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A Noob’s Guide: The Safe Way To Single Track Mountain Biking

June 2013
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I am a roadie who loves a good mountain bike ride from time to time. It shakes things up, gives me a bit of the impact that all roadies need, and gets me feeling like a twelve year-old kid again. Now, I’m one of the very few recovering drunks who had a great childhood, so when I say that mountain biking makes me feel like a twelve year-old kid, that’s a good thing… Just wanted to clarify. Also, for clarification, we’re not including crushed gravel flat trail riding as ‘mountain biking’. While you may ride easy bike paths and trails on a mountain bike, that’s cycling.

That said, I’m not a kid anymore. I have responsibilities to my wife and my kids. I have to be able to work to support them so my days of doing certain dangerous things are over, or at the very least, very limited. Mountain biking is a gray area. If you were to ask Travis Pastrana, what I do is about as safe as walking on the sidewalk. Ask my mom and I’m a hair-on-fire daredevil (she is, alas, mistaken). The reality is that I do challenge myself on a mountain bike to an extent – that’s half the fun (or exhilaration) but I don’t do so too far outside of my ability.

For instance, do we all remember the video of the guy riding the mountain pass, he’s going just a bit too slow, locks his wheel, falls and proceeds to tumble a couple hundred feet down the mountain? Yeah, that won’t be me, ever. On the other hand I’m not about to sit on my couch in a bubble wrap onesie either.

Finding a fair balance is the trick here – how far can I push the limit without risking the old noodle? The bar will raise with experience but at the forefront is my responsibility to come home safe.

Beyond that, I’ve picked up a few things over the last couple of years that have greatly improved my safety on the single track so I can still have fun while reasonably expecting to come home in a non-vegetative state.

First and foremost: Safety glasses and melon protector. In Michigan, many of the single track trails run through the woods. I’m smacked in the face at least a half-dozen by branches and/or leaves. Because we’re in the forest and it is darker, clear glasses are preferred. As for the melon cover or brain bucket, we need not even bother addressing this. I believe that society has gotten to a point that you’re looked at as a dope if you’re not wearing one on the road, let alone on a trail where falling from the bike is much more frequent

Second, and this I got from my buddy Tim, don’t second guess unclipping. I ride with clip-less pedals. In my opinion they’re vastly safer. I won’t get on a bike without my shoes and pedals anymore. On the other hand, if I lose balance, getting my foot to the ground does take a split second longer. The trick is to aim for the ground with your heel – or lead with your heel as you push your leg out and down… This automatically unclips your foot. The rest isn’t rocket science. If you see a situation pop up that might require unclipping, do it.

Third, is about speed. There’s a difference between pushing yourself and being stupid and winding up drooling uncontrollably on yourself for the next twenty years. Last week a guy I met at a local trail tried to push it too hard and wound up sitting in a swamp with a gash across his forearm. He hit a bridge at full speed, slid off and wham! He was ass deep in muck before he knew it. Fast is good. Stupid? Not so much. Another simple tip is be weary of wooden bridges in a moist forest setting. They are slow to dry after a rain and exceptionally slick.

Fourth, and to thoroughly confuse you, speed is your friend. Fast is good. Too fast is not (See previous).

Fourth and a Half, Laura added a great one in the comments section that my fourth point is an extension of: “TRUST YOUR BIKE. It wants to stay upright. Find your line, point your bike in the direction you want to go, ride loose, and roll with the terrain. It will be faster and more fun but you can stay in control”.

Fifth, and this goes back to the pedals too, in a way. Anticipate getting stuck and having to unclip – at least until you’re good enough to pick the right line. I still get myself stuck in a bad line from time to time so the ability to unclip quick helps.

Sixth, watch descents when roots and rocks. While these descents are safer with your feet locked into the pedals, downhills (at least around here) are often followed by a quick change in direction at the bottom. Keeping the bike under control is an imperative.

Finally, know clearance, watch for roots and rocks that stick up higher than your chain ring and try to time your pedal stroke to keep from bottoming your foot out on an obstacle. You’ll stop and go down almost in an instant.

These are strategies that I use every time I go out mountain biking. Some were put together after I fell a time or two. Others came from close calls. That aside, the few times I have gone down since my first time on an actual trail were under relatively sane conditions and posed little danger (though strange things do happen). The first time I rode though, I didn’t know what I was doing – one of the two times I went down was to avoid riding off of a 20′ drop off. I was riding a little too fast and didn’t know how to make the turn. After that I learned to cool my jets unless I could see far enough ahead to know my exposure.

Playing in the dirt, as we call it, is an absolute blast – especially if it is done in a manner that is safe as reasonably possible.

Happy riding.

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7 Comments

  1. Laura says:

    Here’s one: TRUST YOUR BIKE. It wants to stay upright. Find your line, point your bike in the direction you want to go, ride loose, and roll with the terrain. It will be faster and more fun but you can stay in control.

    I need a mountain bike. 🙂

  2. kruzmeister says:

    Great post Jim, thanks for the tips!

  3. oldmeany says:

    Reblogged this on Mean And Dirty events and commented:
    good move

  4. ekels22 says:

    I went on a Single Track trail for the first time today in Milford. It was pretty scary at first. One thing I can add for the Noob is lower you’re tire pressure. I was ready to quit after taking a few hard spills it was wet on the trail. After I fixed the tire pressure it was so much easier. Great workout I feel pretty sore after about 16 miles in the woods. Really was fun and will do again suffering in a pace line on a road ride definitely feels safer.

    • bgddyjim says:

      That’s a great point you make. Keep at it, you’ll get used to it pretty quick, though it does take a few rides to really get your wheels under you. Thanks for pointing that out.

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