Riding a bike is fun. So is meandering on trails through the woods. Put the two together, as some Marin County, California, teenagers did in the late 1960s, and you invent a new sport: mountain biking.
Mountain biking shines on purpose-built trails, both to avoid potential run-ins with hikers or horses and to take advantage of the physics of a bike’s momentum. Rounding a banked turn is a lot more satisfying on two wheels than on two feet.
The Pacific Northwest embraced the sport early and, despite some opposition from hikers and others, eventually blossomed into one of the world’s mountain biking destinations. Dedicated volunteers and professional trail builders have carved routes through lush forest, across clear-cuts and down hillsides throughout Western Washington. Here’s what you need to know to get started.
The type of bike matters
If you’re eager to get muddy yourself, step one is obvious: You need a bike. And what predominantly sets a mountain bike apart from its siblings is suspension. Shocks allow a mountain bike to go over roots, rocks, logs and everything else you might find off-road. Bikes with front suspension only are known as hardtail bikes, while full-suspension bikes have both front and rear shocks.
“A hardtail really highlights your form on a bike and magnifies your mistakes. You’ve got to compensate with proper braking and body positioning,” says Emily Ford, an instructor with Radical Roots MTB, a mountain bike coaching and skills outfit based in the sport’s undisputed local hub of Bellingham. “That’s going to transfer over to a full-suspension bike. More suspension and traction means more room for error.”
Decent entry-level hardtail mountain bikes can be found for under $1,000, while full-suspension bikes realistically start from $1,500. If you go for higher-end components, lighter-weight materials like carbon or features like a dropper seatpost, which allows you to lower your seat with a mere thumb press — helpful for shifting your weight back midride in anticipation of a steep downhill — the sky quickly becomes the limit on pricing. As is often the case with outdoor gear, there is an expensive barrier to entry, but a solid bike with regular maintenance can last for many seasons.
Want to try before you buy? Full-suspension bikes are available to rent at evo’s Seattle flagship in Fremont (and will be available later this summer at its Snoqualmie Pass satellite), Ride Bicycles‘ Issaquah location and Progression Cycle in Sammamish, a short pedal from Duthie Hill Bike Park.
To tackle our region’s purpose-built singletrack trails — trails about as wide as a mountain bike — Ford strongly recommends getting your hands on a full-suspension bike. If you want to buy local, check out Washington brands like Evil Bikes, Kona and Transition.
A rider can adjust two main settings on their bike: tire pressure and rebound. Ford, who weighs 155 pounds with all her gear, runs her front tire at 19-20 pounds per square inch and her rear tire at 20-21 PSI. She prefers less air up front for better traction and control as her tire chews over roots and rocks. But if she were at the ride park looking mostly to pedal hard and hit jumps, she would pump the tires up firmer. For a long ascent, she might pump her tires up above those settings to make the climb easier, then release some air at the top before riding down.
Rebound is the setting that determines the responsiveness of the suspension. The switch on the fork that can be toggled between “slow” and “fast” is usually illustrated with a tortoise and a hare. “If I’m pingponging off things and getting bounced around, then that’s a cue my rebound is too fast,” Ford said.
Ultimately, the ideal combination of tire pressure and rebound will depend on both the type of riding and conditions. The same trail will ride differently on a wet, slippery day versus a dry, dusty one. Ford recommends keeping a log in order to anticipate which settings to apply on a given day.
In Ford’s clinics, she teaches basic skills like steering and braking that are easy to practice in a park with some pitch, no trail required. Use cones to demarcate an imaginary finish line, roll in at high speed and, with just one finger on each of the brakes, come to a stop right on the finish line without skidding. Pull that off consistently — and, even more challenging, using just front or just rear brakes — and you’ve found the sweet spot for feathering your brakes as you whip down a trail.
Cones are also helpful for negotiating imaginary obstacles, like roots or rocks, that can bedevil riders, especially when going uphill. Try steering so that a cone passes between your front and rear wheels; that’s a decent simulation of what it would be like in tight quarters to steer around a rock that would otherwise force you to dismount.
Essential gear matters
Speaking of dismounts, bailing on your bike is an inevitability. A nice grassy patch makes for a safe place to practice releasing your bike and landing on two feet when things go south.
While on the trail, running into trees, rocks and even plain old dirt can hurt. Ford’s essential gear list includes a helmet with visor, knee pads, eye protection — most Pacific Northwest trails are shaded, so wear something good for low light, even on a sunny day — and flat-bottom mountain bike shoes to better grip platform pedals. (Ford gave Five Ten and Ride Concepts her thumbs-up on footwear.) She discourages beginners from going straight to clip-in pedals.
In recent years, the hip pack (rather than the backpack) has become standard issue for mountain bikers, thanks in large part to Seattle-born, Bellingham-based High Above. Ford’s pack always has the bike maintenance basics: a multitool, tire levers, spare tube and a CO2 cartridge to inflate the spare tube.
Hip packs jostle around less than backpacks, and on most rides on our local trail networks, you can pack light knowing that resupplying at the trailhead is just a short pedal away. A mountain bike ride is a front country pursuit, not an excursion deep into the backcountry.
Despite that proximity to civilization, Ford still packs the essentials: food, water, first-aid kit, extra layer and a space blanket.
“You can be only a mile or two down the trail, but it could take a long time before medics come and actually get you off the hill,” she said.