Mountain bike basics

Find the right instructor ― and pedal to two-wheeled Nirvana
Lisa Taggart

No doubt you have some good excuses for missing the mountain-biking bandwagon. You were too busy training for a marathon. You're not so stable on pavement in the first place ― much less on dirt. But once you pedal onto a single-track trail through a field of wildflowers, or coast down a hill as oak trees blur past, you'll see what all the hubbub has been about. Mountain biking means fresh air, physical challenge, speed, and scenery.

Don't let the guys in neon shirts with $4,000 titanium super-bikes scare you off. You don't need all that. Here's what you do need: a primer for getting started.

Learn the vocabulary

Early in his marriage, my husband's brother wanted to teach his new bride the joys of biking off-road. At a tricky point in the trail, the couple stalled. Their friends rode ahead. Behind them they heard voices, increasingly elevated, that culminated in someone shouting very loudly, "What do you want from me?!"

And the group had a long ride home in silence.

The lesson of the story is that finding the right teacher is key. Probably you should not be related, through blood or marriage, to your instructor. Taking a skills clinic can jump-start your mountain-biking education by compressing a lot of information into one or a few days.

Former mountain-bike national champion Jacquie Phelan teaches clinics for women at a facility in Fairfax, California, where the sport got its start a couple of decades ago. She says she first teaches newbies the terminology. When people can talk about something, Phelan says, they are better prepared to do it. Curb-hopping, rear-tire skidding, and dabs-on-the-fly are all part of her one-day course.

The exercises help riders get comfortable on their bikes. "I unstick them from their attachment to the saddle," Phelan says. Unlike a road biker, a mountain biker needs to shift weight constantly according to the terrain ― back on a downhill, forward on a climb.

"One other lesson I teach is: look where you want to go," Phelan says. "That's a good one for life too."

Dreamride on slickrock

After you've been bitten by the mountain-biking bug, you're going to want to ride in Moab. This small town in southeastern Utah is the country's premier mountain-biking destination.

I learned a ton about biking, as well as about the area, during three days of riding with Lee Bridgers and Kenneth Moody from Dreamride, which leads biking clinics and tours. I arrived with some experience, but I hadn't ridden since the previous summer. And I'd never tested my skills on slickrock ― Moab's famous sandstone that grips a bike's tires as thoroughly as desert gumbo clumps after a rain, providing amazing traction so you can ride up inclines you'd otherwise slide down.

We started with a lesson in a city park, riding over curbs (made much easier by the plush full-suspension rental bike) and practicing riding with our weight way back for greater stability when going downhill. Our first trail ride was north of town, along a dirt road out to some slickrock swells. Bridgers's enthusiastic account of the region's natural history ― detailing the different strata of rock and Moab's mining past ― kept me distracted, even when I felt tired.

The second day we rode to more challenging slickrock terrain. The two guides stood at the ready, spotting me as I huffed up a short but very steep climb. Having spotters gave me the courage to try routes that were more difficult than I'd normally attempt.

From the trail we had great views of Monitor and Merrimac, hulking buttes in the distance named for the Civil War ships. During the breathtaking descent back, I found myself riding down ledges I wouldn't have gone anywhere near just two days earlier.After the third day, there wasn't a mountain I couldn't tackle ― even though I was almost too tired to move.

On our final morning in town, a fellow in a bike shirt caught my eye. "Are you a biker?" he asked, holding out the trail map he'd been puzzling over.

"Yes," I replied, with a level of confidence that surprised me, "I am."