Now that we’ve settled all that, a few facts: Women’s mountain bike sales doubled in the first quarter of 2015; one women-specific company, Liv Cycling, saw this portion of its business shoot up 58 percent last year alone. What gives? “There are more women’s-only clubs, rides, and clinics across the country than ever before,” says Nelson. “There is a growing sense of community, which helps break down those intimidation boundaries.”
Relax, you’re not auditioning for a Red Bull commercial: There will be no jumping off 15-foot cliffs or shredding through boulders—unless that’s your thing. “It can be as casual or competitive as you want,” says Amy Nelson, women’s mountain product line manager for Specialized, a biking company. “It’s about exploring new places, then grabbing a beer afterward.”
That’s not all that drove women off the roads: According to Elysa Walk, the general manager of Giant Bicycle (parent company to Liv Cycling), there have been unprecedented rises in both women’s cycling (in part thanks to the surge in triathlon participation, a gateway drug if you will), and the number of gals spending time outdoors in nature.
Another revelation? Tons of hot-body bennies. “Mountain biking requires more micro-movements as you ride, recruiting a lot of smaller stabilizing muscles when the ground gets rocky and bumpy,” says Lindsey Voreis, director of the Liv Ladies AllRide Mountain Bike Clinics. “When your front wheel is bouncing with the terrain, you have to take control, pushing down with your shoulders, arms, and back muscles.” With every ride, your legs, core, and upper body are fired up—building muscle and torching cals. So even if you haven’t biked since your first Huffy, you’ll want in on this. Trust us.
Ask your local bike shop about favorite trails in the area. (P.S. Many are now hiring more female employees to lead women’s rides, clinics, and shop nights.)
Visit MTBproject.com for maps and routes rated by other users. (FYI: Trail networks are generally marked similarly to ski runs with ratings of green, blue, and black diamond to indicate difficulty. But keep in mind that not all greens, blues, and blacks are created equal, warns Voreis. “The black diamonds in Bend, Oregon, are nowhere near as technical as the black diamonds in most of Colorado,” she says.)
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The experts we spoke with also recommend you sign up for a clinic. “You’ll learn quicker with some guidance, and it’s way more fun,” assures Lea Davison, cofounder of Little Bellas, a nonprofit all-girls mentoring mountain bike program. Here are their other tips for acing mountain biking.
Take a Stand
If you stay in the saddle (that’s the seat), you’ll get bumped around like you’re riding a mechanical bull, says Lea Davison, a two-time cross-country mountain bike national champ. You’ll score the most comfort, control, and balance by raising your butt an inch off the seat (so you’re literally holding a squat position), keeping the pedals parallel to the ground and your weight in your feet (not hands!).
Find Your Line
“It sounds simple, but look where you want to go,” says professional mountain biker Georgia Gould. “If you’re eyeing that rock, you will hit the rock.” Pick your line, or path, about 15 to 20 feet ahead of you, especially when descending. If you can’t see a clear path, dismount for a minute and study the trail. “Sometimes I like to walk and check out the different options to decide which line I am going to ride,” says Gould.
Proper braking is even more important on the mountain than the road because you use it much more often on tight corners and descents, says Voreis. Keep a finger on each brake at all times (rather than a full grip), which can help you avoid instinctively squeezing them when you get nervous—a fast way to grab a face full of dirt.
And remember: Always use both brakes at once, applying gradual pressure. Grasping only the front brake can send you over the handlebars; squeezing only the back brake might not be enough to stop the bike.
Picture a surfer riding a wave—constantly bending and moving to help the board follow the motion of the water. Same goes for mountain biking: Your arms, ankles, and knees must act like shock absorbers on rougher terrain to help your bike move with the ground, not against it.
Problem is, when we’re skittish—like you might be when you’re staring down a steep hill with tons of sharp turns—our natural urge is to tense up. “If your arms are rigid and you have a death grip on the bars, you won’t be able to maneuver the bike as smoothly,” says Gould. “One of the best things you can do is periodically check in with yourself and make sure you are breathing and keeping your upper body relaxed.”
The frustrating part about mountain biking is that your fitness level may improve way faster than your bike-handling skills. “It takes a while to feel confident on a bike, especially on trails,” Gould says. “In races, I would pass lots of people on the climbs and get passed by everyone on the downhills. But I kept working on it, and eventually my skills caught up.”
The key, continues Gould, is knowing the line between pushing your limits and riding way past them: “Don’t be afraid to walk your bike; I do it all the time. You have to build confidence little by little. Challenge yourself when you’re feeling up for it, but also know when your body or mind is saying ‘Maybe not today.'”
For the essential gear you need for mountain biking, plus other ways to exercise outside, pick up the October 2015 issue of Women’s Health, on newsstands now.