Beginner's Guide to Mountain Biking
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Mountain Biking for Beginners

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It’s around this time of year when my attention starts to turn towards mountain biking again. The lighter evenings and (slightly) warmer days have me daydreaming of fast-flowing singletrack and long days of exploring on two wheels. I dig my bike out from the back of the garage, attach the bike rack to the top of the car and away I go to the nearest forest.

On that first ride of the year, I usually ask myself the same two questions… How did I get so unfit over the winter, and was my seat this uncomfortable last year? On the second ride of the year, I usually remember why I love mountain biking so much, and ask myself why I haven’t been getting out on the bike all winter?

Mountain biking is incredibly popular, you only need to visit a trail centre on a sunny Sunday to see that, but despite its apparent popularity I always find it surprising just how many people I meet who say they’d love to get into biking but never get around to it, or people who have bikes to ride around their local parks but don’t know where to go to really get the most out of themselves and their bikes.

In this guide to mountain biking for beginners, we are going to cover the basics of what to ride and where to go, and give you the information and inspiration you need to get on your bike and start exploring.

What Kind of Mountain Bike Do I Need?

Walk into any bike shop and you will quickly discover that the term ‘mountain bike’ covers a wide variety of bikes of different shapes, sizes and styles. Generally speaking, most bike shops will stock bikes that range in price from £200 up to £2000, so understanding what bike you need, and how much you should pay can be quite complicated.

Ideally, you will need to know what kind of riding you plan on doing, and what your maximum budget is before you start looking. It’s very easy to get caught up in the excitement of the shiny toys at the bike shop and if you haven’t set your parameters before you know it you’ll have a £2k carbon fibre, full susser on flexible credit before you’ve ever been out on a trail.

Remember, when buying a bike the most important thing is having a bike that you’re going to get out on and enjoy, whether it cost £100 or £1000 is irrelevant if it sits in the back of the shed all year and never gets any mud on the tyres.

When it comes to which type of bike you need, here are a few of the basics.


A hardtail mountain bike is a bike that has a front suspension fork, but a rigid rear end.

I’ve been riding a hardtail bike for about 10 years, and have never felt the need to upgrade to a full suspension bike for the type of riding that I do. Predominantly, I ride at trail centres, on forest tracks, or occasionally sections of the National Cycle Network. For this type of riding a hardtail is perfect.

Typically, a hardtail will handle an uphill climb much better than bike with rear suspension as the momentum of your pedalling will transfer into motion more efficiently without the flex of a suspension arm, however, a full suspension bike will handle a downhill much more effectively and will smooth out many of the bumps along the way.

If you think that you will mainly use your bike for wandering, exploring, and occasionally getting some thrills on a fast section of singletrack, then a hardtail is probably the bike for you.

An entry level hardtail bike will definitely be cheaper than an entry level full suspension bike, and for the same price as an entry level full suspension bike you could find yourself a pretty good hardtail.

I spent £500 on my hardtail almost 10 years ago and it still does everything I need it to. I’ve probably spent around £200 in maintenance costs on it in that time, but it’s still a great bike to me and I have no plans to update it anytime soon.

Full Suspension

If you picture yourself flying around trail centres, getting into the mountains, and generally getting some adrenaline-fuelled kicks from your bike, then a full suspension bike is more than likely what you need.

The starting price point for a full-suspension bike is quite a bit higher than a hardtail, but if that’s the kind of riding you want to do then consider it an investment. There’s no such thing as a good, cheap full suspension bike, so if your local bike shop has a full-susser for £200 with a manufacturer name you’ve never heard of, avoid it like the plague. It’s going to weigh three times that of a decent bike and have cheap, ineffective suspension and components.

There’s a big difference in the geometry and style of a downhill bike and a full suspension trail bike, so be clear about what kind of places you want to ride. Downhill bikes are designed for fast descents and big terrain, they are definitely not designed for riding uphills or long distances.

26er or 29er?

One of the biggest changes to mountain biking in recent years is wheel size, and for many mountain bikers, this is something that can be debated endlessly.

Traditionally, all mountain bikes had 26inch wheels and that was that. However, a few years ago the 29er was introduced and gave riders a faster top-end speed, and a more forgiving ride over rough terrain. Avid fans of the 26er would argue that a 29er is slower off the mark, and harder to handle, especially for shorter riders and the debate was fiercely continued for a couple of years until someone came out with the 27.5-inch wheel which as the size suggests, offers the best of both worlds.

Which is better? That’s entirely down to rider preference and there is no straightforward right answer to this.

As my bike is almost 10 years old it is a 26er, but when the time does come for me to update I will definitely consider a 27.5 as the advantages for taller people, me being 6,1″, are obvious.

Many bike shops or manufacturers offer demo days which is a chance to go and ride a few different bikes around a trail centre. If you’re completely unsure of which size bike to go for, go and test a few out and see what works best for you.

What Equipment Do You Need for Mountain Biking?

There is a lot of equipment out there for mountain bikers, and it’s easy to get distracted by all of the things that you could buy, but, you don’t really need a lot to start getting out there and enjoying your bike.

Here are the basics of what you will need when you get out there…


It should go without saying, but you will need a helmet to protect your head from the trees/rocks/cars that will come flying your way when you make a small mistake. I always find it unbelievable when you see people riding bikes that cost hundreds of pounds but they couldn’t spend an extra £20 to potentially save their life. Don’t be that guy.


I can’t ride without gloves, even in summer. Gloves will give you extra grip, keep your hands warm and protect you from any small branches or brambles that you might ride through. I have full finger for winter, spring and autumn, and fingerless for those three hot days that we get each year in summer.


You’re going to need plenty of water when you’re out exploring, so a good supply is essential.

If you’re going on short rides, then a bottle of water, kept in a bottle cage attached to your bike should be good enough, but if you’re going on longer rides then you might want to look into a hydration pack, which is essentially a rubber bladder or reservoir that is kept in your backpack that can be accessed through a long plastic straw while you’re riding.

If you’re going to use a hydration pack, make sure you look after it. I speak from experience when I say that a rubber reservoir that has been left in the boot of a hot car for three weeks is not something you’ll ever want to drink out of again.


Another obvious one, but quite a few times when I’ve been out riding I’ve found people pushing their bike along because they didn’t pack a pump. It’s the sort of thing that you hope you never need, but the day that you do need it you will be glad that it’s at the bottom of your bag.

Inner Tubes

I know a lot of people who always carry a puncture repair kit around with them, but personally, I would never want to be sat at the side of a trail trying to repair a tube. I always pack two spare inner tubes so I can be on my way quickly if I get a puncture, and then I can repair the other tubes when I’m back at home sometime.


A decent multi-tool can get you out of trouble in certain situations. Again, it’s one of those things that you hope you never need, but they are cheap, small and lightweight so it’s really easy to get one and keep it in your bag. Make sure it’s specific for biking, you won’t get far with those inner tubes without a tyre lever.


If you’re new to riding bikes it will take around 20 minutes before you really start to realise that you’re sitting on a bike seat. Then, for about two days, you will be reminded that you sat on a bike seat for 20 minutes every time you sit down.

Don’t worry, you get used to it, but a decent pair of shorts will help you out in this department. A good pair of shorts with some built-in padding will cost you upwards of £50 but are definitely worth the cost.

There are many other things that you could consider adding, like a first aid kit, a GPS system, emergency lights, or some chain tools, but if you’re a beginner just grab the basics and get out and ride.

Now you’ve got the basics of what kind of bike you need and a few of the essential items that you will want to take with you, it’s time to get out and ride.

Where to Go Mountain Biking in the UK

Here in the UK, we are extremely lucky to have an abundance of great places that are suitable for exploration on two wheels. There are 15 National Parks, 46 AONB (Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty), countless forests and wooded areas, and over 14,000 miles of cycle trails on the National Cycle Network.

Whether you’re looking for beginner-friendly trails or more advanced downhill descents, the UK has just about everything you could ask for.

Trail Centres

The UK has dozens of trail centres and they make a perfect place for beginners looking to learn new skills and challenge themselves in an environment created exactly for that purpose.

Most trail centres consist of man-made trails, or at least well maintained natural trails, designed and built to offer a variety of challenges and obstacles over a fairly short distance, with almost all trails being circular routes that start and end with a car park, and generally a cafe and other facilities. Most trail centres will have different routes for different abilities (we’ll talk more about that later) and are a perfect place for developing your skills.

Trail centres effectively offer the full mountain biking experience on a plate, with plenty of man-made challenges and obstacles, punishing ascents and fast-flowing singletrack descents.

There are trail centres all over the UK, so if you are a beginner looking to have your first mountain bike trail centre adventure then get your bike loaded onto your bike rack and head for your nearest trails. Here are just a few of the best trail centres the UK has to offer.


The UK’s Best MTB Trail Centres




Mountain Bike Trail Grading – What Does it Mean?

Most trail centres have different routes for different abilities and they will be marked with the corresponding colours. All trail centres in the UK follow the same grading system so you will always know what level trail you should be riding.

If you’re new to mountain biking you may not have seen these colour systems yet or may be confused as to which colour trail you should be riding. Here’s our quick guide to trail grading and what it all means…


Green trails are for beginners and families. They are generally wide, well-surfaced trails with minimal ascent or descent involved. They are often shared with walkers and are commonly the forest access roads used by the Forestry Commission. These routes are great for exploring forests and a perfect way to find your confidence and improve your fitness on a bike.


Blue routes are the next step up from green routes. They often use some of the same forest access roads but will link together with some singletrack trails and some steeper hills to ride. You will need to be moderately fit and confident on your bike to ride these trails. There are some great blue routes around the UK that are perfect for mountain bikers who are developing their skills. The Verderers Trail at the Forest of Dean is a great example of this, and one that you would still want to ride even when you’ve moved onto red trails.


Red routes are what many trail centres are all about. Fast-flowing singletrack, steps, berms and drop-offs. These routes are not for beginners but they will probably be the routes that you will want to ride because they look like the most fun. Red routes will have steep climbs and technical descents with unavoidable drop-offs as well as rocky or rooty terrain. You will need a good level of fitness, stamina and technical ability to ride these trails.


Black routes are the extreme end of the scales, with very steep descents and large jumps and drop-offs. These trails require an expert level of ability and fitness. Many red routes will have some black options through the trails, meaning that you will have two options at certain points, a black graded drop or jump, or the easier red route around the obstacle. Be sure to know your ability before attempting a black route.

The National Cycle Network

Away from the adrenaline-fuelled trail centres is the National Cycle Network, a network of over 14,000 miles of traffic-free paths or quiet country roads. This network covers a huge amount of the country and is a great way to get out and explore.

You don’t technically need a mountain bike to ride these trails, a hybrid bike would be more than fine. I find that my hardtail mountain bike is perfect for riding trail centres and can easily handle a red route, but is equally at home riding the quiet paths and country roads of the National Cycle Network.

For all of the positives that trail centres offer, there are a couple of small negatives too. Trail centres are often very busy on the weekend, and the man-made circular routes don’t quite fill that urge to get out and explore. It’s for those reasons that I like to find other places to ride too, especially on the weekends. The National Cycle Network can tick those boxes and you can find a route and go and explore. There’s also no end to the ways that you could link different routes together to make longer routes, and you can even find ways to make a multi-day trip and try some bikepacking too. The OS Maps app has a specific layer just for the cycle network, making it unbelievably easy to start planning epic routes.

And that’s it, that’s our beginner’s guide to mountain biking. Now you should have a basic idea of what kind of bike you need and where you can go and ride it. All that’s left is for you to get out there.

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