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Mountain Biking

Updated: August 18, 2020

Mounting biking
Mounting biking

Montana offers some of the most exciting riding adventures in the world. On a mountain bike you can experience Big Sky Country up close and personal, free from the confinement of a car. What can compare to the thrill of cruising up a mountain trail and seeing an elk graze or a mountain goat perched on a high cliff? What could match the adventure of visiting historic battlefields, dinosaur digs, or riding along ancient Indian trails? On your bike you can feel the breeze, smell the scent of fresh pine, and hear the screech of eagles.

In Montana you'll find a wide variety of riding terrain. There are gentle quiet roads for beginners just learning how to handle their bikes and difficult single tracks to challenge the advanced gearhead. Here are some tips to help you plan your Montana vacation.

The Gear

What size bike should I buy? The correct fit is the most important point to consider when selecting a mountain bike. If you want to ride like an expert gearhead, you'll need to choose the right size frame and have your bike adjusted properly. You shouldn't feel all scrunched up when you ride. Your leg should be slightly bent at the bottom of each pedal stroke for maximum pedaling efficiency. You may be able to adjust your riding position by moving your seat up or down. Look for a quick-release bolt on the seat post, when you purchase your bike. When adjusting your seat post remember never to exceed the maximum seatpost height (about 2.5 inches must remain in the frame) or your seat post may bend or break. If your bike is too big it can be hard to control and dangerous. When you stand over your frame, between the saddle and the bars, you should be able to raise your bike off the ground several inches. In ticklish riding situations you will want to be able to reach the ground when necessary. Don't plan to grow into an oversized bike. If you are still growing or have a limited budget, consider buying a less expensive bike or check your local bike shops to see if they have a "trade up" program.

Can my bike help me climb mountains? Gearing, the weight of the bike, and your physical condition are critical factors in climbing. If you want to ride steep trails, you will need a bike with the right gears. Most mountain bikes have three chainrings (cogs) in the front, and six or seven in the back for a combination of eighteen or twenty-one gears. The more the better, but remember bikes with more gears may be more likely to come out of adjustment and may require more maintenance. The smallest ring in the front and the largest in the back are the best combination for climbing (granny gear). Occasionally test your bike by asking a friend to lift up the rear wheel while you spin the crank arms and check your derailleurs. Make sure all of your gears work, if not, it's time for a tune up. Regardless of what gear you are in, heavier bikes will be harder to pedal uphill. Nevertheless, please don't get entirely hung up on the weight of your bike. Buy the lightest bike your budget will allow and ride! Bear in mind, climbing will get easier the more you ride, so turn off the TV, pick a line, and jam.

What are some other factors to consider when selecting gear?

  • Brakes — the fastest-stopping bikes have cantilever brakes. Side-pull brakes can't squeeze as hard.
  • Rims — steel wheel rims generally take longer to stop under breaking than do aluminum rims; especially when wet.
  • Tires — knobby tires provide the best traction "off road" when properly inflated; Maintain minimum air pressure as indicated on tire sidewall. Slicks work best on pavement because they have less rolling resistance.
  • Clipless pedal system — might be an option, but mountain bike shoes are a necessary component and the entire system can be expensive. On the other hand, traditional cage pedals with straps work well.
  • Finally, bike shops carry better (and more expensive) bikes and generally offer better support.

Riding Tips

Montana offers a wide variety of mountain biking terrain including "single-track" and "dirt road" riding. The two differ in that single-track trails tend to be narrower, steeper, with sharper turns, and unavoidable obstacles such as rocks, roots, and water bars. Often trails are built along the sides of steep slopes with varying amounts of exposure. Single-track riding is great fun, but quick decisions and quick reactions are required. (Always wear your helmet!) On the other hand "two-track" or "full cut" roads are wide enough to accommodate full sized vehicles. The most common dirt roads are fire roads, mining roads and logging roads. They are generally well mapped, maintained better than trails, and provide a more comfortable ride. It's common to encounter wildlife and stunning vistas along these routes.

As you ride you are likely to encounter different conditions. Each condition requires a slightly different riding technique. Here are some tips:

If you are riding on loose dirt or sand, keep your weight at the rear of the bike with your seat on the saddle. This will keep the traction of your rear wheel digging in. Use a lower gear but don't gear down too far or you will spin out. Mud is tricky. If the path permits, stay on firmer ground, but stay on the trail. (Do not create new trails.) If you must ride through mud, hold a straight line and let your momentum carry you through. Hard pack is the safest surface to ride on. The main thing is to watch out for obstacles and always keep your speed under control.

When climbing, it's important to remember that most of the traction comes from the rear wheel. You need to keep your weight over the rear tire while leaning foward to keep your front wheel on the ground. Stand or "climb out of the saddle" only if the traction is good.

Descending can be quite challenging! You don't want to allow your weight to be too far forward. If you hit something with your front wheel and your bike suddenly slows you'll do an endo. The steeper the descent the further back your weight should be. It's not unusual to keep your body in back of the seat, you may even want to lower your seatpost. Although it may seem obvious, it's very important to know what brake lever operates what brake. The front brake has more stopping power but you will use more rear brake more often. Use just enough brake to keep your speed in control without sliding. Practice "feathering" your brakes. If you start to "lose it" let go of the brakes for an instant to recover.

Sharp turns take practice. Lean your bike into the inside of the turn and stretch out your outside leg. This will shift your weight to the outside and help you maintain your balance.

Obstacles pose a special problem. Do not look at what your front wheel is about to encounter; instead look far ahead and anticipate oncoming obstacles. If you spot an especially difficult section, get off your bike and walk through it. To get over a root, water bar, or rock, approach from a right angle. Compress the front of the bike before hitting it and pull up on the bars as you reach it. When riding over a deep "dip" let your momentum carry you through and lift up on the handlebars. Once you've learned to hop over obstacles with your front wheel, start working on hopping over obstacles with your front then your rear wheel, and finally learn to hop the entire bike at once!

Glossary of Mountain Bike Terms

All Terrain Bicycle (mountain bike)
Used to steer your bike.
Running out of energy from low blood sugar (what happens when you leave for a morning ride without having had breakfast).
Bunny hop
Lifting both wheels of the bike off the ground to clear an obstacle while riding.
The rate at which the crank arms are spun while riding.
Cantilever brakes
Most common type of brake found on mountain bikes today. Named for the two cantilever arms that pivot on the front forks or seat stays.
The gears on the front of the bike, surrounding the pedals.
Chain suck
What happens when the chain gets stuck between the chainring and the chainstay.
The ability to navigate a difficult section of trail without "dabbing."(Definitely not how you look after a hard ride.)
Clipless pedal system
A shoe/pedal system in which the shoe is held in place on the pedal with a release clip assemblage.
The moving parts of the bike that are attached to the frame.
Crank arms
Metal arms to which the pedals are attached (down by your feet).
To put a foot down to prevent a fall. (Not stylish.)
Death grip
An extremely tight grip on the handle bars caused by fear of impending endo. (Often resulting in numb fingers.)
Those odd metal gadgets that move the chain and change gears, one in the front, one in the back.
Dialed in
The blissful state when trail, bike, and rider are in perfect harmony.
A sharp and deep impression in the trail. (No, not your little brother.)
A short, steep ravine.
The act of going over the handle bars…… end over end.
Face plant
A common result of an endo.
Apparatus that fasten the front wheel to the frame, or a modern eating utensil. (Unfamiliar to many children.)
Commonly a diamond-shaped collection of metal tubes forming the skeleton of the bicycle.
Part of the rear gear cluster that allows you to coast without pedaling.
What you will be after your Montana mountain-biking experience.
Getting air
Granny gear
The easiest gear combination on your bike. (The gear your grandmother would use.)
What all real gearheads wear, all the time!
The bearing assembly that attaches the fork to the head tube.
Spinning center of the wheel, attached to the rim by spokes.
This occurs during hard braking. You start to loose control of the bike as the rear wheel slides around.
Riding fast and hard.
Picking a line
Planning the path of your bike by looking ahead and anticipating approaching terrain.
Quick release bolts
Bolts with levers attached for easy removal of wheels and seat adjustment.
Riding the pegs
Standing on the pedals.
The outer edge of the wheel, attached to the hub with spokes. (The tire is mounted on the rim.)
The bike seat, Cowboy.
The post that attaches your seat to the frame.
One of many types of lever that adjusts the derailleurs.
Usually a front suspension system used to cushion the ride.
One-lane mountain bike or hiking trail.
Mountain bike tires with no tred for lower rolling resistance, used on pavement.
"Pinch" flat caused by pinching the tube between the rim and a hard object. (The flattened tube appears to have been punctured by a two fanged creature)
Loss of traction in the rear tire, generally happening while climbing on loose soil.
The piece of metal tubing that attaches the handlebars to the frame.
Technical section
A difficult section of trail that requires exceptional mountain bike handling skills.
Riding the bike with the front wheel off the ground.

Updated: August 18, 2020

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