New people are trying our sport every day. Some of them are getting into it on their own, but many of them are people we are trying to turn into legit mountain bikers — friends, relatives, significant others — because we want to share our passion with them. As experienced riders, we love to bestow nuggets of advice upon these folks, but not all of this “gold” is actually beneficial. I’d like to poke some holes in the most common myths, and hopefully help new riders enjoy our awesome sport without ending up in a YouTube crash reel.
1. You should learn to ride on a hardtail.
Riding a mountain bike the first few times is full of uncomfortable sensations. Not only do riders feel nervousness or even fear, but there are also all the strange, new physical sensations that we experienced riders have long forgotten about. One of those is how horrible riding a hardtail feels to a beginner. The bike is harsh and bouncy, always slamming the rider in the crotch because they don’t yet know how to absorb the impact. While I’ve heard all the arguments about what a hardtail can teach a new rider, I think that idea puts the cart before the horse. The purpose of those first rides is to hook new riders, get them excited in spite of all the weird newness. And for that to happen, they need to ENJOY themselves. A full suspension bike will provide all the great things that suspension does to improve riding: increased traction, more stability and control, and less jarring over bumps. All those things are why a majority of riders ride full-suspension bikes all the time anyway. Why should we subject beginners to things we don’t even do anymore?
2. Don’t use your front brake.
Eeesh. This one makes me shudder, especially when I see new riders out there endangering themselves by trying to stop with only the rear brake. We all know that the front brake provides a lot of the stopping power and control that you need to slow down safely. If you avoid using it, you’re not any safer. Aggressive rear braking often leads to skidding and wholesale loss of traction that can cause a significant wipeout. It’s not better than the dreaded “over the bars” crash that everyone thinks is caused by using the front brake. So let’s take a big step back. First, we must make sure the rider has been taught to use the levers correctly and to use the proper body position while braking. By the way, don’t tell them to “just push your weight back…” now you’re just teaching them to load the catapult. Hopefully, everyone these days has realized that pushing your weight too far back is often a shortcut to the ER.
3. Real mountain bikers only use clipless pedals.
Times are starting to change, but there are still a surprising number of mountain bikers who think flat pedals have no place in the sport. This is odd, considering many of the best riders in the world use flats, including professional downhill racers, trials riders, and many of the insanely skilled shredders seen blazing down black-diamond trails everywhere. Here’s the real story: Clipless pedals are no problem once riders have skills and confidence, but they’re a disaster for newbies. People who are new to the sport should learn on flat pedals, even if they know how to use clipless systems from riding road bikes. Because way too often, beginners are turned off from the sport by the fear and mental pressure of trying to simultaneously clip in while also learning to manage obstacles on the trail.
It’s the saddest and frustrating situation I see while coaching, where a new rider hates the pedals and is having a miserable time. But they’ve been berated by friends or a significant other that they MUST ride in clipless pedals because “that’s how I do it” or “that’s how you’re supposed to do it.” In reality, learning to ride on flat pedals will prevent many bad habits, plus provide real skills to take forward into whatever pedal system the rider decides to embrace once they’re more confident. So, if you’re bringing someone into the sport, chillax about the clipless pedals already. Instead, help that person buy a set of real flat pedals with pins, not those worthless plastic things that come on cheap bikes. Sticky-rubber mountain bike shoes will complete the setup and make your new rider a lot happier with the learning process.
4. You should just learn by riding. I learned the hard way and so should you.
This makes no sense to me. New riders can make huge improvements in their skill by getting instruction, plus they can bypass a bunch of dumb crashes and bad habits that many of us picked up by “just riding.” Every sport has lessons and coaching, whether it’s team-oriented like football or basketball, or individually focused like skiing, golfing or swimming. Even runners get coaching to improve their stride. Why wouldn’t a technically-demanding sport like mountain biking bring beginners along through lessons? They will get better so much faster. Isn’t that the point, to bring them up quickly so we can enjoy riding with them?
5. Your boy/girlfriend can teach you how to ride.
Hang on, I have to go grab some popcorn. This is guaranteed to be a train wreck worth watching. Seriously, don’t ever teach your significant other anything sport-related. Unless, possibly, you’re actively wanting to get divorced or part ways. There are more honorable ways to do that you know. Besides, if you send your new rider off to take a clinic, they’ll have tons of fun, have confidence in their ability, and come back excited to ride again. If you “teach” them, it will end in an argument, pretty much guaranteed. I’m not trying to be a jerk, it’s just one of those unavoidable facts of life, like death and taxes.
6. In order to save money, beginners should learn on a crappy hand-me-down or cheap bike (especially if they’re your wife, girlfriend or child… yes, I said that out loud).
This just isn’t right. Please don’t do it. Especially if that crappy bike isn’t even the right size or has horribly outdated stuff like cantilever brakes or quill stems. Get your new rider a demo bike or legit rental so they can ride a modern, quality mountain bike. It’s a huge part of that goal of showing them a good time. Once they’re interested, help them figure out a budget they can manage for their own bike. The flip side of this is also true — no one needs a $7,000 bike to learn to ride. Your new rider doesn’t need to make this kind of financial commitment to see if they enjoy the sport. There’s plenty of middle ground out there.
7. Mountain biking is far more dangerous than road riding.
If you believe this, you must have the pleasure of living in a place with very little car traffic. And that’s a rabbit hole for another day. But keep in mind no one riding on a trail is going to be struck (and possibly killed) by someone texting and driving. Chances are, most riders know a road-biking friend who has been hit by a car if they haven’t been hit themselves. The fact that someone in a car can kill you trumps even a serious injury that might occur while trail riding. (Reminder: it’s risky to get out of bed in the morning to do just about anything.) So, perpetuating this myth that mountain biking is dangerous to beginners doesn’t make any sense, plus it just increases the anxiety they may have about the sport.
8. If you don’t aspire to ride black diamond trails, you’re not a real mountain biker.
I realize that the Rampage aura of mountain biking is very dear to many hearts, but let’s get real. New riders have no such aspirations, at least not right now. Most of them just want to survive whatever trail they’ve been dragged on, without blood or broken bones, while managing to avoid looking stupid if at all possible. And as some riders progress, they may just want to enjoy riding a bike in the woods without ever taking on high levels of challenge. That’s great! This sport has room for every kind of rider, no matter their goals. If you simply want to escape the office and the computer screen with a nice pedal on easy trails, I can’t think of any better reason to ride. The fewer angry rats in the race, the better.
The best way to get someone into the beauty of mountain biking is to have an opportunity for an amazing first few rides. Think about that time you had the worst experience ever, would you want that to be one of your initial attempts to get into a new activity? Exactly. Now, let’s all get out there and go ride.