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Broaden your cycling horizons by hitting the trails

As everyone knows, the correct number of bikes to own is N+1, where N is the number you own now. But there’s only a certain number of road bikes you can own. What’s a bike addict to do? Get a mountain bike, of course.

The upstart rebel branch of cycling in the 1980s, mountain biking is now an established part of the scene, with thousands of people heading off to play in the woods every weekend. If you’ve not felt the call of the wild, here’s why you should give it a try.

It’s fun

Mountain biking (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 Bastiaan Slabbers|Flickr).jpg

Mountain biking (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 Bastiaan Slabbers|Flickr).jpg

Filthy fun (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 Bastiaan Slabbers|Flickr)

Mountain biking takes you back to being a kid playing in the mud. You’ll get messy, you’ll slide around and you’ll probably fall off a few times. You’ll finish spattered in mud (or, if you get a rare dry trail day, covered in dust), stung by nettles and grinning like a loon while you share stories over a pint.

Escape the traffic

How's the serenity (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 Rubén Marcos|Flickr).jpg

How's the serenity (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 Rubén Marcos|Flickr).jpg

How's the serenity (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 Rubén Marcos|Flickr)

There was a time when minor roads were almost the exclusive preserve of cyclists, especially on Sunday mornings. But everyone drives everywhere, all the time now, so even the tiniest back roads are very rarely the quiet lanes of the pre-Sunday trading era.

To get away from motor traffic, a mountain bike makes it easy to head away from the roads and into the hills. You can ride ‘wild’ by-ways and bridleways, plus purpose-built trails at the many trail centres that dot the country. You’ve no right to ride on public footpaths, though.

Lack of traffic makes mountain biking especially appealing to beginner cyclists, who are often quite reasonably reluctant to ride alongside trucks and boy racers. Easy trails and forest roads are great for building basic riding skills.

Build your skills

Mountain biking (CC BY-ND 2.0 Dave H|Flickr) .jpg

Mountain biking (CC BY-ND 2.0 Dave H|Flickr) .jpg

Going down (CC BY-ND 2.0 Dave H|Flickr)

For the most part, roads are predictable: they’re solid under your tyres and they provide grip up to a lean angle most people rarely attain. Things are very different off-road: surfaces are loose and slippery, and almost never even. You quickly learn to respond to the bike moving around under you, and to cope with slopes steeper than any road.

All of that translates into a big boost to your bike-handling skills that carries across to the road. I’m a mediocre mountain bike handler, but thanks to decades of off-road riding I’m faster downhill than most road cyclists. Which gives me a chance to catch up after being left behind on the climb.

Even more advanced mountain bike skills can be useful on the road. If you can jump or bunny-hop a mountain bike, you can hop a kerb to get away from an irate cabbie. The trail is a better place to learn that and many trail centres have skill-building areas where you can practice your technique.

Get intense

Mountain biking involves bursts of intensity that are hard to replicate on the road unless you’re very disciplined about exploring the upper limits of your heart rate range. You may even find your maximum heart rate is higher than you think, especially if you have a go at mountain bike racing.

Short bursts of high intensity can be a great part of your training mix; mountain biking is an ideal way to do them.

Explore the woods and moors

mountain biking (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 Adrià Triquell i Cristòfol|Flickr).jpg

mountain biking (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 Adrià Triquell i Cristòfol|Flickr).jpg

You can't drive here (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 Adrià Triquell i Cristòfol|Flickr)

There are wonderful, remote, beautiful places you can’t get to by road, from the tops of the Quantocks to the depths of Kielder Forest and beyond. Sure, you could hike in, but who has time for that?

Go night riding

Night riding in Hamsterley Forest (CC BY-NC-ND Darren Smith|Flickr).jpg

Night riding in Hamsterley Forest (CC BY-NC-ND Darren Smith|Flickr).jpg

Night riding in Hamsterley Forest (CC BY-NC-ND Darren Smith|Flickr)

Riding off-road in the dark is unique. With the trail lit from your handlebars and helmet, you traverse the night in your own personal bubble. Trees and trail obstacles spring out of the dark and all your senses are boosted. You’ll encounter animals rarely seen in daytime: foxes, owls, badgers, ‘courting couples’ and more.

If general mountain biking is fun and hones your riding skills, night riding take it up to 11. Your reflexes sharpen up, and because it’s harder to see and anticipate the trail surface, you learn to ride loose and react to the trail as you hit each rock and tree root.

Ride with the kids

Skill building for young 'uns (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 John Brownlow|Flickr).jpg

Skill building for young 'uns (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 John Brownlow|Flickr).jpg

Skill building for young 'uns (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 John Brownlow|Flickr)

Many kid’s bikes have fat tyres for the extra cushion and grip they provide. That means they can go off road too. Kids love the fun and freedom of riding trails, and parents don’t need to constantly make sure the little ones don’t veer off under a truck.

Buy more new toys

If one of the things you enjoy about cycling is buying, using and arguing about gear and accessories, you’re in for a treat. Not only does mountain biking have its own specific set of toys, but mud and wet means things wear out faster so you’ll have plenty of shopping opportunities down the line.

Things that it’s a good idea to pick up include:

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Hydration backpack. Even if you can fit bottles (and there’s not much room on many modern mountain bikes) drinking from them while riding is tricky and they tend to jump out on rough ground. A small backpack with a bladder carries far more water (up to three litres), is easier to drink from and can cary other stuff too, such as a jacket (see below), tools and spares.

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Jacket. Riding in the hills means you’ll encounter every whim of the good old British weather, often on the same day. A high-quality waterproof jacket tucked into your backpack is a must. As well as protecting you from the elements while you’re riding, it’ll come in handy for keeping you warm when you stop; you ca

Specialized Tactic.jpeg

Helmet. You might not wear one on the road, but a helmet is probably a good idea for mountain biking. You’ll fall far more often when playing in the woods (some would say it’s part of the game) and a helmet can protect against minor but messy scalp wounds and low-hanging branches. It won’t save your life, but it’ll stop you bleeding on your favourite jacket and twiddling your thumbs in A&E waiting to be stitched up. A mountain bike helmet usually has a peak to help keep the sun (or, let's be honest, rain) out of your eyes. 

prod115144_White_NE_01.jpeg

prod115144_White_NE_01.jpeg

Off-road shoes and pedals. There are two schools of thought when it comes to off-road pedals and footwear. If you’re already comfortable with being clipped in, then double-sided SPD pedals and matching shoes are the way to go.

prod141354_Maroon Hero_NE_01.jpeg

prod141354_Maroon Hero_NE_01.jpeg

Many riders prefer not to be attached to the bike, so they use ‘flat’ pedals with grippy-soled shoes. Forums are full of religious wars between the two camps, but it’s ultimately down to personal taste.

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Full-finger gloves. When (not if) you fall off, your hands will very likely hit the ground first. If you don’t want to spend the next hour picking gravel out of your palms, gloves are a must.

A bike

MTBs.jpg

MTBs.jpg

And of course you'll need a mountain bike. There are now as many different types of mountain bike as there are road bikes, from stripped down single speeds and jump bikes right through to full suspension downhill rigs, oh, and not forgetting e-mountain bikes either. You also get a choice of wheel size on mountain bikes these days. Check out our buyer's guide for some suggestions

 

Our official grumpy Northerner, John has been riding bikes for over 30 years since discovering as an uncoordinated teen that a sport could be fun if it didn't require you to catch a ball or get in the way of a hulking prop forward.

Road touring was followed by mountain biking and a career racing in the mud that was as brief as it was unsuccessful.

Somewhere along the line came the discovery that he could string a few words together, followed by the even more remarkable discovery that people were mug enough to pay for this rather than expecting him to do an honest day's work. He's pretty certain he's worked for even more bike publications than Mat Brett.

The inevitable 30-something MAMIL transition saw him shift to skinny tyres and these days he lives in Cambridge where the lack of hills is more than made up for by the headwinds.

37 comments

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Yorkshire wallet [1252 posts] 1 year ago
1 like

It's certainly fun but if you're SERIOUS about your road cycling I'd stay away. My shoulders have taken a right battering over the years and my knees and elbows could probably be better too.

Depends how hard you want to play I suppose as I like jumping which doesn't help, as what goes up sometimes doesn't come down how you expected. Totally different buzz to road cycling though.

I've become Strava obsessed this past year so I've barely ridden the MTB and BMX and as such I'm almost injury free in the upper body and my shoulder is has stopped clicking and grinding all the time.

Overall it's a good skillset to have but probably best got under your belt when you're young and bounce better if you're the sort of person that pushes on.

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arfa [849 posts] 1 year ago
0 likes

Oops! Just realised I was repeating myself from.comments already made a while ago under the mountain bike guide......
N+1, just do it !

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DaveE128 [885 posts] 1 year ago
1 like

I reckon that it's good for core strength building too. I reckon I see an increase in road performance after doing off road work.

You don't have to use full finger gloves. I enjoy mtb in the summer when it isn't a mud bath, and short finger gloves stull provide a lot of palm protection.

For those that enjoy speed and steep climbs, I love the South Downs Way. 100 miles and a lot more elevation thatn you'll see on most road imperial century rides! Not terribly technical so good for roadies learning the ropes. Fantastic views too.

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imajez [94 posts] 1 year ago
4 likes
Yorkshire wallet wrote:

It's certainly fun but if you're SERIOUS about your road cycling I'd stay away. My shoulders have taken a right battering over the years and my knees and elbows could probably be better too.

Funny as I've ridden off road for 25+ years now and my body is just fine. Same goes for most MTBers I know though a few do have injuries, they are not from MTBing. I even ride a cross bike with skinny tyres and no suspension on the rocky trails we have here in the Peaks.
But then you say you like jumping [and crashing it seems], which is a seperate [and more extreme activity] from MTBing for most people.

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imajez [94 posts] 1 year ago
1 like
DaveE128 wrote:

You don't have to use full finger gloves. I enjoy mtb in the summer when it isn't a mud bath, and short finger gloves stull provide a lot of palm protection.

I'm happy with mitts too. I get too hot with full fingers in Summer and that's more of an issue than crashing for me.
Though it can be a mud bath at any time of the year. 

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tsarouxaz [72 posts] 1 year ago
1 like

that is IF you have mountains where you live...

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dafyddp [432 posts] 1 year ago
2 likes

A the weekend, I did a thirty mile loop that linked together bridlepaths and very narrow lanes on my Croix de Fer, fitted with 40mm Schwalbe Mondial tyres. A couple of the paths were probably at the cusp of what the bike is designed for and could really have done with some suspension, and controlling the decent on rough farm track with drops felt very precarious. Awesome fun though, and excellent for bike handlind skills.

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stenmeister [342 posts] 1 year ago
1 like

Definitely getting one but not to ride trails, just to keep myself fit and commuting over the winter when the road bike is just unsuitable.

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Initialised [318 posts] 1 year ago
0 likes

On a recent sportive some people were moaning about skidding in the gravelly bits and taking rough descents really slowly because they don't use entry-sector-exit to read the road. Nothing wrong with the bike or the road, just a riding skill many roadies don't have. So go mountain biking and learn it.

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DaveE128 [885 posts] 1 year ago
6 likes
tsarouxaz wrote:

that is IF you have mountains where you live...

The first thing you should know about mountain bikes is that the name is dumb. The French "Vélo Tout Terrain" (VTT - all terrain bike) is far more sensible. The English ATB equivalent never caught on, maybe because it just didn't sound as good.

You defintitely don't need mountains to have fun on an MTB.

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leqin [197 posts] 1 year ago
2 likes

but I already have a mountain bike... in fact 2 if I include my 29er... so... sadly :.) - my next bike will have to be a cyclocross... carbon... disc brakes... fun fun fun :.)

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Mungecrundle [803 posts] 1 year ago
3 likes

Hard tail MTB is difficult to beat for a true all rounder; commuting, bad weather, touring, off roading (up to a technical point), hooning about until you fall off. Great in the winter when you can get all muddy and then go and jet wash it, and then take it apart to regrease all the bearings. Comfortable, versatile, robust and fast enough to go out with the medium roadies at the weekend especially with some road oriented tyres. You can go explore some bridleways and get away from the cars. The more battered they get the better they look. You don't have to justify wearing a helmet whilst riding one or get into arguments about disc brakes and best of all it's different enough to your 'good' road bike that even the other half has to admit that it's not just another bike.

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Bmblbzzz [142 posts] 1 year ago
1 like
Initialised wrote:

On a recent sportive some people were moaning about skidding in the gravelly bits and taking rough descents really slowly because they don't use entry-sector-exit to read the road. Nothing wrong with the bike or the road, just a riding skill many roadies don't have. So go mountain biking and learn it.

So what, in general terms, is entry-sector-exit? Using jargon like this without any explanation really puts roadies off mountain biking. And mountain bikers off road biking, if we're honest.  

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mtbtomo [232 posts] 1 year ago
1 like

I've done mountain biking for 20 years and never even heard the phrase "entry-sector-exit"????....

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richiewormiling [48 posts] 1 year ago
1 like

Severly tempted to get a MTB. I've been surveying the NCN for Sustrans recently and on non traffic-free routes, as mentioned - country lanes, i've noticed more or less a car turns up every thirty seconds for the whole duration of a year i've been surveying. I want my freedom back, the sort of stuff i get from hiking. MTB it is i reckon, in the future.

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Pipeyrw [3 posts] 1 year ago
2 likes

I think the remark "Mountain biking takes you back to being a kid playing in the mud" just nails it for me.

 

I MTB'd for 20+ years following my best mate who, despite the p*ss taking, bought a MTB in his mid 20s. Being a mate, I ended up buying one too.   Best thing I ever did, just like being a kid again, laughs, sore face grinning so much etc, etc.   

 

Same best mate bought a road bike 3 years ago and like a sheep, and faced with the prospect of MTBing on my own, I ended up buying a road bike too.

 

Thoroughly enjoy the road action but, in my experience (others will be different) I just don't smile as much.    

 

Its not not better or worse, just different.  MTBing definitely does give you a chance to improve your confidence on a bike when things get sketchy, but that's a side benefit.  It's just great fun.

 

 Do both, that's my view.

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multimodal [53 posts] 1 year ago
0 likes

Agree that it's like being a kid again. You can explore woods and riverbanks where you kind of know where you are but not exactly (unless you check your phone). You also find the best jumps and tracks that people have built out in the woods. 

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bendertherobot [1435 posts] 1 year ago
0 likes

N+1

So why not. Unless you're not allowed. And, at the moment, by Condor Bivio X converted to flat bar, with SLX 1X setup and hydro brakes, and 33c Schwalbe X-One tubeless is shredding it. Reminds me of a 1990's rigid fork MTB. Now THAT's taking you back to being a kid (or at least a vaguely irresponsible young adult).

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ficklewhippet [90 posts] 1 year ago
2 likes

Wow, buzzkill.

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Initialised [318 posts] 1 year ago
0 likes
Bmblbzzz wrote:
Initialised wrote:

On a recent sportive some people were moaning about skidding in the gravelly bits and taking rough descents really slowly because they don't use entry-sector-exit to read the road. Nothing wrong with the bike or the road, just a riding skill many roadies don't have. So go mountain biking and learn it.

So what, in general terms, is entry-sector-exit? Using jargon like this without any explanation really puts roadies off mountain biking. And mountain bikers off road biking, if we're honest.  

It's how you pick a line through a trail feature and plan on the fly where (not to) brake, how to handle roots, rocks, mud, change gear. Pick your entry point, pick your exit point set your speed and position and flow through rhe section of trail in between, like judging a tight corner on the road but also taking surface conditions, camber and your weight distribution into account to allow for maximum conservation of momentum.

Avatar
Bmblbzzz [142 posts] 1 year ago
0 likes
Initialised wrote:
Bmblbzzz wrote:
Initialised wrote:

On a recent sportive some people were moaning about skidding in the gravelly bits and taking rough descents really slowly because they don't use entry-sector-exit to read the road. Nothing wrong with the bike or the road, just a riding skill many roadies don't have. So go mountain biking and learn it.

So what, in general terms, is entry-sector-exit? Using jargon like this without any explanation really puts roadies off mountain biking. And mountain bikers off road biking, if we're honest.  

It's how you pick a line through a trail feature and plan on the fly where (not to) brake, how to handle roots, rocks, mud, change gear. Pick your entry point, pick your exit point set your speed and position and flow through rhe section of trail in between, like judging a tight corner on the road but also taking surface conditions, camber and your weight distribution into account to allow for maximum conservation of momentum.

Yeah, cheers. I found it in a few places in imbmag, but it actually took quite a bit of googling – first results were all economics, "barriers to sector entry". Though it makes me think: isn't the whole road/trail really just one series of "sectors" flowing into one another? Anyway, jargon ftl! (!) (insert ironic smiley...)

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cyclisto [223 posts] 1 year ago
0 likes

This year I bought a used 29er and tried it offroad. Well after the first time I had to clean I sold it at the same price.

Well if there weren't vehicle emissions and especially "eco-friendly" diesels, road cycling would win everywhere.

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waldner71 [50 posts] 1 year ago
0 likes

I've just returned from Southern Germany and was bitten by the MTB bug whilst there, fantastic MTB routes through forests and just great fun and great for allround fitness. Back home now in North Leeds and surrounding area which has a good range of off road routes which I'm looking forward to exploring when I pick up the MTB 

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tsarouxaz [72 posts] 1 year ago
0 likes
DaveE128 wrote:
tsarouxaz wrote:

that is IF you have mountains where you live...

The first thing you should know about mountain bikes is that the name is dumb. The French "Vélo Tout Terrain" (VTT - all terrain bike) is far more sensible. The English ATB equivalent never caught on, maybe because it just didn't sound as good.

You defintitely don't need mountains to have fun on an MTB.

ATB is true

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Dunlin [13 posts] 1 year ago
0 likes

The term 'Mountain' s misleading - it's off road riding, and you don't need mountains.   We run a 30 km MTB ride on Saturdays starting and finishing at Herne Hill velodrome for our 12+ year old riders.   75% off road on bridleways and tracks.   There are plenty of roots, concrete steps, mud, gravel, sand, speed bumps, 45 degree sprint climbs, and descents, animals and ice cream vans to keep us amused...

And if you ride cross, MTB is very beneficial to your bike handling of those technical courses. 

And, yes, helmets are compulsory.

www.hhycc.com

 

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Dunlin [13 posts] 1 year ago
0 likes

.. and you don't need mountains or much countryside.   We at Herne Hill Youth run a weekly 25km MTB ride for our 12+ year old riders from Herne Hill (London) on Saturdays. 

70% is off road on bridleways, tracks, parks and through woods.  We have mud, steps, 1in1 spint climbs, descents, speed bumps, tram lines, kerbs, barriers, gravel, sand, grass, roots, rocks, puddles, streams, animals and ice cream vans all incorporated to add to the fun.  Just use your imagination.

And if you race cross, MTB is the perfect way to hone your bike handling skills for those technical sections of courses, although they are getting more tame these days as more roadies join in.  (We also run a cross version of the ride)

ww.hhycc.com

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andyjjackson [4 posts] 1 year ago
1 like

Just remember to look where you want to be, not what's under your wheels. Buying 2nd hand bikes should include a budget for fork & rear suspension service...just to make sure it's all perfect.

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Fish_n_Chips [512 posts] 1 year ago
0 likes

I prefer cycling yes

 

The CX bike is my current toy but still have my roadbikes and one mountain bike.

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Richard1982 [74 posts] 1 year ago
0 likes

I love my mountain bike! I've made a few adjustments - this bike is purely for fun so it's a bit of an unusal setup! Just one gear (39/15 - it's hilly here!) so that's something less to think about and drop bars for comfort. I'm used to narrow (33cm c-c) bars on my track bike so I've gone narrow here too (35cm c-c).

 

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davecochrane [142 posts] 1 year ago
2 likes
Yorkshire wallet wrote:

It's certainly fun but if you're SERIOUS about your road cycling I'd stay away. My shoulders have taken a right battering over the years and my knees and elbows could probably be better too.

Depends how hard you want to play I suppose as I like jumping which doesn't help, as what goes up sometimes doesn't come down how you expected. Totally different buzz to road cycling though.

I've become Strava obsessed this past year so I've barely ridden the MTB and BMX and as such I'm almost injury free in the upper body and my shoulder is has stopped clicking and grinding all the time.

Overall it's a good skillset to have but probably best got under your belt when you're young and bounce better if you're the sort of person that pushes on.

I'd heartily disagree. Most of the best riders in my area, (including Jesse Sergent, who lives along the road), do tons of it in the off season for fun and for the very different muscle group recruitment. I'd love to buy one but I've only just got a new roadie, and the wife would execute me.

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