Learn How to Mountain Bike: Beginner MTB Tips From an Instructor

Learn how to mountain bike with me! My name is Emily and I am a mountain bike instructor near Breckenridge, Colorado. Check out my list of beginner MTB tips to start learning the basics and get you started out on trail injury free and happy.

Quick Check of Bike Sizing. There are a ton of intricacies on how to properly fit your bike but here are the bare minimum for your first successful ride; seat height at hip level when you standing parallel to it (to allow full extension of your leg), ability to reach both brake levers on your handlebars, and suspension on front and back is set up for your weight (likely the shop did this last part).  

Take a Smooth Ride. Before you jump on to any terrain, spend a little bit of time peddling on your local rec path or quiet back road so you can get used to your equipment.

Pick Out Your Home Ride. Know where you are starting! Do some research via friends who bike or use a bike app like Pick out a green rated “Home Ride” that you can repeat multiple times a season. This can tremendous physical and physiological benefits as you continue on your MTB journey.

4. Learn Your “A, B, C”s. Air.Before every ride give your bike tire a squeeze; for your first ride check and see if your tire feels like a firm apple – not rock hard, but not rotten. Brakes. Make sure each brake lever feels firm when squeezed and cannot be pulled all the way to your handlebars. Chain. Spend a moment looking at the components on your derailleur and that the chain is tight and on the sprocket (the large pie shaped piece with little teeth).  

5. Practice Using Both Brake Levers. This is an essential skill to have before biking on single track; gently pull BOTH levers equally and evenly. Modulating the brakes equally – don’t just mash ‘em. More about the braking basics here: 3 Essential Mountain Bike Skills for Beginners

Practice Braking on Gravel. Practice using BOTH brakes on a less stable surface like gravel. Just using the front brake can result in an over the handle bars accident, and just using the back can result in skidding out falling to the side.

Shifting on Gravel. Familiarize yourself with up-shifting and downshifting on gravel; in some ways gravel is very challenging for a beginner because it can be slippery; however its an ideal place with low(er) consequences to start learning the combined balance while changing gears.

Remember “The Big Easy”. On most bikes the large paddle shape is for down shifting. When the peddling gets tough think “Big Paddle = Easy”, and down shift to lower the resistance. You will thank yourself for developing shifting muscle memory.

Start on Flat Peddles. There is a huge debate in the MTB community talking about flat peddles versus clip less (which actually means they are attached to their peddles!). For a beginner I recommend flats because its the most familiar translation to what people cycled on as a kid.

Learn Level Peddles.Always strive to have level peddles when not peddling  and keep your weight on the peddles not the seat. Avoid “flamingo foot” where one peddle is high and the other is low. Having level peddles will eventualy allow you to tip the bike and begin to develop bike body separation, a more advanced skill.

Mountain biking in Frisco, Colorado. Notice the level peddles (one foot is not dropped).

Develop a Front Foot for Level Peddles. Many beginners I have worked with struggle determining this; practice again coasting (on gravel or grass) until you can pick one. You don’t want to be second guessing yourself on trail when things get more technical. Spoiler alert – you will be out of your seat all of the time going downhill, and frequently while climbing.

Jump Around on Level Peddles. In the grass, spend a few minutes “playing”, out of your seat jump up and down on your level peddles. It will confirm your front foot and bring bodily awareness to your suspension. The size of MTB tires and suspension are designed to absorb a TON (about1/2 of the height of your tire!).

Be a Follower. On your first ride follow a competent biker as to help you keep your eyes scanning ahead!  

Look Where You Want to Go. Obvious right? Where you look is where you go. Keep your eyes scanning the trail ahead to find your line.

Session Skinny Areas of Trail. If you run into a narrow section of trail, stop and repeat that section at least three times. You will develop strong eye scanning and confidence in these tighter sections. Hike it the first time and visualize your biking rolling through it! 

Up Hill Rocks. These are my biggest challenge! I practice combining extra peddle power and front wheel unweighting (start by intentionally putting more weight in your feet, as to lighten the front of the bike and imagine pushing your handle bars over that rock). Add extra peddle power as a few strokes before the rock.

Let it Roll in Rock Gardens. Find your athletic stance, and let of the brakes – that’s it. The bike wants to let it roll, if we react too much we will get stuck or get too brake heavy. When coaching downhill we used to say “brakes are like a cell phone in a movie feature; use them before, and after the feature but NOT during”. When going over bridges, rocks, and gardens learning to feather the brakes before to gauge the necessary speed can be injury preventing!   

Heavy Feet, Light Hands, Happy Heart. In an ideal athletic stance visualize and try to intentionally send your body weight to your peddles; this is a centered place to be with the option react and move your hips further back if need be (think steeper downhill terrain). It may even prevent you from going over the handlebars! Avoid pressuring your wrists; even when climbing keep it light. Finally, a happy heart – it can be easy to get discouraged; so be happy you were brave to take your bike out on single track!

Invest in a Lesson. Mountain Biking is an amazing sport that helps develop  muscular endurance, and cardiovascular exercise. It is meditative in that it requires being  present in the moment while accessing nature. Investing in a lesson can set you up to be very successful and own your new hobby! An instructor will help you identify your “athletic stance”, learn new features, and set goals. If you have had injury in the past or need a little bit of a confidence boost an instructor will be your pal!

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