The Beginner’s Guide to Mountain Biking: The Gear (What you need) & Basic Skills 2/6

So you read part 1, which got you amped to go grind some gravel (if you didn’t, click here! Link please Seb) but you don’t know where to go from there. This article is going to get you ready to go enjoy the trails with minimal buy in. Bear in mind that this is aimed at total beginners, someone that knows how to ride a bike but maybe hasn’t been on one recently, rides infrequently, has maybe never cycled offroad, or just anyone new to the sport. Mountain biking is a sport where you can spend as much money as you want, it attracts ‘gear nuts’ (Hi my name is Thomas and I am addicted to bike stuff), which luckily means that most riders have lots of stuff they can lend a beginner. At this stage you are probably looking to give it a go without dropping thousands on gear, so find a friend that rides as they will almost certainly have spare gear and/or bikes – if they are being difficult simply threaten to not go cycling with them!

Safety 1st – Helmets

A helmet is an absolute must, there are always going to be contrary people that talk about a Danish study that claiming ‘helmets make cycling less safe’ – this is hypothetical nonsense and doesn’t extend to mountain biking anyway. Wear a helmet.

All bike helmets have to pass the same safety standards – so you don’t have to spend a fortune to get adequate head protection. A R250 Pick ‘n Pay mushroom helmet will provide the same protection (if not more) than a helmet 10 times the price. So what do you get for all that money? The most noticeable thing with a more expensive helmet will be the better ventilation keeping your head cool, but you will also be paying for more comfort, better fastening mechanisms, and perhaps most importantly, stylish designs.

3 Slots on the front...
3 Slots on the front…

If you do not yet have a helmet, you can try borrow one from a friend for your first ride; just do not accept anything that has cracks in the foam – these are not safe. If you are looking to buy one I highly recommend spending a little bit more than the R250 minimum. Most of the big manufacturers (Bell, Giro, Lazer, First Ascent, etc) have an ‘entry level’ helmet in the R450-R550 price range that will be many times more comfy and better ventilated.

Bike 2nd

In a future article we will cover how to buy a bike, but for now any old clunker will do. So wipe the dust off the squeaky bike in the garage, or borrow from a friend.


There are just 4 things you need to check:

  1. It is a mountain bike. This may seem obvious, but a road bike just won’t do. Even a hybrid/commuter bike will be fine for now, just make sure you’ve got knobbly tires!
  2. It works. Make sure there is wind in the wheels, the brakes have enough stop, the drivechain has enough go, and the gears shift. If you find a problem with any of these, have a look on Youtube – most of these problems are easy to fix, for everthing else there is your Local Bike Shop (LBS).
  3. It is the right size. Riding a bike the wrong size for you is one of the quickest ways to ruin your ride, you will get back pains, shoulder pains, and your moaning will be a pain. Mountain bike sizes are given as a length in inches, with small typically being 15.5”/16”, medium 17.5”/18”, large 19.5”/20”, extra large 21.5”/22”. As a rough guide (bikes can be different shapes at the same size, as can people) a small will fit someone 150cm-170cm, medium 165cm-180cm, large 175cm-190cm, extra large 185cm-2m. Larger and smaller sizes exist, but can be difficult to find. A rule of thumb to get your saddle in the ballpark for height is to set it so that when you pedal with your heels on the pedals (not the ball of your foot like you would ride), your legs are straight without having to rock your hips when the pedal is at the bottom.

Depending on when you last rode, you may find that your bike has shrunk. Like with clothing, this is a sign that it is time for someone smaller to use it.

  1. You probably want to use flat pedals (as in regular, normal pedals) at this stage (and perhaps all stages, but that’s an argument for another time), unless you are experienced with clip pedals and/or mountain biking. Riding on clip pedals with regular shoes will be incredibly uncomfortable and out of control, so avoid that. Likewise, if the pedals have cages, tear them off – those should be illegal.


Screen Shot 2015-12-11 at 8.24.31 AM

At this stage it doesn’t matter, just anything you don’t mind sweating in and getting dirty. Padded shorts or lycra is totally optional, but gloves are recommended. Regular takkies are fine for now – just tuck the laces away!


Hopefully you are all set to hit the trails, but if it’s been a while since you were on a bike, or if you’re still pretty new to the whole two wheels thing, then play around in a garden or park first. Some things to practice are looking where you want to go, and not at the tree/rock/scary thing. Get used to how the bike feels on gravel, make sure you understand the gears and which way round the brakes are (if they are different to what you expect you may want to swap them – sometimes it’s easier just to get a shop to do this for you). Practice riding standing up. Try ride off a curb if you haven’t before.

The important part is to be comfortable with the bike and how it handles before heading to some trails.

In the next article we will tell you what sort of place you should ride to not be scared off on your first time out, tips for that first ride, as well as some tips for someone taking a beginner cycling. All that’s left is to go find a helmet, brush the dust off that old bike and make sure you remember how to ride it so that next week when I tell you about where to go on your first ride you will be ready to go!

By Thomas van der Ploeg

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