What is Mountain Biking?
Mountain biking encompasses a vast array of different disciplines, all of them completed off-roads and on difficult terrain. With racing events like cross-country and enduro, skill-based competitions like dirt jumping, and recreational riding like freeriding, mountain biking is perhaps the most diverse form of biking out there.
Although off-road biking has been part of the cycling world since the 1800s, most experts agree that the modern mountain biking movement started around 1970. A group of cyclists in California rode vintage single-speed bikes with balloon tires (called “ballooners”) across tough mountain terrains. They gained local fame as rough-and-tumble kids, and word soon spread across the country.
At the same time, a separate group of cyclists in Cupertino, California, were modifying their own bikes and riding them on similarly tricky routes.1 The two groups of cyclists met through a small series of local races, and eventually the sport of mountain biking as we know it was born.
The riding surface for mountain biking is incredibly varied. In general, mountain biking takes place over uneven and hilly terrain. Rocks, mud, fallen trees, grass, and dirt are all common. Depending on the exact event, a mountain biker may ride on established trails, forge their own path through a mountain forest, or might race down a massive ski slope.
Specific surfaces include:
- Single and Double Tracks
- Mountain Terrain Parks
- Ski Slopes
Mountain biking is a unique form of cycling because it is not solely focused on speed. While road and track racing is all about getting to the finish line first, several kinds of mountain biking focus more on the path taken than the ultimate destination. Because of this shift in focus, mountain bikers tend to be more self-reliant, packing equipment such as tire pumps and extra bike tubes with them, items that would surely be shed in the name of reduced weight if these bikers were racing for the fastest time. Here’s a list of equipment that every mountain biker should have:
- Water Bottles
- Pump, extra tubes, and CO2 cartridge
- Helmet, pads, and other protective gear
- First-aid kit
- Headlamp or flashlight (optional)
- GPS, map, compass (optional)
The most different piece of equipment is the bicycle itself. While it shares similarities with the typical road bike, it is designed specifically for off-road riding. These bikes have flat handlebars, wide tires with knobs for added control and traction, and are generally built to withstand greater impacts. Many bikes also have suspension systems that are more forgiving when landing from jumps and drops.
Recreationally, mountain bikers spend their time traversing tricky routes, winding through human-made dirt trails or barely-marked deer trails. Mountain bikers may ride solo, or in small groups of friends.
On the competitive scene, mountain bike racing most commonly takes the form of downhill, cross-country, freeride, or enduro. In downhill, racers are let onto the course on-at-a-time and are timed going down an entire mountain. In enduro, riders go on both downhill and uphill routes, but are timed only on the downhill segments. If you’re watching freeriding, you’ll see cyclists perform cool stunts and tricks on ramps, obstacles, and drops. Finally, a cross-country race is a mass-start race over a tricky course that’s about 6 miles long. In XC, the first to the finish line wins, and races are usually tightly-finished affairs.
Team Roles and Responsibilities
Mountain biking is usually contested as an individual sport, with each biker influencing mainly only their own placing in each competition. However, there are still many vital support roles that need to be fulfilled on a mountain biking team. They include:
Doctor: The doctor is often someone that the team consults when the need arises. The doctor can give prescriptions to the athletes, recommend them for surgery, and help athletes get over a bout of the flu or a cold.
Physio: The physio is like a physical therapist; they assist in injury prevention and rehab, can give athletes massages and other forms of physical treatment, and are the first people that the bikers will turn to if they have an injury.
Strength Trainer: The strength trainer provides workouts for the athletes to complete aside from biking. They include weight room exercises, core and ab workouts, and even cross-training exercises like swimming.
Team Manager: The team manager is in charge of administration for the whole team. They hire additional staff (like coaches, equipment managers, and trainers), help iron out sponsorships, and even decide which bikers get onto the team in the first place.
Rules and Regulations
There’s a huge amount of unofficial etiquette and official rules for mountain biking. Here are a few:
Leave No Trace: What you bring in, you take out. Do not litter, leave your garbage, or otherwise disturb any part of nature or the trail. Stick on established trails and don’t create your own.
Yield Appropriately: If you’re riding recreationally, use common sense when you run into other riders. Don’t cut them off, let them pass, and generally be a kind person.
Helmets: Helmets must be worn at all sanctioned events, and they must be in good condition (no cracks or breaks).
Switching Bikes: A biker must complete a race on the same bike that they start. Unlike road racing, where you can switch out bikes if something breaks, in mountain biking you must step off the trail and fix your bike, or suffer a 10-minute penalty for taking a new bike.
80% Rule: Any rider in an XC race whose lap time is 80% slower than the race leader is pulled from the race at the end of the lap.
Referees and Officials
In mountain biking, referees and officials are used during racing and skills events. Like in other types of cycling, officials are called “commissaires,” the French word for “commissioner.” Here are all the different kinds of officials that you might see at a mountain biking race:
- Chief Judge (or head commissaire)
- Assistant Commissaire
- Finish Judge
Lingo and Terminology
Mountain biking is a sport closely tied to pop culture, and is constantly evolving. Along with the sport itself, the lingo that goes with it is always changing. Here are some key terms to learn before you get out and start riding:
- Bail: To jump off or abandon your bike in order to avoid a serious crash.
- Clean: To complete a route without crashing or messing up.
- Enduro: A type of mountain biking (also called all-mountain) where you get to the top of a mountain somehow, and then ride down.
- Loam: A specific kind of dirt that’s preferred because of its loose nature that gives it good traction.
- Step-down and Step-up: A step-down is a jump or drop where the landing area is lower than the take off point. In contrast, a step-up is a jump where the landing area is higher than the take off point.
Skills and Techniques
One of the most essential skills for a mountain biker to master is their body position. Many beginners sit too low down on the bike, resulting in an inability to properly control and absorb the trail. Another vital skill for a biker is knowing how to apply speed and braking. Unlike road or track cycling, mountain biking is much more dynamic as far as speed is concerned. While some areas may require you to break at certain points to avoid crashing, other points may dictate that you pedal hard to get over them sufficiently fast enough.
Like all cycling disciplines, knowing how to corner (leaning into turns) is extremely important. In addition, climbing and descending mountain trails is particularly tricky, and both require completely different skill sets and body positions to master! It takes years to become an expert mountain biker, and even then, you can never stop improving.
A coach is vital to your development as a rider. Even the pros need coaches to take them as far as they can possibly go. Here are some professional coaches:
|Thomas Frischknecht||Scott-Sram MTG Racing|
A mountain bike coach spends a lot of time doing demos for their students, and professional coaches spend even more time studying film and watching the athletes to give tips for improvement. Coaches need to get many different certifications depending on the level that they intend to teach. Apart from getting sport-specific certifications like an MBT skills instructor certificate, qualifications like first aid/CPR certifications are vital in a sport as dangerous as mountain biking.
Each mountain biking event has different specific strategies associated with it. Basic to all disciplines is knowing how to pace yourself, as you could be riding for hours on end. Here are some strategies for XC mountain bike racing.
Courses tend to be narrow in most parts, so getting a fast start and good positioning early is vital to success. You likely won’t have much space to make up lost places, so you need to start close to the position that you want to finish.
Another important key is to get faster throughout the race. So while you need to get out in a good position, you should not do so at the expense of being able to close hard in the last laps! You can take advantage of other rider’s inexperience and lack of pacing by ramping it up every lap. Surging around corners on up tough hills are great ways to pick up places late in a race.
Having good “flow” is vital to successfully managing a tricky mountain bike trail. A rider must be loose on their seat, but must still have control over their bike. A rider must be firm, but not tense. A key to this balance is “light hand, heavy feet,” which means to keep your hands light and flexible and keeping weight down on your feet, lower on the bike. Here are some good drills to encourage “light hands, heavy feet”:
Figure 8 Awareness Drill
For this drill, you’ll want to be in a park or driveway. Ride in slow figure 8’s, and as you move notice where the pressure on your handlebars is. Is it on your palms? On your fingertips? Try and keep a calm grip on your bicycle, and simply be aware of how your hands are contacting the bike. If you can, develop “neutral” grips, somewhere in between putting pressure on your palms and fingers and having no grip at all.
Hands-Free Leaning Drill
For this one, you’ll want an empty parking lot. Ride at a decent pace, and lean with your bike to make easy turns. However, as you ride, keep your hands pressed on the side of your handlebars, instead of holding on. This will encourage you to use your feet to move the bike, instead of your hands, and in turn you will develop a lighter grip.
Pressure Awareness Riding
Take your bike onto an easy trail. As you ride, call out where the pressure is on your hands as you ride, saying things like “palms!” when you feel your palms pushing into your handlebars and “fingers!” when you dig in with your finger tips. As you call out, try and achieve a neutral grip.
Mountain Biking Events
All-Mountain (Enduro): Mostly on mountain trails, with occasional road-side “transfer” points. Completed in stages, a biker must ride to the top of a mountain, then is timed coming down the mountain. Between downhill stages, cyclists ride on transfer stages that are untimed, but must be completed within a certain time-frame.
Cross Country (XC): Dirt trails, mud, gravel, and grass. Trails are typically well-groomed. Racers take off in a mass-start along a course covering dirt, mud, grass, and gravel. Courses tend to be anywhere from one to six miles long, and riders can complete any number of loops. First one to the finish line wins.
Dirt Jumping: Downhill slopes followed by a dirt ramp or jump. This is a style and skill-based competition where, as the name suggests, riders take off of ramps and jumps and perform tricks while in the air.
Downhill: Down massive mountains, often along out-of-season ski trails. Riders walk, ride, or get lifted up to the top of a mountain, and then bike down. It can be competitive (timed) or recreational.
Free Ride: Forest and mountain trails. Some combination of downhill, dirt jumping, and cross-country riding, bikers find their way through trails, performing tricks and stunts along the way. Typically a recreational sport.
While the title of “greatest mountain biker ever” is up for fierce debate, here are some of the undisputed all-time legends:
Steve Peat: Steve Peat has podiumed at a world championship 52 times, and has three overall titles as well.
Hans Rey: Considered to be the pioneer of the freeriding movement and appearing on over 300 magazine covers throughout a career spanning from 1987 to the present day, Hans is truly a living legend.
Gunn-Rita Dahle: This Norwegian icon is one of the most decorated cross country cyclists of all time. She won an Olympic Gold Medal in Athens in 2004, and has captured silver or better in over 20 world championship level events.
Julien Absalon: This frenchman has been dubbed the “Mountain Bike King,” and has been at the highest level of the sport for over a decade. He’s won 6 Olympic golds and many consider him the best cross country rider of all time.
Mountain Biking Leagues
One of the fantastic aspects of mountain biking is that it attracts people of all ages, and is particularly popular amongst young adults and children. In fact, some of the fastest-growing mountain biking leagues are youth leagues. Indeed, most leagues happen to be leagues based around school-aged children. Some experts claim that the future of the sport rests in these youth leagues. The National Interscholastic Cycling Association (NICA) sponsors a ton of youth leagues in the hopes of growing the sport of mountain biking. Here are just a few:
|Colorado Cycling League||Colorado||Youth|
|New York Interscholastic MB League||New York||Youth|
|NorCal and SoCal||California||Youth, Junior|
Mountain Biking Teams
Many of the top mountain bikers are members of teams sponsored by companies, retired champions, and third-parties. Teams are extremely important in XC mountain biking, and each year there is great excitement as the pros switch teams and transfer out of long-standing contracts. Here are a few teams that have top-notch riders from across the globe:
- Scott-Sram MTB Racing: Professional; Swiss team of Nino Shurter, top-ranked man in the world
- Cannondale Factory Racing: Professional; includes three top-15 ranked riders
- Moebel Maerki: Professional; home to three top-40 ranked bikers
Mountain Biking Brands
Having the right bike and the right gear is essential to your mountain biking. Here are a few top brands that can offer everything from your bike to your shoes.
Mountain Biking Tournaments
There are three championship events for mountain biking: the Summer Olympics, the World Cup, and the World Championships. The Summer Olympics occur every four years and include only cross country. The World Cup is a multi-round series of races including XC and Downhill racing. Points are awarded to athletes at the end of every race and the overall points leader at the conclusion is considered the winner. The world championships are the pinnacle of XC, downhill, and 4 cross racing. They take place once a year, and the winner is considered World Champion.
|Olympic Games||Professional||Cross Country|
|World Cup||Professional||Cross Country, Downhill|
|World Championships||Professional||Cross country, Downhill, 4 Cross|
Mountain Biking Books
Being one of the most artistic expressions of cycling, there are hundreds of books on mountain biking, describing what it’s like to speed down a technical mountain path, detailing life-changing rides, and providing tips and tricks for improving your own skills. Here’s a list of books recommended for mountain biking enthusiasts:
|Eat, Sleep, Ride: How I Braved Bears, Badlands, and Big Breakfasts in my Quest to Cycle the Tour Divide||Paul Howard|
|Fifty Places to Bike Before you Die||Chris Santella|
|Trail Magic and the Art of Soft Pedaling||Scott Thigpen|
|The Mountain Biker’s Training Bible||Joe Friel|
|The Art of Mountain Biking||Robert Hurst|
Mountain Biking FAQ
What is mountain biking?
Mountain biking is a wide variety of off-road cycling disciplines that includes riding down up and down tough mountain trails, jumping off of dirt ramps, and navigating tricky terrain. Events include cross country, downhill, enduro racing, dirt jumping, freeriding, and more.
How dangerous is mountain biking?
Mountain biking can be very dangerous. However, with proper safety gear like a helmet and pads, taking precautions like riding with a partner and knowing your skill level, and trusting yourself and your riding capabilities, you can navigate the trails without serious injury. Most mountain bikers do get banged up and bruised however, so you mustn’t be afraid of taking a nasty spill every now and then.
How do I start mountain biking?
The best way to start mountain biking is to find a friend or two and start exploring! Nobody knows exactly what kind of mountain biking they’re most interested or best in when they start out, so get out there and start figuring things out today! Lessons are usually available at places like local ski resorts, and a quick Google search will bring up cool trails to check out locally.
How popular is mountain biking?
Mountain biking is one of the most popular recreational activities out there! Over 40 million Americans mountain bike each year, and the sport has been steadily popular since experiencing a big boom in 2001.