How to Mountain Bike Your Way to a Stronger Body
Mountain biking 101
Aside from a ten-speed she had as a kid and the occasional one-mile commute to work as an adult, Rachelle Boobar, of Ridgefield, Connecticut, had never been much of a bike rider. After a winter of skiing in Whistler, British Columbia, though, she stuck around the next summer and took to the slopes on a mountain bike. One lesson and Boobar was hooked. The two-wheeler was a different, almost meditative experience: “It was just me, the trail, and my bike. The feeling of the terrain, the wind in my hair—it made everything else go away,” she says. Zen and excitement aside, this sport also nets major fitness perks, including balance work (thanks, rocky roads!) as well as upping your cardio and muscular workout, says Greg Justice, a fitness expert and owner of AYC Health & Fitness in Prairie Village, Kansas. Ready to get moving? These pro tips will get you up to speed fast.
How to start mountain biking
Just starting out? These techniques will help you ride safely and in good form.
Assume the position: You want to find a good neutral position, with equal pressure in your feet (i.e., not pointing your toes or heels). Practice with this setup tip from Olympic BMX medalist and World Champ in BMX and 4x MTB Jill Kintner: Stand tall off the saddle with your elbows and knees locked. Then slightly bend your elbows and knees by lowering your hips straight down. “This is by far the most crucial step,” she says, “because jumps and other progressions start from here.”
Switch it up: Don’t be afraid to tweak your stance. “Adjusting your body to the angle of the terrain is absolutely key,” says Kintner. As you ride uphill, think about shifting your weight forward, and lean back slightly as you go downhill to counterbalance the momentum pulling your body and bike forward. These slight adjustments will help keep you from falling. Just be sure not to lean back too much, since you’ll lose control of your bike.
Avoid looking down: Try to focus on the trail ahead and not down at the ground in front of your bike. The reason is simple: If you’re staring at a rock coming up, you’re more likely to steer right into it. Looking ahead also helps you slow down gradually. “It’s kind of like driving a car,” says Kintner. “You don’t slam on the brakes—you anticipate what is coming and gradually come to a smooth stop.”
Make adjustments: Whether you’re buying a bike or renting one from a shop, “make sure the suspension and tire pressure get adjusted for your size,” says Chloe Woodruff, an Olympian and pro mountain bike racer. It’ll make your ride much more comfortable. Also, learning a little bike maintenance before you head out (like how to change a flat tire) can help put your mind at ease, because you’ll know you are prepared to tackle challenges whether you’re riding solo or with a group.
Best mountain bikes
Terrain varies, so know the ground you’ll be covering and riding style you’ll be doing before choosing a bike. “Every bike doesn’t work well in every place,” says Boobar. “A bike for someone riding downhill in Vermont might not make sense for someone riding cross-country in Arizona.” Not sure whether trails in your area are rocky, muddy, or sandy? Call or visit a local bike shop for the lowdown, and ask questions, such as whether they’ll measure you and do a full bike fitting, suggests Rachel Strait, a pro Enduro World Series mountain bike racer. Another one: what size wheels you should get. That depends on what style you’ll be doing, says Strait. If riding downhill, 27.5-inch wheels might be best (to help maneuver around tight corners more easily), while cross-country riding calls for larger tires (to easily roll over rocks). Here, a few options for newbies.
Specialized Chisel Comp: This bike’s lightweight, stiff frame is easy to control, while its fork absorbs tons of shock from rocks and roots for a smooth ride. ($1,600; specialized.com)
GT Pantera Sport: Wide wheels help make handling rough terrain a breeze, and extra traction will up your stability. ($750; gtbicycles.com)
Felt Dispatch 9/90: Oversize tires can make you feel more firmly rooted and in control; the fork absorbs bumps. ($549; feltbicycles.com)
Liv Embolden 1: Break easy with the squeeze of a finger. Plus, the aluminum frame stands up to beginner tumbles. ($2,145; liv-cycling.com)
Co-op Cycles DRT 1.2 W: A lightweight design makes this model easy to maneuver on trails and helps reduce shock. ($799; rei.com)
How to stay safe when mountain biking
These pointers from Kristin Mayer, an avid mountain biker in San Diego and founder of cycling- and triathlon-gear brand Betty Designs, will ensure you’re always prepared.
1. Always carry a phone. And have a friend or family member who’s not on the ride track you at all times.
2. Try an app like Trailforks; it lets you see where you are on any trail—plus the quickest way out.
3. Need help? Look up your location on your phone and send folks a screenshot of your spot on the map.
4. Bring extra snacks. A bar or nuts offer much-needed energy if you’re out longer than planned.
Boost your riding skills with this strength move
Core strength is key to helping you stay balanced during mountain biking. Improve yours while strengthening your legs with BOSU squats: Stand with feet hip-width apart on a BOSU ball (flat side against floor). With hands on hips or extended at chest height in front of you, lower until thighs are parallel to floor, knees over toes. Push into heels to stand.
Must-have mountain biking gear
Smith Session helmet: This lightweight but sturdy helmet packs extra protection in specific areas to absorb impact if you crash. Also, the liner is separated from the helmet to allow your head to slide upon impact, lowering your risk of serious brain injury. ($160; smithoptics.com)
Pearl Izumi X-Alp Launch shoes: The Vibram Megagrip sole on these offers a great grip against flat pedals to prevent your feet from slipping, while a cushy mid-sole absorbs impact when you hit bumps. Also noteworthy: a seamless upper prevents chafing. ($150; pearlizumi.com)
Best routes for mountain biking
Put these on your mountain bike bucket list.
Thunder Mountain Bike Park, Charlemont, Massachusetts
Take advantage of the lessons and Sugar Line, a trail tailored to beginners. (thundermountainbikepark.com)
Whistler Mountain Bike Park, Whistler, British Columbia, Canada
This ski destination boasts an all-levels bike park from mid-May through mid-October. (bike.whistlerblackcomb.com)
Spence Basin, Prescott, Arizona
Head to these beginner-to-intermediate trails in Prescott National Forest. (www.fs.usda.gov/prescott)
Forks Area Trail System, Clarks Hill, South Carolina
Flowing trails take you through Sumter National Forest. (discoversouthcarolina.com)