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A quick guide to mountain biking

Updated: Mar 22

Cross Country Mountain Biking

Your Guide to Mountain Biking

Cycling in the British countryside, away from the roads and the traffic, is an amazing way to explore, have fun and get some exercise. If you can already ride a bike, then you can mountain bike! It is a hugely popular activity in UK because it has something to offer everyone, whether you're after a family cycle on gentle paths, a cross-country trip with friends on our national trails, or the excitement of hurtling down some of the UK's miles of downhill single track. The wide availability of electric mountain bikes (e-bikes) is also making it easier for more and more people to get off road and explore on two wheels. In this article we offer a short guide to mountain biking to help the novice to start their off-road journey on 2 wheels.

What is mountain biking?

Mountain biking has become a catch-all term for off-road cycling. This increasingly popular outdoor activity has considerable variety and a growing number of recognised subcategories. Cross country cycling is simply exploring the UK's countryside along recognised rights of way, including options for bike packing over longer distances. Trail riding is a more managed form of off-road cycling and can be done across hundreds of sites where there are signposted trails of varying difficulty. And down hill mountain biking can be practiced on the growing number of purpose-built and prepared single track routes that are popping up all over the UK, both at trail centres and on open access land.

How do I get started with mountain biking?

It is easy to have a go at mountain biking. If you have a bike that can go off road then simply stick your helmet on and start exploring. If you don't have a bike or you don't feel confident on two wheels, then head for your nearest bike trail centre to hire a bike, get some tuition and follow some well-marked easy trails.

If you want to progress beyond trail riding then you'd benefit from developing some basic down hill skills. These are easy to learn, but you will need to go with an experienced friend or guide, or join a club or sign up to a lesson. You can check out great places to ride off road, including trail centres, with the Outdoor Nation Activity Finder - you can use the search filter to find places that suit your needs, that hire equipment, and that provide instructors and guides.

What are the risks of mountain biking?

There is always a risk of falling off your bike, but at least with mountain biking it will not involve then being run over by a car! The risks vary according to the technical difficulty of the ride, the weather and trail conditions, and the remoteness of the place you are riding. These can all be easily managed by wearing a helmet, learning some basic skills, planning for your route and not overstretching yourself. For more on how to stay safe when mountain biking, check out the Outdoor Nation Top 10 safety tips for mountain bikers.

What skills do I need for mountain biking?

Off road cycling is as easy as riding a bike... but if you can't ride a bike then learning how to is probably your first step! To progress from trail riding onto longer or more technical routes, with steep uphill and downhill sections and tight turns, you will need to build up your knowledge, skill and experience. The following skills are a good place to start.

Planning a route on a map
Cycling skills - know how to plan route

Know how to plan a route

If you're riding cross country, away from a trail centre then you need to plan your route. For this you need to learn how to use a map, ideally an Ordinance Survey map. You also need to know how to judge the difficulty of the ground you will cross and estimate how quickly you will cover distance.

Cyclist map reading
Cycling skills - know how to navigate

Know how to navigate

There is a temptation to allow technology to navigate for you. But, there really is no substitute for having a physical map and knowing how to navigate with it; after all, you need a backup if your phone signal or battery fail you.

mountain bikers descending a steep track
Cycling skills - know the basic off-road techniques

Know the basic off-road riding techniques

There are basic skills that can be easily learned to make you an effective and efficient rider. Correct body position, gear selection and use of your brakes all make ascending and descending steep slopes and taking tight turns much easier and safer.

Mountain biker changing a tyre
Cycling skills - know how to change a tyre

Know how to check your bike and change a tyre

Checking your bike for obvious faults is an essential prerequisite to your ride. Equally, you need to be able to deal with a puncture, including how to remove the wheel, check the tyre and replace the inner tube.

What kit do I need for mountain biking?

Clearly you cannot ride without a bike, and a bike helmet is also a must. Off-road bikes come in a huge range of styles and specifications, from simple bikes with off road tyres, to bikes with front suspension (hard-tails), bikes with front and rear suspension (full-suspension or full-sus) and, increasingly, electric bikes (e-bikes). Whatever you choose will be a big investment, so it is strongly recommended that you try before you buy.

Should I rent or buy a bike?

If you decide you want to do more mountain biking you are faced with a choice of either buying one, or renting one when you need it. There are 2 key considerations.

First is how much you will ride. An entry level, hard tail mountain bike will set you back in the region of £600 and there are ongoing maintenance costs on top of that too. To rent the equivalent bike for 1/2 day is usually about £20. To get value from your bike you will want to be riding it often!

Second, is whether you can store, transport and maintain your bike. Bikes take up quite a lot of space (especially a families' worth of bikes) and need specialist equipment to transport by car.

If you decide that hiring a bike when you need one is best, you can find places to ride where you can rent equipment on the Outdoor Nation Activity Finder (just filter your search to select hire locations).

Packing list for mountain bikers

What to wear and take with you on a bike ride will depend on how long you’re going for, the difficulty of the route and the time of year. But, in the UK it’s always best to go prepared for a bit of rain, just in case… so always pack a waterproof jacket.

  • Clothes that allow a full range of movement

  • Bike helmet

  • Protective gloves (or warm ones when its cold)

  • Trainers or mountain biking shoes (avoid clip-in shoes)

  • Waterproof jacket

  • Spare warm layer

  • 'Breakdown' kit (multi-tool, spare inner tube, small pump)

  • Plenty of water and snacks

  • Ordinance Survey map and a good quality compass

  • Fully charged mobile phone (kept dry)

  • Small rucksack with waterproof cover or dry bag

For longer more remote trails

  • Padded cycling shorts

  • Spare socks (kept dry)

  • Emergency kit (including whistle and torch with spare batteries)

  • Any medication you might need to take

Where can I mountain bike?

Knowing where you can cycle off-road in the UK can be a bit tricky. Countryside access in England and Wales has not been kind to cyclists and we do not enjoy the same freedoms as walkers; this is due to a largely misconceived view that cyclists damage the paths and tracks.

Cyclists can use all bridal ways and byways but must give way to walkers and horse riders. Cycling anywhere else is at the discretion of the land owner and there are nearly always signs that indicate where you can and can't go.

Clearly there are countless places that welcome cyclists, including the network of trail centres and official cycle trails across the UK. You can check out great places where you can ride off-road, including trail centres, with the Outdoor Nation Activity Finder - you can use the search filter to find places that suit your needs, that hire equipment, and that provide instructors and guides.

Where do I find more information about mountain biking

British Cycling is the UK's representative body that exists to protect the freedoms and promote the interests of cyclists, including mountain bikers. The British cycling website offers a range of advice about mountain biking.

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