The air is becoming crisp and trees are starting to change. Fall has a natural feeling of transition to it and is arguably the best time of the year for mountain biking. Here in the Northeast it’s possible to ride through the fall and into winter, taking full advantage the variety of trails we have within an hour or two of NYC (many accessible by public transportation). This post is an overview of the things I find myself saying the most as a coach and bike shop person, hoping that sharing it here will help riders near and far set up for success. It’s geared mainly toward roadies who are transitioning and those who want a cross-country experience (riding up and down, no lift required). Perfect autumn singletrack awaits.
The first thing may seem obvious but invest in your own bike. There can be a temptation to rent or borrow when you’re new, but I can assure you that riding the same bike every time will make learning easier. The investment will also help you commit to the goal of improving. Mountain biking is a combination of learning to ride trails and learning the particular handling characteristics of your own bike. They go hand in hand. Test ride a few, then choose one and start to learn everything about it.
What kind of bike is best for beginners? Overwhelmingly, I encourage all new riders to go hardtail (front suspension only). It’s the best way to set yourself up for long term success and acquire skills that will transfer easily to other types of riding (road, cyclocross, enduro, downhill, etc.). There’s really no good way around this. Even if you can afford a beautiful high tech full suspension bike I still recommend starting with a hardtail to facilitate the development of proper skill. Allow me to explain.
By their nature, hardtails provide more trail feedback (i.e., all those bumps you feel) than full suspension bikes. Trail feedback teaches us to become sensitive to how small changes in body language affect bike handling. It’s teaching us to stand up, shift our weight, and use our knees and elbows as shock absorbers. It’s also teaching vision and good line selection. When we immediately feel the results of our decisions, learning happens quickly. Once acquired, these skills will never leave you. This is the main reason why new riders should avoid the temptation to go “full squish.” You can buy technology but you can’t buy skill.
When you’re ready to cash in your hard earned hardtail points you can choose to unlock the glory of full suspension. Full suspension bikes allow experienced riders the ability to ride rough terrain faster and ride longer with less fatigue. They do this by keeping the wheels tracking and allowing the rider to sit and pedal through more sections than they could on a hardtail. On full suspension bikes we still have to stand up, pick good lines, and use smart body language– we just do it faster and with higher consequences. Watch a World Cup downhill race and see how much those riders move with their bikes even with all that suspension. Build good skills and ingrain good habits from day one and you’ll progress much faster.
Here are a few other thoughts in support of hardtails:
- They offer more bang for the buck. A $2,000 hardtail will have nicer components and be lighter weight than a $2,000 full suspension bike.
- They are lighter and easier to handle than similarly priced full suspension bikes. This will matter when you carry it over obstacles and will feel more natural if you’re used to riding a road bike.
- They are more simple to maintain (only one shock to set up and service).
- Modern updates like tubeless, bigger wheels, and wider tires make riding hardtails more comfortable than ever before.
- They can be faster and more comfortable than cross bikes or gravel bikes off-road making them more versatile than they initially appear.
With a hardtail, you learn good skills AND get the nicest bike for your budget. If you have money left over, spend it on a dropper seatpost. Dropper posts are becoming more common on cross-country bikes and are getting cheaper every season. They help with going over obstacles and allow for proper leg extension because many new riders error on the side of having their seat too low. Dropper seatposts are the technical rider’s best friend. As soon as you’re ready, they’re a smart addition to any mountain bike.
On the issue of women’s vs. non-women’s models, the choice should be based on what works best for you. Buy what fits and what you love to look at. Get what works for your budget and your riding style. If you love the women’s model, go for it! If you don’t, no reason to think twice about it. There can be pros and cons to each so when in doubt consult a professional. The internet can send you running in circles.
On wheel size, I’m a fan of the “smart wheel size” approach. Get the biggest wheel that fits you. They roll faster and are more stable.
Seek out flow trails
Around NYC we have a lot of very good beginner to intermediate trail options. These trails are relatively smooth and have lines that go around any tough obstacles. I’m referring to them as “flow” trails to differentiate from the rocky, rooty, technical riding that NY and NJ are known for. The areas listed below are recommended for learning:
And check out the Kingdom Trails in East Burke, Vermont if you’re looking for a road trip destination with fantastic mountain biking for all levels.
Buy protective gear
I got my very first knee and elbow pads last season and looking at the scars on my legs I could have used them a long time ago. Protective gear that is lightweight and breathable enough for cross-country riding is a fairly new development and every new rider should take advantage. When you’re starting out you will have a lot of minor crashes. This is a normal part of the learning process. Lightweight pads can be the difference between heading home with a pesky flesh wound or laughing it off.
No need to go crazy– knee and elbow pads should be good enough to start (see photo above). Some people like using hip protection and if you use flat pedals you may want shin guards. Beyond that, make sure you’re wearing a good helmet, protective eyewear, and full finger gloves and you’re all set.
Take a skills clinic
There are so many clinics now that it’s hard to justify not taking one. This is also a fairly new development in the world of mountain biking. No one taught me to ride when I was starting out in the early 2000’s. Learning meant going out with faster people and hoping for the best. Many times that equaled coming home bloodied, bruised, and/or bonked. My introduction was tough but I didn’t care because I knew it was changing my life forever. Without getting too sappy, mountain biking has brought so many good things into my life that I’ve lost count. It can do the same for you and be a whole lot easier in the process.
Learning proper skills technique up front can take the sting out of a sport that already has a high learning curve. Mountain biking will force you to decide you really want to do it. Hitting the ground is never fun but it’s part of the initiation. A good teacher can help you through a lot of the pitfalls and hurdles you’ll inevitably encounter. Please take advantage of this because the resources are everywhere, in person and online. I offer coaching services and can also point you in the right direction if you email me about what you want to learn.
Go out and ride
Living in NYC it can be tough to get to trails on a regular basis. It takes a real commitment and desire to improve. Malcolm Gladwell said it takes 10,000 hours to become good at something, so ride your mountain bike any chance you can. Ride it in the city just to spend time on it. Do laps in the park on it. The more time you spend on your mountain bike the more comfortable you will become. Bikes develop their own personalities over time and you form your own unique relationship. It’s like a love affair. The more you ride your mountain bike the more you will become one with it. As you become one with your bike, every obstacle becomes easier. You become a smooth, fluid, and efficient rider who floats over rocks with the greatest of ease (on a hardtail).
There is no substitute for doing the work. It can take years to become proficient on a mountain bike, which means the time to start is now. It will improve very aspect of the cycling you already do and turn you into a terrific bike handler. There is a growing community of mountain bikers in NYC and lots of resources to help you get started and find fun people to ride with. I’m happy to help any way I can.
Mountain biking is the best sport in the world and the reason I fell in love with cycling. It can be yours too. Can’t wait to see you on the trails.