Mountain Biking, Contextualized

History

The bicycle was invented in 1817, and for the first 150 years of its existence, was used almost exclusively as a simple way to get from point A to point B. But, that all changed in the 1960s and 70s, when a group of teenagers known as the Larkspur Canyon Gang began riding 1930s road bikes adapted with balloon tires through the mountains of Marin County, California. They immediately became well-known in the local area, and soon, dozens of people in Marin County took similar modified bikes into the hills. As the movement grew, the competitive juices naturally started flowing. Riders started organizing downhill races, which they referred to as the “Repack,” in reference to having to repack their gears with grease after races. 

Mountain biking today

Since then, mountain biking has grown into a global phenomenon, with 8.69 million participants in the U.S. alone in 2018. For reference, there are 9.2 million skiers in America. Modern mountain biking has evolved in a variety of ways, the primary of which are the styles of riding and types of bikes that are used. Before going into the specifics of the sport, it’s important to know some key mountain biking terminology:

  • Berm – n. A banked corner that can be ridden faster than a flat corner. A very common trail feature.
  • Booter – n. A large jump that requires a lot of commitment.
  • Dialed – adj. When your set up is perfect allowing you to ride to the top of your ability.
  • Edit – n. A short film showcasing the talents of a rider or riders
  • Flow – n. The trail nirvana. A feeling all mountain bikers seek where one obstacle melds into another just perfectly. You know it when you’ve found it.
  • Loose – adj. To ride on the edge of control.
  • Shred – v. To ride in an aggressive manner.

Mountain biking disciplines

A hardtail cross country mountain bike
Credit: Scott Ritchie

Mountain biking is a diverse sport made up of several disciplines. The first is cross country, which involves riding over long distances, and requires a high level of endurance. The trails are longer and wider, as opposed to the tight, fast trails characteristic of other riding styles. There are typically long uphill and downhill sections of cross country trails, with arduous climbs. Often, there are very few rocks and other technical features on these trails, with hard packed dirt as the primary riding surface. For beginners, hardtail bikes are typically better for this type of riding. These bikes only have one set of suspension on the front forks, offering better maneuverability. Experienced riders will likely choose full suspension bikes, with suspension on both the front and back tires, in order to have a smoother ride over loose terrain. 

Next, there’s all-mountain mountain biking, which is the most popular form of riding. All-mountain biking is easily accessible, because almost any part of the mountain counts as all-mountain. Trails can range from flowy to technical, have uphills and downhills, and even include jumps or man-made features. There’s a wide variety of terrain, and riders are forced to navigate the mountain’s natural features and slopes. Pre-defined trails are rare, and drops and natural jumps are frequent parts of the experience. This riding is typically reserved for highly skilled riders who aren’t afraid to launch off of large cliffs and ledges. All-mountain biking requires a much different bike then cross country riding. All-mountain bikes are almost exclusively full suspension, because the back suspension offers extra cushion to support the rider on landings. Larger, thicker tires are also essential for dealing with rocky terrain and a variety of obstacles. 

The third type of mountain biking is downhill. Downhill riding is all about getting to the bottom of a trail as fast as possible. Like all-mountain riding, downhill doesn’t necessarily need a predetermined trail, but in professional downhill competitions, there is usually a clear course with boundaries. Riders have to navigate different types of terrain and features like large gap jumps. Downhill riding never involves biking uphill. Riders either walk up the mountain or take a chairlift. There are many ski resorts around the world, like in Whistler, BC, that convert their ski trails into a downhill bike park during the summer months. The existing ski infrastructure makes it easy for the resort to make this conversion after the snow melts away. Downhill bikes always have full suspension to accommodate the high speeds and massive jumps. The bike frames are also larger and heavier, as they take more of a beating than cross country or all-mountain bikes.

Freeride mountain biking is the last discipline, and it’s similar to downhill, but emphasizes more complicated tricks and larger jumps. There aren’t any trails, and riders are forced to be creative and find their own line down the mountain. Natural terrain makes up most of the riding, but there are also man-made features such as dirt jumps, beams, and ledges that can be built into the mountain to add variety, smooth out landings, or create gap jumps. Freeride bikes are always full suspension, but have lighter frames and higher seat positioning as compared to downhill bikes. 

Equipment

When mountain biking, riders often wear and carry a variety of gear with them. No matter what discipline, riders typically wear a helmet, bike gloves, and a backpack. The most popular type of backpack for recreational riders is a CamelBak, which has an over-the-shoulder straw and internal water pouch for on-the go hydration. Inside of these backpacks, riders carry granola bars, extra clothing, valuables, extra tire tubes, and a few basic tools in the case of a flat tire or damaged bike.

Bikes

When it comes to the bike itself, riders have infinite options to choose from. First, they choose a bike that matches their preferred form of riding. From there, they can customize everything from the bike frame to the tire size, pedal type, handlebars, brakes, and even the paint job. For those who can afford it, the customization options, both from a functional and aesthetic standpoint, are limitless.

There are a variety of companies that make high quality mountain bikes. Some of the most common bike makers are Trek, Giant, Cannondale, GT, Specialized, and Santa Cruz. Of these, Santa Cruz is generally regarded as the Ferrari of mountain bikes. Despite only offering 13 models, the company has carved out a unique niche in the mountain bike industry. Their frames are sleek and coated in bold, bright colors and graphics. Any seasoned mountain bike rider can spot a Santa Cruz from a mile away. Top of the line Santa Cruz bikes can cost up to ten thousand dollars, and custom components can send the price even higher. Although a Santa Cruz bike can run into the five figure range, most bikes can be purchased at a much more affordable price. You can get a standard, hardtail bike for only a few hundred dollars, and these are perfect for recreational riders who want to try different terrain and beginner park features. 

Trail types

A singletrack trail
Credit: Mark Somerville

There are a few general categories that all trails fall into. The first is singletrack, which are narrow and comprised of hard packed dirt. These are the fastest and flowy-est of all man-made mountain bike trails, but sometimes they will include patches of rocks and/or roots. Next, there are doubletrack trails. These are like singletrack, but wider. With more space, doubletrack trails usually have more obstacles and can be fast and flowy or full of rocks and roots, making them more technical. Lastly, there are carriage trails or fire roads. These trails are usually gravel or dirt, and are used for cars or fire trucks to access wooded areas. While some may not technically consider these trails mountain biking, they are still a great way for beginner riders to get comfortable riding new terrain and explore the mountains by bike. While some trails are pure dirt, most have at least some features on them, including man-made dirt jumps or natural roots and rocks. Below are some common mountain bike features and their descriptions. 

  • Rock garden – a close grouping of rocks that almost entirely covers the dirt and stretches over a short part of the trail
  • Jump – made of either dirt or wood, jumps can vary in size and distance. Gap jumps are a type of jump that requires the rider to clear obstacles while in the air
  • Plank – planks are a common Northshore feature (referring to the Northshore of Vancouver where these features are popular) that creates an elevated trail using wooden beams 
  • Bridge – uses planks to connect two parts of a trail
A plank bridge
Credit: Scott Lenger
  • Wall – a steep wooden feature that resembles a wall
  • Ledge – when a trail requires a rider to drop off the end of a rock or wooden feature and continue on the trail below

Mountain bike destinations

The United States is one of the best countries for all types of mountain biking, with bike parks and trail systems from coast to coast. If you’re looking for a world-class riding experience, these are some of the best towns to check out: Moab, Utah; Burke, VT; Crested Butte, CO; Sedona, AZ; Sun Valley, ID; Lake Tahoe, CA; Park City, UT; Bend, OR; Sante Fe, NM; and Durango, CO. Internationally, there are plenty of other mountain bike hotbeds. Some of the world’s most popular destinations outside the U.S. include British Columbia, Canada (home to Whistler Bike Park, voted #1 bike park in the world; the Swiss, French, and Italian Alps; the Dolomites; Innsbruck, Austria; and Rotura, New Zealand. 

Professional mountain biking

The governing body for professional mountain biking is the UCI (Union Cycliste Internationale), which is in charge of all professional cycling events in the world. In addition to holding a variety of professional events, the UCI has junior competitions too. The two most popular UCI events are the cross country and downhill world cups. In 2019, according to UCI’s rankings, for the elite men’s division, Nino Schurter (Switzerland) is the #1 male cross-country rider, and Loic Bruni (France) is the top downhill rider. For the elite female division, Anne Terpstra (Netherlands) is the best cross country rider, and Tracey Hannah (Australia) is the top for downhill.

In addition to official UCI events, Red Bull is known for hosting some of the world’s most exciting professional mountain bike competitions. Crankworx, Hardline, and Rampage are Red Bull’s signature events, and each covers a different type of riding. Crankworx is pure park riding, Hardline is downhill, and Rampage is freeriding. Many consider Rampage to be the Super Bowl of mountain biking, due to the various types of skills riders need to execute on the mountain.  While UCI events are fast-paced and exciting, RedBull takes mountain biking to another level, incorporating insane speeds, massive features, (like this 72 ft jump over a 200 ft deep canyon), and spine chilling technical sections. 

For the top mountain bikers who win international competitions and have high profile sponsors, it is possible to take home a seven figure income. For example, “five time [Downhill] World Cup overall champion Aaron Gwin estimated his annual compensation to be about $1 million after factoring in salary, sponsorships, bonuses, prize money, and royalties from signature products.” Most professional mountain bikers are nowhere near that number, but for riders like Aaron Gwin, they can walk away with some serious cash at the end of the year.

Additional resources

For additional mountain biking content and resources, check out the links below:

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