Let’s talk about mountain biking.
It’s on my mind because I kicked off my season last week with a ride through Betasso Preserve outside of Boulder. At the start of each new ski and mountain bike season, I like to assess my skill level and determine if anything has been lost in the downtime. Somehow, I always seem to pick up right where I left off.
Luckily, my first ride this season was no different. After a few hiccups, namely that it was SNOWING, I got back in the saddle and busted out some decent climbs, practiced my cornering skills and focused on engaging my core the whole time. Probably due to all the spinning I’ve been doing recently, I felt strong and capable. I also think that skiing, while a totally different beast, provides a similar mental challenge to mountain biking that seems to translate into ongoing gains as I switch between the two adrenaline sports. There’s something about picking your line, keeping your gaze up and out, maintaining your speed and quieting your mind so your body can do the work that applies very well to both.
As I was riding along, I observed how far I’ve come from the eager but inexperienced biker I was when I started riding trails over four years ago.
Not only had I never been mountain biking before, but I had barely ridden a bike as an adult for some odd, unknown reason. True story – one of my biggest regrets in life is that I didn’t own a bike in college. My walk to campus would have been SO MUCH FASTER if I had.
Anyway, much like skiing when I first moved to Colorado, I knew basically nothing about biking. What compelled me in the first place was my inherent love for nature and thrilling semi-dangerous sports, and that’s what keeps me going despite never actually being very good. 🙂
It sounds crazy, but mountain biking is incredibly meditative. Much like trail running or rock climbing, trail riding requires exquisite focus to the point that it crowds out most other thoughts. Out on the trails, it doesn’t matter if I’m unemployed, or if it’s snowing on me, or that I’m probably not going fast enough to keep up with the majority of my other biking buddies, because the only possible thoughts are, “Keep your upper body loose, point your knees out, gaze up, core engaged, attack position, whoo-eeee I just CRUSHED that drop!”
Of course, I’ve had rides where my thoughts are incredibly negative. Mountain biking can be hugely uncomfortable if you’re not prepared, which is bad news for a sport that requires all of your physical and mental willpower.
So here’s my advice on how to be prepared for the first time you go mountain biking, if you’re ever so inclined.
What You Need For Your First Mountain Bike Adventure
A bike – Duh. For your first time out, borrow or rent a bike. You definitely don’t want to ride something too small or large, so a good option is to rent a nice bike from a shop. If you decide you want to keep mountain biking, I definitely recommend buying your own bike, but that is an expensive move so make sure you love it before you buy! I’ve been riding this bike for the last three seasons, and it is perfect for the Front Range trails I frequent 90% of the time.
A helmet – Again, borrow or rent if you don’t own, but definitely don’t be an idiot and go out without one. You only get one brain, take care of it.
Padded shorts – I was so embarrassed to wear chamois (padded shorts) for the first time. They made me feel like I was wearing a diaper, they were awkwardly long, and they kind of dug into my thighs. But literally everyone else on a bike was wearing them, so I decided I’d rather be comfortable than prideful. The right chamois can make or break your ride. So buck up and buy a pair if you’re going to ride more than once, ever. My favorites? Longer inseam padded liners WITHOUT the little rubber leg grippies to wear under my mountain bike shorts (like these).
Gloves – Biking gloves will absorb some of the vibration from your ride so your hands don’t have to, and they provide extra grip on your brakes (which you will definitely overuse when you get started biking, that’s just natural). I prefer a full-fingered design, even in the summer.
A hydration pack – Especially at altitude, you are going to find yourself sucking wind when you first start biking (or possibly forever – my lungs always feel abused after I ride). I guarantee a bike water bottle will not be sufficient for you, so just go ahead and wear a hydration backpack. It will also hold all the extra stuff you want/need to bring with you, like layers, snacks, bike tools, your phone, etc. I loved my Camelbak for years until it started fall apart, and now I’m rocking an Osprey designed specifically for biking.
An open mind – Mountain biking might kick your ass. You might feel really out of shape. You might feel like your lungs are bleeding from breathing too hard. You might not know how to shift your gears, or navigate a turn, or ride over an obstacle. So don’t get defeated if your first ride isn’t perfect – as long as you are having fun, the other stuff will come.
And that’s it. Fundamentally, that is all you need.
But then, if you’re like me, you’ll start buying more stuff.
Nice Extras You’ll Probably End Up Wanting
First, I immediately saw the advantages of a clipless pedal/shoe set up. Having my foot attached to the pedal was super scary at first, but I got over it because I knew it would make me a stronger and more capable rider. So after a season riding with sneakers on flat pedals, I invested in this pedal and these shoes. An aside – I have no idea why what are fundamentally clip-in pedals are called “clipless.” But they were a great investment! I even spin in my biking shoes because it honestly makes a world of difference to be able to engage your whole leg, not just your quad, when you’re riding.
Then you’ll realize there are lots of tools you probably want to have on you in case of a mechanical emergency out on the trail. I carry a multi-tool, a spare tube for flats, and compressed air at all times. I want to be able to deal with my issues if I have bike trouble on the trail.
One thing I still need to add to my backpack? A first-aid kit.
After years of riding and falling on my elbows, knees, shoulders, etc, I’ve gained a healthy appreciation for how brutal the mountain can be against bare skin. Because of that, I recently added a set of elbow and knee pads to my mountain biking outfit. They may look a little more hardcore than I really am, but I’ve decided that I don’t care because they make me feel SO much more protected and comfortable as I gain speed and skill and am tackling harder obstacles.
Late last year, I added sunglass with interchangeable lenses to my set up so I could ride comfortably in all conditions, and while indulgent, I am really pleased with my purchase. Riding without sunglasses really isn’t an option, since dirt and dust can get into your eyes without protection, so this ensures I am safe and comfortable no matter the conditions.
This season, I’m sure I’ll find myself yearning for yet another piece of gear, since it seems I have an insatiable thirst for things that will make me more comfortable and confident in my sports. For right now, though, I think I’ve got everything dialed. Now it’s just time to get out there and ride!
Have you ever been mountain biking before? Interested in coming with me??? I have an extra bike. 🙂