Unless you have a habit of living with your head under a rock, you will have likely noticed that bicycles are a bit of a thing in the UK at present. Whether you’re someone new to riding, or perhaps looking for a new challenge; getting those two-wheels off-road is one of the best things you can do right now.
Mountain biking is something of a blanket-term, covering a variety of different disciplines that vary greatly, both in the challenge they present, and the skills required. It’s a great sport for gear obsessives; with a total smorgasbord of different options available, depending on which discipline you choose to follow. Below we’ve listed out an ‘essentials’ list for the six key categories of riding, helping you get off to the best possible start!
Once you’re kitted-out, why not check out our run-through of the Top UK Mountain Bike Trails?
These are the essentials you’ll want to have available regardless of what you’re riding.
Bike Tool – Any good bike-tool will do, featuring a number of different Allen keys, screwdriver heads, blades and levers to adjust or patch-up your bike mid-ride.
Bike Pumps – Best to have two; one full-size track pump for the garage/back of the car, and a hand-pump that can come on the ride with you. Airbone make some amazing carbon fibre ones.
Tyre Levers – If your tyre goes flat mid-trail, being able to repair it then and there will save you a lot of walking. Levers help prise the outer-tyre off the rim, giving you access to the inner-tube within (unless you ride tubeless, in which case we suspect you know what you’re doing anyway).
Inner Tubes – At least one for a short-ride, two for something longer-distance. If you buy heavy-duty inner tubes you’re far less likely to ever get a puncture, but you’ll be looking at a few hundred extra grams of weight added to the bike. Personal preference.
Water – A water-bottle, or even better a reservoir. You’ll want at least a litre of fluids available for your ride, depending on weather conditions. Bear in mind you might be able to refill it from a creek mid-ride.
Trail Snacks – A mix of low GI, and quick energy snacks to keep you moving after that huge climb.
Waterproof – We live in Britain, you know what to expect.
Strava – Well, if you’re going to ride, you may as well show your friends just where you went (and how much faster than them you are).
Image credit: trailsource.com
This is the most common form of mountain biking in the UK, and is as simple as finding your nearest national park, woodland trail or fire-road. Mostly recreational, some take it more seriously – for a challenge, try cycling the 120 miles of the Grand Union Canal. As the most relaxed form of mountain biking, the equipment required is equally laid back, although you’ll want to pay attention to the weather conditions:
Helmet – Any straightforward bike-helmet will be good for the job; the lighter and more ventilated the better for comfort. A general rule with bike helmets is to get the best helmet you can afford – protecting your head is the one thing you don’t want to skimp on.
Sunglasses – There’s plenty of gravel and dirt flicking about off the ground when mountain biking; a pair of sports sunglasses will not only shield your eyes from the sun and flying debris, but should offer a little bit of impact protection should you find yourself approaching the ground faster than intended.
Under-layer – Subject to the weather, of course – whilst you can get very warm riding the bike, it’s good to have some thermal regulation. A merino or bamboo base-layer should cover this nicely.
Jersey/T-shirt – Something comfortable is key. You could ride in a regular t-shirt if you like, but for greater performance, look towards technical tees or purpose-designed riding jerseys. These will be made from different combinations of material, that are more breathable and keep the moisture away from you.
Gloves – Optional for recreational riding, but they’ll keep your hands clean, comfortable, and come in handy should you come off. Look for lighter, full-finger gloves.
Shorts – Padding is available, and will be comfortable if you’re riding for longer distances. Either technical, loose mountain bike shorts, or similar hiking/outdoors shorts will do the job well. The longer they are, the more protection they’ll offer, but at the cost of added warmth.
Shoes – Trainers, outdoors shoes, skate shoes. You’re looking for something that’s comfortable, reasonably secure, and with a good, grippy base. Mountain-bike specific shoes are even better if you can budget for them – you’ll have the choice of either flats or shoes with pedal clips.
Backpack/Pannier – Somewhere to store all your essentials for the ride; you’ll be travelling a long way from your start point, so having a bike pump, some water and snacks will always be appreciated. Plus being Britain there’s the ever-present likelihood of needing that waterproof…
Image Credit: Stig Nygaard
Cross-country cycling is an endurance sport, placing emphasis on physical fitness over trail technicality (although that doesn’t mean the trails are easy). The trails feature less dangerous terrain, and so clothing and equipment revolves around keeping the rider as light and cool as possible; in many ways the equipment used by ‘XC’ riders is very similar to that of road cyclists (in fact if you already road-cycle you could start by using most of your existing kit):
Helmet – Light and comfortable; you’re going to be getting very warm riding XC, so ventilation and comfort are key.
Sunglasses – Sport sunnies will offer you the protection you need; ventilated lenses can be a good idea to stop you steaming up.
Jersey – Much like a road jersey – slim-fitting, short-sleeved, and ideally with a decent-length zip to open up on those uphill sectors. Pockets in the back for fuel and smartphones.
Gloves – Full-finger gloves are the norm, but some wear half-finger or even ride gloveless to prevent getting too warm. Colour-coordinate with your jersey and shorts if you’re feeling cool.
Shorts – Lycra shorts or bib-shorts. Chamois pad is less essential than in road-cycling – the ground is softer and you’ll have a couple of inches of suspension beneath you – but still handy for long races.
Shoes – Clipless, MTB-specific shoes are a must for getting the most out of cross-country. SIDI produce some great off-road models.
Computer – If you’re going out on your own XC ride, GPS could prove handy; less essential in a race where the course is clearly mapped out (though you may choose to run some physiological monitoring).
Image credit: Carlo Pedersoli
As the name suggests, All-Mountain riding sees you getting everywhere on your bike. It can be both competitive and recreational, with trails a step more challenging than those of the cross-country riders. With a step-up in trail intensity comes a slight variation in the kit-out:
Helmet – Still open-faced, though with more protection around the back of your skull than those used for XC and general trail riding. Often with a visor at the front.
Sunglasses – At this point protection becomes more important; you’ll definitely want some good sport sunglasses at the very least – and perhaps even goggles for faster, more advanced downhill trails.
Protection – Striking the balance of protection and comfort is a personal choice – light knee-pads (visco-elastic if possible) are a must, but shin-guards, spine protectors and elbow pads come down to what you deem necessary.
Jersey – Short or long-sleeve baggy technical riding jerseys are a good idea – they keep moisture off you and provide a little more shielding than a t-shirt if you’re about to hit the deck, as well as accommodating any armour you might be wearing underneath.
Gloves – Full-finger gloves with good-quality material on the palms is wise. THE Industries’ Cosmo gloves or similar are perfect – well shielded on your palms, whilst still light enough to keep you cool.
Shorts – Knee-length MTB-specific shorts are best; not quite as heavy as those used by freeriders and downhillers, but something with an element of protection in them is good for all-mountain.
Shoes – Skate shoes, outdoors shoes or mountain bike shoes (such as those from Five-Ten or Giro) are best. Shoes with cleats are great for climbing, but it comes down to personal preference.
Backpack – You’ll be travelling far from your car/camp, so having all the essentials to hand is a must. Dakine have a great range in bags suitable for the purpose – you’ll want chest and waist straps to keep it in place down the trails.
Computer – GPS can come in hand when disappearing off into the trails for a day. Not always essential if competing.
Image Credit: Jake Spurlock
The next evolutionary step from All-Mountain, Freeride becomes more about the downhill than up, with the trails again taking a step towards the more challenging. Bikes retain some climbing ability, but are mainly designed to survive the descent. With the added risk comes more thorough protection, in the form of full-face helmets, goggles and body armour:
Helmet – Some wear an open-face helmet such as mentioned in all-mountain (above), but most freeriders wear full-face helmets – that added protection comes in handy at these speeds/heights. THE Industries, Troy Lee, Giro, Kali & 661 have some great helmets to meet every budget and taste. Carbon-fibre is lighter, but more expensive, and stiffer in a crash; so bear that in mind when choosing yours.
Goggles – Similar to ski-goggles, but with a single-layer lens, and mounts for clear cellophane ‘tear-offs’ (cheap, and they keep your lens from getting muddy or scratched). Fits vary from person to person, with some optimised for larger or smaller heads.
Protection – Knee pads are a must, shin pads are advisable for beginners and intermediate riders (there’s nothing cool about getting a pedal-stud in your shin). Spine and shoulder protectors are at the least heavily advised, and arm/elbow protectors again for riders starting out (a lot of experts continue to use them as it’s often the first part of your body to hit the ground when things go awry).
Jersey – Baggy, MTB jerseys with room for your armour underneath are the best bet. You might want to ride with a tank-top or light baselayer beneath your armour for comfort, but be aware you’ll get warm when you aren’t moving. Some people ride in just singlets, but save that for the day you don’t mind risking your skin and collar bones.
Gloves – Heavier duty riding gloves are best; full-finger and with some protection on the top for your knuckles should you pick the wrong moment to eject.
Shorts – Heavy-duty mountain bike shorts are best. Troy Lee’s Moto shorts are great; with removable hip-padding fitted as standard, and construction that will withstand just about any punishment. Expect to pay a lot for a pair of good shorts, as they’ll last you for years.
Shoes – Until recently skate shoes were the norm; however recently they’ve been overtaken by freeride-specific shoes built by brands such as Five-Ten and Giro.
Backpack – A hard-wearing ski or mountain-bike backpack for carrying spare inner tubes, bike tools and food. Plus your camera for those moments of glory.
Image Credit: Robin McConnell
Downhill is like freeride against the clock; with riders on track at 30-second intervals trying to be the fastest to the bottom of the mountain. Obviously this added speed increases the risks, and being racers, the desire is to be as light and agile as possible, so there’s a balance point between safety and speed; varying between racers. 4X (‘four-cross’) is much shorter, but no less brutal; with four riders racing down the same course at the same time. Both are a race down the hill, but they vary considerably past that:
Helmet – Full-face mountain bike (or even motocross) helmets are essential.
Goggles – Good quality MX goggles, complete with a tear-off system for the downhillers.
Protection – Neck-braces have become very common in downhill over the past three years, and are a wise investment if you’re looking to race competitively. Knee-guards are a standard item, shin-guards used depending on personal preference. Race-focused body armour is popular, with a lighter build but still featuring shielding of vital areas such as shoulders and spine. Arm protection is less common amongst racers – going back to the compromise between keeping safe and going faster.
Jersey – Downhill race jerseys are just thing thing; preferably in the loudest colours you dare.
Gloves – Lighter gloves than the freeriders; but still with good protection on the palms. Full-finger all year round, a bit thicker for winter riding.
Shorts/Trousers – Downhill racers will actually often wear full-length trousers, similar to motocross riders, which offer better protection and shielding from the elements. Often just longer-length versions of the shorts; you’ll certainly be wanting downhill-specific kit, regardless of the length.
Shoes – A long-time debate rages in the downhill community about whether flat or clipless (cleated) setups are faster; and the World Champions over the years have favoured both, so really it comes down to personal choice. If you’re choosing flats, go with skate or MTB shoes with plenty of padding and a flat, grippy base. If clipping-in is your thing, MTB-specific shoes are necessary – wearing road-cycling shoes will result in you slipping over the moment you step off the bike – not to mention less protection in a crash.
Image credit: bikephotomusic
A cross between mountain biking and BMX, slopestyle and dirt jumping involve riders travelling down a purpose-built course, filled with man-made jumps and obstacles. Dirt jumping is more-often recreational, whereas slopestyle is one of the leading forms of mountain bike competition today; with judges awarding points on line-choice, style and tricks performed during the run. Often the best riders are ex-gymnasts, and the performances can be breathtaking. That said, with the jumps being man-made, they flow much better than the natural features found in normal trails, and learning to ride them can be thoroughly exhilarating.
Trials riding can involve both man-made and natural obstacles, and is about traversing extremely tricky terrain whilst staying on two wheels. One of the highest profile trials riders of the moment is Scot Danny Macaskill; whose latest video will leave you speechless.
All these disciplines require a level of agility, and so the attire worn is quite different to other forms of riding:
Helmet – Skateboard-style domed helmets are worn, providing excellent visibility whilst protecting a large amount of the skull (full-face helmets are used on the larger courses). Sunnies are avoided, as the rider wants the best view possible; although some will ride with goggles for protection.
Protection – Knee pads and perhaps a spine protector are most common; armour is generally kept light for these disciplines, because it can interfere with the rider’s movement.
Jersey/T-shirt – T-shirts, technical tees or singlets are worn by these riders.
Gloves – As light as possible, often with a loud design on the back. Protection on the palms is still strong though.
Shorts/Jeans – Either heavy-duty freeride shorts or jeans are the norm. It’s a given that you will fall over a lot here, so you need clothing that can withstand the punishment.
Shoes – Skate-shoes or similar keep your feet and ankles well shielded, whilst ensuring the best possible grip on the pedals.