Friday, May 1, 2015

Beginner’s Mind: A Survival Guide for Introducing New Riders to Mountain Biking

​Nearly every rider who has tried to convert a friend has been there. You both get geared up and optimistically head out to your favorite “rest day” trail (surely it must be easy enough for a noob!). You ride off and after 10 minutes are feeling as pent up as a hyperactive dog on a short leash while your friend is frustratedly huffing as s/he cautiously navigates every rock and root. The fun is quickly drained from the situation and you both endure a sufferfest of the least productive variety until you can awkwardly retreat to a post-ride meal and try to forget the last few hours of your life.

Sound familiar? There is a reason people call teaching the hardest job in the world. Taking an unexperienced rider biking requires more than a bike, a helmet and a trail. It is a test of your patience and communication while your protege learns to handle the bike, gets acquainted with the landscape, and builds the confidence needed for speed and agility to follow. Introducing new riders to the sport is critical to its growth and success. Luckily for you there’s an entire campaign organized around beginner cyclists, powered by the experts at Interbike and backed by the nation’s beginner-friendliest bike shops called My City Bikes that’s ready to help you out. Here are the five must-know tips for taking newbies out for a successful and enjoyable ride.

#1: We Are All Beginners at the Beginning.

This is your mantra. If you feel yourself starting to get restless as your novice buddy slowly and not surely traverses the trail, think of the trail or trick that most challenges you and how you feel as you approach it. “I have to remind myself, ‘OK, what they’re feeling right now riding down this ladder bridge that I don’t even think about is that they’re freaking out,’” said Micayla Gatto, professional mountain bike racer, coach, and ambassador for the sport. “That would be the equivalent of me standing on the lip of a 40-foot gap jump trying to work up the courage to send myself off of this thing. I can completely relate to how they’re feeling, it’s just on a smaller scale.

“It’s so easy to forget when you’re used to riding with elite level riders to then go with someone who has never been in the woods on a bike before. It can be a shock, but you’ve really got to take it back to basics. I try to relate it back to an experience that I’ve had when I’ve felt really nervous or unwilling to try something. The most important thing is to put yourself in their shoes and really have a beginner’s mind.” Getting perspective on your cohorts will make you a better guide, and keep you sane as well.

#2: Prepare for Everyone

“The potential for trouble is there so you’ve got to acknowledge it,” said Dave Guettler, owner of River City Bicycles in Portland, OR. “If I’m going to be responsible for everybody I’ll check their frames and tires before we get started to make sure there’s no big problems.” It’s likely that a beginner doesn’t realize basic maintenance to keep their bike in good shape, or warning signs to look for like tire wear and tear or improper tire inflation that could cause a flat. Getting your group stranded with an avoidable mechanical issue is no fun, so bring your pump and take it upon yourself to give everyone’s bike a once-over and make any necessary minor adjustments. While you’re at it, show and tell them what you’re doing so they can learn for next time.

#3 Be Predictable

Your gaggle of riders is in completely new territory. Make it easier for everyone by establishing some ground rules before you depart. Agree on basic verbal cues in case anyone gets into trouble. Establish a plan for regrouping after completing each section of the trail or at the tops of hills, for example. Also, knowing your route ahead of time is key. “Be very aware of where you’re going, how to get there, and a backup route,” recommends Zach Hepner, owner of Velosoul Cyclery in Denver, CO. Knowing alternative routes can save the day in the event of an unexpected trail closing.

#4: Don’t Push

“They’re already outside of their comfort zone, so you don’t need to push them further,” reminds Gatto. We want them to like mountain biking and want to do it again. Taking it too far too fast can not only be terrifying for your newly minted rider, it can be dangerous. While the hard core set may consider broken bones and split skin to be souvenirs from their gnarliest rides, most people just call it an injury and would rather avoid breaking themselves while out enjoying a recreational activity. Start simple and non-technical – remember rule #1 – and let them work their way up at their own pace. “You have to really know that by taking them out you’re not going to be getting a workout yourself,” Gatto said. “You have to sacrifice your time and energy if you really want to make this person come back and do it again. You’ve got to take it slow and make it a really positive experience for them."

#5: "Mom" It 

​“Remind the group to be sure to bring water and snacks, especially for beginner riders who aren’t used to riding,” said Tina Chiapa, sales floor manager at Snider’s Cyclery in Bakersfield, CA. In fact, its a good idea to bring some extras with you just in case. Remind your group to hydrate each time you re-group, and take a break for a snack mid-ride. Remember that new riders’ bodies are not accustomed to the exertion of mountain biking and they may bonk, even on a ride that seems mild to you.

Small, informal group rides are a great way to introduce beginners to mountain biking and give them a level of comfort and security on which they can effectively build their skills and the confidence to eventually ride on their own. When your MTB convert is ready for a solo session, tell them about your favorite double track and “green” singletrack options, and have them download their free local My City Bikes app at for a comprehensive guide to all things beginner biking. With these tips in mind you’ll be able to take your new friends and family out for a ride you can all enjoy.