The Trail Starts Here: All Your Burning Questions Are Answered

Questions you’ve been afraid to ask

Mountain biking can be an intimidating sport to a newbie. There is a ton of technical jargon, a multitude of equipment choices and a boatload of skills to learn. You need to know much of this before you even hit the trails, but where to start? We are here to help. These are some of the questions we hear most often from riders who are just starting out. Don’t worry; we won’t tell anybody you asked.

Not a fan of the lycra look? You should still wear a chamois, but simply wear baggy shorts over your inner shorts.

SHOULD I WEAR UNDERWEAR UNDER MY SHORTS?

No. That’s a big no-no. Cycling shorts are designed to be worn commando and right up against your skin. You will minimize chafing and ultimately experience a more comfortable ride by doing this. If you’re uncomfortable riding in what is basically just your undies, we highly recommend finding a pair of baggy shorts to wear over

the Lycra ones. That way, the Lycra shorts with chamois will keep you comfortable, and the baggies will keep you from leaving nothing to the imagination.

HOW CAN I KEEP FROM GOING OVER THE HANDLEBARS?

New riders are often terrified of the front brake. While it’s true that grabbing a hand- ful of front brake on a steep descent can send you OTB (over the bars), it’s actually worse to only rely on your rear brake. Most of the stopping power comes from the front brake. This is because as you slow down, much of your weight transfers forward and puts much more traction into the front wheel.

If you’re too scared to use the front brake at first, try using only one finger on the front brake lever and two fingers onthe rear. That way, you will naturally bias towards using the rear brake. When you get used to using the front brake, try thinking about using the brakes evenly, which is ultimately the best way for most riders.

While your front brake can potentially put you over the bars, that’s not an excuse to never use it. There are techniques to make it even more effective than the rear brake for improving overall control.

I’M AFRAID OF CLIP-IN PEDALS, BUT ALL MY FRIENDS USE THEM. SHOULD I SWITCH?

You don’t have to. There are plenty of very fast and talented riders out there who swear by flat pedals, even for elite-level racing; however, clip-in pedals (or “clipless pedals” as they aresome- times called) offer a more secure connection to the bike and typically feel more efficient thanks to the stiff-soled shoes. When first using clip-in pedals, it can be scary to feel “bolted” to the bike; however, if you practice getting in and out in a controlled environment (think grassy field where it won’t hurt to crash), the process becomes second nature very quickly. One thing we would not recommend is using clip-in pedals to learn to bunnyhop. The temptation to get both wheels off the ground is there, but simply yanking upon your shoes to do it is a bad technique. Do yourself a favor and learn how to bunnyhop the correct way, with flat pedals and a little body English.

DO I NEED A 29ER? OR A 27.5? OR A 26?

There is no perfect answer for this question, although we can give you some guidance. Twenty-six-inch wheels are all but obsolete these days. While you may be able to find a deal on a used bike online with 26er wheels, there will be limited options for things like wheels, tires and forks in the coming years. We’d rec- ommend staying away from these for the most part. Bikes with 27.5-inch wheels are here to stay and are available in every size—from extra small to extra large. These are the most versatile bikes avail- able now. They have a slightly larger-diameter wheel that rolls over obstacles better than a 26-inch wheel. Bikes with 29-inch wheels take the big diameter one step further and offer even more rollover performance; however, they can be slightly heavier and may not fit smaller-sized frames as well.

Most tall riders will find that 29er wheels are better for cross-country and trail applications, because they will feel more efficient. Shorter and more aggres- sive riders will appreciate the nimbleness of 27.5-inch wheels; however, there is no hard-and-fast rule here. Bottom line: it’s best to try before you buy.

The wheel-size debate is still raging.

HOW MUCH DO I REALLY NEED TO SPEND?

A new bike is a heck of an investment. Ask non-mountain bikers what they think the cost of a new bike is and they will likely come back with a number that is less than $300. Ask an experienced rider how much he spent and he might come back with something more than your car cost. Bottom line: you don’t have to mortgage your house to afford a bike and have a good time; however, you should plan to buy what we would call a “real” mountain bike rather than one that looks like a mountain bike but is actually just for cruising bike paths. You will probably need to spend at least $600 to $900. While bikes that cost less are capable of doing some light-duty dirt road riding or mellow singletrack, they are not equipped for the rigors of real riding. If you choose to spend more,
you will get lighter and more durable components.



HOW OFTEN DO I NEED TO LUBE MY CHAIN?

Not as often as you think. If you’re dousing your chain with lube before every ride, you’re likely doing more harm than good. Lubricants are either oil- or wax- based, but, either way, they attract dust, dirt and grime. That debris puts excess wear on your drivetrain. Rather than simply reaching for a bottle of lube before every ride, listen to your drivetrain. If it’s sounding dry, it’s time for some lube. If your chain is squeaky, it has been too long and you’re overdue. If it’s running smoothly, simply leave it alone. And, if you’ve been over-lubing for a while and your chain looks like a victim of the Exxon Valdez spill, it’s time to wash your bike and start from scratch.

HOW MUCH TRAVEL DO I NEED?

Most riders think they need none or they think they need a lot. It’s much more likely that you need something that’s smack in the middle. Rigid hardtails are hard to ride, and downhill bikes are slow on anything steep enough to warrant a chairlift or shuttle vehicle to get you to the top of the hill. Unless you want to stick to smooth roads and singletrack, or you only want to bomb downhill, a bike with 4–6 inches of travel is likely best. Buy a bike with less travel if you like to climb and more if you tend to like the descents. Also, be sure to take your terrain into account. There’s no reason to ride a fully decked-out enduro bike while wearing head-to-toe armor if you’re only riding the bike path.

 

Bruce Klein, National Downhill Champion


HOW DO I GET FASTER?

Ride more, and ride with people who are faster than you. It always feels nice to be the fastest one on a ride, but it will make you a better rider to go out with riders who can crush you. It may sound intimidating, but rest assured, most of the really fast riders out there won’t mind waiting for you to catch up. It feels good for them to be the fast ones too.

 

HOW DO I PICK A COMFORTABLE SADDLE?

It has been said that the number-one reason people stop riding is that they get a flat and don’t know how to fix it. The second reason is that their seat is uncomfortable. Unfortunately, there is no silver bullet for this problem, because every rear end is different. That said, we can offer a few suggestions. First, if a saddle is not working for you, especially if it’s causing numbness, don’t put up with it. Second, most shops will help you find a saddle that works and oftentimes will let you demo a few before you make your choice. Finally, don’t make the mistake of going for the saddle that has the most padding. Often, this will be a wide saddle that chafes your thighs or allows too much movement as you pedal. It’s best to go with a saddle that has just the right amount of padding and a shape that works with your anatomy.

I WANT A FAT BIKE BECAUSE THEY LOOK COOL. CAN I RIDE THAT EVERYWHERE?

If you’re looking for a first bike, a fat bike is likely a poor choice. That said, they can be somewhat versatile. They offer more traction, but are sluggish and usually heavy. They have a forgiving ride thanks to the air volume and natural suspension in the tires, but they don’t handle as nimbly on many trails. If it’s your first bike, you’re probably better off going with something more versatile, like a hardtail or full-suspension trailbike with conventional-sized tires. Then, if you still want to go with a fat bike down the road, make it your second ride that you break out on days when you want to ride in the sand or snow, where fat bikes are best.

SHOULD I GET A DROPPER POST AND WHY?

The short answer is yes. Dropper posts give you better clearance over the bike and make it easier to shift your weight around on technical trails. A dropper post is not a cheap upgrade, but it is the first upgrade we typically recommend to any rider who’s on a bike that doesn’t have one. You will likely find yourself using your dropper post more often than your shifter once you become accustomed to it.


HOW DO I SET UP MY SUSPENSION?

If you bought your bike from a shop, take the time to find the shop worker you think is most knowledgeable about suspension. Ask questions about where he or she rides, because chances are, they are the same trails you are planning to ride on a daily basis. It’s even more of a bonus if you can find somebody whose body is similarly proportioned to yours, as they will know exactly where to start with your settings.

If you bought your bike online, simply follow the suspension guidelines that are on the website or in the owner’s manual. This method is not as effective as working with a real person who knows the trails you ride, but it will give you a good starting point. Once you have a solid starting point, be sure to experiment on your first few rides. Even if you’re satisfied with your initial setup, we’ve yet to encounter a bike that didn’t require at least a little fine-tuning after the first shake-out ride.

SHOULD I RUN WIDER HANDLEBARS?

Wide bars have been trending for the past decade. Wider bars provide more stability and confidence by slowing your steering slightly and improving your leverage on the front end of the bike. Basically, they give you more control and diminish the twitchiness that narrow bars can exhibit. While we recommend this upgrade for many riders, there is a limit to the benefits. If you’re riding an extra-small bike, you should not be riding the same width bar as a 6-foot-tall downhill rider; however, we still see many stock bikes with bars that are, in our opinion, too narrow. Handlebars that are 640 to 800 millimeters in width will work for most riders. If you buy one that feels too wide, don’t fret; they are easy to cut down. But, experimenting with bigger bars may give you the control and confidence you’ve been searching for.

 

Get involved with the NICA Teen Trail Program. “Speak, Serve, Respect and Ride”

HOW CAN I BE A BETTER TRAIL USER?

Don’t be a jerk on the trail. If you are new to the sport, you may not know that mountain bikers are often blamed for trail-user conflicts. Whether the reputation is deserved or not is a moot point. Simply take the high road and understand that when you are careening down the hill towards a pack of hikers or equestrians, you probably look scary. Even if you are in control, other user groups always have the right of way. Rather than blasting by them, simply pull off to the side and let them pass. You get bonus points if you offer a friendly hello while doing so. If we are all considerate and friendly, we will hopefully preserve the trail access we need to keep our sport going.

 


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