Western Washington is a mountain biking wonderland. Here’s how to get started
Cycling is fun. The same goes for meandering on trails through the woods. Put the two together, as some teenagers in Marin County, California did in the late 1960sand you invent a new sport: mountain biking.
Mountain biking shines on specially designed trails, both to avoid potential run-ins with hikers or horses and to take advantage of the momentum physics of a bike. Getting around a banked turn is much more satisfying on two wheels than on two feet.
The Pacific Northwest embraced the sport early and, despite some opposition from hikers and otherultimately has blossomed into one of the world’s top mountain biking destinations. Dedicated volunteers and professional trail builders have carved out routes through lush forest, through clearcuts and rolling hills in western Washington. Here’s what you need to know to get started.
The type of bike matters
If you can’t wait to get in the mud, the first step is obvious: you need a bike. And what primarily separates an ATV from its siblings is the suspension. Shocks allow a mountain bike to ride over roots, rocks, logs, and anything else you might find off-road. Bikes with front suspension only are called hardtail bikes, while full suspension bikes have front and rear shocks.
“A hardtail really shows off your form on a bike and amplifies your mistakes. You have to compensate with good braking and good body positioning,” explains Emily Ford, instructor at Radical Roots MTB, a mountain biking skills and coaching team based in the undisputed local hub of sport Bellingham. “It will transfer to a full suspension bike. More suspension and traction means more room for error.
Decent entry-level hardtail mountain bikes can be found for less than $1,000, while full-suspension bikes realistically start from $1,500. Whether you opt for higher-end components, lighter materials like carbon, or features like a dropper post, which lets you lower your seat with a push of the thumb – useful for shifting your weight up rear in anticipation of a steep descent – the sky quickly becomes the price limit. As is often the case with outdoor gear, there is an expensive barrier to entry, but a solid bike with regular maintenance can last for many seasons.
Want to try before you buy? Full suspension bikes are available for hire at evo’s flagship in Seattle in Fremont (and will be available later this summer at its Satellite of Snoqualmie Pass), Ride a bike‘ Location of Issaquah and Progress cycle in Sammamish, a short walk from Duthie Hill Bike Park.
To tackle the single-track trails in our area—trails about as wide as a mountain bike—Ford highly recommends getting your hands on a full-suspension bike. If you want to buy local, check out Washington brands like evil bikes, Kona and Transition.
Parameters are important
A cyclist can adjust two main parameters on his bike: tire pressure and rebound. Ford, which weighs 155 pounds with all its gear, runs its front tire at 19-20 PSI and its rear tire at 20-21 PSI. It prefers less air up front for better traction and control as its tire chews up roots and rocks. But if she was at the rides park and mostly looking to pedal hard and do jumps, she would inflate the tires more firmly. For a long climb, she could inflate her tires above these settings to make the climb easier, then release air at the top before descending.
Rebound is the parameter that determines the responsiveness of the suspension. The switch on the fork that can be toggled between “slow” and “fast” is usually illustrated by a tortoise and a hare. “If I’m pingponging things and bouncing myself, then that’s a signal that my bouncing is too fast,” Ford said.
Ultimately, the ideal combination of tire pressure and rebound will depend on both the type of riding and the conditions. The same trail will ride differently on a wet, slippery day versus a dry, dusty day. Ford recommends keeping a diary to anticipate which settings to apply on any given day.
At Ford’s clinics, she teaches basic skills like steering and braking that are easy to practice in a park with some terrain, no trail required. Use cones to mark out an imaginary finish line, drive at high speed and, with just one finger on each of the brakes, come to a stop at the finish line without skidding. Pull that steadily—and, even harder, using only the front or rear brakes—and you’ve found the sweet spot to feather your brakes when descending a trail.
Cones are also useful for negotiating imaginary obstacles, like roots or rocks, which can plague riders, especially uphill. Try to steer so that a cone passes between your front and rear wheels; it’s a decent simulation of what it would be like in tight spaces to get around a rock that would otherwise require you to dismount.
Essential Equipment Matters
Speaking of dismounts, bailing out on your bike is unavoidable. A nice grassy patch provides a safe place to practice releasing your bike and landing on two feet when things turn south.
On the trail, running through trees, rocks, and even old dirt can hurt. Ford’s list of essential gear includes a helmet with visor, knee pads, eye protection – most trails in the Pacific Northwest are shaded, so wear something good for low light, even on sunny days – and flat-bottomed mountain bike shoes for better grip platform pedals. (Ford gave five ten and Driving concepts her thumbs up on the shoes.) She discourages beginners from going straight to clip-on pedals.
In recent years, the fanny pack (rather than the backpack) has become standard issue for mountain bikers, thanks in large part to Bellingham-based Seattle. On top. The Ford pack still contains the basics of bike maintenance: a multitool, tire levers, a spare inner tube and a CO2 cartridge to inflate the spare inner tube.
Backpacks scramble less than backpacks, and on most trips on our local trail systems, you can pack the light knowing that resupply at the trailhead is only a short pedal away. A mountain bike ride is a frontcountry pursuit, not a deep backcountry excursion.
Despite this closeness to civilization, Ford always packs the essentials: food, water, a first aid kit, an extra layer and a space blanket.
“You may only be a mile or two down the trail, but it can be a long time before the doctors come and get you off the hill,” she said.