Skip to main content

Your First
Off-Road Ride

You've got a mountain bike —
now it's time to tackle a mountain

Owning a mountain bike and riding it only on the street is like having a sweet set of golf clubs and never venturing beyond the driving range. While it's fun, it's nothing like the experience that awaits you on backcountry trails.

And, surprisingly, with just a little preparation and practice, even a beginning cyclist can safely ride off road. To help you get started, here are our best trail tips:

Find a Ride
Some folks think that because there are no peaks on the horizon, they can't really "mountain bike." Actually, every American is close to off-road riding. It may be dirt roads instead of mountainous singletrack, yet the thrills are the same.

If your local bike shop sells mountain bikes, chances are good that the employees ride the local trails and know where to send you. Buy a county map, take it to the shop, and have someone mark the best spots. As you discover more, mark those, too.

Be Safe
Because trail systems are often off the beaten track, we recommend riding with friends. If something goes wrong, you'll have help or someone who can get help. It's also important to carry energy food in case you tire. And, carry tools and a spare tube and patch kit to handle basic repairs. Of course, you should always wear a helmet, too. And, it's not a bad idea to pack a cell phone if you have one.

Knowing the area helps, too. If you're not familiar with the trails, ask ride partners what to watch for: Are there poisonous plants to avoid? Biting insects? Slippery roots or hidden ruts? Wildlife concerns? Being prepared before you hit the trail is the best way to avoid danger.

Another important point is to always ride within your limits. Take it easy and don't try to ride parts of the trail that scare you. It's better to walk a challenging section than to risk crashing. In time, as you learn to ride over different terrain, you'll ride more and walk less. But, at the outset, listen to the voice of reason rather than the urgings of your ego.

Check Your Bike
Before hitting the trails, make sure that your bike is in tip-top mechanical condition. The brakes should be working perfectly. The chain and derailleurs should be lubricated and adjusted properly. And, your suspension system should be set to your weight and riding style so that it offers control and comfort.

If you're using toe clips and straps or clipless pedals, make sure you can get in and out quickly. That way, you'll be able to get your feet down if you stall out suddenly on a steep hill or over an obstacle.

Also, avoid the common mistake of riding off road with too much tire pressure. While it's best to inflate tires hard for road use, softer pressures offer more control, traction and comfort on the trails (35 to 45 psi is right for most riders).

Easy On The Brakes
On your first off-road rides, you'll probably feel most comfortable riding the brakes to control your speed. Keep in mind, however, that you don't want to brake so much that you lose all your momentum. It's always easier to ride over a rough stretch or a slight hill if you bring some speed into it. Not too much -- just enough to sustain your balance.

If you're squeezing the brakes too often or with too much force you'll be rocking from side to side, planting one foot or the other and not getting into the rhythm of the ride. Worse, applying the brakes too much can lead to skidding and a loss of control. Plus it creates unnecessary wear on your bike and the trails.

Practice braking and learn to lightly apply the brakes only when needed to slow down or stop. Mountain-bike brakes are powerful and they can stop you extremely quickly when you need them to. So, when the trail's safe relax your hands and enjoy the ride.

Relax And Move Around
Two techniques for skillful off-road riding are relaxation and changing your body position. If you can release the tension from your upper body as you ride, you'll be able to react more quickly to changes in the terrain and you'll be less likely to overreact when faced with a tricky or dangerous section. Keep your shoulders, neck and hands nice and relaxed and take occasional deep breaths to remain calm.

It's also important to move around on the bike as the trail changes to get your weight in the right position for optimum handling. For example, if you remain in the saddle when riding down a steep hill, your weight will be too far forward. If you apply the front brake too hard or hit a bump with your rear wheel, you might take a trip over the handlebars. You can eliminate this possibility by standing slightly (remain crouched) and moving your body so that your butt is actually behind the seat. With your weight properly shifted rearward, there's no way you'll go over the bars.

Similarly, when climbing steep hills, it helps to lean forward so that the front wheel doesn't pop up. With a little practice, these movements will become instinctive and you'll do them automatically.

Expert mountain bikers got that way by practicing. To improve your skills, you should, too. A great way to do this is riding with friends and stopping to practice on difficult sections. This way, you can try to ride it while your friend spots for you. And she can watch and see what you're doing and recommend different approaches.

You can also learn by watching better riders. When you're out on the trail, stop and observe how others ride over obstacles that give you trouble. You can also ask people how to ride the section. Mountain bikers are a friendly bunch and they'll be happy to give you some tips and advice.