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Check Yourself Before You Wreck Yourself With These Mountain Biking Tips for Beginners

Before you rent that demo bike and head up the ski lift for your first downhill ride, start here.

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When the snow melts and ski runs turn green for the summer, ski resorts across the country transform into mountain bike parks, teeming with beginner-friendly cross country trails and extreme downhill singletrack. Exploring a ski hill on bike is one of the most exhilarating summer activities you can do at ski resorts, not to mention one of the best cross training activities to boost your skiing come winter.

And it seems the word is out—more and more people escaping to ski towns in the summer are cottoning on to lift-served mountain biking. They head into the rental shop, get set up with a demo bike, purchase a ticket to ride the ski lift, get to the top, and then just send it.

Shannon Mahre Skouras sends her mountain bike over a drop on a technical singletrack trail.
Shannon Skouras Mahre sends it over a drop on the singletrack at Idaho’s Silver Mountain Bike Park. Photo credit: Andy Mahre

While that enthusiasm and bravery to just throw themselves head-first into a new sport is commendable, it bears remembering that like skiing, mountain biking can be a dangerous sport, especially if you don’t know what you’re doing. Think of it this way: If you were going skiing for your first time, would you head to the top of the mountain with rental skis and boots you don’t know how to use, then just figure out how to get down when you’re up there? Not likely, yet new mountain bikers are often under the impression that they’ve been riding bikes for years—so how hard can it be to ride a bike down the mountain?

“I’ve coached and ridden with a lot of people who just get on a bike and go for it, hitting jumps and going down trails they don’t have the skills to do,” says Shannon Skouras Mahre, certified mountain bike coach and founder of Girls with Grit. “Not only is this terrifying to watch, but it’s also extremely unsafe. Just like you have to learn to walk before you can run, you have to learn proper body positioning, and proper use of your breaks and your shifters.”

So before you hit the mountain bike park this summer, take some beginner-friendly pointers from Skouras Mahre.

Top Mountain Biking Tips for Beginners

Start small

Baby steps are your friend. Learning the basics and then building on them is the key to becoming a great mountain biker. Do some research on the trails in your area and start on something short with minimal elevation gain/loss. Trail apps like Mountain Bike Project are great for providing trail specifications like difficulty rating, total mileage, elevation gain and loss, average slope grade, as well as detailed directions and imagery.

Remember that a 12-mile ride on a smooth, flat trail may only take you an hour, but that a 12-mile mountain bike ride on single track with elevation gain and technical sections of rocks and roots is likely to not only take more time, but sap more energy.

Ask/look for advice

Shannon Skouras Mahre leads a Girls With Grit mountain biking clinic in Yakima, Washington
Skouras Mahre leads a SheJumps mountain biking clinic at Stevens Pass Bike Park. Photo credit: Ryan French

There are sports where you can pretty much figure out the basics on your own, without taking a lesson from a pro—like badminton, for example. But mountain biking is not one of those sports. “When I got my certification as a mountain bike instructor, I became a better rider because through my training, I learned the basics of mountain biking that I had never learned even though I had been riding trail and downhill bikes for over 10 years,” says Skouras Mahre.

She recommends that even if you’re comfortable on a bike, you should look for specific mountain biking pointers from those in the know. “If you aren’t the type of person to take lessons or clinics, do some research on a mountain biking website or YouTube page—Global Mountain Bike Network is a good one—and learn the basics from some great coaches and athletes. Then go try the skills in your yard or on a soft surface before hitting the trail.”

Your significant other may not be your best coach

Friends don’t let friends be coached by their SOs. While there are unicorn couples out there that are great adventure partners and great teacher/student duos, they’re rare. Coaching can often get heated and emotional when romantic partners try to give each other advice. “As a coach, I’ve learned that sometimes it’s best to take the emotional out of the learning process. It makes things a lot less messy,” says Skouras Mahre.

It’s not just about the relationship interfering with the coaching advice, Skouras Mahre explains, but the fact that men and women often learn differently. “Lots of guys I coach don’t need me to necessarily explain to them the steps of how to do something—they can just watch me do it and then they can mimic what I do. Many women, on the other hand (myself included), like to have every step and body position described, demonstrated, and then sometimes demonstrated again before they want to give it a try.” There’s no right or wrong way to learn, it’s just important that you learn from someone who understand how you learn best.

Ride with people better than you

“Just like skiing, the more skilled people that you ride with, the better you will become because you are constantly pushing yourself to progress,” says Skouras Mahre. Watching other skilled riders navigate corners and rocky sections can teach you how to position your body correctly in turns and handle the bike when the going gets rough. “And if you are riding with a very skilled mountain biker, ask them for their advice on form and technique—and if there is anything that they can see that you are doing wrong,” Skouras Mahre adds.

Speed is your friend

Andy Mahre demonstrates solid cornering technique on his mountain bike.
Andy Mahre, Skouras Mahre’s husband, demonstrates exemplary cornering technique at Silver Mountain Bike Park in Idaho. Photo credit: Shannon Skouras Mahre

Inexperienced riders are prone to over-using their brakes when first starting out. And though it may seem counter-intuitive, braking suddenly in a turn or in the middle of a rock garden can land you in more trouble than just letting your bike ride it out.

“As scary as it may be, the faster you go over rock gardens, roots and other obstacles in the trail, the easier it will be to ride over them,” says Skouras Mahre. “At speed, your tires will float over rocks and the momentum will carry you through and over obstacles—but keep in mind that you must have confidence and a solid ready position above all.”

And when it comes to braking in turns and tight switchbacks, timing is everything. “Brake before you get to the corner, then release just before you rally around the corner. This will help you accelerate out of the corner, just as you do while driving a car.”

Don’t be afraid to fall

Falling is inevitable when you’re learning how to mountain bike. In fact, falling is a sign of improving in this sport because it means you’re pushing yourself and perhaps attempting new obstacles and terrain. Invest in some good elbow and knee/shin pads, a good helmet (keep in mind that one hard impact on a helmet means that you need a new one—whether it is cracked or not), gloves, and eye protection. “And remember, if you look at the tree, you are probably going to hit the tree. So look ahead to where you want to go and your bike will take you there,” says Skouras Mahre.

Enjoy the ride

Shannon Skouras Mahre enjoying mountain biking at elevation
Skouras Mahre, enjoying a scenic singletrack ride. Photo credit: Andy Mahre

“Biking to me is freedom, it’s the epitome of fun,” says Skouras Mahre. “But honestly, if you aren’t having fun, then you shouldn’t be out there and you may need to take a step back.” If you’re mountain biking and not having fun, then you’re either A) in over your head on the trails you’re riding and you need to scale back a bit or B) on the wrong bike for your frame and your style of riding.

If it’s neither A nor B, then maybe mountain biking just isn’t for you, and that’s OK—there’s always badminton.

Shannon Skouras Mahre is an IMBA-ICP Level 2 certified mountain bike coach and founder of Girls with Grit, an organization that hosts year-round mountain biking, skiing, SUP, and yoga clinics and classes specifically for women. 

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