Singletrack Basics for the First-Timer

A bike on a trail in the woods

So you’re off to try singletrack mountain biking for the first time. Maybe your co-worker invited you out with them or you and your friend are finally going to give it a go.

Mountain biking is a wonderful sport, and you will have a blast. In fact, you’ll have an even better time if you think about these things before you get started.

Know Your Etiquette

Because singletrack trails are so narrow and some are used by more than just cyclists, you’ll have a better time if you understand how to get along with everyone else on the trail. The following rules should be helpful:

  • If you aren’t sure whether a trail is open for biking, ask before you ride it or look up reviews online.
  • Some trails are used only for going one direction: up or down. Make sure you know before you go, so you don’t cause a traffic jam.
  • If trails are used for going both directions, cyclists going down always yield to cyclists going up.
  • Cyclists should yield to both hikers and horses. Some hikers may choose to get off the path for you and that is fine, too. They may not know the rule or they may just choose to let you pass.
  • Leave as little trace as possible. To get out of someone’s way, simply stand at the very edge of the trail, with your bike just off the trail, leaning out. Don’t stomp on all the vegetation around the trail.
  • If you have more riders behind you, tell hikers or riders as you pass them. Saying, “One more,” helps them know what to expect.
  • Do your best not to scare animals. It may happen by accident, but do your best. One terrified animal can wreak a lot of havoc before it calms down.

Have the Right Gear

If you’re going mountain biking, you probably have access to an appropriate bicycle. However, you’ll want more than this if you’re going to have a great time on the trails.

  • Course-appropriate clothing—You don’t have to wear the skintight suit of a road cyclist, but you also don’t want to get caught on any trees, bushes, or rocks that might be next to the path. Form-fitting clothing may make you feel self-conscious, but it will make your mountain biking experience so much better. You may also choose to wear knee and elbow pads if you’re worried about falling.
  • A helmet—A well-fitted helmet can save your life on a mountain bike. This is not the place to skimp. Make sure you get it professionally fitted and that you know how to adjust it.
  • Cycling gloves—Padded gloves can help your hands absorb shock from bouncing around on rocks and dirt all day. They can also help save your grip, which is important when you get to the bottom of the hill and you want to stop!
  • Sunglasses—These won’t just keep the sun out of your eyes, but they will also help protect your eyes from rocks and branches. If you don’t want to scratch your corneas, good glasses are key.
  • A water bladder backpack—If you’re out on the trail for more than an hour, you’ll probably get thirsty. Water bottles can work, but they tend to bounce out of their holders on some tracks and they can spray or spill if you fall. A backpack with a water bladder is the perfect way to carry water with you when you’re riding singletrack.

Know How Your Bike Works

Before you get on a narrow track, ride your bike around for a bit. This is especially essential if you are on a bike you haven’t ridden much before.

You only have to learn the basics. Figure out how the brakes work, and how to best hold your hand so you can access them but so you won’t land on them whenever you go over a big bump.

You’ll also want to figure out how to shift and what it feels like to upshift and downshift. Determine how to shift both your small gear and your large one. When you’re riding with others, they may try to give you lessons on which gear to be in at different times. If you can take this in, great. If not, you aren’t going to ruin your first ride because you’re in the wrong gear.

Keep Your Eyes Open

Always look ahead when you’re on your bike. This helps you know what is coming, so you can be prepared and make wise choices while you’re on your bike. It also keeps you from running over other riders who have fallen, and allows you to stop and help others when they need it. You’ll be tempted to look at the ground, but resist. That’s how you miss something important.

If you need to stop and examine a drop or watch another rider before you tackle a challenge on the course, do it. It’s better to look at what’s ahead, especially if you’re just starting and you’ve never ridden anything similar before. You can even watch the lines that other people take through the course, so you know what to do (or not do!) later.

Be Ready to Fall…and Have Fun

Falling is part of learning how to mountain bike. Most people aren’t much worse for the wear, even if they fall hard. If you know that it’s coming eventually, you can relax and let it come. You won’t be so worried about falling that you can’t enjoy the ride.

There’s nothing like feeling the wind in your face as you speed down that narrow track through the mountains. Even as a beginner, you can fall in love with the freedom that mountain biking offers. Some riders even think it feels like flying.

Singletrack basics for the first time mountain biker


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