Mountain biking entails the sport of riding bicycles off-road, often over rough terrain, whether riding specially equipped mountain bikes or hybrid road bikes. Most mountain bikes share similar characteristics that underscore durability and performance in rough terrain: wide, knobby tires, large frame tubing, front fork or dual suspension shock absorbers. The durability factor means a far heavier bicycle weight to rider ratio than their road touring cousins.
Mountain biking is roughly broken down into four categories: cross country, downhill, freeride, and trials/street riding. Each has differing levels of safety-consciousness with different types of mountain bikes and riding gear.
This individual sport requires endurance, bike handling skills and self-reliance, and can be performed almost anywhere from a back yard to a gravel road, but 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. 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. This reliance on survival skills accounts for the group dynamics of the sport. Club rides and other forms of group rides are common, especially on longer treks.
Bicycles have been ridden off-road since their invention. However, the modern sport of mountain biking primarily originated in the 1970s . There were several groups of riders in different areas of the U.S.A. who can make valid claims to playing a part in the birth of the sport. Riders in Crested Butte, Colorado and Cupertino, California tinkered with bikes and adapted them to the rigors of off-road riding. Other riders around the country were probably copying their friends with motorcycles and riding their bikes on trails and fire roads. However, a group in Marin County, California is recognized by the Mountain Bike Hall of Fame to have played a central role in the birth of the sport as we know it today. They began racing down Mount Tamalpais (Mt Tam) on old 1930s and '40s Schwinn bicycles retrofitted with better brakes and fat tires. This group included Joe Breeze, Otis Guy, Gary Fisher, and Keith Bontrager, among others. It was Joe Breeze who built the first new, purpose-made mountain bike in 1977. Tom Ritchey built the first regularly available mountain bike frame, which was accessorized by Gary Fisher and Charlie Kelly and sold by their company called MountainBikes (later changed to Fisher Mountain Bikes then bought by Trek, still under the name Gary Fisher). The first two mass produced mountain bikes were sold in 1982: the Specialized Stumpjumper and Univega Alpina Pro.
In 1988, the Mountain Bike Hall of Fame was founded to chronicle the history of mountain biking, and to recognize the individuals and groups that have contributed significantly to this sport.
- Mountain bikes differ from road touring bicycles in several ways. They have a smaller, reinforced frame, knobby, wide and high profile tires which are mounted on a rim that is stronger than a standard bicycle rim, a larger range of gears to facilitate climbing up steep hills and over obstacles, a wider flat or upwardly-rising handlebar that allows a more upright riding position, and often some form of suspension system for either the front wheel or both wheels. The inherent comfort and flexibility of the modern mountain bike has led to an estimated 80% market share in the United States, United Kingdom, Canada, Australia and New Zealand and others. Mountain bikes often come with disc brakes similar to those used in automobiles, rather than rim brakes used on road bikes.
- Bicycle pedals vary from simple platform pedals, where the rider simply places the shoes on top of the pedals, to clipless, where the rider uses a specially equipped shoe with a sole that engages mechanically into the pedal. Pedals with cages are rarely used, as the rough terrain (whether rock or tree roots and branches) can easily catch a cage and cause the rider to fall.
- Helmets provide mandatory head protection, as falls can occur over rough, rocky, sandy, or mountainous terrain. Helmets include full-faced helmets or regular streamline.
- Gloves differ from road touring gloves, are made of heavier construction, and often have covered thumbs or all fingers covered for hand protection. They are sometimes made with high-impact Kevlar and carbon fiber knuckles. Regular leather baseball gloves can also be used. If you don't want to spend high dollar on a pair of gloves the leather baseball gloves work fine.
- Glasses, lightweight cycling, 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. Glasses are available with interchangeable lenses.
- Shoes are chosen for their comfort and ability to withstand backcountry terrain, whether used with clipless pedals or not.
- Clothing is chosen for comfort during physical exertion in the backcountry, and its ability to withstand rough terrain. Road touring clothes are often inappropriate due to their delicate fabrics and construction.
- Hydration systems are imperative for mountain bikers in the backcountry, ranging from simple water bottles to toteable water bags with drinking tubes in lightweight backpacks (e.g., Camelbaks).
- GPS System is often 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. The GPS system is often a handheld GPS device with color screen and rugged, waterproof (IPX7) design. Good GPS mapping systems have topographic or aerial maps to help keep you aware of changing elevation and avoid sudden dropoffs or other hazards.
- Pump to inflate flat tires.
- Bike tools and extra bike tubes are important, as mountain bikers frequently find themselves miles from help (where their cell phones don't work), with flat tires or other mechanical problems (e.g., chainsuck) that must be handled by the rider.
Body armor Similar to the armor worn on motorcross bikes. These can consist of knee pads, elbow pads, padded shorts or armored under jackets. Body armor provides an extra layer of protection. These are made by companies like Dainese, sixsixone, Alpinestars and many others
Injuries and protective gear
The risk of injury is inherent in the sport of mountain biking, especially in the more extreme disciplines such as downhill biking. Injuries range from relatively minor wounds, such as cuts and abrasions from falls on gravel to serious injuries such as striking the head or spine on a boulder or tree. Protective equipment can protect against minor injuries, and reduce the extent or seriousness of major impacts, but it cannot protect a rider against the most serious impacts or accidents. To truly reduce the risk of injury, a rider needs to take steps to make injuries less likely, such as picking trails that they can handle given their experience level, ensuring that they are fit enough to deal with the trail they have chosen, and keeping their bike in top mechanical shape. If a mountain biker wishes to explore more dangerous trails or disciplines (types of mountain biking) such as downhill riding, they will need to learn new skills, such as jumping and avoiding obstacles. Fitness is another issue; if a rider is not in good enough shape to ride a certain class of trail, they will become fatigued, which puts them at a higher risk of having an accident. Lastly, maintenence of one's bike needs to be done more frequently for mountain biking than for casual commuter biking in the city. Mountain biking places much higher demands on every part of the bike. Jumps and impacts can crack the frame or damage the derailleurs or the tire rims, and steep, fast descents can quickly wear out brake pads. Thus, whereas a casual in-the-city rider may only check over and maintain their bike every few months, a mountain biker should check and lube the bike before every ride.
The style and level of protection worn by individual riders varies greatly and is affected by many factors including terrain, enivironment, weather, potential obstacles on the trail, experience, technical skill, fitness, perceived risk, desired style and others too numerous to mention. As a general rule, if everyone else at the bike park is wearing so much body armor they look like an army of stormtroopers it is a fair guess that a degree of protection is desirable. However, it does not follow that if someone is wearing no protection at all it is a good idea to copy them. They may be a very good rider, completely foolhardy or have no idea whatsoever what he/she is doing or how dangerous what they are about to ride is. A cross-country helmet and simple long fingered gloves are a good minimum for the majority of riding.
Limb protection becomes important when speeds rise, surfaces become loose and sketchy, terrain technical and crashes more common and more severe. Full-face helmets and armored suits or jackets are more suited to "gravity" and "air"-orientated disciplines which use jumps and drops, where their extra bulk and weight is outweighed by the bigger and more frequent crashes with worse consequences. Still, within XC community, the typical road-racing attire is what most riders use. Whatever protection is used it should fit well, be comfortable (or it won't be worn) on the bike as well as in the shop and suited for the particular type of riding. Gloves can offer increased comfort while riding, by alleviating compression and friction, and protection in the event of strikes to the back or palm of the hand or when putting the hand out in a fall. Gloves also protect the hand, fingers, and knuckles from abrasion on rough surfaces such as concrete. Many different styles of gloves exist, with various fits, sizes, finger lengths, palm padding and armor options available. Armoring knuckles and the backs of hands with plastic panels is common in more extreme types of mountainbiking.
The use of helmets, in one form or another, is almost universal amongst all mountain bikers. The main three types are cross-country, rounded skateboarder style (nicknamed "piss-pot") and full face. Cross-country helmets tend to be light and well ventilated, and more comfortable to wear for long periods, especially while perspiring in hot weather. In XC competitions, most bikers use the usual road racing style helmets, for their lightweight and aerodynamic qualities. Skateboard helmets are simpler and cheaper than other helmet types; provide greater coverage of the head and resist minor scrapes and knocks. Unlike road biking helmets, skateboard helmets typically have a thicker, hard plastic shell which can take multiple impacts before it needs to be replaced. The trade-off for this is that they tend to be much heavier and less ventilated (sweatier), therefore not suitable for endurance-based riding.
Full-face helmets (BMX-style) provide the highest level of protection, being stronger again than skateboard style and including a jaw guard to protect the face. The weight is the main issue with this type but nowadays they are often relatively well ventilated and made of high-tech materials, such as carbon fibre, to keep weight down. However, they are not commonly used in mountainbiking, except for in the extreme mountainbiking sports. As all helmets should meet minimum standards, SNELL B.95 (American Standard) BS EN 1078:1997 (European Standard), the choice of helmet often comes down to rider preference, likelihood of crashing and on what features or properties of a helmet they place emphasis. Helmets are mandatory at competitive events and almost without exception at bike parks, most organisations also stipulate when and where full-face helmets must be used.
Body armour and pads
Many companies also produce other items of protective gear, often nicknamed "armor" to protect limbs and trunk in the event of a crash. While initially made for and marketed at downhillers, freeriders and jump/street riders, body armor has trickled into other areas mountain biking as trails have become faster and more technical. Armor ranges from simple neoprene sleeves for knees and elbows to complex, articulated combinations of hard plastic shells and padding that cover a whole limb or the entire body. Some companies market body armor jackets and even full body suits designed to provide greater protection through greater coverage of the body and more secure pad retention. Most upper body protectors also include a spine protector that comprises plastic or metal re-inforced plastic plates, over foam padding, which are joined together so that they arcticulate and move with the back. Some mountain bikers also use BMX-style body armour, such as chest plates, abdomen protectors, and spine plates.
There is a general correlation between increased protection and increased weight/decreased mobility, although different styles balance these factors differently. Different levels of protection are deemed necessary/desirable by different riders in different circumstances. Backpack hydration systems such as Camelbaks where a water filled bladder is held close to the spine used by some riders for their perceived protective value. However, there is only anecdotal evidence of protection and with the exception of one specific product by the company Deuter, they are never sold as spine protection.
In addition to preventing injuries with protective gear, mountain bike riders need to know how to deal with injuries that occur. Mountain biking groups typically travel with first aid kits, so that they are able to clean and dress cuts and abrasions or splint broken limbs. Experienced mountain bike guides may also have training in dealing with suspected spinal injuries (e.g., immobilizing the victim and keeping the neck straight). In the event of serious injuries, such as suspected spinal injury, bikers may have to be removed by a 4X4 truck, or if there are no vehicle-accessible roads, airlifted from the trail with a helicopter.
Mountain biking is dominated by these major categories:
- Cross-Country (XC) is the most popular form of mountain biking, and the standard for most riders. It generally means riding point-to-point or in a loop including climbs and descents on a variety of terrain. A typical XC bike weighs around 25-30 lbs, and has 0-4 inches of suspension travel front and sometimes rear. Some XC riders aspire to XC racing, which is even more physically demanding than regular XC, and like all sports at an elite level requires years of training to compete at a national level. Quickly expanding All-mountain (AM) bike category typically provides 5-7 inches of rear and front suspension travel and stronger components then XC models, while still providing overall weight suitable for climbing and descending on a variety of terrain.
- Dirt Jumping (DJ) is one of the names given to the practice of riding bikes over shaped mounds of dirt or soil and becoming airborne. The idea is that after riding over the 'take off' the rider will become momentarily airborne, and aim to land on the 'landing'. Dirt jumping can be done on almost anything with wheels, but it is usually executed on a bicycle. tricks e.g backflips are performed in the air as well.
- Downhill (DH) is, in the most general sense, riding mountain bikes downhill. The rider usually travels to the point of descent by other means than cycling, such as a ski lift or automobile, as the weight of the downhill mountain bike often precludes any serious climbing. While cross country riding inevitably has a downhill component, Downhill (or DH for short) usually refers to racing-oriented downhill riding. Downhill-specific bikes are universally equipped with front and rear suspension, large disc brakes, and use heavier frame tubing than other mountain bikes. Because of their extremely steep terrain (often located in summer at ski resorts), downhill courses are one of the most physically demanding and dangerous venues for mountain biking. They include large jumps (up to and including 40 feet), drops of 10+ feet, and are generally rough and steep top to bottom. To negotiate these obstacles at race speed, racers must possess a unique combination of total body strength, aerobic and anaerobic fitness, and mental control. Minimum body protection in a true downhill setting is knee pads and a full face helmet with goggles, although riders and racers commonly sport full body suits to protect themselves. Downhill bikes now weigh around 35 -40 lbs, while professional downhill mountain bikes can weigh as little as 33 lbs, fully equipped with custom carbon fibre parts, air suspension tubeless tires and more. Downhill frames get anywhere from 7 to 10 inches of travel and are usually mounted with an 8 inch travel dual-crown fork.
- Freeride / Big Hit / Hucking. Freeride, as the name suggests is a 'do anything' discipline that encompasses everything from downhill racing (see above) 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. Freeride bikes are generally heavier and more amply suspended than their XC counterparts, but usually retain much of their climbing ability. It is up to the rider to build his or her bike to lean more toward a preferred level of aggressiveness. "Slopestyle" type riding is an increasingly popular genre that combines big-air, stunt-ridden freeride with BMX style tricks. Slopestyle courses are usually constructed at already established mountain bike parks and include jumps, large drops, quarter-pipes, and other wooden obstacles. There are always multiple lines through a course and riders compete for judges' points by choosing lines that highlight their particular skills. A "typical" freeride bike is hard to define, but 30-40 lbs with 4-7 inches of suspension front and rear is a good generalization.
- Trials riding consists of hopping and jumping bikes over obstacles. It can be performed either off-road or in an urban environment. It requires an excellent sense of balance. As with Dirt Jumping and BMX-style riding, emphasis is placed on style, originality and technique. Trials bikes look almost nothing like mountain bikes. They use either 20", 24" or 26" wheels and have very small, low frames, some types without a saddle.
- Short Cross or Speed Cross (SC) is the newest form of mountain biking. The idea is to ride short, narrow forest paths with rocks, roots and dints, but not necessarily any ramps on them. The optimal length of the paths are from a few tens to hundreds of meters. The shortness is to provide extreme speed and thrilling to get through the hindrances as fast as possible without crashing. The altitude of the paths does not have to vary much. The ultimate direction of the paths from vertical aspect can be the both ways, either up or down. The transitions between these essential parts are to be taken lightly and stopping at the beginning of every path is to provide maximum amount of thrilling action gained through the speed. The bikes for this purpose can vary from XC to FR.
Mountain bikers have faced land access issues from the beginnings of the sport. Areas where the first mountain bikers have ridden have faced serious restrictions or elimination of riding.
Many trails were originally fireroads, animal paths, hiking trails, or multi-use paths that were simply used for these new trail users. Single-track mountain biking creates more conflict with hikers, particularly in forested areas. There is also some concern single-track biking leads to erosion. Because of these conflicts, the interpretation of the Wilderness Act was revised by the National Park Service to be able to exclude bicycles in certain areas.
Opposition to the sport has led to the development of local, regional, and international mountain bike groups. The different groups that formed generally work to create new trails, maintain existing trails, and help existing trails that may have issues. Groups work with private and public entities from the individual landowner to city parks departments, on up through the state level at the DNR, and into the federal level. Different groups will work individually or together to achieve results.
Advocacy organizations work through a variety of means including education, trail work days, and trail patrols. Examples of the education an advocacy group can provide include: Educate local bicycle riders, property managers, and other user groups on the proper development of trails, and on the International Mountain Bicycling Association's rules of the Trail. Examples of trail work days can include: Flagging, cutting, and signing a new trail, or removing downed trees after a storm. A trail patrol is a bike rider who has had some training to help assist other (including non cyclists) trail users.
The International Mountain Bicycling Association, or IMBA, is a non-profit advocacy group whose mission is to create, enhance and preserve trail opportunities for mountain bikers worldwide. IMBA serves as an umbrella organization for mountain biking advocacy worldwide, and represents more than 700 affiliated mountain biking groups. In 1988, five California mountain bike clubs linked to form IMBA. The founding clubs were: Concerned Off Road Bicyclists Association, Bicycle Trails Council East Bay, Bicycle Trails Council Marin, Sacramento Rough Riders, and Responsible
Organized Mountain Pedalers. IMBA developed "Rules of the Trail" to promote responsible and courteous conduct on shared-use trails.
IMBA Rules of the Trail: > 1. Ride On Open Trails Only > 2. Leave No Trace > 3. Control Your Bicycle > 4. Yield to Others > 5. Never Scare Animals > 6. Plan Ahead
Studies reported in the IMBA (International Mountain Bike Association) Trail Solutions manual found that a mountain bike's impact is comparable to that of a hiker and substantially less than that of an equestrian.
Studies that find mountain biking has little environmental impact have been criticized as underestimating the real impact of mountain biking on the environment. In 2003, Jason Lathrop wrote a critical literature review on the ecological impacts of mountain biking, raising some questions found nowhere else. He quotes the BLM: "An estimated 13.5 million mountain bicyclists visit public lands each year to enjoy the variety of trails. What was once a low use activity that was easy to manage has become more complex". He also notes that few studies take mountain biking into account.
The environmental impacts of mountain biking can be greatly reduced by not riding on muddy or sensitive trails, not skidding or locking the rear wheel when braking and by staying on the trail.
- The Socorro Country Fat Tire Trail Book, The Socorro Fat Tire Committee in association with the Socorro County Chamber of Commerce, Socorro County Chamber of Commerce, Socorros, New Mexico, 1993, stapled paperback pamphlet, ISBN 0-88307-712-4, See Socorro County, New Mexico