Introduction to Mountain Biking

Credit: Guy Bianco IV

Ah Spring is in the Mountain air!  One day it’s a massive snow storm, and the next you can hear those Bluebird’s chirping.  As we get over the ups and downs of shoulder-season here in the high country, there is one activity that is creeping into my mind more frequently than at any other time since last fall…MOUNTAIN BIKING! It’ll be time to hit the dirt before you know it.  For visitors of Keystone, Breckenridge, Vail, Beaver Creek, and well, anybody not immersed in mountain bike culture (here’s your first acronym, “MTB”) it can be an intimidating sport to get into.  The following is an introduction to mountain biking, so the next time you’re in the mountains of Colorado you can pop into a shop, have a productive conversation, and get out on some of the best singletrack Summit and Eagle County Colorado have to offer.

Speak the Language

Photo Courtesy Tom Austin Unsplash

First, let me preface that I didn’t personally start mountain biking until 4 years ago, at the age of 36.  Even as a relatively healthy, relatively athletic, relatively confident adult, entering the sport “late” was extremely intimidating.  The language alone was overwhelming, I felt like a complete dunce attempting to have the most elementary conversation with my local bike shop (LBS) employee; or god forbid, an experienced biker on the local trail.  I’d receive all sorts of questions that I had absolutely no idea how to answer. This is literally the transcript from my first LBS convo as I was getting started:

LBS: What type of riding do you like to do?  Enduro, Cross-Country, Downhill?  

ME: Uh, I think enduro?  

LBS: OK, do you normally ride Full-Suspension, Hardtail?  Long-travel, Short-Travel?  

ME: Uh, I don’t know?  

LBS: OK, do you ride Clipless?  

ME: Yeah, definitely, I don’t want to be clipped in.

LBS: Well then you don’t want clipless

ME: No, I said clip-less 

LBS: Yeah, “clipless” actually means clip-in pedals.  

ME: OK, now I am really confused.

As you can see, there is a minimum amount of information you’ll need to familiarize yourself with before strolling into the LBS or hitting the trails.  That said, DO NOT let this deter you.  It’s been 4 years since my little visit above, and since then I have had 3 different bikes, and I now ride 3-4 days a week minimum.  It’s become a way of life for me, and really, my family.  Mountain biking, like snowsports, will take you to some of the most amazing places and introduce you to some of the most interesting people you’ll ever meet in your life.  Give it a try…I think you’ll get the bug, and if you don’t, at least you can point to the TV during the next Red Bull Rampage and tell your buddies “yeah I did that”…meaning of course, you pedaled a mountain bike.

“Squish” & “Travel”

Rock Shox Super Deluxe Ultimate Rear Shock

Squish, or suspension refers to the suspension (shocks) on the bike.  Your childhood BMX didn’t have this, but now, just like cars, bikes come with suspension, and it can make or break your ride.  Like many products these days, bikes have become extremely technical with some pretty amazing features.  Suspension is one of those advancements that have fundamentally changed the sport.  As such, mountain bikes fall into two categories with the defining characteristic being the suspension:

  1. “Full Suspension” bikes come with a “shocked” front fork as well as rear suspension (see photo above of the rear suspension on my Ibis Ripmo).  
  2. “Hardtail” as the name implies, is a standard rear frame, but with a front suspension setup.

Hardtail vs Full-Suspension

I know a lot of old-school riders swear by hardtails in the name of learning how to “properly” ride and avoid the “bad habits” that come from the forgiveness and ease of a full suspension rig.  I’ll go on record that I am not one of them.  In my estimation the goal when you first start riding is to have fun, and be safe.  Full suspension is just more fun, and more safe (especially when learning).  Some of those beginner mistakes that we all make when learning are not quite as disastrous with a full-squish bike.  I say, let’s make it more fun and easier to learn; you can work out any kinks as you develop. 

One final piece on suspension.  We could do an entire article just on suspension tech but to make it simple.  The longer the “travel” the more big and burly the riding.  Travel essentially refers to the size and length of the shock. The longer the travel the more it can absorb. You’ll sacrifice pedaling efficiency with longer travel, but you’ll be able to handle more drops, bumps, and hucks.  Flying down a mountain, pedaling isn’t really important, absorbing big gravity-induced bumps is…pedaling long distances, you want efficient short-travel suspension, with a little absorption to take the edge off.  I’ll explain more when we go into the disciplines of riding. Just google “hard-tail vs suspension” and you’ll get a boat load of info online.

Enduro/Trail, Cross-Country, or Downhill

Although some may argue various nuances between each of the following “disciplines” of mountain biking, for the most part, these categories explain a type of riding. Additionally, you’ll notice these disciplines used as adjectives to describe types of bikes as well.

1. Downhill

Downhill and lift-serviced rides are exactly what they sound like.  It’s the real-deal; riding a ski lift to the top of the mountain and (hopefully) making it down.  Great downhill access can be found in the heart of the summer at the big Ski Resorts like Keystone, Breckenridge, Copper, Vail, or Beaver Creek. There are of course trail ratings just as in skiing/snowboarding on the mountain, for easy, medium, and difficult/expert.  Bottom line, if you haven’t been on a bike for a while, I wouldn’t start here.  Personally, I am of the opinion that downhill is for experienced riders.  I would dip a toe in some trail or cross-country riding before attempting to tackle downhill.  But, if you’re so inclined you need a Downhill bike.  This means big, long-travel, full suspension rigs built to withstand the extreme wear-and-tear of downhill riding. Protective equipment, downhill-certified helmets, the whole shebang. If you would like to give this a go I recommend you go to the resort’s website come summer. They will give you the details you need to plan your trip.

2. Enduro/Trail

Courtesy Alex Brunst-Unsplash

Enduro and Trail are different ends of the spectrum, but within the same category.  To me, this category represents the perfect mix of mountain-biking.  While an Enduro bike’s suspension tend to be closer to the downhill-side of travel, most of these bikes are still efficient enough to pedal comfortably on the trails, yet capably hit solid sized jumps and bumps. Trail bikes, tends to have a little shorter-travel than enduro bikes which thus endears these bikes to riders on the uphill side of things.

Enduro

In its simplest form, the discipline of Enduro is best explained as: you like going down, but you’ll also “earn your turns” by pedaling to get there.  In an enduro race, there are many different formats. Bottom line, you descend fast with technical terrain, but “transition” back up by pedaling, hiking, etc., typically within an allotted amount of time.  This is my personal favorite type of riding, and one of the more popular categories in the US.  I ride an Enduro bike as I’m 6’1” and 200+ lbs, so even on regular singletrack I eat-up the short-travel suspension pretty quickly just with my weight and riding style.  You don’t have to be a racer to prefer the Enduro style and Enduro-focused bikes.

Trail

Trail, on the opposite end, but still firmly separate from Cross-country tends to be defined by bikes with a little shorter-travel, but more emphasis on pedaling efficiency. In trail riding you can still hit some jumps and tackle some downhill but the downhill doesn’t dominate your time on the bike.  Sometimes in the Trail category of bikes, it’s just about your size/weight, and the terrain you tend to ride most often.  If you’re average to smaller adult you may opt for a bike classified as a Trail bike, but ride the same trails as your 220 lbs friend who’s on an Enduro bike. It’s really two-sides of the same coin. It’s Goldilocks’ “just right” kind of a feel applied to mountain biking.

3. Cross Country

Courtesy Sunil Chandra Sharma-Unsplash

Last but not least is Cross-Country.  If you ride cross-country, you have my respect.  This type of riding tends to be long distance, on short-travel bikes, with some of the best conditioned riders I have ever met.  Bottom line, if you want to go far, you’ll like cross-country.  Like Downhill, cross-country tends to be a category that people build into as you need the basic endurance to make it happen.  But, if the endurance side of the sport interests you, by all means XC is for you.  For beginners, I tend to encourage Enduro/Trail as you can get a taste of both worlds and see what kind of terrain and experience you gravitate towards as your ride more.  On the trail (aka singletrack) you’ll get some downhill, some flat, and some climbing.  You can find some jumps if you’re looking, or some more mellower endurance rides.  Try it all, and based on preference you should be able to move toward one end of the MTB spectrum if you prefer.

The Important Ancillary Technology

Dropper Posts

Oneup Dropper Post

OK, hear me out, it may sound silly but one of the greatest inventions to hit a bike since the wheel is the dropper post (AKA “Dropper”).  A Dropper post allows you to adjust your seat up or down with the push of a remote lever on your bars.  When I first saw it, I thought…why?  When I first rode with a dropper, I immediately understood that it was critical.  The most common injury in mountain biking is the dreaded broken collar bone…this typically occurs when you go over the handlebars, and land on an outstretched arm, or your shoulder.  It hurts, bad, I know from experience.  The best way to avoid going over the bars on gnarly terrain is to get your weight and butt back.  It’s difficult to do this when your seat is in the way.  But, if you can hit a lever and drop your seat when it gets hairy, it gives you all the confidence in the world.  Get a bike with a dropper and use the dropper early and often. 

Disc Brakes

Disc Brake Rotor Courtesy Thomas Thompson-Unsplash

The second big enhancement comes in the form of stopping power…and believe me, flying down the mountain, it’s really nice to be able to stop!  Gone are the days of bent pads squeezing your rims.  Disc brakes (similar to your car) are a must on a mountain bike.  A high quality disc is mounted to the front and rear wheel hub, and then pads of either steel or organic material squeeze the disc to stop…it’s amazing, almost all quality bikes have them now.  You need them. 

Tubeless Tires

Maxxis tubeless tire with Presta Valve, Courtesy Tim Foster-UnSplash

Last, is the tubeless tire.  Another game changer for mountain biking.  As you can imagine, riding bikes in the mountains used to cause punctures rather frequently.  The advent of the tubeless tire has really cut trailside blowouts to a minimum.  Don’t get me wrong, there will be an instance where you’ll have to throw a tube in or plug a tire, but these occurrences are far less common than they used to be.  Most full setup MTBs and MTB wheelsets come “tubeless ready”.  This essentially means the rims have been taped with a special tubeless tape, and you simply pull the included tube out, add some tubeless tire compound (a latex-based liquid that will fill small tears and holes in the tire as the occur), pump the tire to the desired PSI (which can be much lower than with a tube), and stick that extra tube in your pack for the moment your tire receives a puncture that the fluid cannot fill.  Now you can ride with confidence of less punctures, and run a lower PSI to help with grip.

To Clip or Not to Clip

Crank Bros. Clipless Pedal and suspension setup courtesy Tim Foster-UnSplash

The last topic to touch on is a big one, and it’s personal preference, so you just need to figure it out for yourself.  That said, I have a little guidance to provide.  MTBs typically have two types of bike pedals.  Clipless-which as I previously alluded to actually means you clip-in, and are sometimes just referred to as “Clips”, and Flat-Pedals, or “flats”. 

Flats

Flats are what you would think of in a bike pedal, they are flat pedals, frequently with little pins added for grip, but you are not actually clipped into the pedal.  Many riders wear MTB-specific flat shoes that have a sticky rubber compound similar to climbing rubber (Climbing shoe mfg 5-10 actually makes excellent MTB shoes www.adidas.com/us/five_ten-mountain_biking-shoes). 

Clipless

Clipless pedals actually have a special shoe, and a step-in mechanism to affix the shoe to the pedal.  On most clipless designs a simple move of the heel a certain degree outward and the shoes disengage.  There are many different types and styles, and you need to ensure that the shoe you select fits the pedal you select.  Any LBS can help.  Before you make the investment and jump into clips I would suggest trying them out first. 

Why I Ride Flats

I can tell you I dove right into clipless pedals at a friend’s recommendation and it held me back.  Being clipped into your MTB means there are things you are just not willing to do or try because of the consequences.  When riding flats, you have much more confidence in your ability to recover.  When I gave flats a try, my riding progressed rapidly when compared to my time clipped-in.  To me, Clipless pedals are another experienced rider’s tool.  While they provide pedaling efficiency, they can also encourage poor form, and hold you back.  Choose wisely.

Get out and Ride!

Courtesy Tim Foster-UnSplash

Armed with all this new knowledge, hit up your local bike shop and have a conversation.  Most LBS around the US have a rental/demo program so you can get out and try different bikes and see how you like the sport.  If you’re heading to CO from out of town, I highly recommend you call and reserve a bike for your time in the area. 

There are a lot of bike shops in Summit and Eagle county, but they do book up.  Having a reservation will ensure your trip isn’t squashed due to unavailability.  In Eagle County (Vail/Beaver Creek) I highly recommend you contact Venture Sports (https://avonventuresports.com/). Next, talk to the CO bike shop, figure out where they suggest you ride based on your ability and preferences.  Talk to everybody.  Most locals, whether they MTB or not will have some input on some ideal singletrack for you to ride. 

Take it Easy

Keep in mind that you’re at altitude, what you can do at home, you likely can’t do here.  Maybe start with a quick out and back, allow yourself extra time for breaks, include extra energy and water in your pack.  And always tell someone where you’re going.  The high-country in Colorado can be unforgiving, so be safe, and be smart. 

In one of our next updates I’ll maybe include my MTB and Snowboarding pack list to give you ideas on what sort of items you need to keep in your pack to stay safe.  Oh, and when you get back from huffing and puffing in the high-altitude, it’s a great idea to kick back with a Bluebird Oxygen Concentrator (bluebirdoxygen.com/) and recharge!