Mountain Biking for the Curious Triathlete

September 20, 2021

By: Taylor Mahan-Rudolph

As summer draws to a close, we’re getting close to that annual “off season” we triathletes partake in each fall and winter. It’s the time of year for dabbling in a new sport and flexing different muscles that we don’t have time to use when the weekly schedule is consumed by swim, bike, and run. Mountain biking can be the perfect sport for the offseason because it allows you to spend time off the roads with the added bonus of improving the (dreaded) triathlete bike handling skills.

Last year during the pandemic with few races in sight, I finally gave in and decided to give it a try. Despite being mildly terrified of crashing and embarrassed by my own horrid technical skills, I really enjoyed the meditative aspect of being out in the woods and found new comfort on my bike that carried over to the roads as well.

I am by no means an expert or looking to do anything competitive on a mountain bike in the near future (although dabbling in Xterra might not be out of the question down the road…) but here are a few of my tips picked up from a season trying the sport.

Find a veteran to show you the ropes (and trails)

Finding a good friend or mountain bike veteran will make your first couple rides a lot easier. There’s a big difference between riding a bike on the road versus a trail and the terrain and type of trails near you may make that process even more overwhelming. Enlist the help of someone familiar with mountain biking to help you find beginner trails in your area. If you don’t know any shredders, reach out to your local bike shop to see what they recommend.

A friend or guide will also make it a bit easier when navigating trails for the first time by allowing you to follow their line down the trail. Watch their body position and observe how to maneuver the bike if encountering rocks or roots. For those who aren’t confident in their handling skills - don’t be afraid to start in a grass field or dirt road to get the hang of handling a new bike (added bonus: it's a softer landing if you do take a spill!).

You don’t need fancy gear

Another difference from riding on the road is the gear and clothing. On the trails, loose breathable clothing is allowed and encouraged. Shorts, t-shirts and regular tennis/running shoes are great for your first time out and will allow you to be comfortable and stop easily without worrying about clip in pedals. Pro tip: Save the spandex and matching kits for your weekly road rides - there are no fashion points here!

Borrow or rent a bike before you buy

Buying a bike is a big commitment so take your time trying things out before committing to yet another bike in the garage. You’ll also need time to figure out the type and style of your bike - for example, do you want a hardtail or full suspension? This is a decision with a big price jump and one that’s a bit easier to make down the road when you have more experience on the trails.

Keep pushing your limits as comfort (and confidence!) allow

Unlike road riding where strength and aerobic endurance play a larger role than skills, mountain biking requires you to learn technical skills in order to be proficient on the trails. Some falls, awkward stops or slow motion spills are expected. As your confidence grows, try and go riding with the goal to try something new each time. This can be a new type of obstacle you might have had to walk over the last time or a more difficult trail. Getting out of your comfort zone a bit on each ride will allow you to keep growing and get better at the sport. It's also addicting and fun to see your rapid improvement!

About the author ...

Taylor Mahan-Rudolph is a USAT Level 1 Coach with OutRival Racing. Taylor has been racing triathlon competitively since 2016. She began her athletic journey as a runner after graduating from college and was quickly hooked. She later discovered triathlon after suffering from a series of running injuries and finding joy while cross training. She has raced event distances from sprint to Ironman and has qualified multiple times to the 70.3 World Championships.