So you want to start Mountainbiking
Part 3 - Getting on your bike
So armed with trusty steed, we’re ready to hit the trails. Where do we go first, where do we go?
I’m going to cover ‘stuff’ here in the order that might be covered in an introductory bike session, assuming a required level of independence on your part. If you’d much rather go through the following with a qualified and experienced coach, then I of course would be remiss in not mentioning the Real World Guiding pages where you can find just that! (advert over).
So you’re stood there in a nice quiet place, not overlooked so you can’t embarrass yourself, ready to go. Where do we start?
some basic bike anatomy - you can work out where the seat tube is for yourself
Let’s start with a good habit. Always begin with an M check. M because you follow an M shape over the bike’s frame from the bottom of the fork, up to the head-tube (where all the steering takes place), down the down tube to the pedals, then up the seat tube to the saddle, and finally down the seat-stay to the rear wheel – an M.
Following this route we check every part of the bike that we come to, to ensure the tight bits are tight and the loose bits are loose, and there’s a minimum of rattle from the things in the middle. As a list we have the following:
Front wheel – attached? (don’t laugh), round (again, no sniggering at the back), tyre inflated (really? – oh yes) and with appropriate tread, anything wobbly or rattly? If fitted: Brake Disc attached firmly?
Brakes – work? (!) push the bike forward with the front brake on and the back wheel should rise.
Fork – stiff if it’s supposed to be, bouncy if it’s supposed to be, not rattly.
Moving up to:
Head Tube when you put the front brake on, and rock the bike backward and forward is there any rattling? – does it come from the short tube on the frame at the top of the fork? – if yes: you may need to adjust or replace the bearing at the top of the fork. You can adjust some play by loosening the stem (horizontal short tube connecting handlebars to fork), tightening up the headset bolt (vertical bolt right on top), and then tightening up the stem bolts again.
Head Tube Weld – where the short tube at the front of the bike is welded to the down-tube (that goes to the pedals) – have a look and make sure the weld is in good nick (yup, bad weld = front wheel departing on its own journey when you hit something = A&E)
Bars are they attached firmly (listen, I’ve ridden with folks with loose bars – it’s scary) do they have bar ends (end caps)? – I’ll just use the words “apple corer injury” and leave the rest to your imagination.
Then down on to the centre of the M:
Bottom Bracket (or bearing inside the frame that the pedal shaft goes through) – smooth when turning, not rattly when shoogled (technical)
Pedals – attached, they spin, they’re not about to detach. Then from here at the bottom of the M, up the seat tube towards the saddle.
Seat Post – inserted into the frame enough (there will usually be a line)
Seatpost Clamp – loose enough to just undo, stiff enough to prevent the saddle from either sinking (annoying and embarrassing) or twisting. Make sure the lever is against the post so you can’t catch clothing or bits of you on it. Make sure the saddle is at a suitable height (more later).
Seat – oh yes, do make sure the saddle is firmly fixed – I’ve seen people trying to ride bikes with no seat, embarrassing, uncomfortable and let’s face it: there’s a small diameter pipe pointed at your nether regions – dangerous. Saw a seat lying on the track in front of me on the Megavalanche qualifier – someone out there was having a much much worse day than I was.
And finally down the seat stay (upper of the two thinner tubes that meet at the back wheel) to the back wheel, to go through the stuff you did with the front wheel.
This may seem involved, but I can guarantee that one day you will be thankful of spending a few minutes on this quick check – the day you are about to set out on an epic and discover your brake shoes are nearly worn away, or that your handlebars rattle a bit too much, or that your saddle is about to fall into bits; you’ll thank me then.
FINALLY GETTING A LEG OVER
Ok that is admittedly quite boring if what you intended was to ride the thing, so let’s get on. We’ll need to set the saddle height first; so get that adjusted. Heightwise it is horses for courses; the more you want to move about (read, the steeper and rougher or bigger drops) the lower you will have your saddle, the more efficient and long lasting you want to be, the higher you want it.
A good guide for general cross country is to sit on the saddle with a pedal downmost, and set the saddle height such that with your toes on the pedal, and your heel down at about 45 degrees, your leg is slightly bent. However, when starting out, and getting used to a new bike, slightly more bent is better, and certainly is better for what follows here.
STEP 1: STOPPING
Its good form to be able to stop something before you start it, working it out on your way isn’t a recipe for an easy progression, but when you’ve been riding on and off since you were a kid, why go back to this? Simply because brakes have come on such a long way in recent years. If the last time you rode a bike stopping involved squeezing the levers as tight as possible, and wait for the bike to stop, then your first well-adjusted hydraulic disc brake will give you a bit of a surprise. If you use them for the first time at speed, better put your underpants on the outside: you’re going to be doing a superman impression off the front of the bike sometime soon.
So get used to the brakes first, start up easy until you get used to them, and gradually build up speed and speed of stopping. As you get faster, you’ll feel increasingly the forward momentum pushing you forward on the bike, and you’ll start to feel the fear of the superman. Good. Now we move on to step 2.
The attack (or ready) position in action
STEP 2: MOVING ABOUT
Let’s face it, if you’re travelling fast and wanting to brake fast, you’re not going to be pedalling. So we’ll start off by getting used to a neutral pedal position, and start to adopt what is often known as the attack position. This is the best ‘ready for anything’ position you can adopt on the bike. Getting used to it may be helped by dropping the saddle a couple of inches at first.
The neutral pedal position sees your pedals both at the same height. Obviously you will have to have one foot in front of the other, so adopt the way round that suits you best. Snowboarders call your front foot your chocolate foot (I have no idea why). With level feet you have now lifted your body, and importantly centre of gravity up by a few inches, which has made you a little more top heavy. To allow for this, with slightly bent arms and legs (very important) we can bend forward a little to drop our centre of gravity, and allow our bum to move backward (perhaps even off the back of the saddle) to keep the CofG from moving forward.
Having adopted the attack position, we are now able to use our legs and arms as extra suspension, and to move our CofG backward and forward over the bike, well done. As a spin-off, you can also move side to side, and this will help you stay smooth, more in a moment.
So having done a few laps of the car park moving backwards and forwards with level pedals until you are reasonably comfortable, it’s now time to use your new found skills to help your braking. Again slowly building up, try moving backward a little and lowering your CofG as you brake harder and harder. If you’re getting nice and low and back, you should feel more comfortable braking harder than you did previously. A NOTE OF CAUTION: as well as preventing being flung over the bars, you are also weighting and unweighting your front and back wheels. If you go too far back, you risk having so much of your weight off the front wheel, that it might start to skid rather than slow you down. If this happens, either the surface is too loose, and you’ll have to brake a little less aggressively, or you need to move forward, but crouch even more.
We’re still in the car park, but if you’re happy enough now, you can now progress to using the attack position in descent. Go find yourself some short slopes, ideally progressing in steepness, and roll down them in varying degrees of attack to try the position out. Of course if you’re destined for forestry tracks, family trails and towpaths, you can now move on to gears.
Progressing this skill with comfort on longer slopes, you can now roll onto a slope in the attack position, and then gradually move back towards a more neutral (front and back) position. As with braking, if we’re too far back, we have our weight off the front wheel and both braking and steering are less effective.
FULL USE OF THE ATTACK POSITION
I mentioned briefly the idea of your body as suspension. Even with suspension forks, if you push your riding you will rapidly get to the point that you need to use your arms, and the same for you full sussers. With a dropped saddle, you can move about very freely while stood on level pedals, so try it. Back in the car park, ride around a bit finding the outer limits of how much you are able to move about the bike, or relative to the bike, keep your arms and legs bent, and your saddle low, and just move about (see if you can burr your bum on the back wheel while coasting, and see how far you can tip the bike on its side).
No need to be hard core if you don't want to attack anything
Think about the attack position as enabling you to be smooth. Smoothness is good, we like smooth. Every impact on your bike’s font wheel will slow you down microscopically, and every time your body changes direction you create instability, so try to be smooth. If you watch some of these mad videos of nutters rattling down downhill trails, you can see how much they move about, in order to keep their head steady, this is what you want to emulate.
STARTING WITH GEARS
So if you’re confident you can now control your bike’s speed without fear of superheroes, you can adopt the attack position with ease, and use it to allow the bike to travel over rougher ground while using your arms and legs as added suspension, and can move it sideways and lean it over, then we should quickly prepare for the almost inevitable part of riding bikes down hills; riding them up hills.
Unless you’re riding a single-speed bike (and if you are, then off you go then) you will have some gears. Either 8 to 10 gears at the back and 1 to 3 at the front. These days a common entry level bike will have 3 and 9. By shifting these about, then you can make life easier or harder on the ascents. You can have a play with them, at this stage the four pieces of advice I will give are as follows:
Only change gear when you are pedalling
Change gears well in advance of a hill so you’re not pushing down hard while trying to change gear
The above will prevent you from damaging or even breaking your chain
Use all your front chain rings –try not to get the chain going diagonally from the inside at the front to the outside at the back (or vise versa) – more chain damage potential
Get used to using your gears as much as possible
Now, armed with the very basics, you have enough to take your bike on a ride with some hills and to get started. Off you go, have a great time, and welcome!
It would be remiss of me to point out a few other things that you will need to prepare for now you’re starting out. It’s not a given, but it is possible that at some point you will need some protective equipment. On balance it is probably better to prepare for these eventualities than to think about them afterward and wish you’d prepared, so have a think about where and what you intend to ride, and what may be the eventualities for you.
You’ve started a sport with an inherent possibility of a fall, and a likelihood of a fall at speed at some point. Gravity has a way of catching up on us all, and usually when it’s least expected and most inconvenient, but it can’t be escaped. It’s also inevitable that we only have one body, and so we should also look after it too.
Be sensible and match your kit to the riding you want to do; don't end up like this getting ready for a spin round the park
As a minimum, as well as investing in your new steed, you should also begin with the following items:
A quality cycle specific helmet. I’ve run one of these into a tree at 20mph (a speed that is all too easily attained) and suffered no more than minor concussion – they are worth every penny.
A pair of gloves or cycling ‘mitts’ – these will help you grip the bars when you are sweating, afford a level of protection from bushes and brambles, give you some crash protection, but most importantly will retain the skin on the palm of your hand should you fall off and put your hand down (especially on estate tracks or tarmac)
Long sleeves and long legs / tights / tracky bottoms are worth considering to save on gravel rash, but to be fair most ride in shorts and tee shirts, but are risking skin-loss. Ensure you make this decision knowingly.
Glasses – these days industrial safety glasses are really ‘quite fashionable’ so you don’t need to look like a refugee from a Chemical Plant in them. All sorts of ‘stuff’ gets flung in your face from the trail, off your front wheel, of other people’s back wheels, not to mention the bushes that might catch an eye as you whizz past. I also wear glasses to cut down on wind on my eyes which makes them water and reduces my vision drastically just when I really needed it.
It’s also worth considering kneepads as soon as you start getting involved in anything trail centre orientated, or single tracked trail, as a fall at speed onto your knees can do damage that can take a long time to heal. These generally aren’t worn on tracks, but again make a conscious decision about your protection levels.
There is of course a plethora of other protection offerings well into the full body armour found at Downhill biking venues. I have found recently a range from 661 of their ‘Rhythm’ protection which is very lightweight and very cheap at the moment which doesn’t leave you feeling like an extra from Star Wars, but does afford some protection.
So, armed with a few blossoming bike handling skills and a little bit of kit and of course your trusty steed…
The answer is of course entirely dependant on the answers you gave to the questions in the first article of this series. Why did you get involved in the first place? The rest of this website is aimed at those who are getting into mountainbiking and to help them get into the sport and ideally encourage them to develop their skill levels and aspirations and get out and explore. Beyond valley trails, towpaths and cycle routes, should you wish, are a network of international standard trail centres all over the UK, as well as local trails and bike parks all over.
Developing mountainbiking skills is often done at trail centres, utilising colour coded trails from Green to Blue to Red and then Black, much the same as for ski runs. There are also Orange bike park areas for specific features, in many biking venues too. Using these trails gives you a waymarked trail, with literature letting you know something of what you are letting yourself in for in terms of distance and height gained, and also an idea of the type of obstacles you might find on the way. A green trail is best for beginning and getting to know your bike, but aimed at family cycling, many will soon outgrow this and head onto blue trails. Don’t be deceived though, there can be quite a jump both physically and in terms of obstacles when you get to blue so take it easy.
Time spent on these waymarked trails for the beginner is time well spent as a skill-set can be built and confidence in those skills can be developed. This is a crucial period for those starting out and good quality coaching is really important at this stage to ensure good habits are developed and reinforced before they are really bedded in.
There’s only so much that can and should be dealt with in one small article, and to this point we’ve hopefully got you a suitable bike for your aspirations, made sure it’s not going to fall apart under you, got you basically equipped to be safe, and pointed you at a suitable venue. Finishing here leaves you now ready to engage in the sport at a point of your choosing.
The Real World Riding website and services are aimed at you now, read the articles, watch the films (but just for fun) read a bit, listen a bit, feel free to e-mail questions a bit, but fundamentally just get out on your bike and do what makes you smile –
Welcome to the world of mountainbiking.