Mountain biking moved from a little-known sport to a mainstream activity

Mountain biking can generally be broken down into multiple categories: cross country (XC), trail riding, freeride, and trials. The vast majority of mountain biking falls into the recreational XC, and Trail Riding categories.

This individual sport requires endurance, core strength and balance, bike handling skills, and self-reliance. The majority of mountain bikers ride off-road trails, whether country back roads, fire roads, or singletrack (narrow trails that wind through forests, mountains, deserts, or fields). There are aspects of mountain biking that are more similar to trail running than regular bicycling.

Mountain BIking

Because riders are often far from civilization, there is a strong ethic of self-reliance in the sport. Riders learn to repair their broken bikes or flat tires to avoid being stranded miles from help. Many riders will carry a backpack, including a water bladder, containing all the essential tools and equipment for trailside repairs, and many riders also carry emergency supplies in the case of injury miles from outside help. Club rides and other forms of group rides are common, especially on longer treks. A combination sport named mountain bike orienteering adds the skill of map navigation to mountain biking.

Riding specially designed mountain bikes with enhanced durability and performance

Mountain bikes differ from other bikes primarily in that they incorporate features aimed at increasing durability and improving performance in rough terrain. Most modern mountain bikes have some kind of suspension, 26, 27.5 or 29 inch diameter tires, usually between 1.7 to 2.5 inches in width, and a wider, flat or upwardly-rising handlebar that allows a more upright riding position, giving the rider more control. They have a smaller, reinforced frame, usually made of wide tubing. Tires usually have a pronounced tread, and are mounted on rims which are stronger than those used on most non-mountain bicycles. Compared to other bikes, mountain bikes also tend to more frequently use disc brakes. They also tend to have lower ratio gears to facilitate climbing steep hills and traversing obstacles.

Trends in mountain bikes include the “all mountain bike”, the 29er and the singlespeed. The “all mountain bike” is characterized by 4–6 inches (100–150mm) of travel, the ability to descend and handle very rough conditions and still pedal efficiently for climbing. 29er bikes are those using 700c sized rims (as do most road bikes), but wider and suited for tires of two inches (50mm) width or more; the increased diameter wheel is able to roll over obstacles better and offers a greater tire contact patch, but also results in a longer wheelbase, making the bike less agile, and in less travel space for the suspension; thus the 29er is not suited for small riders and small winding trails. The single-speed is considered a return to simplicity with no drivetrain components or shifters, but thus requires a stronger rider.

Mountain biking accessories

  • Gloves differ from road touring gloves, are made of heavier construction, and often have covered thumbs or all fingers covered for hand protection.
  • Glasses with little or no difference from those used in other cycling sports, help protect against debris while on the trail. Filtered lenses, whether yellow for cloudy days or shaded for sunny days, protect the eyes from strain.
  • Hydration systems are important for mountain bikers in the backcountry, ranging from simple water bottles to water bags with drinking tubes in lightweight backpacks (e.g., Camelbaks).
  • GPS navigation device is sometimes added to the handlebars and is used to display and monitor progress on trails downloaded from the internet or pre-made mapping systems, record trails on the fly, and keep track of trip times and other data.
  • Pump to inflate flat tires.
  • Bike tools and extra bike tubes are important, as mountain bikers frequently find themselves miles from help, with flat tires or other mechanical problems that must be handled by the rider.
  • High-power lights based on LED technology, especially for mountain biking at night.
  • Helmets, in one form or another, is almost universal amongst all mountain bikers. The main types are cross-country and rounded skateboarder style (nicknamed “half shells” or “skate style”). Cross-country helmets tend to be light and well ventilated, and more comfortable to wear for long periods, especially while perspiring in hot weather. Skateboard helmets are simpler and cheaper than other helmet types; provide greater coverage of the head and resist minor scrapes and knocks.
  • First aid kits are often carried by mountain bikers, so that they are able to clean and dress cuts and abrasions and splint broken limbs. Experienced mountain bike guides may be trained in dealing with suspected spinal injuries (e.g., immobilizing the victim and keeping the neck straight). Seriously injured people may have to be removed by stretcher, by a motor vehicle suitable for the terrain, or by helicopter.

Popular mountain biking categories

  • Cross-Country (XC) generally means riding point-to-point or in a loop including climbs and descents on a variety of terrain.
  • Freeride / Big Hit / Hucking. Freeride, as the name suggests is a ‘do anything’ discipline that encompasses everything from downhill racing without the clock to jumping, riding ‘North Shore’ style (elevated trails made of interconnecting bridges and logs), and generally riding trails and/or stunts that require more skill and aggressive techniques than XC.
  • Mountain bike trail riding or trail biking is recreational mountain biking on hiking trails (“hike on a bike”), dirt roads and unpaved tracks, forest paths, etc. it’s also practiced in dedicated “trail centers”, such as the scenic Slickrock Trail or Western Australia’s Munda Biddi Trail, which at over 1000 km is one of the world’s longest off-road trails. There are “trail bike” designs for this activity.
  • Mountain Bike Touring is long distance touring on dirt roads and single track with a mountain bike. With the popularity of the Great Divide Trail, the Colorado Trail and other long distance off road biking trails specially fitted mountain bikes are increasingly being used for touring. Mixed Terrain Cycle-Touring or rough riding is a form of mountain bike touring but involves cycling over a variety of surfaces and topography on a single route, with a single bicycle. The recent popularity of mixed terrain touring is in part a reaction against the increasing specialization of the bike industry. Focusing on freedom of travel and efficiency over varied surfaces, mixed terrain bicycle travel has a storied past.

Mountain bike parks which are operated as summer season activities at ski hills usually include chairlifts which are adapted to bikes, a number of trails of varying difficulty, and bicycle rental facilities.

The environmental impacts of mountain biking can be greatly reduced by not riding on wet or sensitive trails, not skidding, and by staying on the trail.