By Pure Matters

I call it the Mountain Dew syndrome. The ad campaign for the high-caffeine soft drink has almost single-handedly painted the public perception of mountain biking as an adrenaline-fueled activity best suited to teen daredevils with absolutely no understanding of their own mortality -- which is unfortunate. For me, the less-extreme side of the sport is where mountain biking excels, offering that perfect synergy between the physical, the mechanical, and the natural realms.

To help avoid media-saturated understanding of the sport -- and to get you in the saddle --here are a few quick tips.

Find the Right Trail
Despite its name, mountain biking doesn’t require mountains. Think of it as off-road biking. And while it is prohibited in most national parks, a great variety of trails are open to biking in regional and state parks. Resources like and enthusiast sites like geographically index trails with user ratings and reviews. Trail difficulty is partially defined by its length and elevation, but a trail’s technical nature is the best barometer. Features like fallen logs, rock gardens, big drops, and stream crossings increase a trail’s difficulty. When starting out, look for trails described as mellow, smooth, and flowing.

Trust in Your Bike
Modern mountain bikes are a revelation. Full-suspension rigs -- bikes with air shocks at the front and back -- deliver smooth rides on the most rugged of trails. Aggressive (or “knobby”) tires bite into dirt and mud much like aggressively-treaded hiking boots. A profusion of gears (typically 27, divided into front and rear gear wheels) allow for micro adjustments for optimal pedaling. In short, the bikes are your ally on the trial. Get used to them before heading out.

Stay Nimble and Aggressive
Keep your elbows and knees bent, and your arms, shoulders, and legs loose and ready to absorb the trail. The half-standing posture also lets you guide your bike into the curves by shifting your weight for more fluid movement. When you’re not pedaling, keep your feet and pedals parallel to the trail. This will prevent your pedals from clipping on protruding rocks or roots. And when you encounter more technical terrain, shift your weight back, so that the bike takes the brunt of the rough stuff.

When in Doubt, Commit
As with running or skiing, you want to flow over the trail. Don’t be tentative. Instead, keep an even, steady pace; maintain your loose-and-ready posture, and let the bike handle the brunt of any roots or rocks you might encounter. After all, that’s precisely what they’re designed to do.

Look Ahead, Not Down
One mountain biking truism? If you look at something as you pedal toward it, you’re gonna hit it. Instead of looking at your front tire, keep your eyes focused about 10 to 15 feet ahead. You’ll read the trail and navigate more confidently, anticipating turns, weaving around obstacles, controlling your speed, and shifting gears before you hit that quad-crushing uphill.

Brake Lightly
Most bikes have disc brakes -- an upgrade as significant as the introduction of power breaks in cars. Accordingly, it doesn’t take a lot to stop. Instead of slamming the breaks, feather the handles evenly with two fingers, applying light pressure equally on both handles. And remember: your left break is the front break; if you use just that break, you could go flying over the handle bars.

Wear the Right Stuff
You can redefine ”personal debt crises” by buying bike gear, but a few items make a big difference. Padded gloves ease the shock on your wrists, a small pack with a hydration reservoir provides on-the-go water access, and sunglasses with yellow or orange lenses help you see the trail in the shade and shield your eyes from mud splashes. Padded shorts are also nice; I prefer to wear them underneath a baggy pair of polyester shorts over the skin-tight look. And a helmet is a must.

– Nathan Borchelt