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Everything You Need to Start Mountain Biking, According to Cyclists

Photo: Arno Burgi/picture alliance via Getty Image

Even if you have experience with bike commuting or cycling around town for fun, mountain biking presents a whole new set of challenges. Whether you’re riding on smooth, paved trails or rocky, mountainous terrain, you’ll want gear specifically designed for mountain biking, like a bike designed to keep you stable on bumpy routes and a handheld pump in case you have a flat tire miles from the nearest bike shop.

To find out more about everything you need to get started, we asked four experienced riders to recommend their favorite gear. Below, you’ll find the best bikes for tackling steep downhills, the sturdy shoes for gripping your pedals, and some (actually attractive) mountain-bike-specific shorts.

Best mountain bikes

The type of bike you should buy depends on the terrain you’ll be riding. If you’re a beginner and not planning on hitting the steepest, most treacherous trails right out of the gate, the Santa Cruz Highball is a safe best. Christopher Trombley, program director at NYC Mountain Bike Association, explains that for smoother trails with less aggressive downhills, you can look for a “hardtail” bike, which features only a front suspension. While it won’t absorb as much shock as a bike with front and rear suspension, this type of bike is generally of lighter weight and more affordable, so it’s a good option for beginners. For gentler terrain, you can buy a bike with a steeper head angle (the angle between the front fork and the ground), which allows you to sit more upright, as on a road bike. Lots of cyclists we spoke with recommended Santa Cruz bikes, and the company’s Highball model is a very respectable hardtail style. To learn more about your area’s terrain, consult with a local bike shop or mountain-biking club (like your local chapter of the International Mountain Bicycling Association). You can also check out the Trailforks app to find local places to ride.

If you’re on a budget, REI’s in-house line, Co-op Cycles, has several affordable hardtails, like this under-$600 entry-level mountain bike.

For more rugged terrain, you’ll want a bike with a less steep head angle, to give you stability on downhills, and both front and rear suspension, to absorb more shock. Rachelle Hynes, who chronicles her mountain biking adventures on her blog, Zesty Life, rides a Santa Cruz Bronson, which she calls “the perfect bike if you love technical downhill but also like to earn your turns by climbing up.” Compared with a more upright style, this type of bike gives riders more confidence on tough terrain, Hynes says. With six inches of “travel” (the maximum distance the suspension system can compress), the Bronson will give you plenty of cushioning on bumpy trails.

Recommended by Colin of The Bike Dads blog, the Giant Trance is made of lightweight aluminum and features both front and rear suspension. Like the Bronson, the Trance falls into the trail-bike category, which, as Colin explains, includes bikes “that can access the most amount of terrain a beginner would want to ride.”

If you’re tackling even more aggressive bumps and downhills, you may want to consider an “enduro” bike, which has an even less steep head angle than a trail bike to position your weight further back. Trombley says Commencal bikes are popular among riders in his group because they “make really high-end aluminum frames but at a very affordable price point.”

Best mountain-biking helmets

Experts may agree that any helmet is better than no helmet, but if you’re getting into mountain biking, you’ll probably want something more protective than your road-bike helmet. “Most [mountain-biking helmets] offer extended rear head coverage because a mountain biker is more likely to fall backward than a road rider,” says Bostjan Brzin, founder of Bike Hike Tours. Trombley adds that a good mountain-biking helmet “comes down over your temples a little bit more to give you more protection around those critical areas of your head that could come in contact with the ground if you fall off your mountain bike.” He personally wears the Bell Super helmet, which includes multi-directional impact-protection system (MIPS) technology. According to Colin, MIPS works to “limit rotational forces and thus concussive forces in the event of a crash.”

Like Trombley, Hynes wears Bell helmets, and she’s especially fond of the Super DH model. “It’s a normal-style helmet that has a detachable chin bar you can strap to your bag when climbing up and have the confidence of a full-face helmet on the way down,” she says. “It’s light, comfortable, and safe. I have had three already and wouldn’t get anything else.”

For more helmet options, Colin recommends checking out the Virginia Tech helmet-ratings site for safety ratings based on independent testing. It says to choose a helmet with a four- or five-star rating, like this five-star model from Giro, another favorite brand among our experts.

Best mountain-biking shoes and pedals

While some riders feel clip-in shoes that attach to your pedals allow for a smoother pedal stroke, nearly all the mountain-bike riders we spoke with said they prefer flat shoes that are more flexible and easier to walk in. Trombley says it’s important, especially for beginners, to consider how comfortable their shoes are off the bike since their riding trips are likely to include more walking. He likes the flat shoes from Five Ten, which are optimized for traction. “They’re known for their climbing shoes, which have very sticky rubber soles, and they’ve adapted that ‘stealth rubber’ technology, as they call it, over to flat-pedal mountain-biking shoes,” he says. “Having that really sticky sole allows the pedal traction pins to dig into the shoe much better than a standard running shoe or an off-the-shelf shoe.” Brzin is a fan of Five Ten’s shoes as well, and Hynes says the Freerider style is “comfortable and lighter weight, with exceptional performance.”

Brzin and Trombley both also recommend Vans shoes because of their sturdy rubber soles. Trombley calls this pair from Vans’ MTE line “a sturdy all-weather shoe that really stands up to abuse.” With water-resistant uppers and a warm lining, they’re perfect for wet and cold days on the trail.

Since mountain bikes often don’t come with pedals, you can buy ones that are optimal for your shoes and riding style. Trombley explains that pedals designed for flat shoes have long pins that dig into the soles for better traction. As he says, “If you lose that contact point with the bike, then you can lose control and crash.” Colin says to “look for grippy, metal-pinned pedals like the ones from OneUp.”

Best mountain-biking clothing

Trombley says choosing clothing is “the funnest part of mountain biking” because there’s more variation in available styles compared with the more uniform ultra-aerodynamic, all-Lycra gear you’ll see on road racers. Safety-wise, he recommends fitted bottoms that won’t get caught on your pedals, your saddle, or anything along the trail. In warmer weather, he advises going with synthetic materials, which, he says, “evaporate your perspiration a little better and keep you cooler,” compared with cotton. Several of our experts recommend pieces from Troy Lee Designs that are made specifically for mountain biking. The brand’s shorts, for example, are made of a durable, stretchy material that is comfortable for long rides and protects your legs from the elements.

Hynes admits that “there are a lot of ugly mountain-bike shorts out there.” But if you’re looking for something more flattering, she likes those from the Vancouver-based brand Race Face.

A simple, moisture-wicking jersey top will work on most days, and a few of our experts — including Brzin and Hynes — recommend apparel from POC.

Best mountain-biking accessories

In the event of a crash, you’re likely to end up with cut knees from rocks or other sharp objects on the trail, so it’s a good idea to invest in kneepads for protection. Hynes like POC kneepads, while Colin likes the lightweight options from G-Form for beginners. Different models offer different levels of protection, so make sure to choose a set that’s appropriate for the terrain you ride.

To improve your grip on the handlebars and protect your hands, you’ll want a pair of biking gloves. Trombley says to go with a full-coverage pair (instead of a fingerless style) for the best protection. “It’s not uncommon for you to put your hand down when you fall, and when you’re in rocky terrain, you can peel a fingernail off or otherwise incapacitate one of your digits, which doesn’t feel very good,” he says.

In addition to keeping the sun out of your eyes on bright days, Colin points out, a pair of sunglasses can keep your eyes from tearing up on a steep descent. Trombley recommends wearing them in all weather conditions to protect your eyes from pieces of dirt or gravel tossed up by your tire treads. Trombley likes Tifosi for “really good-quality eyewear at a totally reasonable price point.” This pair has transition lenses, so you won’t have to worry about switching out your glasses as you ride in and out of the shade.

“For longer rides, when a bike-mounted water bottle is not enough, it’s nice to carry a hydration backpack,” says Colin. “Along with water, you can throw in some food, spare clothing, and any extra tools.” Both he and Brzin recommend Osprey hydration packs, which come in a variety of sizes. For shorter rides, Hynes says to choose any water bottle that will fit on your bike’s holder, but avoid glass ones, which can shatter if you drop them or crash your bike.

Best mountain-biking repair kits and tools

Whether it’s a punctured tire or a broken chain link, you’re likely to encounter some sort of roadside repair situation if you do a lot of mountain biking. A handy multi-tool can be helpful for tightening loose nuts and bolts on your bike, and Colin likes this one from Specialized, which attaches to the bike for easy storage. “We don’t like taking backpacks on shorter rides, so anything that we can strap or fix to the bike is amazing,” he says. It includes a variety of screwdrivers and wrenches as well as a chain breaker in case you need to replace a link (make sure you also carry a few extra links that will fit your specific chain). “Snapped chains are not uncommon,” says Trombley, who says that, without the tools to repair one, your ride will likely stop in its tracks.

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In the event of a flat tire, Hynes keeps this pump from OneUp attached to her bike frame. It works as a manual pump to inflate a tire and features an automatic CO2 mechanism, which, as Hynes describes it, is “one big burst of air that fills up your tire.”

Most of our experts recommend carrying a first-aid kit in case you’re the one who needs repairs. While it won’t help with major injuries from big crashes, a kit with bandages and some wound tape can hold you over until your ride is done. Small enough to fit in your pocket, this kit includes gauze pads, antibiotic ointment, and more items for taking care of minor cuts and scrapes. Of course, it’s also a good idea to let someone know where you’re riding in case you run into trouble on the trail.

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Everything You Need to Start Mountain Biking