Mountain biking is an excellent way to enjoy the great outdoors. I’d venture as far as to say that there are some upland areas of the UK that lend themselves far better to exploration on bike than they do on foot – although I’m not going to name them in fear of a postbag full of complaints.
And while this relatively young sport has plenty of devotees – purists, if you like – that wouldn’t dream of taking to the hills any other way than on their bike; it also attracts a large number of all-round outdoor enthusiasts, who mix time in the saddle with walking, climbing, kayaking and other more traditional outdoor pastimes.
And it’s these riders that the traditional outdoor retailer will attract. Let’s face it, if you’ve already got a shop you trust, and they stock the right kind of thing, you’re not going to risk your hard-earned somewhere completely new unless you’ve got a good reason.
The good news for the trade is that these potential customers already understand the importance of good gear, so won’t be totally shocked at the prices. All they need from the retailer is some choice, and some good advice.
So what should a first-time mountain biker be wearing?
No self-respecting mountain biker should venture out without a properly-fitting helmet. Fortunately, these days few do. The most important thing here is fit. If it doesn’t fit, it won’t protect a head, no matter how good or expensive it is.Whilst it shouldn’t be too tight, it should feel like it would stay still and protect the head, even when not done up, and then the straps and adjusters should be fine-tuned to hold it steady in the optimum position. Different brands have different sizing, so it’s worth holding a few in the most popular sizes.Note that more venting usually means a cooler helmet, but venting differs between road and mountain bikes, with the latter designed to work better at lower speeds.
If you thought these were just for posing, think again. Have you ever seen the short, sharp, broken branches of a sitka spruce? Imagine what they can do to an eye. And slightly less horrendous, but much more common, are flies,mud, water, even stones and gravel. Changeable lenses allow the rider to select the appropriate protection for the weather and type of terrain, but even better are Specialized Adaptalite Lenses, which change from light to dark depending upon the ambient light. I believe that Julbo, among others, are following suit.
No reason why any synthetic outdoor base layer wouldn’t do the job, although neck zips do aid ventilation on climbs.Note: pockets aren’t as useful as they are on the road, as it’s not easy eating a banana whilst trying to descend rocky singletrack.
Gore-Tex and eVENT type jackets tend to be very hot when riding, so are generally kept for really bad weather. Preferable are lightweight windproof shells that keep the worst of the wind off, and will resist at least a bit of rain – walking windshirts are ideal. In winter, soft shell worn next to the skin can be excellent.
Almost as critical as a helmet, especially when the rear in question is new to the sport! Some kind of padding is essential, whether it’s in a liner short, worn inside surf shorts or ordinary outdoor shorts, or full-on mountain bike shorts – tight or baggy. Baggy’s pretty much the standard these days, and a pair with decent pockets can be particularly useful for carrying maps/guidebooks etc. Seamless pads are less likely to chaff than those with seams, and some kind of anti-bacterial treatment is a good thing.
Yes, trainers will do for the first few forays, but anybody really enjoying the rough stuff will quickly want more contact with the bike, and only SPD’s (generic term for clipless pedals) will hit the mark. To run with these, they’re going to need some mtb specific shoes. Race shoes aren’t that good for ordinary trail riding as they tend to have no heel and this is particularly uncomfortable when walking (something most trail riders do a lot of!). Winter-specific shoes/boots are a good idea but not at first – only the most committed will ride right through the year.
Light and airy for the summer, but perhaps waterproof and warm for winter riding. Sealskinz or similar are best, but go for the longer ones as less water will get in from the top.
It’s the palms that really need the protection, both from the pounding of the trail, and from the inevitable odd fall. Fingerless are cool and perfect for summer, whereas something more substantial, with some wind resistance, will be better in the colder months. Padding’s a personal thing, some riders like a gel pad between their hand and the grip, others don’t.
Roadies manage with a water bottle and a banana tucked into their jersey pocket, mountain bikers carry a pack; usually one that’s based around a hydration reservoir. They need to be slim, light and stable, with a harness that allows them to be held pretty snugly around the back. Anybody venturing into the mountains for real should have space for a waterproof, food, water, a spare tube, a pump and a multitool as a minimum. Less than 10L will be too tight, with 15-20L being the norm.
As mentioned above, any rider heading out into the hills should carry tools – usually in the form of a multi-tool containing at least a screwdriver, relevant sized Allen keys, relevant sized spanners, knife, tyre levers and a chain splitter. They’d also do well to carry a spare tube, a trail pump (smaller and lighter than the one they’d use in their garage) and a few self-adhesive patches (it’s possible to get more than one puncture!).
Mountain bikers can get lost in the same way as walkers, so navigation is just as important. The best set-up is definitely a handlebar mounted GPS, with the relevant OS map in the pack; but as a minimum, every rider should carry a map and a compass and have the ability to know how to use them.