By Thomas Henson Jr.
I have been road cycling for many years, but my first experience with cycling as a young adult was mountain biking. Back then, I was still young enough to think I was invincible. The cuts and scrapes collected from conquering rocks, roots, and steep trails were badges of honor. Now with a family and job, the possibility of injury from those same obstacles is far more consequential.
If you recently discovered the kick of mountain biking, or you’re thinking of challenging yourself with this new activity, here are some of safety suggestions I live by.
Know where you are, where you’re going, and how you plan to get there. You don’t know the true meaning of the word “lost” until you’re in the middle of the woods, with no streets, no houses, no familiar landmarks to give you a clue about where you are. Being lost is not an adventure; it’s frightening and dangerous. Plan your ride well before setting out. If you are a beginner, stick to marked trails in a local park or greenway. Use a map to chart your progress at frequent intervals throughout the ride. Don’t have a map handy? Check out Avenza PDF Maps (www.avenza.com/pdf-maps), a cool app for Apple and Android devices. It provides geospatial maps, with the ability to add place marks along the way and track your progress via the smartphone’s built-in GPS. Some maps can be downloaded free of charge, others must be purchased. Of course, you can also purchase a dedicated GPS system for your bike. Garmin makes several models with good backcountry navigation features, including the Garmin GPSMAP series, Garmin Oregon series, and Garmin eTrex 30x.
Be honest about your skill level. Mountain biking trails are like ski slopes—some are easy-peasy bunny slopes, and some are double black-diamond death-defying slopes. Know your skill level, and find terrain to match. You have to deal with steep hills, rocks, pebbles, roots, logs, and low-hanging branches. It’s easy to become exhausted, overwhelmed, and injured; there won’t be anyone there to bail you out of a bad situation. Things will get hairy quickly if someone doesn’t know the trail and plan ahead based on their skill level.
Know your fitness. As with any sport, most injuries happen at the end of the day when you are tired, distracted, hungry, or dehydrated. You lose focus. You won’t navigate obstacles effectively. You are more likely to take risks or shortcuts. Exhaustion and bad decisions are a terrible combination. By all means, challenge yourself, but with rides that match your level of fitness.
Maintain a safe bike. Rugged trails can damage a bike even on an average day. Before every ride, perform a safety check of your bike.
- Test gears to make sure they shift smoothly and accurately with skipping. Cable tension or cable dirt are often the cause, but you may need to have your bike looked at by your favorite bike shop.
- Maintain proper tire pressure. Too much pressure can affect your traction. Too little pressure will ride like a flat and potentially dent your rims.
- Look at the chain. Keep it well lubricated and clean. Mountain bikers regularly kick up mud and dirt, so you need to be even more vigilant than road riders about daily chain checks.
- Lube your seals. Whenever you clean or lubricate the chain, wipe down and lube the suspension seals to keep your ride smooth.
Wear the right gear. For road cyclists, the best safety gear is high-visibility clothing. For mountain biking, you should invest in a set of elbow and knee pads, and padded gloves, especially if you’ll be riding on technically difficult terrain. Of course, when you’re a beginner, all trails might be “difficult” at first. I recommend wearing all safety gear…at least until you have enough experience to know when falls are more or less likely.
Wear a helmet, but not just for falls. Mountain biking means riding in the woods, where you may ride head-on into low-hanging branches. One of my friends got a pretty serious concussion from hitting a tree branch. And yes, you also want to protect your head if you fall. Many mountain bikers don’t think they need a helmet out in the woods because there is no traffic, and not hard concrete or pavement to fall on. But trust me, hitting your head on rock or large root can crack your skull as easily as a road surface.
Ride Safe…and I hope to see you out on the trails!
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Thomas Henson Jr. is an avid cyclist, and finds much happiness in bike rides with his family and friends. He leads the complex injury litigation department of HensonFuerst Attorneys. He can be contacted at ThomasHenson@lawmed.com.