Mountain biking has got to be one of the coolest sports ever invented. While under your own power, you can cover miles and miles of mountainous terrain, hearing only the sound of your breath, and the occasional click of your gears.
Some people right away say mountain biking sounds hard. Yes, it is an aerobic sport, but if you choose the right terrain and simply take your time, you can really go places. Anyone who considers themselves even mildly athletic can ride a mountain bike.
The lay of the land on most local mountain bike trails usually requires an uphill climb the whole way out and a fun downhill ride the whole way back. By biking in this fashion with pedaling yourself uphill, you feel a sense of accomplishment and earn your downhill thrills.
Uphill riding really isn’t that hard if you use your gears correctly, and set a relaxed and sustainable pace.
The gears are easy, because mountain bikes shift at the push of a button. Down near your pedals you can see three sprockets called chain-rings, sized small, medium and large. The smallest chain-ring is for difficult climbs up steep, technical terrain. The medium chain-ring gives the perfect selection of gears for moderate uphills, and the largest chain-ring is for pedaling at high speeds on downhills, or easy flats.
Your left hand controls the front gears, and once you have the correct chain ring chosen you’re ready to simply fine-tune the difficulty or the ease of pedaling by using the gears. The right hand shifter controls the gears back by your rear wheel and there are usually nine gears to choose from. At this point you simply use the right hand shifter to make it harder or easier to pedal and choose the gear that is most comfortable.
The most comfortable gear is forever changing when you’re mountain biking. Because the lay of the land will roll, you will need to shift to an easier gear as it gets steeper, and a harder gear as the trail flattens out. By using your gears in this way, you’ll notice that the rate that your feet are spinning remains relatively the same, and the difficulty of pedaling also stays nearly the same.
What does change is your ground speed. You will naturally climb slower, and descend faster in terms of miles per hour. The key is to take your time on the uphill portions, and pedal at a rate that your heart rate and breathing are at an equilibrium that you can sustain. Remember, even the slowest speeds pedaling are way faster than walking.
If your feet are spinning too fast, you’ll burn out. If your feet are spinning too slowly and you’re grinding uphill, you’ll burn out too. If you find a comfortable gear, and set a moderate to easy pace, you can go miles and miles without needing to stop to catch your breath, because when you set a sustainable pace, you never lose your breath.
Uphill biking requires reading the lay of the land. When you see the first hill coming up, you want to choose the right chain-ring in the front for the best gear range selection for the terrain. For instance, if you are on a road that you could drive a car up, it is likely the middle chain ring will give you the right combination of gears. Or, if the trail is something only a jeep can go up, or is a rocky single track, chances are you’ll want to be in your smallest chain ring in front.
For the most part you’ll want to stay in the saddle for the climb. Standing up for short periods is fine, but uses more energy. It is good to get out of your saddle for bumpy terrain in order to roll over it smoothly, and this will also help you to retain a smooth cadence. Also, on long climbs you can shift the gears two or three harder, and then stand up pedaling for thirty seconds or so to stretch out and rest fatigued muscles.
When it comes to reading the terrain, all of the information comes through your eyes. Where you look, is where you’ll go. It is essential to keep your eyes moving way out in front of you, so you can get information about upcoming terrain sooner rather than later. In tricky sections, focus only on the trail and look exactly along the path you want your tire to travel.
Remember to keep your eyes moving ahead, because if you get fixated on a hazard such as a stump or a rock it draws you in like a magnet. It is fine to see a hazard, acknowledge its existence, and then keep your eyes moving way out in front so you know where you’re going. It is amazing, but you cannot go where you are not looking. This is why if there is a drop-off along the side of a trail, you focus only on the trail, and never look over the edge.
When it comes to downhill riding, it is important to set a rate of speed so that you are confident and in control. If you feel sketchy, simply slow down and the safety factor goes way up.
Use your brakes lightly because they are sensitive. Squeeze with only your index and middle fingers leaving your ring finger and pinky to retain grip on the handlebars. Use both your front and rear brakes together, because like in your car, most of the stopping power is in the front brakes. When the terrain gets rougher, ease up on the front brake to maximize your steering.
There are some times when you purposely do not use any front brake. When doing steep drops, ledges, or if you’re stuck in a rut, lay off of the front brake altogether, and then when things smooth out you can use the front brake again. Your front wheel can roll right over amazingly tall rocks if you have your front brake off, and you’re weight way back.
When descending, you’ll spend a lot of time standing up unless it is a really smooth surface. For any kind of technical terrain it is important to stand up on your pedals and get up out of the saddle. Stand with one foot in front, the other in back giving you the feeling of standing on a platform. This is a position of control. If you sit in the saddle over bumps they will throw you around, and your control will be compromised.
It is also important to have a relaxed grip on the handlebars along with bent elbows and relaxed arms in order to let the shock of bumpy terrain travel freely through you. If you tense your grip and lock your elbows, the ride will feel very rough and will give you a neck ache. Remember stay loose as a goose in the hands, arms, and bent knees and you’ll travel over rough terrain smoothly.
When standing on the pedals on a downhill, you want to have your weight back. I like to squeeze the front narrow part of the saddle with my inner thighs giving me another point of contact with my bike. For the most radical drops, you can get behind the seat which makes it nearly impossible to flip over the handlebars. An emergency dismount is also easier from this position.
Now that you understand the basic techniques, now all you have to do is choose the right trail, and bring the right stuff. When choosing a trail, choose something that is an appropriate level of difficulty for every member of your party. This means assessing the person with the least ability and matching the right trail for them. If one person in you party is having a rough time, or gets hurt, it’s not fun for the rest of the group.
There are a myriad of trails on Vail and Beaver Creek mountains, and then there are lots of backcountry trails to choose from as well. I personally prefer backcountry mountain biking because it combines solitude and a nature experience along with biking.
One person should be responsible as a trip leader, and should bring basic tools, a pump, and a spare tube and patch kit. Also, a basic first aid kit can come in handy in the event of a mishap. Make sure every party member has plenty of water, and at least some food.
As far as clothing goes, most of the time you’ll ride in biking shorts and short sleeves. However, due to the variable nature of the local climate, it is advisable to bring long sleeves and a rain jacket on all outings. Remember, hypothermia is a more common occurrence here in the summer than in the winter.
Biking gloves are also advisable to maximize comfort while riding, and to protect hands from rocks and dirt in the event of a fall. Helmets are required in all types of mountain biking. Also you’ll want to bring sunglasses to protect your eyes from dirt. And apply sunscreen liberally especially on arms, back of legs, and back of your neck.
Before setting out on the trail, double check everyone’s tire pressure. Too little air in the tires often leads to unnecessary flats, and is easy to address at the car, and a pain to deal with out on the trail.
Executing a smooth mountain bike outing takes practice. Start with easy trips and work your way up to more advanced and remote outings. Mountain biking is a rewarding physical and mental challenge that can take you to amazingly peaceful places. If you take your time and keep safety in mind you’re likely to have a smooth outing and will want to get out again and again.
Writer Tom Wiesen and photographer Tanya Wiesen are the lead guides and owners of TrailWise Guides. Privately guided wilderness hiking and backcountry mountain biking tours are available daily. Call TrailWise for more information including multi-day stays at Raven’s Retreat at 827-5363.
The Right Mountain Biking Trail (side box)
Shrine Pass to Upper Lime Creek Road (moderate). This is a scenic dirt road ride with climbs and downhills in both directions. Start from either Shrine Pass or Vail Pass on Road #709. As you eventually descend, dramatic peaks of the Sawatch Range will come into view. Watch for the intersection of Lime Creek Road # 728. This section is super-scenic with little traffic and offers a couple miles of nice climbing. Descend again and catch views of the Lime Creek valley and Mount of the Holy Cross by taking #728C. Retrace your route back for approximately fifteen miles of riding.
Lower Shrine Pass Road (easy, then moderate). Start from the historic mining town of Red Cliff and pedal uphill on scenic dirt road (#709) beside beautiful Turkey Creek. The ride stays moderately easy until just past the intersection with Wearyman Creek at about three miles. The turnoff to Wearyman Creek (#747) makes for a quick but scenic side trip to the first creek crossing. This is a good destination for kids. Those seeking a workout can continue up Shrine Pass Road and climb for nine miles before it flattens out. Turn around at any time for a fun and scenic downhill. The full length of Shrine Pass Road can be ridden almost entirely downhill if you set up a shuttle.
Colorado River Road (family ride- flat dirt road) From the Dotsero exit west of Gypsum, drive the Colorado River road upstream through dramatic high desert scenery for about fifteen miles. Park the car on the right on BLM land as you sense you are nearing dramatically colored deep red rock canyons. The road soon turns to smooth dirt and offers dramatic canyon scenery, balancing rocks, lush springs, a train, and beautiful river scenery. Ride to village of Burns and some pretty rapids on the river make for a nice stopping point. Approximately fourteen miles round-trip.
Son of Middle Creek (gnarly technical ride) Park at the Middle Creek trailhead and ride pavement on the north frontage road westward then take a right on Red Sandstone Road. Climb up on pavement and when a dirt road appears with signs to Piney Lake, take it (#700). The road climbs consistently and then after a few miles it splits. Take the Lost Lake road (#786) to the right and watch for the single track on the right about 100 yards past this intersection. Take the single track which offers challenging climbs, and wicked downhills through pine forests and aspen groves. Expect creek crossings and tight switchbacks. Know when to say when, and walk your bike on the roughest sections.