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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
John has been writing about bikes and cycling for over 30 years since discovering that people were mug enough to pay him for it rather than expecting him to do an honest day's work.
He was heavily involved in the mountain bike boom of the late 1980s as a racer, team manager and race promoter, and that led to writing for Mountain Biking UK magazine shortly after its inception. He got the gig by phoning up the editor and telling him the magazine was rubbish and he could do better. Rather than telling him to get lost, MBUK editor Tym Manley called John’s bluff and the rest is history.
Since then he has worked on MTB Pro magazine and was editor of Maximum Mountain Bike and Australian Mountain Bike magazines, before switching to the web in 2000 to work for CyclingNews.com. Along with road.cc founder Tony Farrelly, John was on the launch team for BikeRadar.com and subsequently became editor in chief of Future Publishing’s group of cycling magazines and websites, including Cycling Plus, MBUK, What Mountain Bike and Procycling.
John has also written for Cyclist magazine, edited the BikeMagic website and was founding editor of TotalWomensCycling.com before handing over to someone far more representative of the site's main audience.
He joined road.cc in 2013. He lives in Cambridge where the lack of hills is more than made up for by the headwinds.