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Mountain biking for beginners — 4 reasons to try mountain biking

Fancy some filthy fun? Here's what you need to know
Updated April 25, 2021

From scrappy upstart with knobby tyres in the 1980s, though the boom of the 1990s, mountain biking has become an essential, muddy part of the cycling landscape. If you're a mountain biking beginner who came to cycling via the road bike boom, why should you have a go at mountain biking?

When the mountain bike first began appearing in the UK it was a revelation. Here was a bike with a commanding, upright riding position, powerful brakes, tough go-anywhere wheels and tyres, and gears that could get you up a wall.

NS Bikes Define 150 Riding-26

Mountain bikes offered the freedom to explore trails and tracks, and get away from civilisation much faster than was possible on foot, along with the ability to bash round town and laugh at potholes, kerbs and other street annoyances.

Of course, they still do. The mountain bike scene may not be quite as lively as it was in the 90s, but the bikes are still as versatile as ever — and just as much fun, if not even more so.

Read more: How to choose and buy your next bike
Read more: The A-Z of cycling jargon

Want to know lots more about mountain biking? Visit our knobbly-tired sister site

Why ride a mountain bike

We’re going to assume you have a road bike and you’re quite content riding that on the road and to work (though a mountain bike with slick tyres makes a bombproof commuter if you have to contend with cratered city streets). To really get the most out of a mountain bike, you want to take it off road. Here are four reasons why:

Sonder Transmitter NX1 Revelation Riding-5

1 It’s fun. Playing in the woods will take you back to being a kid, to the days when riding a bike wasn’t about training mileages and targets, but about getting wet and sweaty, and covered in mud. You’ll scare yourself silly a few times, you’ll probably fall off a few times and you’ll come home with a big grin on your face.

2 It’s intense. A mountain bike ride is almost never a flat, steady amble along. Instead, it mixes bursts of maximum effort to scale hills or power over problems with sections of taking it very easy as you zoom downhill. Back in the Bronze Age when we both raced mountain bikes (him far more seriously than me) our fitness expert Dave Smith recorded a maximum heart rate in a race higher than he’d ever been able to produce in the lab. Those bursts of high intensity can be a very useful part of your fitness regime.

Shand Shug Riding-6

3 It builds handling skills. Where did Peter Sagan get his remarkable bike handling skills? Among other things, he mixed road cycling with mountain biking when he was a teenager and won the 2008 junior mountain biking cross-country world championship. Sagan is a huge talent, but even regular mortals can benefit from learning to move around on the bike, handle a variety of surfaces and keep a bike upright when it’s sliding around under you. Once you’ve mastered a few high-speed off-road descents, you won’t be fazed by road downhills.

4 It gets you to hard-to-access places. If you love the countryside, there's no better way to get deep into the hills than by bike. Explore Welsh and Scottish forests, the bridleways of the Yorkshire Dales and Lake District or the ancient trails of the Quantocks — and then head to a cafe to reward yourself with copious quantities of cake.

What makes a mountain bike a mountain bike?

Mountain bikes are characterised by flat handlebars and knobbly tyres. The bars provide control on rough terrain, while the tyres provide grip. So far, so obvious. But since the mountain bike’s birth in Northern California in the 1970s, that simple formula has given rise to a dozen variants for different uses and riding styles. But before we get into that, though, lets have a look at the other features of mountain bikes.



Even more than in road bikes, aluminium rules the roost. As well as being strong and light, aluminium is relatively straightforward to fabricate into the complex shapes necessary for full suspension bikes, without blowing the budget into the stratosphere.

A decent aluminium hardtail — a mountain bike with a rigid frame and suspension fork — will set you back about £500, though like road bikes, they get very rapidly better from that price up to about £1,500. If you want suspension at both ends, then expect to spend at least £1,000.

Carbon fibre is the second most common material. Carbon fibre hardtails start at about £1,500; a carbon full suspension bike will set you back from about £2,500 to — well, how large is your bank balance?

There are still a few steel and titanium mountain bikes available. Steel retains a certain retro appeal and the best steel tubing builds into light, lively frames valued by aficionados for their springy ride. Titanium builds into frames with similar qualities, but a bit lighter, and has the advantage of being corrosion-proof.



Suspension improves comfort and helps keep the wheels in touch with the ground. Most mountain bikes have a suspension fork, which improves all-important front wheel traction and handling. Some also have rear suspension which further cushions and improves the ride.

The extra components needed for suspension add weight and cost. The pay-off is worth it, but you will pay more for a bike with a decent quality suspension fork than without, and more again for a full suspension bike.

The corollary is that cheap suspension bikes should be avoided. The poorly-controlled movement of a cheap fork can actually make a bike’s handling worse, while cheap rear suspension adds very little but weight and mechanical complexity.

The amount of suspension travel has a big effect on a bike capabilities. Cross-country race bikes tend to have about four inches of travel, trail and enduro bikes five to six inches and downhill bikes up to eight inches.


MTB Disc brake.jpg

Almost all modern mountain bikes have disc brakes. You’ll find rim brakes on a few cheaper bikes but by the time you get to bikes at £400 and above, disc brakes rule. And rightly. Discs are less troubled by mud and water, and carry on working if your rims get dinged.

Cheaper disc brakes are actuated by cables from the brake levers, more expensive ones by hydraulics. Hydraulics are more efficient and reliable, and worth the extra cost.

Wheels and tyres

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Until a few years ago, all mountain bikes had 26-inch wheels, a size that came from the beach cruiser bikes that were the basis for the original Marin County klunkers. In the early 2000s bike builders began to experiment with a larger size, based on the same 700C rims as road bikes but shod with fatter tyres. Dubbed ‘29-inch’, these wheels roll better over uneven ground, making for faster bikes that are also easier for beginners to ride.

However, some designers struggled to squeeze a significant amount of suspension travel in between a larger wheel and the frame, so an intermediate size — 650B —  became popular. It’s a French wheel size that was all but abandoned until being resurrected for middle-sized mountain bike wheels. This size is sometimes called 27.5-inch, but with a two-inch tyre it’s more like 27 inches across; a useful bit of extra size and rolling ability.

While most middle-to-high-end bikes have switched to one of the larger sizes, there’s life in 26-inch wheels with whopping great four-inch tyres on ‘fat bikes’. More of them later.

Inspired by the fat bike trend, 650B and 29-inch wheeled bikes are also sprouting fatter tyres. Where tyres used to be between 2 and 2.3 inches across, 29+ and 650B+ tyres are three inches wide.


Specialized Chisel transmission

Mountain bikes need a wide gear range, from low gears for steep ascents to high ratios for hurtling down fire roads. Traditionally that was achieved with a triple chainset and some mountain bikes still combine three chainrings with seven, eight, nine or ten rear sprockets. But in pursuit of simplicity, most riders now go for gear systems with a single chainring and a very wide-range set of 11 or 12 sprockets. This provides almost as wide a range of gears as a triple. For recreational riding, the highest gears are sacrificed, whereas racers forego the low ratios.

Read more: Beginner's guide: understanding gears



Road cycling has Shimano v Campagnolo; mountain biking has flat v clipless pedals. Shimano and others offer various designs of double-sided clipless pedals for mountain biking, from compact designs for racing and cross-country riding, to pedals with the mechanism surrounded by a platform for extra support with more flexible shoes.

But many riders don't like the idea of being attached to the bike while riding off road; they want the reassurance of being able to get off the pedals instantly. Flat pedals have a broad platform for your foot, with small steel studs that dig into a rubber sole and do a surprisingly good job of keeping the two attached.

In reality both varieties work well, and the choice comes down to personal taste.

Read more: Clipless pedals - how to get started the easy way

Mountain bike types

2021 Specialized Stumpjumper Comp

Trail. Bikes for what we used to call ‘going mountain biking’. Usually with suspension at both ends, upright riding position compared to a race bike and relaxed handling so riders can relax and enjoy the downhills, but still get to the top fairly easily. Wheels are sometimes 650B, sometimes 29-inch.

2021 giant Anthem Advanced Pro 29 1

Cross-country race. Long, low and light, these are the greyhounds of the mountain bike world. For a long time, racers eschewed full suspension, but carbon fibre suspension bikes are now so light that the weight disadvantage is overcome by the downhill speed and handling advantage on many courses. Almost always have 29-inch wheels for speed.

Cotic Simple

Singlespeed. As the name implies, singlespeeds have just one gear. The idea is that the bike is stripped down to essentials and you concentrate purely on riding without the faff of thinking about being in the right or wrong gear. Singlespeeds are often rigid too, with not even a suspension fork. In a way this is the mountain bike equivalent of a fixed gear road bike, with a similar philosophy of mechanical simplicity.

2021 Orange Crush

Hardcore hardtail. This broad category comprises bikes with rigid frames, long-travel forks and shallow head angles, intended for steep, rough and wet conditions.

Salsa Beargrease Carbon X01 Eagle

Fat bike. The last redoubt of 26-inch wheels, fat bike have huge tyres — usually four inches wide but five-inch tyres are available — running at low pressures for maximum traction no matter what the surface. Originally developed for riding on snow in Alaska, fat bikes have spread around the world because they’re simple bikes, usually with no suspension, that can roll over just about anything.

DMR Sect

Dirt jump. Super-tough bikes with low-slung frames, and beefy short-travel forks, built to withstand the rigours of aerial stunts by talented lunatics, and the resulting landings.

Commencal Supreme DH signature

Downhill. Bikes for pure gravity racing have long-travel suspension at both ends to absorb just about anything as riders hurtle down steep hillsides against the clock. Downhill bikes also have very shallow head angles for stable handling at speed.

Rocky Mountain Altitude 29

Enduro. Bikes for enduro competitions, a sort of mountain bike rallying in which riders are timed through technical sections, and have time limits to ride between them. Somewhere in between a trail bike and a downhill bike, in that bikes are fast downhill, but can still be ridden up to the start of the next technical section.

Where to ride

Bike sign at Dalby Forest trail centre.jpg

Bike sign at Dalby Forest trail centre.jpg (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 Chris Kimber )

To get started riding off road, a trail centre is your best destination. Usually on Forestry Commission land, these are areas with a network of marked trails and other facilities, usually including a car park, cafe and bike wash. Trails are graded by difficulty, so don't throw yourself straight into a black run.

Our friends at Singletrack have an extensive guide to trail centres and other riding hotspots.

Aside from purpose-built trails, you have the right to ride a bike on bridleways and byways in England and Wales even if they cross private land, and you can ride wherever you can find a trail in Scotland. You've no right to ride on public footpaths though, so best to steer clear.

Or you could completely ignore the whole idea of trails:

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John has been writing about bikes and cycling for over 30 years since discovering that people were mug enough to pay him for it rather than expecting him to do an honest day's work.

He was heavily involved in the mountain bike boom of the late 1980s as a racer, team manager and race promoter, and that led to writing for Mountain Biking UK magazine shortly after its inception. He got the gig by phoning up the editor and telling him the magazine was rubbish and he could do better. Rather than telling him to get lost, MBUK editor Tym Manley called John’s bluff and the rest is history.

Since then he has worked on MTB Pro magazine and was editor of Maximum Mountain Bike and Australian Mountain Bike magazines, before switching to the web in 2000 to work for Along with founder Tony Farrelly, John was on the launch team for and subsequently became editor in chief of Future Publishing’s group of cycling magazines and websites, including Cycling Plus, MBUK, What Mountain Bike and Procycling.

John has also written for Cyclist magazine, edited the BikeMagic website and was founding editor of before handing over to someone far more representative of the site's main audience.

He joined in 2013. He lives in Cambridge where the lack of hills is more than made up for by the headwinds.

Add new comment


kil0ran | 4 years ago

My head keeps getting turned by the idea of E-MTB but I've no idea what sort of bike/geo I need. I've got the New Forest on my doorstep one way and Salisbury Plain/Cranborne Chase the other and do a lot of "gravel" riding on 650B/47mm tyres, mainly to handle the sandy bits. But what's essentially a road bike just doesn't have the chuckability and clearance needed to take on the lumpier bits. Or the gearing. 

I know what I'm not intending to do - no insane bike park downhill stuff, no racing.

Most rides are likely to be 5 miles on tarmac and 10/15 miles offroad. What do I need?

peted76 replied to kil0ran | 4 years ago

Probably a day testing bikes from the many quality bike shops in your area.

e-MTB are awesome fun.

I'd love to live near the new forest, my dad lives down there and I covet the day I can go and see him and have a cheeky day in the forest on a half decent rented hardtail again.

kil0ran replied to kil0ran | 3 years ago

To answer my own question, I went with a cheap hardtail - Calibre Two Cubed - and upgraded it with a dropper and 1x drivetrain. Swapped my lightweight (by MTB standards) gravel wheels over to it and absolutely loving my riding. Haven't ridden on the road (other than to link up bits of MTB routes) since July. 

I've lived in the same place for over a decade and I've seen bits of it I never knew existed. And cross-country riding as the crow flies unsurprisingly means favourite bits of the forest can be linked up with minimum transitions. People you encounter seem to be more tolerant, certainly no conflict with dog walkers or horsey types yet.

I've got fitter, dropped two notches on my belt, my bike handling has improved no end, and most of all I'm getting to places out in nature that are inspiring and doing wonders for my general wellbeing. 


lostshrimp | 4 years ago

I haven't ever done any MTB riding but looking to start doing some for the reasons in the article. Probably have a budget around £1200 mark and will wait until end of year sales. At that budget am I better getting a decent hard tail or a low end full suspension? Most of my riding would be on the trails in Epping Forest (so roots / the occasional log) or something like the Cumbria Way between Keswick and Skiddaw house

Notbuilt2climb | 4 years ago
1 like

Clearly I'm bored but shouldn't this article be on

bikercub replied to Notbuilt2climb | 4 years ago

Would you expect an article extolling the pleasure of riding a road bike to be only on this site? Surely the point is to encourage people to explore a new type of riding and enjoyment and the best place to do that is on a site they already visit. Many people are inherently lazy and won't necessarily go looking for an article like this.
I'm a roadie, but I'm currently looking to expand my riding experience by buying a mountain bike. I found this article helpful and I'm sure I won't be the only one. If you're bored - get out on your bike!

quiff replied to Notbuilt2climb | 4 years ago

I wouldn't expect to see e.g. in depth reviews of mountain bike components on, but I'm very happy to see a handful of considered beginner-level articles aimed at people who may be interested in trying different disciplines.          

kil0ran | 4 years ago
1 like

Flats with decent flat pedal shoes. I've got DMR V12s on my D-I-A bike and in some ways my feet feel more secure than they do with SPDs on my road bike. Just stay planted no matter what mud and water I throw the bike through. Quite a revelation to this erstwhile roadie.

slappop replied to kil0ran | 4 years ago
kil0ran wrote:

Flats with decent flat pedal shoes.

Ideal would be low-heeled court shoes (as worn by the Queen).


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