Mountain biking is one of the most popular outdoor activities in America, and it's easy to see why: Few other sports combine heart-pumping exercise with such breathtaking views and close communion with nature.
In 2008, approximately 7.6 million Americans hit the trail, a 10 percent increase over 2007 [source: Outdoor Foundation]. The numbers are even more impressive for younger riders, whose participation in the sport rose 17 percent.
One of the best things about mountain biking is that it embraces a wide range of skill levels and riding styles. Casual riders can head out with the family for a leisurely cross-country run through the forest, while serious cyclists can compete in hair-raising downhill races or get airborne with extreme freeriding.
Whatever your style, the right mountain biking gear is essential to creating an enjoyable riding experience. If you hit the trail with the wrong shoes, the wrong shorts and the wrong protective equipment, you could run the risk of painful blisters, overheating and even serious injury.
Keep reading to learn more about essential mountain biking gear and how to get the most out of this exciting sport.
Mountain Biking Shoes
Your tennis shoes are excellent multi-taskers. They can get you through a basketball game, a jog around the neighborhood and even an impromptu square dance. But if you plan on doing a lot of mountain biking, you'll need shoes that meet the unique demands of serious pedaling.
Mountain biking shoes have several qualities and components that separate them from regular athletic shoes. First of all, they're extremely lightweight. Since they're designed only for pedaling, they don't need all the support and cushioning that basketball or running shoes require. They're also light to save you energy. If you're already working hard to pedal up a steep, muddy hill, you don't want to expend extra effort just lifting your shoes.
Mountain biking shoes usually have a stiff, carbon polymer sole that maximizes the power transfer from your leg muscles to the pedals. The soles of high-end racing shoes have a high arch to keep the foot in ideal pedaling position.
Heel slippage is the biggest shoe-related problem while mountain biking. Slippage can cause serious blisters, take power away from your pedaling and just be plain annoying. Most mountain biking shoes are designed with a special molded plastic heel that adds extra anti-slipping support. Most shoes also have several fasteners (both lace and Velcro) to make sure that they fit snugly across the length of the shoe.
Most mountain biking shoes are in the $50 to $100 range, but high-end models can reach $300 a pair. The Shimano M310, for example, can be custom-fit by heating up the shoe to 200 degrees and molding it to the precise contours of your foot. It also includes a "ratchet" style strap at the top, similar to a ski boot, making for a super snug fit. The heel has a "cat's tongue" fabric insert that slips on easy, but is hard to slide off.
Higher-end mountain biking shoes also come with detachable cleats and spikes. Cleats allow riders to clip into their pedals, giving extra traction. And spikes can be screwed into the soles of a mountain biking shoe when it's time to hike the bike up muddy terrain.
Now that your feet are taken care of, let's look at hand protection while mountain biking.
Mountain Biking Gloves
Mountain biking gloves serve several important functions. They improve your grip on the handlebars, reduce blisters, keep fingers warm during fall and winter rides, absorb bumps and shocks and offer extra protection during a crash. The basic types of mountain-biking gloves are half-finger, full-finger, three-finger and mittens (also called pogies).
Half-finger gloves are perfect for short trails and hot-weather riding. They're usually made of leather, which absorbs sweat well and lets the fingers breathe. Half-finger gloves are lightweight but durable, with double-stitching in key stress points between the thumb and forefinger and along the palm.
Serious riders and professional racers prefer full-finger gloves. They're made of a mix of leather and waterproof synthetics for all-season riding. Downhill racers and freeriders use full-finger gloves with extra padding to protect against whipping tree branches and crashes.
For fall and winter riding, three-finger gloves are an interesting option. The idea is to keep the fingers warm by giving them a "partner" to cuddle up with. Three-finger gloves have a spot for the thumb, a shared spot for the forefinger and middle finger and a third shared spot the ring and pinky fingers.
Pogies are mitten-shaped, waterproof hand protectors that attach directly to the handlebars of your mountain bike. The pogies cover the handles as well as the brake controls, allowing you to fully operate your bike safely inside their warm confines. You can even wear a pair of thinner mountain bike gloves and stick them inside the pogies for an extra layer of protection.
The prolonged stress and bumps associated with mountain biking can lead to hand soreness and even carpal tunnel syndrome. There are a wide range of padded gloves and gloves with special gel inserts that absorb some of the shock and lessen the severity of these conditions.
And now for the question you've been dying to ask: What's up with bicycle shorts? Read more on mountain biking clothing in the next section.
Mountain Biking Clothing
Bicycle shorts must serve a very important function. Otherwise, why would anybody wear such a skintight atrocity in public?
It turns out that "skintight" is the key word. Bicycle shorts actually are designed to act as a second skin. They are made of synthetic polyester materials called "wicking" fabrics that draw moisture away from the skin. Wicking fabrics helps keep your body cool during long, hot rides. And in cold weather, moisture trapped on your skin can actually lead to hypothermia [source: REI].
Bicycle shorts play another important role: protecting your privates. During long rides, some very sensitive body parts rub against the seat of the bike. Bike shorts have a special panel called the chamois that's designed to reduce friction and wick moisture away from these areas.
While we're on the topic, bicycle shorts aren't meant to be worn with underwear, particularly cotton underwear, which traps moisture [source: Schloss].
Mountain bikers often opt for baggier bike shorts instead of the skin-tight versions. Road racers like the super tight shorts because they cut down on wind resistance. That's not as much of a concern for mountain bikers [source: Schloss]. These baggy shorts still have an inner layer that holds tightly to the skin to reduce friction and control moisture. But baggy shorts offer better protection during a fall and are more durable.
Mountain biking jerseys are mostly about temperature control. For warm-weather rides, look for a lightweight polyester material that wicks away moisture and has zippers in the front for when things get really sweaty. For winter riding, think layers, layers, layers. You want a wicking layer close to the skin, then an insulating layer like a fleece, and then a waterproof shell [source: REI].
If you're going to try downhill racing or freeriding, you'll need more than a thin layer of polyester to protect you. In the next section, we talk about mountain biking armor.
Mountain Biking Armor
For those who can't fully enjoy the great outdoors without the threat of death or disfigurement, welcome to the world of downhill mountain biking and freeriding!
In downhill, riders try to negotiate a tight course of jumps, drops and unfriendly terrain (rocks, steps, mud, etc.) and finish in the fastest time possible, preferably alive. In freeriding, it's more about style than speed, which usually translates into a lot more jumps, ramps, drops and airtime.
As a short visit to YouTube will confirm, extreme mountain biking carries a high potential for injury. That's why professional downhillers and freeriders gear up with serious protective equipment called armor. Quality armor can make the difference between walking away from a wipeout and being carried away.
Downhill and freeriding helmets are different than the standard mountain biking helmets. They're designed purely for protection, not style or comfort. They're "full face" helmets like BMX or motocross helmets, fitted with goggles or visors to protect the eyes and nose during high-speed crashes.
If you're going to be getting a lot of air, you need to invest in a spine protector. This is a stiff plastic board that runs the length of your back and protects against potentially crippling spinal cord injuries. Neck collars offer further protection against spinal injuries.
For the rest of the upper body, you can buy special jackets and jerseys that come with built-in chest, shoulder, elbow and forearm pads. For the lower body, you can buy full-length bicycle pants with built-in knee pads, shin guards, hip pads and even tailbone pads designed to protect that fragile coccyx.
Next up, let's look at a GPS to meet your mountain biking needs.
Mountain Biking GPS
Global positioning systems (GPS) are small satellite receivers that can pinpoint your location -- and often your elevation -- anywhere on earth. GPS mapping devices have become common in cars, but they're also starting to make their way onto the mountain biking trail. Mountain bike GPS systems are typically smaller than those in cars. They can be mounted on handlebars, slipped into a jacket pocket or even worn as a watch.
Mountain biking GPS systems are useful both as safety devices and training tools. In a pinch, they can help you find your way back home, but they also help serious riders track their ride times, average speed, overall climbs and more.
The track log function on a GPS device acts like a digital breadcrumb, recording your exact position during every second of your ride. This function can come in handy for several reasons.
If you veer off the trail, you can consult the log to find your way back to familiar ground. But you can also use the track log data to construct a detailed trail map that can be shared with other riders. Using special software, you can convert your log data into a file that can be uploaded to sites like Google Earth, where users can view your trail on an interactive map.
It works the other way as well. On sites like SingleTracks.com, you can search and download trail data as a GPX file. These files contain the precise GPS maps of an entire mountain biking trail, including how long it will take to finish, inclines and elevations, and more. You can load the trail map onto your GPS device and it will alert you to upcoming turns and let you know if you've wandered off the path.
Mountain biking GPS systems can also be paired with training software that helps professional riders slice seconds off their race time. Perhaps they're slowing down too much during turns or not accelerating enough on downhill stretches. The computer knows all.
Finally, let's take a look at the tools every well-prepared mountain biker should take on the trail.
Mountain Biking Tools
Mountain bikes take a beating, plain and simple. Rock-strewn muddy trails make for jarring, messy conditions that loosen bolts and bearings and muck up gears. Smart cyclists always travel with a small kit containing everything they need to handle the most common mountain bike repairs: tire repairs, gear repairs, brake repairs and general bolt tightening.
One of the best pieces of equipment to carry with you on the trail is also the simplest: a damp towel or bandana to wipe down your bike before you pack it up for the trip home. Keeping your bike clean will help preserve brakes, gears and other moving parts [source: Strassman].
Next, you'll want to carry a basic tire patch kit, which includes a small tire pump, several patches, glue, tire pressure gauge and a tire lever to remove the tire from the bike rim. You'll also want to carry a spare inner tube, in case the patch kit doesn't cut it.
There are also many multi-tools sold exclusively for use with bikes. These tools come with Allen wrenches of various sizes as well as flat head and Phillips head screwdrivers.
If your chain snaps, you'll need a special chain rivet tool to remove the broken link of chain and connect the remaining chain back together. If you're going on a multi-day ride, it's smart to carry an entire replacement tire chain, just in case.
A spoke wrench is a small circular tool for adjusting the tension in a wheel spoke. You might need to adjust the spoke tension if a wheel becomes wobbly, or "out of true" in cycling parlance.
Other tools you'll want to have on hand are some basic pliers and a set of small hex wrenches: four, five, and six mm should work [source: Gronseth]. These are useful for adjusting brakes and any other operation that requires the loosening and tightening of bolts. Check that you have the right size wrenches for your bike before you hit the trail.
And don't forget the old stand-bys, duct tape and baling wire. With some creativity, these two items can fix just about anything, at least long enough to get back to civilization. Which reminds us -- you should probably carry a little money for a cab, just in case you need a ride back to town.
For more information about America's favorite outdoor activities, take a look at the links on the next page.
Related HowStuffWorks Articles
- Gronseth, Ken. "Assembling a Tool Kit" GORP.http://gorp.away.com/gorp/publishers/menasha/bik_repr.htm
- Outdoor Foundation. "Outdoor Recreation Participation Report 2009."http://www.outdoorfoundation.org/pdf/ResearchParticipation2009.pdf
- REI. "How to Choose Cross Training Clothing"http://www.rei.com/expertadvice/articles/crosstraining+clothing.html
- Schloss, David. "Find Cycling Clothes that Fit." GORP.http://gorp.away.com/gorp/gear/biking/clothing2.htm#top
- Strassman, Mike. "Mountain Bike Maintenance." GORP.http://gorp.away.com/gorp/publishers/ics/bik_main.htm