Cycling Essentials For New Mountain Bikers
Learning a new sport can be intimidating.
It often feels like the ones already doing the sport have their own language and skills that you’ll never measure up to.
Take, for example, my short-lived venture in fly fishing. Talk about a learning curve!
Everyone sounded like Miss Othmar from Charlie Brown…
wanh wanh wanh wanh. I usually just nodded like I understood and then went and googled everything on my own or participated in ignorant bliss.
It was a short-lived passion -- I quit because I always felt bad pricking fish with a hook -- so I never got too deep in the culture. But for those few months, every time I turned around I needed a new piece of gear... a new reel, a new line, a new fly, the list goes on.
Mountain biking can feel a lot like that, too.
Even after 20 years of riding, I still respond with a blank stare when people ask me about the components on my bike.
I usually answer with, “I dunno… I just like to ride it.”
But I loved it after the first ride. It was RIP every sport I’d ever played, hello mountain biking.
I was first introduced to mountain biking when I moved to Whistler in 2001.
Up to that point, I’d spent most of my athletic years in a gym or on a field, so mountain sports opened up a whole new world of fun for me.
Terms like dual suspension, saddle, clipless vs flat pedals, bash guard, pinch flat, etc etc… were all words I’d never heard before.
But the first time I rode on a singletrack trail, I knew I was hooked.
And my first time down B-Line (A-Line was just being built!)? It was exhilarating!
Apart from the actual bike itself, though, there are lots of other things to consider when getting started in mountain biking.
It can feel like there’s always something to learn about and buy.
That’s why it helps to know what you should invest in before you hit the trails… and what can wait till later.
You’ll inevitably upgrade certain items as you immerse yourself in bike culture, make more friends who mountain bike, and improve your skills as you go. And you’ll get to know what you like, and don’t like, but everyone has to start somewhere.
That’s why I’ve put together this list of essentials for beginner mountain bikers.
First things first. Not all helmets are created equal and your helmet protects your most valuable asset -- your brain.
Please don’t skimp on this.
I’m not saying you have to buy the $400 carbon fiber helmet with the sweet, custom paint job. But, know that a Walmart helmet is NOT designed for singletrack mountain biking.
A good helmet is your first priority in mountain biking. In terms of what to look for, fit is the number one thing you should focus on, not price or brand (of course, barring anything that’s not certified!).
You can find a nice entry-level cross-country or enduro helmet at around the $80 - $100 USD mark.
Unless you plan to spend time learning in the bike park, then I recommend upgrading to a full face. In this case, you might need to invest upwards of $200 USD.
Just think, if you knock all your teeth out, it’s gonna cost you a LOT more to get them all put back in.
Lots of online retailers now offer payment plans like Sezzle so you can pay it down over four payments if you don’t have the funds upfront.
And, if you should happen to perform an ungraceful exit off your bike superman style, remember to replace it if you crash and crack it.
Keep your noggin’ safe.
To wear elbow and knee pads, or not to wear elbow and knee pads...
That is a good question.
Mountain bike body armor is a completely personal preference.
I've worn it and I've not worn it.
When I used to spend all my time in the bike park, I 100% wore all the armor I could find. Full hard shin and knee guards and the full upper body jacket with hard padding everywhere.
And lemme tell you, anytime I wiped out, I was so grateful for it. When you're riding that kind of terrain I kinda think it's silly not to wear it. Why take the risk?
But, as I transitioned out of the bike park and more into singletrack, I ditched the jacket and then the knee pads.
Mostly because I found them cumbersome. It was usually too hot on the way up and I didn't want to carry them or deal with stopping to put everything on at the top of the trail.
So, really, I was lazy.
However, over time, mountain bike armor has morphed and evolved. It's now hella breathable and much more practical. My risk tolerance has also decreased as I age and my knees appreciate the extra padding.
Knee and elbow pads are available in so many shapes and sizes now, for sure you can find something that comfortably fits your body.
Make sure you use the size chart available and take your measurements. Don't just guess!
Personally, I still only wear knee pads, but plan to add elbow pads this season.
I love my Transitions from 7Protection so much. They're sleek and comfortable. I never spend time on my rides pulling them up. And on the hottest days, I don't even notice I have them on.
So, if you think you're gonna fall, just assume you will, wear the armor. When your knee smashes off a rock you'll be glad you did... or pissed you didn't.
The bike shoes you wear will be determined by the kind of pedals you choose.
You’ll notice road bikers’ shoes always clip into their pedals. These are called clipless pedals and require special shoes with the clips built into them.
As a new rider, though, you should consider learning to bike with regular flat pedals and shoes.
When you’re just starting out you probably won’t be riding that fast. And you’ll most likely stop and start a lot. Like, a lot. So you’ll have your feet off the pedals often.
Because of this, you can get away with wearing a pair of skate shoes -- shoes with a flat sole designed for riding a skateboard.
So, steal ‘em from your kid, grab a pair used or buy a pair on sale. You don’t need expensive bike shoes when you’re just learning to ride.
Now you might be asking why your bike shoes need to have a flat sole. Why not just wear your comfortable running shoes or hiking boots?
Well, because you want your feet to stick to your pedals.
Flat pedals have pins in them that grip to the bottom of flat shoes. (Side bar: they also like to rip into your skin, so beware of that!) Regular running shoes and hiking boots have big treads in them that will hinder your pedals from doing their job.
As you start riding tougher terrain and let off the brakes a bit more, you may start to notice your feet slip and move around more on your pedals -- a good indication it’s time to upgrade to regular bike shoes.
Proper bike shoes also offer a stiffer midsole that helps with pedal power... when you wanna go fast!
Shoes from companies like FiveTen, Ride Concepts and Shimano offer a stiffer fit with a special rubber sole designed to grip your pedals like duct tape to pretty much everything.
I wore skate shoes my first couple of years mountain biking.
And then one day while riding the Whistler Mountain Bike Park I got scared when my feet slipped while hitting a jump. I still to this day don’t know how I pulled off that landing!
After that scare, I marched into the local bike shop, bought some FiveTens and left my skate shoes behind forever.
You’ll know when it’s time to upgrade.
Okay, what in the eff is a cycling kit? If you’re new to this lingo, you’ll discover this phrase is used more often in the road cycling world than in mountain biking.
But these days I find it’s being used more interchangeably.
So let’s break it down.
A cycling kit is what you wear while riding your bike. It’s made up of three pieces of clothing:
Padded Bike Shorts -- aka Chamois (pronounced shammy)
I’ll break these down one by one below...
As a newbie rider, you’ll naturally spend more time in the saddle. Meaning, your butt will be in your bike seat more often as standing is a skill you’ll acquire over time.
And, babe, I can NOT stress this enough: If you don’t protect your vulva and your ass, you’ll hate mountain biking. And that would be sad because it’s a great sport for women, especially since we carry our power in our lower bodies!
Before I learned about padded bike shorts, I would die. I’d brace myself for the burn I knew was coming. And it ALMOST made me want to quit.
When someone finally told me about chamois it was as though the heavens parted and 1000 Gerrard Butler’s were smiling down on me (I have a thing for the accent and sideways smile).
Treat your precious lady parts like the most delicate effing flower on the planet. And, no, don’t listen to anyone who tells you it’ll “toughen” up over time. Do you really want a “tough” vag?
The goal isn’t to petrify your vulva for the sake of the ride.
Let me be real though. The first few times you ride, it’s gonna hurt. Your sits bones and vag will be sensitive on days two and three… maybe even four… or five.
But if you invest in a high-quality chamois you’ll save yourself some crying in the shower and on the toilet.
This piece of bike clothing will be the most important one you buy.
First things first. Like bike helmets, not all padded bike shorts are created equal.
There are a LOT of athleisure companies out there claiming to make bike shorts, but beware. Most of these are literally just spandex shorts that may or may not have a poorly designed pad in them.
It must be breathable and quick-drying with good ventilation to avoid bladder and yeast infections -- we all know what happens when it stays wet down there for too long!
A good chamois will also be anatomically contoured for a comfortable fit and no pinching -- wear a cheap chamois and you’ll quickly learn what I mean.
And although it might feel weird at first, ditch the undies. Trust me.
Good padded bike shorts are made with special fabric for moisture control (mmmm moist). Cotton undies only create an unnecessary barrier between your bits and your chamois.
Plus, underwear can bunch up and cause pinching, which can cause scrapes and abrasions… back to crying on the toilet and shower.
Get a good chamois from a reputable bike clothing company that’s been making them for years.
You’ll thank me for this tip later.
Mountain bike shorts are baggy(ish) shorts that seasoned mountain bikers wear over their chamois.
But, for the first little while, you can wear any pair of athletic shorts you have hanging around from your team sports days.
They’ll work until you’re ready to purchase your first pair of mountain bike specific shorts.
You’ll notice a huge difference in the material when you start wearing them but not owning a pair won’t keep you off your bike.
You can create a wishlist on our site and add your fave styles. It’ll give you something to look forward to when the time is right to buy.
Now… why, you ask, would someone wear TWO pairs of shorts while mountain biking, especially if you live someplace hella hot?
Hey, mountain bike shorts aren’t all fashion and no function -- they actually serve a very important purpose
Once you have your first wipeout on dirt or rocks or get a little too close to the brush (talking about you here, stinging nettle!), you’ll be grateful for your bike shorts.
That last slide I took on loose dirt? Yeah, super grateful for my shorts. My ass slid across the earth that was begging to rip my skin open but my trusty shorts said, “not today dirt. Not today.”
Oh, and one other thing mountain bike shorts have that most cycling shorts (spandex chamois) don’t have is… POCKETS!
Pockets for carrying your shit!
Especially stuff you need to access quickly like: your phone for snapping a pic of your bestie all tangled up in her bike after a funny wipeout (right after you make sure she’s okay)…
… trail snacks, an inhaler if you need it, lip balm and dog treats if your furry pal is joining you. And oh yes… KEYS.
But, the most recent thing I’ve come to enjoy about mountain bike shorts is that they let me express my style.
With so many more options for women’s shorts out there these days -- trust me, once upon a time, there were zero options for women. Nothing, zilch, nada -- it’s easy to be as colorful, not-so-colorful, or print-y as you like.
So, now I love that I can have shorts in varying lengths, fabrics, colors and patterns.
Even better, mountain bike shorts can pull double duty on the trail protecting your ass and then look pretty cool and casual while grabbing some brunch after a weekend ride.
Here’s the thing with bike shorts…
You don’t have to own a closet full of them. Find one or two pairs you like and wear ‘em till they die. Which could be a while -- these babies can last a long time even with daily use.
Full disclosure, when I first started mountain biking I wore cotton tees. We’re going back 20 years and it was either that or a men’s bike jersey that didn’t breathe, anyway.
Most bike jerseys are designed with special fabric to pull moisture away from your skin, dry quickly to keep you happy on super sweaty days and have seams in places that don’t cause chafing while you’re wearing a backpack or hip pack.
Many have tiny pinholes for warm weather riding, while still offering coverage from sun and dirt.
And many more even come with tiny yet handy hidden pockets for stashing your gummies (if you’re into that) or your car key if you’re out for a quick rip and don’t wanna carry a pack.
You can easily find a jersey to match your riding style and location…
For instance, if you live in a hot climate you might wanna pick up a short sleeve or sleeveless bike jersey. And if you plan to frequent the local bike park, you might be more comfortable in a long sleeve jersey that will protect you from trail rash should you bail.
You can even find thermal bike jerseys for cooler days and winter riding.
As for me, I finally grew tired of the heavy, sweaty, uncomfortable, chafe-y cotton shirts I was wearing, and started researching bike jerseys for women like it was my job.
So in hindsight… I don’t recommend wearing cotton when mountain biking.
Sure, cotton is breathable, but it doesn’t have the same sweat-wicking and fast-drying capabilities a technical shirt will have.
Wear gloves. The end.
I highly recommend wearing gloves for several reasons.
First, just a heads up, when you go looking for gloves, you’ll see both fingerless and full finger gloves, and might be confused about which ones to buy.
For mountain biking, I recommend full finger gloves.
I initially had a typo here. I wrote your hands will swear instead of sweat. And, it’s true, your hands might also swear. You’ll give a rock or root or hill the finger from time to time when you ride…
But, yeah, your hands will sweat and full finger gloves will help you maintain a safe grip on your handlebars.
And if you’re hitting up the singletrack you’ll be VERY grateful for your gloves the first time your pinky grazes a tree or a rock.
The good news is, bike gloves aren’t expensive. Dirty Jane has lots of fun styles starting at the $32 mark. Check them out here.
TLDR version: get a pair of mountain bike gloves.
Unless you’re a camel, you’ll need water on every ride.
So, since you’re most definitely not a camel, please don’t go on a ride without water.
First, when you’re exercising, you need to stay hydrated. It’s that simple.
Second, you never know what can happen on a ride. You can get lost, injured, the ride can take longer than expected…
I don’t really feel like I need to justify why you should take water. You just should.
The good news is, there are several ways you can carry water.
Your bike might come with a cage already attached to the downtube. If it does, get a water bottle and easily access water anytime. If it doesn’t come with a cage, you can buy one for under $20.
Most mountain bikers carry a backpack with a hydration bladder in it.
The hose usually rests on your chest so it’s quickly and easily accessible. Doesn’t it look like a microphone? Just turn your head to the side and suck.
These days more riders are opting for a hip pack.
Get a big enough one and it can also accommodate a hydration bladder. But the hose rests on your hip which may require some coordination to grab and drink from while pedaling.
I wear an EVOC hip pack and can’t seem to pedal, find the hose, drink from it and return it without needing to stop at some point in the process.
But that’s me.
Whoohoo, last category! Bike tools and other accessories.
Even if you have no idea how to use it or what all’s in it, it’s always a good idea to ride with a multi-tool.
If you get into mechanical trouble, someone you’re riding with might know how to help, and if they forgot theirs… well, you’ve got yours!
Or, you might pass another group of riders on the trail who need to borrow one. It’s always a good feeling to stop and help a fellow rider.
For simplicity, here’s a list of accessories you might want to carry with you always:
- Spare inner tube
- Tire levers
- Trail snacks (duh)
- Patch kit
- Multi-tool with chain break
- Tampon (you never know when someone will have a hole that needs stuffing)
- Mini air pump or air canister
- Bear bangers if you live in bear country
That about covers it!
I hope this information helps you as you get started in mountain biking.
Be careful, though…
Mountain biking is an addictive sport that lets you experience things like joy, friendship, confidence, freedom, bruises, fear, and fun!
And if you’re on the hunt for some fresh new gear, Dirty Jane carries tons of high-quality and technical gear from some of the top women-owned brands in the biz.