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Mountain Biking — Not Just for Kids Anymore

"If you can ride a bike, you can do this sport," said Beth Ohland, an avid mountain biker from Orange County, Calif.

If you were to believe the magazines devoted to mountain biking or the extreme games featured on sports channels, it would seem that mountain biking was the exclusive domain of young, male hard bodies.

Not so, says Ohland, who didn't begin mountain biking herself until she was over 30. "I had road biked most of my life," Ohland said. "I got interested in mountain biking while poking around my local bike shop."

Ohland started asking people at the shop where they rode. Before long, she was the proud owner of her first mountain bike and had a ride planned with a group who often cycled together.

"I was hooked on mountain biking after that very first ride. I loved the feeling of soaring through the woods," she said. "Switching to the dirt let me take in all the great scenery without fighting traffic. It's also an ideal way to blow off stress because you have to be completely focused on what you're doing."

Ohland said she's enjoyed some other big rewards.

"I have a whole new circle of friends now, thanks to mountain biking, and I've never been in better physical shape."

The benefits of mountain biking have not gone unnoticed. Nearly 20 years ago, it was a new sport. Today, according to Mountain Biking Magazine, sales of mountain bikes outnumber all other bike sales combined. People of all ages and skill levels are taking off-road trips ranging from two-hour rides near their home to weeklong excursions in Costa Rica.

"Mountain biking is a great sport because it's for everyone. In fact, I ride with a lot of different people, including several women in their 40s and 50s," Ohland said. "It's for people who are into racing or endurance rides as well as for families enjoying the trails at a local park. It's a pretty easy sport to learn."

Based on my personal experience, mountain biking is easy to learn. However, getting started is sometimes the hardest part of doing anything new. Still, there's a real sense of accomplishment in choosing a bike, buying the right gear and finding a place to ride. And if you have a plan, you can't go wrong.

Mountain bikes are a world apart from the 10-speeds that were popular in the `70s. Sturdy and lightweight, today's mountain bikes have 18 to 24 gears, have easy-to-use controls and wide, knobby tires. Many come with front suspension, while some also have rear suspension, which makes them downright comfortable on any terrain. Because there are so many choices, it makes sense to shop around.

At first it may be tempting to dash to your local department store and buy the $199.99 special. Granted, it's smart to set a budget you can live with before you shop. However, every biker I talked to recommended shopping at an independent bike retailer. You'll pay more, but the extra cost will buy you a bike that's manufactured better and made of more durable materials. Plus, you'll get better service. Bike store salespeople can help you make sure your bike fits and give you advice on where to ride and how to care for your bike.

While mountain bikes range from $200 to more than $5,000, you can get a bike with great features, performance and durability for about $300 to $500.

Once you've selected a bike, it's time to accessorize!
The first thing on your list should be a helmet. There are lots of helmets to choose from, and I recommend you get one that provides ample ventilation and is a good, snug fit. The most critical thing to remember is NEVER bike without one.

Gloves are another important accessory to buy. They make riding a lot easier on your hands and absorb moisture, which gives you better control. I never realized how important gloves were, though, until the first time I crashed my mountain bike. Because of my helmet, gloves and falling technique (ditch the bike and tuck into a ball), I came away with only a few cuts and bruises. While a lot of people use gloves that expose the fingertips, I prefer full coverage gloves to protect my fingers from shrubs and prickly plants that droop over the trail.

It's also critical to buy a water bottle and frame mounted carrier. You can get a little fancier and get a backpack hydration system. These systems are great because you don't have to stop to get a drink. There's a tube that you can drink from anytime, even when you're hammering uphill. The bottom line, though, is mountain biking is vigorous aerobic exercise, and if you don't have water, the situation could turn miserable and possibly even dangerous.

Finally, before you ever put your fanny on the seat, make sure you have a comfortable pair of bike shorts. Before my first ride, I thought the Lycra bike shorts were a snooty fashion statement. So I biked in a pair of khaki shorts. Although I still had a wonderful time, my legs were chaffed, and I had a very tender backside. On my next ride, I wore a pair of Lycra shorts with a padded gel liner in them. I was a whole lot more comfortable and didn't feel a bit snobby!

One more piece of advice about bike shorts, though. They should be worn without undies to prevent chaffing.

A good place to learn where you can mountain bike is where Beth Ohland found her first ride--at the local bike shop. They can often steer you in the right direction. They also may have or sell maps of local trails. In addition, bike shop staff may be able to hook you up with a local cycling club.

Cycling clubs are a terrific source of information. Many cities have clubs specifically for mountain bikers, and it's a surefire way to meet new friends and discover places to ride. Organized group rides are the most fun and safe way to get started and stay involved in mountain biking. Plus, you'll be riding with experienced bikers who can teach you everything from navigating hills to handling tight corners.

A little research can also help you find mountain bike trails at home and your vacation destinations. For example, you can contact the nearest Forest Service, state park, Bureau of Land Management, wildlife refuge, national park or county park office for information on area trails.

Finally, you can also surf for cycling news . . . on the Internet. I used "mountain biking" as the key words for my search and found a huge amount of information all from the comfort of my sofa. Not only did I find great places to ride; I also discovered web sites that gave advice on everything from how to fix a flat to the proper way to brake.

For those who think they'd love the freedom of sailing along a single-track, seeing wildlife and getting an awesome total body workout, there's no sport more perfect than mountain biking. And if you're not lean, mean and 22 years old, so what? Mountain biking is for you whether you're into speed racing or soul biking — and who knows, it may even make you feel like you're 22.

Top 10 accessories for the trail

  1. Helmet.

  2. Plenty of water.

  3. Food.

  4. Pump and tire patch kit or a spare tube.

  5. A multi-tool with Allen wrenches, chain tool, screwdrivers and a working knowledge of how to use them.

  6. Map.

  7. Extra clothing in case it gets cold and/or so you can change into something clean and dry after your ride.

  8. Sunglasses to protect your eyes from the sun, bugs, branches and other flying debris.

  9. Travel-size first aid kit.

  10. Some kind of identification and a little emergency money.

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