Always wear a helmet
If there’s one thing you need to know about mountain biking safety, it’s that you need to wear a helmet. In the event that you fall off your bike, crash, or overestimate the height of a branch, your helmet will be the most important piece of gear on your person, since helmets reduce the risk of serious head injury by nearly 70%. Some brain injuries can have life altering consequences, so it’s imperative that you do everything possible to mitigate head trauma while mountain biking, beginning with a helmet.
In order for your helmet to effectively do its job, it must fit you properly. When wearing a well-fitting helmet, you should be able to squeeze the tip of your index finger between the helmet and your forehead. Most helmets have an adjustable retention system that you can loosen and tighten with a knob at the back. If you can adjust the helmet to sit squarely at the top of your head and not slide back, you have the right size helmet. To ensure the helmet stays on your head in case of a crash, make a series of adjustments to the chin strap. The side straps should be pulled upwards and tightened just below your ear. The chin straps should be tight, but not suffocating, and shouldn’t sit too far forward. A good test for chin strap placement is for you to open your mouth. If you feel your helmet pull down when your mouth is open, then it’s exactly where it needs to be.
Stay in control
Mountain biking is an inherently dangerous sport with the distinct possibility of severe injuries or even worse. No matter where you ride or how well you know the trail, you should never ride beyond your skill level and always ride in control.
Riding in control doesn’t just mean being able to stop – it also means having the required skills to recognize and avoid potential dangerous situations on the trail. You must also be able to recognize where it is safe to stop on the trail. Avoiding accidents with other riders is an essential mountain biking skill.
With speed being one of the most exhilarating aspects of mountain biking, it’s easy to find yourself traveling at a much faster speed than you ever thought possible. Even at “just” 15 mph, you’re moving at 22 feet, or four bike lengths, per second, which doesn’t give you much time to make sudden decisions.
When you are pushing the envelope, always be aware of your riding skills, the trail conditions, the potential for an accident, and your ability to prevent one. The best way to do this is by riding trails that don’t exceed your skills and controllability.
Wear the correct riding gear
In addition to always wearing a helmet, there are some other items you should consider investing in, which includes the actual riding apparel that best suits your needs, as well as safety gear and accessories. When it comes to appropriate mountain biking gear, the focus should be on safety and comfort, so use whatever will help you keep your mind on your ride.
Mountain biking apparel is similar to other bicycle disciplines, but there are a few distinctions worth noting. Most mountain bikers wear two layers of shorts; the first layer is usually a pair of fitted, padded shorts, commonly called chamois or shammies, with a looser-fitting pair of thin cargo-like shorts on top. The padding in mountain biking shorts is generally thinner than that in road riding shammys because you generally spend more time upright and out of the saddle when you’re taking on those mountain biking trails.
Opting for mountain bike-specific shoes with a hardened toe box is a good idea since smashing toes on rocks and roots is a common injury. With thousands of shoes offered from dozens of reputable manufacturers, the perfect one for you is definitely out there. If you choose laced shoes, be sure to tuck in the laces to avoid getting them caught in the bike chain.
Other safety gear, such as gloves, body armour, and knee and elbow pads, might prove to be appropriate, depending on where you ride and the type of riding you do. This gear is designed to protect the most susceptible areas of your body and can mean the difference between a bruise and a broken bone.
Some basic accessories, like sunglasses to protect your eyes and a bell to alert others of your presence are also recommended. While earbuds may seem like a logical addition to your gear bag, it’s worth reconsidering; by eliminating your sense of hearing, you are increasing the chance of becoming involved in an accident.
Ride within your skill level
When it comes to a section of trail you think is above your ability, listen to logic – not your buddies. Get off and walk that section. There is no shame in making responsible decisions – especially if it promotes your safety, as well as the safety of fellow mountain bikers. The more trail sections you walk, the better your skill recognition will become. Eventually, you’ll find yourself riding all of those sections that were once off limits.
Where you ride determines your bike
Bikes are designed for different riding conditions, so it’s important that you end up with a bike that is well-suited to the trails you’ll be frequenting the most. While one’s ability to tackle a particular trail boils down to mostly skill and experience, there’s no denying that there’s a right tool for the job. A basic hard tail is going to be largely inadequate on a trail with brutal rock gardens and massive jumps, and you’ll soon discover the error of your ways if you take a downhill bike on a long cross country ride. Tire tracks heading into a black diamond trail might suggest that it’s bike friendly, but keep in mind that the term “bike friendly” is open to interpretation; it doesn’t mean your intermediate skills are up to the task of getting you down that trail safely.
Get to know the trail
If it’s your first time on a trail, take it easy! Don’t feel pressured by others to take risks that could prove to be dangerous. You will encounter rocks, roots, drops, and obstacles during your rides, so if your skills are not up to par with whatever could be lying ahead, it’s worth taking some extra precautions. Get to know the trail by walking sketchy sections, checking for surprises around blind corners, and constantly scanning the trail ahead of you. Never assume you know what’s coming up if you’ve never ridden the trail.
Slow down for blind corners
Don’t miss this great Youtube video of six riders who missed a turn in a blind corner and landed 30 feet down the trail. As you watch, you’ll quickly realize why you should always be aware of what a blind corner might surprise you with – it’s called a “blind corner” for a reason. Fortunately, there are riding techniques that can increase your line of vision, visibility, and overall control. One common technique to use when approaching a 180 degree turn is to ride along the outside of the corner, not the inside; riding on the inside increases your blind spot, which is the opposite of what you need to do. There are countless tutorial videos that offer all kinds of safety tips you can apply when confronting blind corners.
You will crash
Everyone who rides a bicycle will eventually crash – it’s just a part of the sport. While you might not be able to avoid every single crash, the decisions you make before, during, and after the crash can have a profound effect on the consequences. Always evaluate the trail and analyze the consequences of crashing in that section. Use the “risk versus reward” method and decide whether the possibility of a crash is worth the reward of riding that section or trail feature. Observing others is often the best way to start tackling challenging sections. If you’re riding a popular trail, you won’t have to wait long for the next rider to come along and possibly ride the line that you weren’t aware of.
Being aware of your speed, the terrain, your skillset, and other riders are some ways to reduce the chances of a serious crash. Keeping your focus on the trail and your riding by avoiding distractions, like listening to music, can also reduce your risk of being involved in an accident.
Start out small, then go big
If you plan on making air time part of your ride, you will need some specific riding skills which, unfortunately, can only be acquired through experience. Practice on small features before you launch into something above your riding ability. When learning to jump your bike, work on landings before take offs. Landing a plane is much more difficult than taking off and jumping a mountain bike is no different. Your landings should be nice and smooth and not resemble a controlled crash.
Common sense isn’t all that common
Use common sense and intuition to avoid situations that, in the back of your mind, you sense may not be the smartest move. Like many other physical activities, mountain biking can be enjoyed safely if you employ responsible riding habits and are honest with yourself about your abilities and limitations. Remember – any ride you walk away from was a good ride; your riding skills and trail knowledge are what determines a good ride.