Over the last few years, mountain biking has exploded in popularity, compounded by the fact that the pandemic restrictions have seen a shift from large road races in favour of smaller off-road races in less populated areas. If you’re one of those people who recently started enjoying the sport, here are six things to remember as a mountain biking novice:
- Start with the basics. These days, there are mountain biking gadgets for just about every aspect of riding you can think of. But before you get carried away, start with the bare essentials and then invest in extras over time. At a minimum, you’ll need a bike, a good helmet, a bottle for hydration and a basic emergency repair kit should you run into mechanical trouble. Some riders swear that padded shorts are also essential to give you extra comfort and protection from the hard seat.
- Know what you don’t need. Once you’ve got the basics above, you may want to expand your kit. But what are the biggest “don’t needs” of all the MTB gear out there? “You don’t need fancy shoes, or a bike made of carbon fibre, or one with dual suspension where there are shock absorbers on both wheels,” says Joburg-based MTB enthusiast Nick Wheelan. In his view, a single suspension bike – i.e. a bike with only front fork suspension – is lighter and costs less. At the same time, you may want to weigh this up against how often you’ll ride and how seriously you think you’ll take the sport. “If you really get into it and start attending races, you may want to upgrade to a dual suspension bike anyway, so it may be worth spending that little bit extra to start with,” says MTB rider and Absa Cape Epic participant, Chris Brown. “Plus, they have a better resale value than single suspension bikes,” he says.
- Look where you want to go. Navigating tricky terrain can be nerve wracking as a beginner, so the pro advice here is to look where you want to go, rather than right down where you are at the moment. For example, if you’re rounding a corner, look to the end of the corner rather than the tricky rocky path in front of you and you’ll have a far better chance of getting through it unscathed. This is a phenomenon known as “target fixation”, which basically means that your body follows where you look – so if you’re actively looking at a hazard such as a tree or rock, there’s a greater chance you’ll hit it. Instead, look ahead as far down the trail as possible, using only your peripheral vision to avoid upcoming
- Expend your energy efficiently. As a beginner, you may still be building up your fitness – so until you’re a pro speeding up those hills, be clever about expending your energy. When faced with an ascent, remember that it’s more efficient to rotate your legs faster (known as a higher cadence) than to move slowly up that hill in your hardest gear. Try to start slowly on the hill and shift your gears down just before the incline starts, rather than during it. You can always increase your pace if you have enough energy left in the tank towards the end. The reverse is true for going downhill: shift into a harder gear before you really get going downhill, so that your legs don’t spin too quickly.
- Second-hand is a win. While you may be tempted to rush out and buy the most expensive new gear in a burst of enthusiasm for the sport, the most important thing is to just get out there and ride. “There’s no need to break the bank on new gear in order to get some fresh air, beautiful scenery and improve your health,” says UK MTB rider John Parker. “There’s plenty of time to spend more money later on once you know the sport is for you,” he adds. To get a feel for the sport and the MTB community in general, you could also try your hand at one-day mountain bike races rather than committing to stage races as a beginner. A great upcoming one day option in South Africa is the iconic Fedhealth Magalies Monster MTB Classic, taking place in Buffelspoort on 4 June 2022.
- Learn from those better than you. Like with most things in life, you’ll progress far quicker at something if you keep company with those who are better at it than you. Get into the habit of riding with people who are better and more experienced than you, as they’ll challenge you to improve your speed and technical skills by tackling trickier terrain. You can also gain inspiration – and learn some handy tips – by watching YouTube videos of professional mountain bikers doing their thing.
Mountain biking is an exhilarating sport that offers many benefits: fresh air, beautiful scenery, a chance to disconnect from the stresses of modern life – not to mention the health benefits from the cardio involved. If you’re a beginner, start slowly with just the basics, learn from those who’ve done it for longer than you, and remember to focus on enjoying your newfound passion. See you on the trail!