Mountain Bikes: Everything You Need to Know

All about MTB bikes

Mountain biking is not only exhilarating, but one of the best ways to get in shape (and stay that way).

It’s a high-octane, endurance-testing sport that will captivate you right from the start, but… where do you start?

If you don’t know much about mountain biking, but you’re eager to learn, then this is the guide for you.

We’re going to break down maintenance, the different types of mountain bikes, and the accessories (as well as the attire) that you should have on-hand to make your mountain biking as successful as possible.

It’s time to get situated with your mountain bike and the experiences ahead.

What is a Mountain Bike

Mountain bikes are bicycles that are specifically designed to go on rough terrain and cover dirt, sand, rocks, and generally whatever path nature lays in front of you.

A mountain bike will have wide tires with excellent treads, as well as larger spokes to accommodate the size of said tires.

You’ll also notice that mountain bikes are built with different shock systems. There’s a lot of vibration that travels through your bike, and mountain bike shocks, or MTB shocks as they’re sometimes called, do an excellent job of handling this vibration before it reaches your body.

You shouldn’t take a street bike into mountain trails, and you ideally wouldn’t want to use a mountain bike for commuting for opposite reasons (being too much power and not gliding on pavement as easily). They exist for completely different purposes.

History of Mountain Bikes

MTB history

Bicycles are literally thousands of years old, but even back then, they were used on cobble roads or on beaten, flat dirt paths.

Mountain biking as we know it now wasn’t really a thing. The designs only changed so much because there wasn’t a main way of manufacturing them like we have now. You couldn’t fine-tune every detail; you’d just hope that it worked in the first place.

In the late 1800s, there was something called cyclocross, where the long winter months would be filled with off-road, in-the-snow bike riding. This required specific bicycles, and is thought of to be the birthplace of mountain biking as we know it today. It’s not like it’s a modern idea, you know?

At the time, this was something that well-off folks did, as there weren’t many bicycle manufacturers that would make cyclocross bikes. However, in 1940, cyclocross actually became recognized as a sport to the point that competitions were public.

Flash forward to the 1970s, and just like most sports-related creations, we turn to California. It’s a state known for having some wild trails and plenty of sports, and it’s believed that mountain biking actually began here (in its modern form), but it also gained major popularity around the midwest in the late 1970s as well. Basically, many states can claim that they are the original birthplace of mountain biking.

Mountain biking has been recognized as one of the most intense forms of cycling that one person can do. Since 1978, when it was “officially founded”, there’s been a rise all across the United States and parts of Europe that practice mountain biking as a way to stay fit, and enjoy the outdoors. You know, then there’s the health-related benefits on your mental state as well.

Mountain Bike Types

It’s not like you can just say “Mountain bike” and someone is going to know 100% what you’re talking about.

There are different kinds of mountain bikes that serve different purposes, and depending on the geography around where you usually bike, you could benefit from different types.

Trail Types

trail type

Trail type mountain bikes are specifically designed to cater to hybrid styles of riding. The head angles are just a slight bit different from all-mountain bikes or cross-country bikes to accommodate riders that are new to mountain biking and don’t have the posture and form down yet.

That’s not to say that trail bikes are “beginner” or “easy” mountain bikes. They actually sacrifice a bit of traction, because the tires on trail bikes try to meet a balance between traction, speed, and rolling efficiency without having treads that are too thick.

When would you need a trail mountain bike? If you’re just getting into mountain biking, or if you’re not going off of jumps or hitting the wildest of trails near you. It’s meant for a more leisurely time mountain biking, though it continues to instill higher difficulty than street biking for sure.

Cross-Country Types

Cross-country mountain bikes are almost redundant. They’re designed to be used on mountainous roads, but the smoother and more beaten the path is, the better off you’ll be.

These are like a hybrid between cross-country bikes and mountain bikes, although it has some really light elements on the mountain side of things. Basically, these are souped-up with better shocks and tires so that you aren’t going to run flat by going over a slightly sharp rock.

They definitely have their value, but if you’re planning on hitting jumps and spending four or more hours in untamed wilderness where you’re not sure if there are pre-made paths, these are not the type of mountain bike for you.

Fat Bikes

fat bike

It sounds silly to say “I ride a fat mountain bike” without sounding like you’re using slang to describe how fantastic it is, but it’s actually a term. Fat mountain bikes have much wider tires from about 65mm in width to around 98+mm in width, so the tires are nice and chunky.

These operate at a much lower psi on your tire pressure, so bringing a bike pump is still advised, but not exactly a death sentence if you forget it.

Be warned, though: the frame, fork, and overall weight of a fat bike is definitely going to be larger than your standard mountain bike. Fat bikes are great upgrades for experienced mountain bikers, but not exactly the ideal first pick if you’re just getting into this.

All-Mountain Bikes

These are designed just to take on the mountains. Go figure, right?

These are a hybrid between cross-country mountain bikes and downhill bikes. You have specific angles in the design that suit certain types of riders, and that weight and design that helps you go downhill faster and with more stability.

The idea behind all-mountain bikes is that you’re only going to be using them to get down and dirty, so you’ll tear through the dust and debris of the forest floors while pedaling downhill at excellent speeds with great stability.

Would I take this out on the pavement? Nah, not really, but if you’re using this type of mountain bike, you either drive to a mountain biking spot or you have a trail from the back of your house to some pretty sweet spots.

Downhill Bikes

downhill type

If you’re on a downhill bike, you might find that it’s a little harder to control. I don’t mean it’s more difficult to control it, but rather turning the steering is actually a little stiffer, a little more durable.

That’s because downhill bikes are built with more durability and intense steering in mind, because as you might imagine, it’s expected that you’ll be going downhill pretty often while using this bike type.

One other major design element that you need to be aware of in downhill bikes is that they tend to weigh about 17% to 22% more than most mountain bikes out there, regardless of the tye.

You want that extra momentum while you’re going downhill. That weight is generally towards the front of the bike, which can make initial pedaling harder, but overall it helps you to maintain proper momentum and weight distribution while going downhill. You’re not likely to catch wind and feel the front tire lift off the ground, causing an accident.

Mountain Bike Maintenance

New to mountain biking, or even biking in general?

First of all, welcome to the more fun side of exercising and exploring the outdoors. Second, you need to know how to perform maintenance, that is, work on your bike that prevents accidents or issues from occurring out on the trail.

Trust me: when you’re six miles from your car or a rest stop, you don’t want to wheel your bike back because you’ve been neglecting to maintain it. This is what you need to know.

  • Check Tire Pressure: This is the first place to start, and perhaps one of the most common sense pieces of information that you could possibly get from any bike blog or article online. Your tire pressure impacts how much pedal power you’ll need to give for a smooth ride (low pressure = a harder time, etc.), but it can also prevent a burst tire or shredding the tire off the rim.
  • Brake Line Checks: Your brake lines are sturdy, strong, and reliable. Emphasis on the last one. To ensure they stay that way, you need to be able to check them properly. The ends of your brakes should have caps on them to prevent the wires from splitting and enduring damage. You should also have excellent resistance when you depress the triggers on your handlebar. Check the front and back brakes, and inspect the lines for damage. It’s not fun to replace brake lines, but as you might imagine, absolutely necessary before you begin pedaling your way through the trails ahead.
  • Inspect the Front Wheel: Do you have a pressure release on your front tire or a through axle? Not sure what either of those mean? Inspect your front wheel to make sure it’s on tight, that any quick-release latch on a pressure release tire is nice and tight, or that your through axle isn’t worn down or wobbly. You’re relying on your front wheel for everything; maintain it.
  • Check the Frame: If you have a carbon frame, you absolutely have to check it out before and after every single ride. One small crack in the frame can equate to an enormous problem. For that matter, even aluminum frames shouldn’t have cracks, because that’s arguably a much more durable material on its own and shouldn’t succumb to cracking in the first place. Stop riding, get it fixed, and doubly checked over before you put your feet to work on the pedals again.
  • Clean Your Suspension System: The stanchions on your suspension system get dirty. You know, it’s a mountain bike after all. This means that you’re going to jam it up if left unchecked and cause major mobility issues, so clear it out and clean it up after every single ride. That way you don’t have to think about it when you hit the ground running, or rather, pedaling for your next ride.

Mountain Bike Accessories

Accessories for MTB

Safety, convenience, and usability are all key, and unfortunately not all mountain bikes come with this worked into the initial design.

Instead, you’ll need to add a few accessories here and there to truly customize your bike and the way it feels. Having first aid, proper grips, and safety lights installed are things you should consider from the get go, and wrap it up into the price of a new mountain bike if you’re starting from scratch.

Lights

Safety is important. Mountain bikers will go until the sun goes down, and on those paved trails through public areas that lead them back to their cars, there’s plenty of danger to be had.

Not only that, but if you’re in less than ideal conditions, having front and back lights on your mountain bike increases your visibility for motorists and other cyclists who are also having a difficult time seeing things ahead of them. These are just a good idea in general, especially if you plan on using your mountain bike to commute to and from work.

You can pick up cheap, easily mounted LED headlights with over 1,200 lumens, and back lights with 300+ lumens, both of which are rechargeable via USB and come bundled together. Take a look; this isn’t going to be where most of your money goes when it comes to accessories if you play it smart.

Water Bottle (and Holder)

Mountain biking generally means, you know, that you’ll be on nature’s roads more than man made roads. You’ll be in the thick of it where the foliage is dense, the humidity is strangling, and the sweat you build up dehydrates your body.

You absolutely need a water bottle mounted to your bike. A stainless steel bottle with a stainless steel holder can be about twenty to forty dollars, depending on the size that you want.

Stainless steel helps keep your water colder for longer during your mountain biking treks, but they’re also weather resistant and pretty hard to dent or damage, Definitely a handy thing to have on your bike.

Grips

grips on mtb

The stock grips that come in your bike are likely to be a notch below where they should be. Yes, mountain bike manufacturers have a better idea of what to include over street bike manufacturers, but there’s always room for improvement.

They’re trying to hit an attractive price point, so they’re not going to showcase fully souped-up mountain bikes with all the bells and whistles (kind of like when they show you the MSRP for cars on commercials, but that’s the base kit without all the good features).

Grips fall into this category, but they’re also subjective to your personal preferences. That means you might be reading this thinking, “My stock grips are fine, what is this guy talking about?, and that’s okay. To each their own. Just keep in mind that you can get different textures and tactile grips with aftermarket grips.

Air Pump

These are useful to have at home to check your tires before you leave, but a miniature hand-activated air pump is also a Godsend to have with you when you’re actually out and about.

These come in handy for low tire pressure or other major problems that you can encounter while riding. Just be sure that you optimize your backpack setup for it.

First Aid Kit

This should be pretty self-explanatory, but sadly there are a lot of mountain bikers out there that refuse to identify the risk of mountain biking. You’re off-road, away from anyone that can help you, and you never know what the trail ahead of you has in store, even if you’ve travelled it a hundred times over.

Your first aid kit should be thorough enough to help you clean dirty wounds and stitch yourself up if the need arises. Failing to have the right first aid kit could be the difference between infection and illness, or staying out of the hospital.

Of course, this is only useful with a calm, level head and some light first aid training. You can find online classes or YouTube videos to teach you how to use it properly, and normally, the manufacturer of MTB first aid kits will have detailed instructional guides as well (the bigger, more reputable brands, that is).

Mountain Bike Attire

MTB attire

You’re not going out in a cardigan and jeans when you hit the mountain biking trails.

You need the right attire, and you need to be prepared for everything that you may encounter out there. Let’s take a look at some of the best mountain biking attire that you’ll be using.

  • Shorts: You don’t want to wear jeans or anything too heavy on your mountain bike. It slows you down, it feels heavy, and it makes it harder to ventilate. You get hot and tired much faster with longer, baggier clothes. However, we’ll cover knee pads in a minute so you don’t get shredded if you take a spill off the bike. Get biking shorts that sit around the knees for extra coverage, but just don’t get those ones that go halfway down your calf since we want to avoid the extra drag.
  • Biking Jerseys: Simple lightweight biking shirts that are mostly designed for mountain biking, but can also be used for street biking. These are important because they’re usually long-sleeved without being heavy, but can come in short-sleeved varieties as well. Longer sleeves are better for holding onto elbow pads and giving you that traction to make sure they stay put while you use your mountain bike.
  • Knee Pads: And elbow pads for that matter. You shouldn’t go mountain biking without these, seriously. You’re not going to look “pro” or like you know what you’re doing if you don’t have these on. Between the trajectory of being flung off of a mountain bike, the heights, and unknown terrain below (accounting for foliage, thorn bushes, broken branches, etc.), having knee pads and elbow pads are an absolute necessity.
  • Helmet: Just like with your knee and elbow pads, your helmet is important for your safety. People usually think of helmets as being a street bike thing because of cars, pavement, and the increased chance of serious or traumatic head injuries based on what you’re riding on.
  • Cycling Shoes: Sure, you’re going mountain biking, but you don’t have to wear boots. In fact, it’s dangerous to wear boots. You can get mountain biking shoes that have small bits of traction on the bottom (cleats), but don’t make you slide or feel improper weight distribution/traction while actually pedaling. Depending on what aftermarket pedals you’ve used on your mountain bike, you should shop for your cycling shoes accordingly.

Becoming the Master of Mountain Bikes

Mountain biking definitely has more working parts, techniques, and things to learn than standard street biking.

You have a steeper learning curve, and steeper trails ahead than most cyclists, but you have to keep in mind that there are greater injury risks at play as well.

Having the right gear, right attire, and the right mindset is important before you hit the trails. Now that you know more about mountain biking, it’s time to take what you’ve learned and put it to good use.

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