you can find trails to ride almost anywhere, with no mountain required!

You probably already have experience riding a road bike, but we’ll let you in on some of the key differences so that you know what to expect before you take that first mtb ride.

Mountain Bikes vs Road Bikes

Since road bikes are the most common bicycle type that riders have experience with, let’s take a moment to check out the key differences between the two types of bikes. The main differences between the two are:

  • many mountain bikes have a suspension system, which is designed to absorb shock on rough terrain
  • the tires on mountain bikes are noticeably fatter and the tire tread is rugged for those rough trails
  • you get to enjoy a more upright position on the saddle when you’re mountain bike

As you can see, these are some significant differences, but we think almost any road cyclist can enjoy mountain biking. If offers quite a bit more of an adrenaline rush, but you can choose simple or more difficult trails to help manage that adrenaline level.

Mountain Bike Terrain Types

You can find terrain that suits your experience levels on the bike, from smooth beginner trails to more challenging expert trails. And you’ll find that mtb trails are always marked by difficulty level, so you don’t need to worry about accidentally ending up on something too challenging.

Singletrack

This is the most common type of trail that you’ll find, with it’s name giving away what type of trail it is. Singletracks are designed for the single-file type of riding, however there is just barely enough room for bike to pass one another. Singletracks are typically one-way trails. You’ll find that this trail type is perfect for taking in the scenery without feeling too rushed.

Doubletrack

Also named for exactly what it is, doubletracks are usually around double the size of a single track and wide enough for two bikes to ride side-by-side. These tend to be old roads, like logging roads, that are no longer in use and perfect for a cool mtb trail experience. You’ll notice that doubletracks often have a gentler grade than singletracks.

MTB Terrain Parks

These man-made mountain bike parks can be found pretty much anywhere these days. They always some cool features for riders, like halfpipes, elevated bridges and jumps. Some are more challenging than others, but these can be a lot of fun.

mountain bike park

Mountain Biking Styles

When you’re reading to shop for your first mountain bike, you’ll need to know your riding style. This is because the manufacturers have bikes for each type of riding style, and you need one that best meets how you’ll be riding out on the trails. Below we’ll cover the styles to give you a better idea of what might appeal to you.

Trail

This of this as sort of the all-around style of riding. It is the most common and works for any types of trails. However, trail bikes are not designed for racing. So, think of this as your style if you like to ride with friends casually or just if you are a hobbyist. As a first-timer entering this sport, you’ll want to stick to entry-level trail bikes for your first mtb.

All-Mountain/Enduro

Think of this style as trail riding, but taken to the extreme. So, if your riding style leaves your knuckles white on descent and your leg muscles burning like never before, then this is your jam right here. Bikes that fit this style are light enough for steep uphill-pedaling and perform well on that same steep incline going back down.

Cross-Country

If you want to compete or race, then this is your style right here. Cross-country mountain bikes are designed for speed. And they’re lightweight enough to make climbing a breeze.

Fat Biking

As you might imagine, bikes that meet this riding style are characterized by their really fat tires. Fat tire bikes are great when you need good traction, such as on sand or snow. However, you can actually ride fat tire mountain bikes on any terrain, and plenty of people do just that. This can be a great choice for beginner mountain bikers since those fat tires are very forgiving on rough terrain.

Downhill/Park

During the warmer months, ski resorts often convert their slopes into lift-serviced mountain bike parks. This is not for the faint of heart because your entire ride is downhill and full of rough terrain, jumps, and other features. The bikes here are super durable and you need to wear your protective gear for the descent.

Types of Mountain Bikes

The type of mtb that you’ll need depends on where you’ll be riding it. There are a lot of options for you to consider here, but the most important are wheel size and suspension type. So, let’s dive into those categories so you’ll know what the best options are for you.

Wheel Size

  • 24-inch: This is the size you typically find on kids mountain bikes. The smaller tires help their shorter legs to reach the ground easily. This size wheel is ideal for kids between the ages of 10 and 13. If you have a younger child you want to take out on the trails, you can find some bikes with even smaller 20-inch tires.
  • 26-inch: This size offers a great combination of maneuverability and responsiveness. While this used to be the most common tire size, that is no longer the case.
  • 27.5-inch: Considered to offer the best parts of the 26-inch and the 29er sizes, this tire size lets you maneuver better than 29ers and move over terrain better than 26s.
  • 29er: Most popular with cross-country riders, 29ers offer better responsiveness than 26s, easily roll over obstacles on the trail, and provide a good grip.

Suspension Type

  • Hardtail – Due to their lower cost and versatility, hardtail mountain bikes are probably the most common suspension type that you’ll see on the trails. The rear of a hardtail mtb has no suspension, while the front wheels absorbs the impact from the front suspension fork. Typically you can lock the front fork when you want to ride a rigid mtb. This type is good for almost any riding style and terrain, except for the lift-serviced downhill trails.
  • Rigid – This type of mtb has zero suspension, which makes them cheap and easy to maintain. But they don’t offer the most comfortable ride out there. Fat tire bikes are usually rigid, and the fat tires help to absorb the shock and make them the most comfortable type of rigid mtb.
  • Full suspension – Exactly like it sounds, this type has a front fork and rear shock for complete impact absorption on the front and back of the bike. The benefit of a FS mountain bike is that it is a more comfortable ride and you get better traction. However, when riding uphill that rear suspension can give you some bob that makes it more difficult. Fortunately, most full suspension mtbs offer a locking feature for the rear suspension, when needed.

Hardtail vs Full Suspension Mountain Bikes

Whether you are buying your very first beginner’s mountain bike or replacing your old gear, all mountain bikers face the same challenge – hardtail or full suspension. It seems like you see a lot more full suspension mtbs out there, which can leave some bikers wondering what are hardtail mountain bikes good for anyways?

Well, I can help clear up any questions you might have, like what are hardtail mountain bikes used for? And which is the better option for me? So, let’s dig right into it and let me tell you the key differences between full suspension and hardtail mtbs, as well as which types of riding are best for each type.

Hardtail vs Full Suspension MTB Comparison

If you look at a good hardtail mountain bike, then you will notice that it features a solid frame. Normally, you’ll find a suspension fork in the front of the frame with this type of mtb.

Now, if you also look at a good full suspension mountain bike like the Diamondback Recoil 29, then you will see that the frame on a FS bike has two pieces that are joined by pivots. The two pieces are a rear triangle and front triangle. Note that the FS mtb does also have the front suspension fork. The cool thing about the full suspension mtb is that those two pieces of the bike frame move independently, and a shock absorber controls that rate of movement.

The important thing to know about these two types of mountain bikes is that neither of them is the single best type of mtb. Instead, the best type depends on your style of riding, the type of terrain that you ride on and your basic personal preference.

Climbing

If you prefer to keep your butt on the seat while climbing, then a FS bike is the better choice for you. Hardtail bikes are better for getting over obstacles on technical terrain, plus they tend to get great traction so there’s no worries about spin-outs.

Downhill

FS bikes are great for downhill technical trails that have a lot of bumps along the way. Hardtails do okay, but it is a different ride due to the design of the bike. The main difference is that you get tired a lot faster riding downhill on a hardtail.

Bike Maintenance

As you probably already know, FS bikes require considerable more maintenance than hardtails. If you do not want to have to spend more time on maintenance, or money on the upkeep, then a hardtail bike is better choice for you.

Bike Weight

While hardtail bike frames have traditional been the more lightweight option, there are now some great lightweight FS bike models available for serious mountain bikers. Overall, you can get a fairly lightweight bike in either style.

Bike Cost

If you are on a budget, then you are probably going to end up with a hardtail. Why? Because the basic design has been around for quite a while and that results in the costs being lower than FS bikes. Full Suspension bikes are pretty much always more expensive as they are a newer style and that means higher costs for consumers like you and me.

Bottom Line

Each type of mountain bike offers its benefits and neither one is singularly better than the other. If you are shopping based on your budget, then stick with a hardtail and it will be a great choice. However, if you have the money to spare, or just want a smoother ride (if you frequent rougher terrain), then spend the extra for a full suspension bike and you will be happy with it. And if you’re really flush with cash, get one of each and switch up what you ride based on terrain!

Buying Your First Mountain Bike

If you need wheels for hauling, cruising and touring, it’s high time to get your hands on a good hardtail mountain bike. Designed mainly for off-road adventures along dirt trails, mountain bikes are extremely versatile. And they come in various styles, wheel sizes and frame materials.

Given the array of options, shopping for the perfect bike can be a bit overwhelming, if not challenging. But with this easy and quick guide, you can breeze through the process with confidence and ride off on your new wheels in no time.

Evaluate your needs

Before you start shopping, think of how you would respond to the following:

  • What do you plan to use the mountain bike for? To run errands? Get (and stay) fit? Improve your riding skills? Seek out trails?
  • What kind of riding background or experience do you have? Are you suffering from back or joint problems?
  • How serious are you about pursuing mountain biking as a hobby? Or will this be more of a pastime?
  • What types of trails are you looking to explore or can be found in your area? Narrow or wide? Steep or flat? Bumpy or smooth?

Review your options

The next step is to know and understand the line’s key differentiating factors.

First up: the available types. Trail mountain bikes are general-purpose. All-mountain models are designed for technically challenging trails, so they have longer suspension travel and sturdier frames. Nimble and light, cross-country versions are suited for conquering tight turns and steep ascents during competitions. Free-ride and downhill units are made primarily for speeding downhill on paths with roots, rocks and bumps. And the dirt-jump types are mainly for those who enjoy doing aerial stunts.

Now let’s talk suspension, which makes for a softer and easier-to-control ride. Spot a suspension fork attached to the front wheel? That’s a hardtail. A hardtail will do if you have your eye on an all-purpose bike that can be used to explore trails occasionally and for improving your riding skills.

Is there a suspension fork at the front wheel and a pivoting frame and shock absorber at the rear wheel? You’re looking at a full-suspension bike. It’s priced higher but is a better fit if you intend to ride on dirt trails and difficult terrains or need a unit that goes easy on your muscles and joints.

When it comes to wheel size, you have three main choices. The 26-inch wheel was once the standard in mountain bikes. Now you’ll also find 29-inch wheels, which although heavier and slower to accelerate provide better momentum, more grip, less slide and a higher attack angle for ease in rolling over obstacles. Then there’s the 27.5-inch wheel, which is just as stable as the 29er wheel and as easy to maneuver as the 26-inch wheel.

Also check out the material of the frame, as this affects a bike’s ride quality, strength, longevity and weight. Aluminum alloy is the most popular option, although steel, titanium and carbon fiber frames are also used. Steel frames are relatively heavy but you can count on them to be tough and for smooth rides. Strong and light, titanium and carbon frames are more high-end.

Compare prices

Once you’ve decided on a budget, you can refer to this price guide for a rough idea on what you can expect to get.

The most basic models, which typically go for $500 to $900, are hardtails for easy to moderate terrain and with 26 or 29- inch wheels. At the $900 to $1,500 price range, you’ll find that hardtails have lighter frames and higher-quality components and can be used on a variety of terrain.

A competition hardtail and a low-end full-suspension model are typically going to run between $1,500 and $2,500. But if you have your heart set on a race-compatible hardtail or the best-quality full-suspension bike, you’ll probably want to set aside more than $2,500 for your purchase.

If you’re on a tight budget and need a cheap mountain bike, you can definitely find decent options in the under $500 – $1000 range.

Mountain bikes are a big investment—one that could last you years. So remember to always assess your needs and explore your options to find the wheels that suit you best.

What Should You Wear Mountain Biking?

If you’re looking to be as comfortable as possible out on the trails, then you’ll want to dress in some bike-specific clothing. We have some suggestions for your below.

  • Gloves – Padded gloves work wonders for reducing hand and wrist fatigue and blisters. You can choose from fingerless or full-fingered bike gloves. In the event of a crash, both types will help protect your hands. The benefit of the full-fingered option is that they keep your fingers warm, which is necessary in colder weather.
  • JerseyCycling jerseys are designed to be moisture wicking and quick drying, which is just what you need out on the trail. Some jerseys even have pockets, if you need that feature.
  • Shorts – Cycling shorts are a better option than traditional shorts because they are designed with the sport in mind. The inner lining is often padded, which helps to reduce saddle fatigue from long rides.
  • Sunscreen – If your skin is not covered, then be sure to apply sunscreen on exposed areas before you ride. The last thing you want is an uncomfortable sunburn.
  • Bike socks – Instead of wearing athletic socks, put on some bike socks for your rides. They are moisture wicking, which helps prevent blisters and foot fungus. Plus, they keep your feet cooler.

Accessories To Consider

Before hopping on your mountain bike, there are a few accessories that you’ll probably want to ride. While some of these help keep you safe out there, others provide different benefits.

  • Mountain bike helmet – Wearing one of these just might save your life if you take a header into a tree coming down a steep trail. Make sure the helmet you buy is specifically for mountain biking because they offer more coverage than road bike helmets.
  • Elbow and knee pads – Though not ideal for every rider, if you’re going to be on some rough trails consider protecting yourself with some pads.
  • Hydration pack or water bottle – If you’re going to be out on the trail for a while, it’s important to stay hydrated. Many bikes have a spot on the frame for a water bottle, but you can also wear a hydration pack. The benefit of a hydration pack is that you don’t need to stop riding when you’re thirsty.
  • Mountain bike shoes – You can get mtb-specific shoes to wear when riding. These offer waterproof or water resistant protection for those times when you’re out in the rain or get your feet wet in a stream or even mud. The shoes should have a good grip in case you end up hiking and decent protection around the toes.
  • Pedals – You may be interested in getting either clipless pedals or platform pedals for your bike. Platform pedals are best for beginners since you can put your foot down without needing to unclip. Clipless pedales are ideal for more advanced riders and require matching shoes that can attach to the pedals. You get more control and power with clipless pedals, but they can be a bit dangerous when the terrain is tricky.

Mountain Bike Training Tips for Beginners

There’s nothing like heading out on the trail on a mountain bike.  The thrill of climbing a steep hill, bouncing along a rough terrain, and taking tight, sharp turns is an amazing experience.  You don’t need to be a pro to mountain bike, but it’s also not a good idea to jump on a bike and head out.

Mountain biking requires a combination of skill, strength, and endurance.  To get the right balance, you’ll need to do some training.  How hard you train will depend on how serious you are about biking as a sport.  Here are some tips for mountain bike training for a trip or a cool adventure.

  • Train Early – It’s easy to procrastinate starting your training before a trip.  It’s best not to wait until a couple of weeks before your trip to start.  You run the risk of getting hurt.  The best recommendation is to start two to three months in advance to maximize your performance.
  • Enjoy Yourself – It may not seem that important, but having fun while you are training is important to keep you motivated.  Training and riding with people you enjoy and who share your riding goals will make your experience more fun.
  • Morning Training – Training in the morning is an excellent way to start the day, and you are less likely to allow life to override your training schedule.  Late in the day allows for many things to pop-up and derail training plans.
  • Gradual Training – Building a schedule that gradually increases your strength, endurance, and balance will make your goal more achievable.  Start with twice a week and work up from there.  Gradual training will also decrease the likelihood of injuries.
  • Warm Up – Taking time to warm up before you ride will increase the blood flow to your muscles and prevent injuries.  This can be done by riding a stationary bike, or your mountain bike at a slower speed on a flat surface.  After about 10 minutes, your muscles will be warm and then it’s time to stretch them out.  You want to make sure to stretch the quadriceps, hamstrings, calves, low back, shoulders, and neck.
  • Legs – Building leg strength and endurance are crucial for mountain biking because your legs are doing much of the work.  As you build leg strength, you will be able to ride longer, climb tough hills, and have more control that will help prevent injuries.
  • Upper Body – Your upper body strength and endurance is just as important, so don’t leave this out.  Managing your body weight over the handlebars will take it out of you, so you need to build upper body strength.  A good way to do this is by doing pushups and planks.  Building your upper body will help keep you stable and strong enough for the ride.
  • Body Core – Building your core strength, the abs and back muscles, will help prevent lower back pain.  While you are building your strength, you can raise the handlebars, so you aren’t hunched over.  Shifting your position while you ride and stretching your back will help relieve pressure on your spine during a ride.
  • Balance – You need good balance to keep stable while bouncing around on a rough trail, going airborne when taking a drop, and taking sharp turns.  You can build balance with things that increase your mind/body spatial awareness, such as Bosu balls, stability balls, balance boards, or exercises that use one leg.
  • Endurance – It’s important to work your heart to help expand your cardio endurance.  A nice way to do this is by riding up and down hills and on flat ground with alternating speeds.  The goal is to increase your heart rate to 50 to 85 percent from a resting rate and maintain it for increasing amounts of time.  Just like your other muscles, practice and time will build your heart’s endurance and overall performance.
  • Putting It Together – Stick to fundamental exercises that will work the areas of your body you need without making a complicated workout.  Exercises like squats, deadlifts, sit-ups, and planks will work your core, legs, and upper body without working any one area too much.
  • Weaknesses – If you know an area of your body that is weak, such as an old injury, make sure you address the weakness through medical care and advice, a strength building coach, or another avenue to help you address the issue.  This will prevent injuries and increase your performance.
  • Efficient Peddling – Learn to get as much power as you can from peddling.  One tip, as the pedal reaches the top, drop your heel, and before 12 o’clock, push over the top with your hip.  This move will lengthen the power phase and erase the dead spot.
  • Trails – Pick trails that meet your skill level.  Beginners should start with a flat train with some turns and descents, something like a road.  Intermediate rides can take on more rocky areas, hills, narrow spots, and zigzag trail to add some challenge.  Advanced riders can take on more technical trails and ride longer trails.

Mountain biking is excellent exercise and a fun experience.  When you are finished biking, make sure to stretch and take care of any injuries or strains from the trip.  Allowing good recovery time is important for training.  You want to be fresh for each mountain bike ride.

Now you should be ready to go out there and conquer your first singletrack. So, what are you waiting for?

Shawna Newman

Shawna currently lives in Las Vegas where she gets in lots of great hiking at Red Rock Canyon and Valley of Fire State Park. When she has time, she visits National Parks in a quest to visit each one in the U.S. Shawna’s favorite outdoors activity is hiking and her favorite National Park (so far) is Badlands National Park in South Dakota.

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