It’s hard to believe a year has passed since I was persuaded that the idea of learning to mountain bike at well over 50 years old was not insane. I knew people my age rode, but I assumed they started much younger and stuck with it. I couldn’t imagine that people took it up as a new sport.
I’m so glad I decided I wasn’t too old and gave it a try. In the past year, I’ve learned that I’m not alone. There are tons of people, especially women taking up mountain biking after 40. Yes!!
I thought the anniversary of my first year of riding was a perfect time to reflect on where I’ve been and consider where I’m headed. I write this not as a “hey look at me” but in hopes that some of my newbie mistakes and experiences can be helpful to riders getting started now. I also hope that if you are on the older side and on the fence about giving it a go that this helps you take the leap.
Buying that first mountain bike
What you decide to purchase as your first mountain bike is ultimately a personal choice based on many things including budget, the terrain you intend to ride, commitment level, and more. I decided to go with a Trek Marlin 6. A hardtail. I live in an area where I do more trail riding than actual mountain biking. But I wanted a bike that I could take on more advanced terrain. The Marlin has been good for me. However, there are some things I have changed and there are changes I’d like to make in the future.
But before I get into that, I want to mention that because of my age and also because I find myself to be a bit less risk-averse than I expected I occasionally wonder if I should have gone straight to a full suspension. But my reasoning when purchasing this bike was if I buy an expensive bike and decide I hate the sport would I be stuck with another bike hanging in my garage.
Once I knew I was committed to riding I needed to make some immediate changes to my bike-related to my comfort. I changed my seat twice after adjustments proved to be inadequate. The problem with the stock seat on the Marlin was that it was the wrong shape for my posterior.
No two butts are the same. Even people with the same proportions can have very different needs in a seat. And even those with the same width sit-bones may not find the same seat comfortable. In online groups, there is tons of conversation on the subject of seats. But really you can’t select a seat based on what someone else likes. Everyone’s anatomy is different.
The other change I needed to make was changing out the stem. I had to do this because the numbness in my hands and neck pain while riding was unsustainable. The new stem put my handlebars a bit higher and at a slightly different angle making for a more comfortable ride.
Tires are the only non-comfort-related change I’ve made. After several flats and walking myself out of the woods, I got tired of doing tire changes. The standard tires on my Marlin are not great and the woods where I ride have some nasty thorns that kept puncturing my tires.
I began looking at options to prevent flats. I learned that most mountain bikers ride with tubeless tires (aka Stans) which is exactly what it sounds like. These tires are filled with a material that moves around inside until something punctures them. At that point, the material seeps into the hole and seals the tire.
In some cases, the transition to tubeless is a matter of purchasing new tubeless tires if your bike is already set up for this. However, in my case and often with lower-end bikes converting requires not just new tires but entirely new wheels.
After a bit of research, I discovered a middle option. There are tubes that come filled with that same material used in the tubeless tire. This was one of the best things I’ve done. I haven’t had a flat since and it gives me peace of mind when I ride in areas where I have had flats in the past.
In the future, I would like to add a dropper post. As I said, I’m fairly risk-tolerant, and I would like to be able to take jumps where I’m actually catching air. A full suspension isn’t necessary for jumps but being able to shift your weight toward the back and over your tire is. Without that dropper, this is a challenge. Being able to drop that seat and getting it out of the way would be the difference between falling headfirst from the ramp to sending it.
How to get started in mountain biking
You could go out and buy a bike and jump on your local trails. And that may be fine especially if you live in a place like I do that doesn’t have a lot of techie terrain or steep hills. But if you live someplace more technical you might be asking for injuries.
I was never sorry that I took a skills clinic before I had ever ridden on trails. It probably helped the learning curve a bit. As a former road rider, I had some things I needed to unlearn because they weren’t going to serve me well on the trails. Things like looking ahead rather than at the ground. Keeping the pedals level rather than coasting into a turn with one pedal lower than the other. These are very basic tools but they are also things I wouldn’t have known without that skills clinic.
I can’t recommend a skills clinic enough. You don’t have to do it before you begin riding but it’s something I think you should do early on. Even if you ride with other people who are happy to give you pointers and support, it’s not the same. I think this is true, especially for women who might start out by riding with their experienced spouse, significant other, or kids. Personality could easily get in the way of learning and tempers could flair making it miserable for everyone involved.
About six months into riding, I took a second basic skills clinic. For me, this was beneficial since I had zero real-world experience when I participated in that first one. That second one was helpful for skills like cornering.
While cornering was covered in that first clinic, it was nothing like being out on a trail. Furthermore, when starting out, it’s hard to apply cornering techniques when you are focused on looking ahead, level pedals, what gear am I in, getting up the next hill, not hitting a tree, or keeping enough momentum to get over a small feature.
Never be afraid to continue learning. NICA events often feature basic skills clinics. Your local bike shop can likely point you in the direction of who to contact in your area for continued support.
The first months of riding
Let’s just say I was painfully slow, and I hit a lot of trees in the beginning.
The good news is that I was so slow that hitting trees wasn’t overly dangerous. I had some bruises but those and cuts from unknown incidents are all part of mountain biking.
In the beginning, I rode alone a lot. I still do but early on I didn’t want to ride with others because I was slow. On the rare occasions when I did ride with someone else or a small group, I typically would want to follow rather than lead.
Here’s why. I wanted to watch the person ahead of me. I wanted to listen for when they were shifting gears. I was mimicking what they were doing. At times it meant that I needed to push myself harder in order to keep up. Ultimately this has probably made me a stronger rider. Being left in the dust sucks.
Something I learned about group rides is there are rides where it is every man, woman, and child for themselves. Others are what they call “no drop” rides. This means no one gets left behind. As a newbie, you want to participate in the no-drop rides. The people who lead these groups are committed to that practice.
Finally, early on I was so eager I took some stupid risks and didn’t even know I was doing it. This is something people do when they have no idea what they are doing. They see someone with experience take a rollover or a ramp and assume there’s nothing to it. So, we plow ahead with crap form and zero skills and hope for the best. When we start to learn a bit more it starts to occur to us that maybe we shouldn’t have tried that jump on week one of riding.
I’ve always been aware that I probably shouldn’t take unnecessary risks when riding alone. That was never a problem. My risk-taking took place when I was with others. Now that I have some experience, I understand why people would get excited and “impressed” when I would take a drop or hop a log (meanwhile they were probably thinking I was an idiot). I had no business doing it! But I didn’t know. I assumed that if they were doing it that there was no reason I shouldn’t. The reason I shouldn’t have done these things is I had ZERO skills.
Things I’ve learned in that first year of mountain biking
“Trust your tires”
This was something I heard at that first skills clinic. It was explained that the tire on mountain bikes are built to hold on turns and varied terrain. They are knobby and they have tread on the sides as well as the surface. This is so they grab when you take turns.
So, knowing all that is one thing but actually trusting it is another. It takes time. It also comes incrementally as you begin to take turns faster and realize you aren’t sliding out like maybe you expected.
The seat should be much higher than you think
For probably the first six months I was riding I had my seat too low. Which is kind of funny since I started with it higher and was told it was too high. Coming from road riding I had the seat set the way I would for a road bike. Thinking mountain biking might be different and assuming others knew better, I followed the recommendation to lower it. This probably hurt my growth as a rider.
On a night ride with some very experienced riders, the consensus was that my seat was set too low. One of the guys took me aside and we raised the seat probably two inches. It felt strange and only being able to place the tips of my toes on the ground made me uneasy.
But he explained that by riding with my seat too low all my power was coming from my quads and not my entire lower body. He suggested I try it this way for a week to see if it was better. Ultimately, I ended up raising the seat another 1/2 -inch before I got to where the seat needed to be. It’s been a huge improvement.
I need more rest than I realized
For the first three months I was riding I would go out almost every day. I was typically on the trails 5 to 7 days a week. I felt like crap. I was always tired, and my muscles ached continually. I mentioned it to my doctor, and he said, “you’re probably deconditioned” but it wasn’t as if I got off the couch one day and said, “let’s go ride some trails” I was in decent shape from other exercises.
Others told me to take magnesium. There were those who said I was probably not getting enough fluids. Some said I needed to eat better. It was suggested that I stretch which I am terrible about doing. Always have been. It was also suggested that I give myself more rest between rides.
But all I wanted to do is get better and faster and that wasn’t going to happen by staying home. Or so I thought. The truth is rest was exactly what I needed.
Early on I could see progress despite feeling like my muscles were mush. After all, in the beginning, there is only one direction to go. I could only improve. And I was getting better almost in spite of myself. But after a bit, I began to plateau. I got to a certain speed and distance and just stayed there.
As summer turned to fall and fall to winter, shorter days, hunting season, and snow meant I wasn’t able to ride as often. I started getting that rest I desperately needed, and it wasn’t long before I started to show improvement again. An injury in February (non-mountain bike-related) and then some health issues in March cut my riding way back.
When I got back on the bike in April it wasn’t long before I noticed that I was a significantly better and stronger rider than I had been prior to the break. I was riding longer distances with fewer breaks. That alone was huge.
Food can be the difference between a great ride and a crappy one
There’s quite a bit of trial and error to this one and I think it’s different for everyone. However, I suspect most people agree, riding after a heavy meal doesn’t result in the best performance.
Personally, in an ideal world, I find riding a few hours after I’ve eaten is best. However, that’s not always possible. If I must eat shortly before riding, I find eating protein-rich foods rather than carbs to be optimal. But not all proteins are the same. Something like eggs or beef jerky is good. A protein bar, not good.
If I’m going to eat a protein bar I typically, do it after a ride. But, bananas are my go-to post-ride refueling food.
If I’m riding in the morning I either do it on an empty stomach or I have a slice of toasted whole-grain bread with avocado and topped with an egg. I love this with a bit of sriracha but not before riding.
Altitude makes a difference (IMO)
This is one of those things I imagine most people don’t give much thought to unless they are going to ride someplace with significant altitude. However, I live just above sea level. Most of my riding is at this altitude.
In the year that I have been riding, I have traveled with my bike to places that although they are not Moab or Red Rocks, they are at a significantly greater altitude than zero.
Most notable has been riding in Pennsylvania. I spent a week riding there. My first stop was Allegripis. While the altitude is only around 1200 ft above sea level there was a noticeable difference in my perceived effort. Later in the week, I traveled to Johnstown which is at roughly the same altitude as Allegripis. But by this point, I had several days to acclimate and had no trouble with my ride.
My final stop was in the Laurel Highlands. I was there for 3 days. On my last day, I rode at Ohiopyle State Park. The altitude is around 2500 feet above sea level. Again, I had no trouble riding. At least not due to the altitude but the terrain was much different from the sandy rooty trails I’m accustomed to riding.
I can only attribute the perceived difference to be a result of altitude. Now having said that at these altitudes even 12 hours of acclimation is probably plenty. I’m sure many people would argue this premise but I feel like it makes a difference.
“If you’re not hiking, you’re not biking”
Sometimes you will hear riders say, “it looks like we are going to need to hike-a-bike” meaning get off the bike we’re going to be walking. If you are not familiar with these phrases, then you might need to get out of your comfort zone.
My attitude from day one was that if I couldn’t ride it, I would walk it. It was true then and is still true today. Hearing those phrases come out of the mouths of experienced riders means there’s no shame in walking whether it’s a feature that I’m not comfortable trying or if I’m tired and just need to get off the bike for a bit.
Night riding is a thing
I kind of knew people did this but I wasn’t so sure it was something I would do. But as the days became shorter people started organizing full-moon rides. I saw pictures and people seemed to be having tons of fun. I decided to give it a try.
I bought a helmet light and one for my bars, so I’d be ready for the next ride.
What an experience. Riding at night is completely different than daytime riding. For one, you feel like you are moving much faster than you actually are.
If you are on the fence about night riding, I suggest you try it.
How things are going
As I said, I’ve traveled with my bike, so I have had some opportunities to ride on terrain that is quite different from the sandy soil and mostly flat terrain I typically ride.
I mentioned riding in Pennsylvania. While there I had the opportunity to ride with some people who gave me some excellent pointers on riding in hilly areas. They recommended I start riding my road bike again at long distances and in the hardest gear to help improve my stamina and build strength for hills.
This has been helpful. (And where I live, we have a headwind in every direction so that helps too.) I no longer dread inclines. As a matter of fact, I think now I might ride better uphill than I do on flat terrain.
Riding at Ohiopyle the trail we started on was nothing but round rocks the size of a soccer ball. I had never ridden on anything like this. I had no idea how to ride this terrain. My guide told me to get in low gear and just keep pedaling. It worked like a charm. Now I apply this principle to hills and sand too and it gets me where I’m trying to go.
A year in I am still loving it. I’m riding roughly twice as fast as I did in the beginning. I’m also able to comfortably ride about three times as long. But most importantly I am riding with far more confidence which leads to significantly fewer crashes. But it also means riding is more enjoyable. While I loved mountain biking from the start it really felt like work. Today it feels like joy.
As an added bonus, I am in much better condition than I was a year ago. My heart rate has dropped. I’ve lost a few pounds and my legs look really good, especially my calves. They have definition again.
I have no intention of giving up mountain biking. I’m fully aware that I’m not getting any younger, but I become a stronger rider with every ride. That won’t last forever. At some point, I may need a full suspension or God-forbid an e-bike. Or maybe I’ll simply ride slower.
I look forward to continuing to ride both my home trails and while traveling. An unexpected benefit of riding is that it has expanded my list of destinations I want to visit. There are places I might never have considered but now I want to check out the trails. I’m also finding that not only do these spots have awesome riding they also have cool towns with culture, food and more. (Coffee. I really mean coffee.)