Is Mountain Biking Hard to Learn? (For Total Beginners)

So you’ve decided to leave the smooth pavement behind and try your luck on some rougher terrain. Welcome to the club!

Though I only began a year ago, mountain biking has become one of my all-time favorite activities. The challenge of riding technical terrain, learning new skills and just spending time in some beautiful outdoor locations only ignites my passion for the sport even more, and I hope you’ll feel the same! 

Now I know it may look daunting at first. But if you’re questioning whether you should even try it, I hope I can convince you to give it a shot!

Mountain biking really isn’t that hard to learn. In one year, I was able to learn many of the fundamental skills needed to enjoy the sport safely and go from riding easy trails to intermediate and even some advanced trails with confidence. With the right practice and preparation, mountain biking is a sport most people can learn.

If you focus on the four beginner fundamentals I’ll explain later in this article, you’ll find that mountain biking isn’t as scary as it first seems. At least until you start hitting those expert trails…but let’s not get ahead of ourselves! 

In this article, I’ll cover:

Is Mountain Biking Hard to Learn?

Like with any new activity, being a beginner is going to be challenging. Everything feels weird or uncomfortable when you’re trying something you’ve never done before. Mountain biking is no exception. For me, even just balancing on the bike was difficult at first.

And before you ask: yes, I know how to ride a bike! And no, I don’t use training wheels!

But the fact that you’ll be riding on rough, uneven terrain adds an extra level of difficulty. In my opinion, this makes mountain biking just a little more challenging to learn than road biking…though road biking has its own unique challenges of course.

In the end, the difficulty will really come down to your own level of fitness. If you’re in relatively good shape, you’ll improve quickly. If you’re not where you’d like to be fitness-wise, you may struggle a bit at the beginning. 

But the great thing about mountain biking–or any type of biking for that matter–is that it’s a super fun way to get in shape! So don’t let your current fitness level stop you from trying it!

How Long Does It Take to Learn to Mountain Bike?

Ok, so you’ve decided to give mountain biking a shot. How long until you’re a pro?

Let’s not get carried away, and let’s try to set some realistic expectations.

If you ride at least once per week and really commit to practicing your skills (there are tons of great training and technique videos online), you can expect to learn the fundamentals and graduate past the newbie stage in about a year or even less. 

I’ve been riding for a year now, and I’ve reached a point where I spend most of my time riding intermediate and even some advanced trails. I’ve still got a lot to learn, but I love the challenging terrain and features that these more difficult trails dish out.

I guess, though, it depends on what “learning to mountain bike” means to you. If it means being able to ride an easy trail without falling over, a year is a very realistic goal. If you want to send steep jumps or launch yourself off huge drops like you’re on the Red Bull world tour…you’ll probably need some more time in the saddle.  

Is Mountain Biking Dangerous?

As with any fitness activity, mountain biking carries some risks. Trails are full of potential hazards: steep narrow terrain, drops, jumps, rocks, roots, and even encounters with wildlife. I live in Florida, and it’s not uncommon to share the trails with alligators!

Many of the risks of mountain biking can be avoided if you understand the trail rating system. Like at a ski resort, mountain bike trails will be rated according to their level of difficulty: Green for Easy trails; Blue for Intermediate; Black for Advanced; and Double Black (or sometimes Red) for Expert and Pro.

This rating system is based on factors such as the steepness of the trail, existence of challenging features (drops, jumps, rocks), or presence of exposure (when there is a higher risk of injury resulting from a fall off the trail due to the steepness of the terrain).

The easier a trail is rated, the fewer challenging features it possesses. Understanding how trails are rated will help you ride within your current abilities and keep you safer. It will also help you know which trails to hit next when your skills outgrow the ones you’re currently riding!

In addition to these inherent risks of the trails that you decide to ride, you will be taking on greater risk if you don’t use and maintain the right gear. For example, you’ll want to make sure your bike is always in good condition before you ride (maintenance issues can cause problems on the trail) and make sure you’re wearing all relevant safety gear (e.g. helmet, pads, etc.).

Is Mountain Biking Hard on Your Body?

Mountain bikes have suspension to help soak up bumps in the terrain. Even so, rough trails can beat you up pretty good. Muscle soreness is common, especially on more difficult trails–where you might find yourself “white knuckling” your way down a mountain. 

Crashing is obviously hard on your body, and though nobody wants to crash…it’s kind of inevitable. 

And then there’s the bike itself which sometimes seems like it’s out to get you. Long rides in a bike saddle can be uncomfortable on your butt…though this isn’t exclusive to mountain biking. There is also the added pressure a bike seat places on your perineal nerve…but you can reduce this pressure by investing in a saddle that’s designed for your size, weight and gender.

But if you ask me, your pedals are the real enemy. Mountain bike pedals have tiny, metal pins which help the pedal grip your shoe. If your foot slips off while riding, those pedals have a habit of coming up and hitting you in the shins. I’ve ruined my fair share of socks and gotten plenty of bruises over the past year. However, using mountain biking shoes can help you avoid this.

Though many sports are hard on the body, the two best things you can do to minimize pain and discomfort while riding are: take time to learn proper riding technique, and make sure your bike is set up correctly for your height, weight and riding style. More on these topics below!

The First Four Things Every Mountain Biker Should Learn

1. Learn About Mountain Bikes!

Mountain bikes are pretty complex machines. Since there are so many different riding styles, there are mountain bikes individually suited for those specific disciplines. As someone who loves researching technical things, I think one of the most important things you can do as a beginner is learn as much as you can about mountain bikes in general. 

Key things you should learn include:

  • The difference between the two wheel size options (27.5 vs. 29)
  • The right frame size for you
  • The difference between cross-country (XC), trail, enduro and downhill bikes
  • How to adjust your mountain bike suspension (sag, rebound and compression)
  • How to use a dropper post
  • Basic maintenance:
    • Taking a wheel off and putting it back on
    • Replacing a chain
    • Adjusting the cockpit (shifter, brake lever position)
    • Cleaning your bike

This is only the beginning. There’s so much to learn, but understanding how a mountain bike works will go a long way toward making you a better rider.

2. Proper Body Position

Most new mountain bikers are much too stiff while riding. It makes sense why. When you’re heading down challenging terrain, your muscles tense up and you put a death grip on the handlebars to avoid losing control. 

That can actually hinder your riding ability rather than help it though.

Many mountain bike techniques require bike-body separation; your ability to move independently of your bike both front to back and side to side.

All this movement starts from the proper riding position. Also called the attack position, it’s the position you take on your bike that helps you stay loose and prepares you for whatever the trail will throw at you. 

To get into the attack position, you’ll want to keep your hands soft with most of your weight in your feet, elbows and knees bent slightly, weight centered over the middle of the bike, your head up and looking down the trail and your pedals level (at the 3 and 9 o’clock positions) 

This position will allow you to move freely around the bike as the trail points in different directions: move your weight forward to keep traction on the front wheel during a climb, and backward over the rear wheel when descending steep sections.

For a great introduction to proper riding position, check out this video:

3. How and When to Shift Gears

There’s an art to shifting properly. Do it right, and it will be smooth and silent. Do it wrong, and you’ll be rewarded with a loud clunk and possibly a dropped chain. So unless you want to ride a single-speed bike, it helps to learn what to do.

For starters, shift before you need to. What I mean is don’t wait until you’re halfway up a climb and really cranking on those pedals to realize you should have gotten into an easier gear; nor should you wait until you’re flying downhill at high speed with your feet spinning wildly out of control to shift to a harder, more stable gear.

When you do shift gears, reduce the amount of power you’re putting down on the pedals just a little bit until you get into the next gear. This will help guarantee your shifts are smooth and your chain stays on the cassette. When you hear people shifting and there’s a loud clunk, they didn’t follow this rule!

Here’s a handy video to help you get your shifting dialed in:

4. How to Use Your Brakes

Brakes make you stop, what more is there to know?

A lot actually!

First, you should understand the difference in stopping power between the front and rear brake. The rear brake is for modulating your speed, while the front brake is for slowing you down as fast as possible. Be careful though: pull hard on the rear brake, and you’ll skid to a stop. Pull hard on the front brake, and you just might go flying over the handlebars!

This doesn’t mean you should never use your front brake; you just need to use it correctly. Since it has greater stopping power, it has the potential to slow you down much faster, which comes in handy a lot. As long as you shift your weight back (bike-body separation again!) you can grab that front brake safely without taking a trip OTB…Over The Bars.

Second, there is an inverse relationship between braking and traction. Your wheels need to spin to maintain traction. If the brakes have locked them up and they’re skidding, you can kiss traction goodbye. Knowing when to brake is important, but so is knowing when to let off the brakes to keep you moving in the right direction.

Third, brake levers are very powerful. So powerful, that you only need your index finger on the lever to engage them properly. Using two fingers on the brake lever is unnecessary, reduces your grip on the handlebar, and is a clear sign you’re a beginner. Don’t be a two-finger braker! 

Check out the braking tutorial below:

Go Forth and Shred!

Once you start mountain biking, I know you’ll be hooked like I am! It may seem intimidating at first, but learn, practice and–most importantly–go at your own pace! In time, you’ll notice your skills improve and you’ll be tackling newer, more difficult terrain. I hope to see you out on the trails soon!

Rob Marlowe

With years of experience as a dedicated mountain biker and an unwavering passion for research, I have cultivated a deep expertise in all facets of cycling—from the intricacies of bike mechanics and gear optimization to the subtleties of riding techniques. My journey has been one of continuous learning, driven by countless hours delving into the science and art of biking. It's this wealth of knowledge and practical know-how that I aim to impart, offering a trusted resource for novices to gain their footing and for seasoned riders to refine their skills and push their limits.

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