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Hit the Dirt: Mountain Biking Basics for Road Cyclists

Matt never thought he would switch from road cycling to mountain biking. He was a serious triathlete who was looking for a change when he took up mountain biking. He was hooked right away.

"It is a whole new world when you are mountain biking," says Matt. "You have so much more stimulus with the trees and the terrain." He also gets better workouts in shorter periods of time with the mountain bike. It is a great way to get cardiovascular exercise while you work the muscles of the lower body. Your thighs, hips, and glutes get stronger with less strain than many other types of sports. It also gets you off the street and away from cars.

Matt is not the only one who has made the switch from road to dirt. In fact, mountain biking, or all-terrain biking (ATB), is becoming more popular. All you need is equipment and a little skill before you hit the trail.

Buy a Bike

Shop for a beginner bike that fits. Find a bike store where the staff knows what you need. Mountain bikes are heavier and sturdier than road bikes. You may also find that you need a different size than you may be used to.

While you are there, find out about other bike gear you will need like a helmet, gloves, clothing, or shoes. The right gear can help make your rides better and safer.

Bike shops are also great places to find biking groups, trails, and advice on getting started if you are new to the sport.

Learn the Basics

Before you take your first ride, make sure you can do some basic repairs. Knowing how to fix a flat or broken spoke can mean the difference between riding or walking back to your starting point. Call your local bike shop for advice on what you need to learn.

Your first few rides should be on dirt roads or wide trails. Do not try singletracks trails too soon. These are the narrow trails that snake through nature areas. When you feel ready, you can move on to the singletracks.

Do not go out and expect to cover as many miles as you would on the road. Fifty or 60 miles of road riding is often the same as about 25 to 30 miles of mountain biking. It could even be less if it is more technical riding. Start with a terrain and distance that you can handle and slowly progress from there.

Take to the Trails

Mountain biking uses more upper body strength than road riding. Tense up and you will get tired faster and will be more likely to make mistakes. Your goal is to keep your upper body relaxed and calm.

Use the Ready Position

The ready position gives you full control on the bike. Relax your elbows and knees. Keep your pedals at the 3 and 9 o'clock positions when you are not pedaling. Do not sit directly in the saddle. Center your weight over the bike. Keep your back-end lightly touching the seat without putting too much pressure on the seat. Balance is key. You may have to rock the bike to get more pedal power when you need it.

Change Gears

Terrain changes more often on the trails, so you will be shifting more often. Use small gears, shifting early as you approach hills to keep your RPMs up.

Look Ahead

Expect to run into things like rocks, logs, roots, and potholes that you may not be able to get over. Steer around them and keep looking ahead for them. If you look at something long enough when cycling, you will steer your bike toward it and will then have to go over it.

By the end of the ride, you will be much dirtier than you are at the end of road cycling. You may also be a little bloody. It is easy to fall or let your foot unclip or slip off the pedal, causing cuts and bruises.

Put Safety First

Always ride trails that are legal. Use these Rules of the Trail from the International Mountain Bicycling Association (IMBA):

  • Ride on open trails only.
  • Leave no trace.
  • Control your bicycle.
  • Always yield the trail.
  • Never startle animals.
  • Plan ahead.

Pack before you head out. Carry more repair tools and food than you would when road cycling. And give your bike a good check before you go. You may end up in places where your mobile phone may not work, so be prepared ahead of time.

You should also carry a basic first aid kit. Cuts and scrapes are common when biking. And of course, always wear a helmet.

Also, understand the level of the trails that you are riding. They may be marked differently around the country. Ask around if you are not sure. Lastly, back track if you find yourself on a trail that you are not ready to ride.

Moving From Beginner to ATB Enthusiast

You may soon prefer the trails of nature to the asphalt roads ruled by cars. Maybe you are even ready for more. If so, look into competitive racing, observed trials (competitions with challenging obstacle courses), longer charity rides, or off-road vacations. After all, some of the most beautiful places in the world can be reached by bike.

You may also want to think about helping to maintain public lands for riding. Contact IMBA or another organization to find out how you can volunteer to help with trail work. In addition, join a local mountain biking club where you can learn more about the sport and find out how to help maintain trails in your area.

Whatever you do, though, keep the focus on fun.


International Mountain Bicycling Association

New England Mountain Bike Association


Canada Trails

Mountain Bike Tourism Association


Bikes + mountains = excitement + challenge. American Council on Exercise website. Available at: Accessed June 29, 2021.

Rules of the trail. International Mountain Bicycling Association website. Accessed June 29, 2021.

Last reviewed June 2021 by EBSCO Medical Review Board  Last Updated: 6/29/2021