A Beginner’s Guide to Mountain Biking in the Northwest

Fitness Friday, August 2, 2013 Written by

Sure, hurling yourself down a mountain on two wheels may sound scary, but it’s really just another super-cool way to stay in shape… and discover some amazing trails while you’re at it. Mountain biking pro Kelli Emmett tells you how to get over your fears and onto a bike this season.

Spin your way in

Before you head outdoors, test your skills in a few spinning classes, Emmett said. “Not only is it a hard workout, but it also helps you learn how to move your legs in a circular motion and get comfortable on a bike without worrying about shifting gears.” Check out Flywheel Sports in Seattle, and Revocycle in Portland or find a studio near you on Yelp.

Hit the trails on two feet

Instead of making your first trip into the woods on two wheels, lace up a pair of sneaks and hit the ground running (or hiking). “It’s nice to know what you’re dealing with before you ride,” Emmett said. “Navigate the path, note your obstacles and observe the terrain.”

Gear up

Before you start bike shopping, figure out what type of trails you plan on tackling and how much money you want to spend. There are trail bikes that can also be used as a general purpose bike, and then there are all-mountain bikes, which are designed for more technical riding. In the all-mountain category, you can choose between hardtail (only the front wheel has suspension), and full-suspension models.

Hardtails tend to be more affordable and fare better on smooth trails, whereas full-suspension bikes are easier on your joints and allow you to ride faster and with more control on challenging terrain. When you’re purchasing a bike, ask an attendant to properly fit you and be sure to pick up a helmet, some gloves and a pair of mountain bike shorts while you’re there.

Start smart

If you’re looking for a beginner-friendly ride near Portland, head to L.L. Stub Stewart State Park, about 34 miles due west of the city, where you’ll find more than 15 miles of mixed shared-use trails that are all open to mountain bikers, plus a few separate mountain bike-specific route options. If you’re near Seattle, visit St. Edward State Park in Kirkland to log some solid single-track miles (mixed-use) before moving on to the slightly more technical Big Finn Hill (adjacent to St. Edwards State Park). For more trail info, ask your local bike shop, or check out your options on trails.com and singletracks.com.

Find your balance

Having a strong core is crucial for balance. “A lot of power on the bike is generated from your core,” Emmett said. “So you really don’t want to be weak around the middle.” Emmett said she takes an hour-long Pilates class three times each week to help strengthen her back and abs.

Relax!

“It’s harder to maneuver the bike when you’re tense,” Emmett said. “Take a deep breath, shake your arms like a chicken (seriously!), and tell yourself to relax.” As you ride, keep your grip loose and your gaze about 20 feet ahead—not down. And don’t be afraid to hop off your bike and re-analyze the trail at any time.

Ease your way into it

Do not expect to feel like a natural immediately. “The first five minutes is the hardest part,” Emmett said. “Most of the time it takes about 20 minutes for my legs to loosen up and really get into a rhythm.”

If you’ve got any go-to local trails, or more beginner-friendly tips, tell us about them in the comments below.

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