Rules of the Off-road: Mind Your Mountain Bike Etiquette

A somewhat upright position will help absorb shock and control the bike.
Embarking on an off-road mountain bike adventure means attempting a balancing act involving both your bike and your behavior. For some mountain bikers, maneuvering a couple of knobby tires over gnarly terrain is cake compared to controlling their own conduct on the trail.

Lets face it, proper etiquette is often the last thing on most riders' minds as they set out for an afternoon of fat-tire frolicking. After all, relieving yourself of regulation and restraint is the point and pleasure of off-road riding, right?

Not if there are no trails to ride on. Contrary to what some mountain bikers might think, imposing guidelines upon how we play in the great outdoors isn't a step toward stifling the free spirit of the sport; it's a lunge toward keeping it alive.

Most veteran mountain bikers are familiar with those words of off-road inspiration and instruction set forth by the International Mountain Biking Association (IMBA) to direct riders on ways to behave in the wild.

With singletrack and switchbacks to tackle, water bars to watch out for, hills to anticipate' and spills to avoid, it can be tricky keeping track of the finer points of off-road etiquette. Heres a refresher course for off-road rookies and regulars alike.

IMBA Rule No. 1: Ride on open trails only

This rule invariably incites a groan of disdain from certain mountain bikers who believe real off-road riding only can be achieved by avoiding established trails. First, it's dangerous (and often illegal) to barrel through backwoods that aren't marked for mountain biking. Second, riding your knobby tires where they're not supposed to be can destroy any chances that the very trail you're foraging can be used for future riding. Many areas that seem perfect for biking contain ecosystems that are too fragile to sustain the trample of fat tires.

IMBA Rule No. 2: Leave no trace

This has become a popular catch phrase among eco-friendly riders. It's also the rule that's most frequently broken. That's because the tracks that riders tend to leave behind consist of more than their trash; they include wear-and-tear on the trail's environment that's not so easy to clean up and pack out. On dry trails, mountain bikers make less impact than horses and about the same as hikers.

Put a mountain biker in the mud, however, and expect irreparable damage--which brings us back to that fail-safe Boy Scout motto, "Be prepared," or as IMBA says: Plan ahead. Be aware of changing trail conditions; if it looks like rain, it might be a good day to stay inside and spin.

IMBA Rule No. 3: Control your bicycle

The better you know your bicycle, the better trail rider and trail neighbor you'll be. So know your bike's limits as well as your own. Keep your equipment tuned, and get intimate with your shifters and gears. On hilly terrain, you'll need their support more than your saddle, since you should ride standing most of the time, with your knees bent and your eyes looking about five feet in front of you.

Lower your seat if you plan on riding an especially bumpy path. Keep your weight back when descending hills and your weight forward when climbing them. Otherwise, keep your bike between your own two legs, and no one will have to report unexpected flying objects they encounter on the trail. Adjust your speed according to other riders around you, and when in doubt, don't be afraid to walk. Just be sure there's no one balanced on a hill behind you ready to climb up your rear tire.

IMBA Rule No. 4: Always yield the trail

Scoot over for your cycling comrades, too, and always make your presence known before peeling around a blind corner.

IMBA Rule No. 5: Dont spook animals

IMBA Rule No. 6: Plan ahead

If you've hit on all tips above, this last rule should come naturally. Remember the basics: Wear a helmet, proper clothing, train adequately, and keep your eyes ahead of you on the trail. Above all, plan for your next ride, as well as for your sports future. As an athlete with some mountain biking manners, you can improve your sport's playing field.


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