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The Thrills and Skills of Trail Biking

Trail Bikes

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Mountain biking is an exciting sport that offers adventure, exercise, and access to nature. Riding a mountain bike on dirt trails and over rough terrain provides a rush of adrenaline along with great views. Mountain biking requires balance, endurance, and bike handling skills to navigate obstacles on the trail.

History of Mountain Biking

Mountain biking originated in the 1970s in California. Early mountain bikers used cruiser bicycles modified with wider tires and other adjustments to handle rougher conditions. Custom-built mountain bikes started being produced in the 1980s, making the sport more accessible. Now it is popular worldwide.

In the early days, cyclists rode on dirt roads, horse trails, and even hiking paths in parks. This led to conflicts with other users. Eventually, designated mountain biking trails were developed, along with downhill-specific bike parks. Safety gear and equipment also improved over time.

Benefits of Mountain Biking

One of the best things about mountain biking is that it’s an excellent cardio workout. Riding over uneven surfaces engages your core muscles as you balance and react. Transporting your bike uphill builds strength. Variable terrain keeps your heart rate up more than road cycling. Riding for just 30-60 minutes provides a great workout.

Mountain biking also improves techniques like braking, cornering, and handling obstacles. Mastering bike control boosts confidence. Making your way through technical sections of trail provides a real sense of accomplishment.

Being out in nature and away from city noise and traffic is very relaxing. The scenery also motivates you to go farther or climb higher. Many mountain bikers enjoy sharing trails with friends too.

Types of Mountain Bikes

There are a few main types of mountain bikes to match different riding styles and trails:

Cross-country (XC) bikes are designed for climbing efficiency and rapid acceleration. They have lighter frames and wheels than downhill bikes. XC bikes handle relatively smooth, flowing trails well. Competitive events are held on such terrain.

Trail/all-mountain bikes offer slightly more suspension and durability for technical trails. They balance climbing and descending capabilities. These versatile bikes work well on combination terrain.

Enduro/gravity bikes are made for steep, rough terrain. They have front and rear suspension systems with over 6 inches (15 cm) of travel to absorb large hits. Strong parts handle frequent jumps and drops. These bikes are heavier but optimized for downhill performance.

Fat bikes have oversized, balloon-like tires (at least 3.8 inches or 9.6 cm wide). The big tires provide floatation and grip on loose surfaces like snow or sand. Customizable tire pressure helps tune traction. Fat bikes expand terrain and season options.

Electric mountain bikes (eMTBs) use a rechargeable battery-powered motor for pedal assistance. The motor helps extend range and makes challenging climbs more achievable. Riders still pedal normally but can rely on the boost when needed. eMTBs open the sport to more people.

Safety Gear

Protective gear is highly recommended for mountain biking. This includes:

Helmets – Brain injury is the biggest risk while mountain biking. Many areas require people to wear an approved helmet while on public trails. Look for a helmet with ample venting plus rear coverage for the lower head. Replace any helmet after a major impact.

Gloves – Bike gloves save your hands from abrasions if you take a tumble. They also absorb vibration and add grip for braking/shifting. Full-finger models provide the most protection.

Goggles/glasses – Eyewear shields your eyes from sun, glare, dust, dirt, and tree debris that could fly up from the wheels. Models with interchangeable lenses let you adapt tint/visibility for night riding too.

Knee and elbow pads – Hard shells with shock-absorbing foam cushion falls and accidental bumps into obstacles. They provide reassurance for progressing skills.

Body armor – Removable armor jackets/vests offer extra protection for the shoulders, chest, and back. They let gravity riders tackle technical trails and big jumps with more confidence.

Wearing bright, high-visibility cycling apparel is also recommended day or night. And don’t forget to bring water, snacks, tools, a first aid kit, and phone when riding in case of emergencies!

Where to Ride

Mountain biking isn’t allowed everywhere, so public land managers and private operators develop authorized trail networks. Here’s where to find places to ride:

Local municipal parks may have mountain biking sections. The routes are often short but provide beginner-friendly practice close to home. Check jurisdiction websites for maps and guidelines.

State/provincial parks and forestlands frequently allow mountain biking on certain trails. Their extensive backcountry networks give access to beautiful scenery. Again, consult with each area before visiting.

National forests/parks offer diverse mountain biking depending on locale. Some iconic destinations like Moab, Utah have hundreds of world-renowned trails. Others may restrict access to limit environmental impact.

Ski hills are converting to four-season resorts with lift-accessed bike parks for summer shredding. Maintained gravity runs range from green to double black diamond skill levels with various features.

Privately developed trail networks are popping up across North America too. They cater specifically to mountain bikers with directional single-track and skill progression.

Seeking out local mountain biking clubs is a great way to discover legit places to ride. Club members build and maintain regional trails. They’ll know the entire area Trailforks network too.

Mountain Biking Techniques

Handling a mountain bike well takes some practice. But mastering these key techniques will have you riding more confidently in no time:

Climbing – Shift gears to maintain steady pedaling cadence while gravity fights against you. Stay seated with weight centered on the saddle. Keep your front wheel tipped slightly upward to limit wheel slip. Traction will vary – power through loose sections!

Descending – Low, centered body position. Look ahead and read the terrain. Brake smoothly before obstacles, not while airborne! Compress legs and arms to absorb impacts when required. Turn front wheel to steer around corners. Drag rear brake to control speed if needed.

Cornering – Momentum carries you wide, so plan turns in advance. Position bike toward the outside of the corner, leaning it into the turn. Knees/elbows bent, look through the exit. Apply more front brake here to help arc the corner. Accelerate out of the turn back onto a straight line.

Obstacles – Scanning ahead helps identify obstacles like rocks, roots, or potholes. When approaching, determine if rolling over or around is best. Time compression just before and extension right after with your legs/arms helps smooth out the bump. Sudden moves upset bike handling – so stay light and relaxed!

And the most vital mountain biking skill is controlling speed. Excess speed is extremely difficult to manage on variable terrain. It’s always better to take technical sections a little slower until skill improves. Then you can gradually build more and more speed safely.

Getting Started Mountain Biking

Interested to try mountain biking? Here are some tips:

Find a Local Trail – Search for nearby mountain bike trails that match your fitness and skill level. Most areas use green/blue/black designations from easy to difficult. Start green!

Rent First – Look into renting a quality mountain bike for your first few rides while you get a feel for the handling and demands. Some key dimensions like seat height can be adjusted to fit properly too. Staff can provide trail recommendations and equipment guidance.

Enroll in a Class/Clinic – Many shops offer entry-level mountain bike skills courses. In just a day or two you can learn essential techniques from certified coaches in a safe setting. Classes cover bike fit, balancing, climbing, descending and obstacle negotiation skills.

Ride with Others – Finding an experienced mountain biker to show you proper trails is extremely valuable. They can recommend lines, set a suitable pace and show techniques on the fly. Plus if any mechanical or medical issues occur, they can assist. Check for local group rides.

The mountain biking community is welcoming and happy to share advice. Learn trail etiquette and bike handling at your own pace. As you improve, you’ll be able to ride more terrain and really enjoy nature from your bike saddle!

About the Author

Tony K

Senior Technical Writer,

Tony K is a technical editor at He has a focus on downhill bike riding but still loves xc bikes too.

With more than ten years of mountain biking experience and more than 5 years testing mountain bikes, Tony has ridden and tested hundreds of different bikes and products, everything from XC to enduro bikes. Tony regularly competes in mountain bike races while seeing how long those compontents can hold up which gives me a lot of insight.

When he isn't shredding down a mountain or camping out, he is writing reviews for Mountain Bike Experience.

Rides: Surly Lowside, Canyon Exceed