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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

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)

There was a time when minor roads were almost the exclusive preserve of cyclists, especially on Sunday mornings. But now everyone drives everywhere, all the time, 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

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

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)

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)

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 carry other stuff too, such as a jacket (see below), tools and spares.

Buyer's guide to hydration packs for mountain biking

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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.

Buyer's guide to waterproof mountain bike and gravel jackets

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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.

Buyer's guide to mountain bike helmets

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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.

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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.

Buyer's guide to mountain bike pedals - what's best, flats or clips?

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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

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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.

Buying your first mountain bike: the complete guide
Buyer's guide to mountain bikes - get the best MTB for you

For all the latest mountain bike news and product reviews, pop over to our fabulously muddy sister site, www.off.road.cc. Here's a useful list of mountain biking features and buyer's guides.

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.

49 comments

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steviemarco [248 posts] 3 years ago
0 likes

My next bike is going to be trail bike. I hate the thought of another winter sat in front of the big screen, Zwifting away in my garage, I'd much rather be out riding for real without worrying about what lies beneath that puddle of water.

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CXR94Di2 [2660 posts] 3 years ago
0 likes

I purchased last years Scott Lt700 tuned framset, set about ordering parts to build my self a top notch xtrail mtb.  Single XTR groupset, Hope hydraulic braking system, Stans tubeless wheels with Hope hubs, and bottom bracket.  All anodised to match frame set.

First ride was a 50 miler, tired, but no aches or pains.  I got a huge sense of achievement building up my bike and then to find it works flawlessly and comfy to boot  4

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Paul J [966 posts] 2 years ago
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Have to agree that drop bars are more comfortable. Straight MTB bars get painful quickly, having next to no way to vary your grip. I can't do more than an hour on MTB bars, where drops you can go for hours. You lose a little bit of manoeuvrability on twistier stuff with narrower drops, but you can work it around it mostly. Probably even helps with technical skills, with more transferable skills to road...

Also, helmets are _not_ compulsory - bull. If you like bimbling along, not too fast, and riding within yourself on soft earthen trails, then the natural helmet evolution provided you with likely will suffice. If you like pushing it on rocky trails, maybe you do want a helmet. Wear what suits the type of riding you do.

Be sensible and do what is right for you. Feel more than free to ignore the frothing helmet fascists if you're just taking it easy.

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Duncann [1486 posts] 2 years ago
1 like
Paul J wrote:

Have to agree that drop bars are more comfortable. Straight MTB bars get painful quickly, having next to no way to vary your grip. I can't do more than an hour on MTB bars, where drops you can go for hours

That's why bar ends were a good idea. They seemed to go out of fashion when riser bars came in but I still have mine in a box somewhere (but no mtb to attached them too).

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Jimmy Ray Will [1029 posts] 2 years ago
1 like

I believe MTB riding is a good thing. 

As mentioned, helps build skills that you wouldn't otherwise have just riding the road. its also good for road racing, and specifically for crash avoidance. MTB teaches you that you can hit things and or lose your wheels without necessarily hitting the deck. 

Good fun too.

 

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LastBoyScout [613 posts] 2 years ago
0 likes

My old MTB has big old L-shaped bar ends on, which I used a bit - mainly put them on to protect my hands from punching trees.

Never bothered putting any on when I bought a new MTB and can't say I've ever missed them.

I'd very much like my next bike to be an upgrade MTB - better start saving up...

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DaveE128 [1010 posts] 2 years ago
0 likes
Paul J wrote:

Have to agree that drop bars are more comfortable. Straight MTB bars get painful quickly, having next to no way to vary your grip. I can't do more than an hour on MTB bars, where drops you can go for hours. You lose a little bit of manoeuvrability on twistier stuff with narrower drops, but you can work it around it mostly. Probably even helps with technical skills, with more transferable skills to road... Also, helmets are _not_ compulsory - bull. If you like bimbling along, not too fast, and riding within yourself on soft earthen trails, then the natural helmet evolution provided you with likely will suffice. If you like pushing it on rocky trails, maybe you do want a helmet. Wear what suits the type of riding you do. Be sensible and do what is right for you. Feel more than free to ignore the frothing helmet fascists if you're just taking it easy.

Although you don't get much in the way of hand position options, I think this is as much down to fit and suspension setup as anything. If your forks are set up so they actually work (many people have way too much compression damping and/or too high pressure) then there will be a lot less vibration and shocks than on a road bike. Choosing good grips makes a big difference too, like bar tape.

I cycled the South Downs Way on my MTB last year in one day, about 12.5 hours moving time, and had no hand discomfort issues at all, even with no bar ends. On the road bike, though, where I don't think my fit is quite so sorted, I get hand discomfort on rides just a fraction of that duration.

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A440 [63 posts] 1 year ago
2 likes

"Why your next article should be a road-bike article, road.cc".

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dreamlx10 [312 posts] 1 year ago
1 like

The way some "road" bikes are going with disc brakes and suspension parts and wide tyres your next bike may well be a "mountain" bike, and that's before we start on beards !

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Bluebug [351 posts] 1 year ago
1 like
dreamlx10 wrote:

The way some "road" bikes are going with disc brakes and suspension parts and wide tyres your next bike may well be a "mountain" bike, and that's before we start on beards !

I thought the reason for  needing a mountain bike that was because UK roads were so bad you needed one to actually get around from A to B.

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don simon fbpe [2989 posts] 1 year ago
0 likes
Bluebug wrote:
dreamlx10 wrote:

The way some "road" bikes are going with disc brakes and suspension parts and wide tyres your next bike may well be a "mountain" bike, and that's before we start on beards !

I thought the reason for  needing a mountain bike that was because UK roads were so bad you needed one to actually get around from A to B.

That's why I've got a 4x4.

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SingleSpeed [429 posts] 1 year ago
1 like
Richard1982 wrote:

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).

 

 

 

BIKE PORN alert (minus points for the wrong pedals)

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SingleSpeed [429 posts] 1 year ago
1 like
Paul J wrote:

Have to agree that drop bars are more comfortable. Straight MTB bars get painful quickly, having next to no way to vary your grip. I can't do more than an hour on MTB bars, where drops you can go for hours. You lose a little bit of manoeuvrability on twistier stuff with narrower drops, but you can work it around it mostly. Probably even helps with technical skills, with more transferable skills to road... Also, helmets are _not_ compulsory - bull. If you like bimbling along, not too fast, and riding within yourself on soft earthen trails, then the natural helmet evolution provided you with likely will suffice. If you like pushing it on rocky trails, maybe you do want a helmet. Wear what suits the type of riding you do. Be sensible and do what is right for you. Feel more than free to ignore the frothing helmet fascists if you're just taking it easy.

 

That's just bad set up and being poorly informed on the subject of cycling in general. I'm relatively certain the thousands of MTBers racing in 12 and 24hour events on 740mm Straight Bars don't have any trouble whatsover, myself included.

Re the helmet I am absolutely with you 100% on that one "Be sensible and do what is right for you" absolutely spot on though I would probably change the wording to "Only protect something if there is something inside worthy of protecting" I think that covers it better.

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ktache [1872 posts] 1 year ago
0 likes

I realise it's against "the rules" but the peak on my mountain bike helmets does somewhat help when riding on the road at night, just dipping the head blocks out bright oncoming headlights.

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Mathemagician [66 posts] 1 year ago
5 likes
ktache wrote:

I realise it's against "the rules" but the peak on my mountain bike helmets does somewhat help when riding on the road at night, just dipping the head blocks out bright oncoming headlights.

Let's be honest- anyone who lives by "The Rules" is a bellend.

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ClubSmed [784 posts] 1 year ago
1 like
Mathemagician wrote:
ktache wrote:

I realise it's against "the rules" but the peak on my mountain bike helmets does somewhat help when riding on the road at night, just dipping the head blocks out bright oncoming headlights.

Let's be honest- anyone who lives by "The Rules" is a bellend.

Totally agree.

Never really understood why, if the peak on the helmet was so abhorrent to road cyclists, that the peaked cycling cap underneath the "road" helmet is accepted/expected.

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OldRidgeback [3186 posts] 1 year ago
2 likes

Pah, your next bike should be a BMX.

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Kendalred [351 posts] 1 year ago
0 likes

Got my first mountain bike last december, at the age of 47! (Me, not the bike). I must admit it was only to allow me to commute in all weathers (ice tyres), so it got me through some dodgy conditions that I wouldn't have dared venture out on the road bike in.

It was a massive spur of the moment purchase, I'd only gone into the bike shop for a browse, but it had a good discount AND I got the other half's approval (encouragement even!). I know it's heavy and slow, but it does put a different kind of smail on my face (if that makes sense), plus I live near some dedicated trails in Grizedale in the Lakes, so a great place to get off road.

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Daveyraveygravey [697 posts] 1 year ago
0 likes
Duncann wrote:
Paul J wrote:

Have to agree that drop bars are more comfortable. Straight MTB bars get painful quickly, having next to no way to vary your grip. I can't do more than an hour on MTB bars, where drops you can go for hours

That's why bar ends were a good idea. They seemed to go out of fashion when riser bars came in but I still have mine in a box somewhere (but no mtb to attached them too).

 

My 10 year old Boardman still has bar ends and I use them all the time!  If I ever upgrade to a new MTB, I will be looking at getting bar ends on it.

That line about MTB taking you back to being a kid, that's what any cycling does for me, not just MTB.  I'm lucky enough to live 5 minutes from the South downs Way (or 5 minutes from the bottom of the hill that leads to the SDW...) I can't imagine not riding on and off road.  Some roadie mates have NEVER ridden off road, I just don't understand them.  I've never been to a man-made trail park though and hardly ever put either bike in the car to ride somewhere.

MTB riding is different; as the article says you are more likely to have higher intensity bursts but the opposite is true too.  You are more likely to spend longer coasting taking in the view, and some of the faster downhills I just can't pedal as my brain doesn't have the capacity to cope with picking the least dangerous line.  I don't do any of the crazy jump routes though.

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