Hit the Dirt: Mountain Biking Basics for Road Cyclists

Matt never thought he would switch from road cycling to mountain biking. Matt, a chiropractor in Warsaw, Indiana, was a serious triathlete who was looking for a change when he took up mountain biking. He was hooked right away.

"It is a whole new world when you are mountain biking," says Matt. "You have so much more stimulus with the trees and the terrain." While still putting miles on his road bike, he gets better workouts in shorter periods of time with the mountain bike. How? Mountain biking provides a great way to get cardiovascular exercise while you work the muscles of the lower body. Your thighs, hips, and glutes get stronger with less strain than many other types of sports. It also gets you away from the danger of motorized vehicles.

Matt is not the only one who has made the switch from road to dirt. In fact, mountain biking, or all-terrain biking (ATB), is increasing in popularity. Where do you start? You need equipment and a little skill before you hit the trail.

Shopping for a Bike

The most important thing for a beginning biker is to shop for a bike that fits. Find a bike store where the staff knows what you need. Mountain bikes are heavier and sturdier than their road cousins and you may find that you need a different size than you may be used to.

While you are there, find out about other bike gear you will need like a helmet, gloves, clothing, or shoes. The proper gear can help make your experience a better and safer one.

Bike shops are also great places to find mountain biking groups, trails, and advice on getting started if you are new to the sport.

Learning the Basics

Before you take your first ride, make sure you can perform some basic repairs. Knowing how to fix a flat or broken spoke can mean the difference between riding or walking back to your starting point. Contact your local bike shop for advice on what you need to learn.

Your first several rides should be on dirt roads or wide trails before you hit the singletracks, which are the narrow trails that snake through nature's playground. When you feel confident, you can graduate to the singletracks.

Do not go out and expect to cover as many miles as you would on the road. Fifty or 60 miles of road riding usually translates into about 25 to 30 miles of mountain biking, even less if it is more technical riding. Start with a terrain and distance that you can handle and gradually progress from there.

Taking to the Trails

You will notice that mountain biking requires a greater amount of upper body strength than road riding. Tense up and you will get tired faster and will be more likely to make mistakes. Your goal is to keep your upper body relaxed and calm.

Positioning on the Bike

As you ride, assume the ready position, which gives you complete control on the bike. Relax your elbows and knees. Keep your pedals at the 3 and 9 o'clock positions when you aren't pedaling. Most importantly, do not sit directly in the saddle. Center your weight over the bike. Keep your back-end lightly touching the seat without putting too much pressure on the seat. Balance is key. You may have to rock the bike in order to get more pedal power when you need it.

Changing Gears

Terrain changes more often on the trails, so you will be shifting more frequently. Keep in mind that different gears work differently. Use small gears, shifting early as you approach hills to keep your RPMs up.

Looking Ahead

Expect to run into things like rocks, logs, roots, and potholes that you may not be able to get over. That is why you have to anticipate those obstacles. Steer around them and continue looking ahead for them. It is a well-known fact in cycling that if you look at something long enough, you will steer your bike toward that obstacle and will then have to go over it.

By the end of the ride, you will most likely be wearing more dirt than you ever did when cycling on the road. You may also be a little bloody. In mountain biking, it is easy to fall or let your foot unclip or slip off the pedal, causing cuts and bruises.

Putting Safety First

To maintain your safety, ride trails that are legal and follow these Rules of the Trail from the International Mountain Bicycling Association (IMBA):

  • Ride on open trails only.
  • Leave no trace.
  • Control your bicycle.
  • Always yield the trail.
  • Never startle animals.
  • Plan ahead.

Before you head out, pack accordingly. Carry more repair tools and food than you normally would if you were cycling on the road. And give your bike a good check before you go. You may end up in places where your cell phone may not work, so be prepared ahead of time.

Because you could cut or scrape easily when mountain biking, carry a basic first aid kit. And of course, always wear a helmet.

Also, understand the level of the trails that you are riding. Trails may be marked differently around the country. Ask about the level of difficulty if you are not sure. And if you find yourself on a trail that you cannot handle, then back track.

Moving From Beginner to ATB Enthusiast

If you are like most road-to-mountain biking converts, you may soon prefer the trails of nature to the tar-ridden roads ruled by cars. Maybe you are even ready for more adventure. If so, consider competitive racing, observed trials (competitions with challenging obstacle courses), longer charity rides, or off-road vacations. After all, some of the most beautiful places in the world are accessible by bike.

Consider, too, helping maintain public lands for riding. Contact IMBA or another organization to find out how you can volunteer to help with trail work. In addition, join a local mountain biking club where you can learn more about the sport and find out how to help maintain trails in your area.

Whatever you do, though, keep the focus on fun.


International Mountain Bicycling Association
New England Mountain Bike Association


Mountain Bike Tourism Association


Bikes + mountains = excitement + challenge. American Council on Exercise website. Available at:
...(Click grey area to select URL)
Accessed January 19, 2017.
Made to move. ACSM Fit Society Page on American College of Sports Medicine website. Available at:
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Updated Summer 2012. Accessed January 19, 2017.
Rules of the trail. International Mountain Bicycling Association website.
...(Click grey area to select URL)
Accessed January 19, 2017.
Last reviewed January 2017 by Michael Woods, MD
Last Updated: 2/5/2015

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