Bike that Mountain Like a Bad*ss Broad
Beth Jensen | Guest Contributor | @BethOIASustain
I love mountain biking. It’s given me so much over the past 10 years: access to remote, beautiful mountain places I’d never otherwise see; an unparalleled level of summer fitness; self-confidence and a feeling of general badassery for being a woman in a sport dominated by men; regular opportunities to push myself out of my comfort zone; a new appreciation for Mexican beer and salty tortilla chips after being out in the saddle for hours . . . and, probably most importantly, some of the most special shared experiences of my life.
As a woman, mountain biking can also be an extremely intimidating sport to get into. First there’s the overwhelming number of bikes, components, maintenance needs, and assorted gear. Then there are the bike shop dudes (yes, sorry to say, it’s still way too rare to see female bike mechanics) who over-explain every decision point or repair issue—all I need is a basic understanding of what is wrong and how you plan to fix it, thank you very much. Overlay all this with the certainty that you will, at some point, fall off your bike and gain an oozing scrape wound. Or that you will go flying over your handlebars into a ravine. Or that you will have an exhaustion meltdown in the middle of a ride that was just a little longer/colder/hotter/more technical than your current comfort level. Or all of the above. . . .
Wait, why does anyone do this again? Reference the previous paragraph if you need reminding. IMHO, it’s totally worth it and although your mind may be filled with thoughts of powder days and ski passes, now is the time to think about mountain biking for next year.
You’ve got me here to share with you the things you can do to increase the ratio of fun to struggle when you’re just starting out. I learned these the hard way--so hopefully you don’t have to!
Begin at the Beginning and Other Bike Tips for Badass Broads
1. Buy a decent bike, and make sure it fits you properly.
Mountain bikes are expensive, I totally get it. My current ride is worth more than my car. However, as much as I hate to put too much emphasis on equipment, in the world of mountain biking, I truly believe your bike can make a huge difference in what you are able to ride, how strong you feel, and how much confidence you have--which will make a huge difference in how much fun you are having, and therefore, how much you want to keep riding.
Do what you can to get yourself a decent full-suspension bike. If you can, demo a few bikes to see which brands feel more comfortable. Demoing bikes is expensive in itself (can be up to $100 per day or more), but is super helpful to figure out which brands and models are a good fit for you before you invest a good chunk of cash. (Would you buy a car without taking it for a test drive?) Try several different brands, ideally at least one with 27.5” wheels and one with 29” wheels, and different sizes of frames if needed. And remember to ask how to adjust the rear shock, the device on the back of the bike that makes it squishy when going downhill or over rocks. There’s typically a dial somewhere on the front of the bike that can be easily turned. If it’s turned to the wrong spot, your shock will be ‘locked out’--great for riding on the road, but much less stable (or fun) if you are trying to ride over rocks.
Once you’ve figured out what feels good, start shopping around. A good time to look is at the end of the summer season, when bike shops are selling their rental/demo fleets. Also try Craigslist.
2. Invest in three key components: pedals, saddle, and dropper post.
My very first mountain bike ride is legendary among my group of friends: not only was it my first time ever riding a mountain bike (or riding any type of bike in a very long time), it was also my first time using clipless pedals on a fairly technical trail. In hindsight, the whole thing was a terrible idea for someone in my position.
I emerged from that ride exhausted and with formerly pristine shins scraped and bloodied--but stubbornly wanting to do it again. While this experience didn’t deter me from sticking with it, I have heard numerous other stories just like mine that ended with “and that was the first and last time I went mountain biking.”
Clipless pedals can be daunting, but I truly believe they will help you in the long run. They provide so much more efficiency on uphill climbs and on technical sections. Make sure your clipless pedals are adjustable (I like Shimano SPD pedals), and have someone help you set them to the lowest (easiest to release) setting. I didn’t realize that pedals could be adjustable until several years and far too many shin scrapes later.
Get a saddle that is cushy and wide enough to support your particular sit bones. This is one of the few areas where I think a women’s-specific product often makes sense. You’ll be sitting on it for hours at a time. Make sure it’s comfy.
A dropper post is a device to control the height of your seat from a button on your handlebars next to your gear shifters while you are riding, instead of having to stop and manually adjust the height. It’s often an add-on, but I think is totally worth it and will help you become a better rider, faster.
There are a plethora of other options for bike parts. I have personally witnessed numerous lengthy conversations between dudes debating the merits of one cassette versus another. In my opinion, as a beginner, don’t worry about it.
3. Splurge on a few other key pieces of gear.
a. Good shoes: I absolutely love my 5.10 freeride shoes. They have clips but look like skate shoes and have a sticky bottom, making hiking your bike over unrideable sections super easy (vs. slipping around on traditional bike shoes).
b. Good pair of chamois shorts: as cushy as possible. Again, you’ll be sitting on your butt on the saddle for potentially hours at a time.
c. Hydration pack: ideally low-profile, medium-sized so you can comfortably carry a rain jacket, long sleeve jersey, bike tools, food, and plenty of water.
d. Comfortable helmet.
Again, in my opinion, everything else is less important. I know some amazing riders who wear pearl snap shirts from the thrift store.
4. Choose your first few rides--and riding partners--strategically.
Reference the legend of my first mountain bike ride above. It was also a massive group ride with about 15 people. Several weeks later, two lady friends took me on a much more beginner-friendly trail and what do you know, I actually had fun. When you’re just getting started, spare yourself the added pressure of trying to keep up with a big group right away, and find a lady or two who will ride with you on something mellow.
Note: I say ‘a lady or two’ above because, in my experience, dudes are absolutely terrible at identifying trails that are *actually* mellow. I have met more women than I can count over the years who have been turned off from mountain biking because their boyfriends/husbands convinced them to do some ride with a ton of technical rock sections, or with sheer cliff drop-offs, or the like, saying they would ‘be fine.’ Don’t get sucked in. Find an unpaved road or super flat trail for your first couple of rides while you get used to being on your bike.
5. Keep a few key tips in mind while riding.
To this day, I remind myself of these, and instantly feel stronger:
a. Always look 10 feet in front of you, not straight down.
b. Try to actively focus on your core while on your bike; it will help you stay stable.
c. Drop your seat post when riding downhill and raise it when riding uphill. (See the dropper post recommendation above.)
Now get out there and shred. And remember, simply being a woman who enjoys riding a mountain bike is enough and puts you in a very small club of badass ladies. Welcome!
A Wisconsin native, Beth Jensen has lived in Boulder, Colorado since 2004. She likes self-imposed athletic physical suffering, trucker hats, tacos, Malbec, Camp 4 Coffee from Crested Butte, world travel, the Green Bay Packers and, of course, being an outdoorist. Beth is Senior Director of Sustainable Business Innovation at Outdoor Industry Association, working with companies like The North Face and Patagonia to set environmental and labor standards in the global supply chains of outdoor apparel, footwear, and gear.