By Marc Lee
Like Arabian horsemen flying across the plains, mountain bikers feel a sense of freedom when they ride. Whether you want to race along a twisting path through the woods, skirt the edge of a precipitous mountain cliff or jump high enough to brush tree branches, a mountain bike is a willing steed that can take you places many people never see.
Outdoor recreation is booming, and mountain bikers have a significant piece of the action. According to a 2000 Roper Starch Worldwide survey, 78 percent of all Americans participate in outdoor activities at least once a month and 5 percent of the population is riding trails on mountain bikes.
â€œThe bike market has flip-flopped in the last 20 years,â€ says International Mountain Bicycling
Association executive director Tim Blumenthal. â€œTwenty years ago, nine out of 10 bikes sold were road bikes. Now nine out of 10 are fat-tire bikes.â€
Want to join the pack? Hereâ€™s what you need to hit the singletrack:
Different types of mountain bikes are designed for different niches of the sport. Here, weâ€™ll concentrate on the cross-country bike, because itâ€™s the best choice for beginners and the type most suited for area trails.
Plan to spend between $850 and $1,100 for a good, lightweight XC bike (known as a hardtail). That may seem like a lot of money, but bikes â€” and their components â€” in this price range stand up to hard riding and last for years.
Helmet: Always ride with one.
Sunglasses: Lightweight with a tight fit.
Jersey: Made from moisture-wicking fabrics, jerseys range in style from wild full-body graphics to skater casual.
Bike shorts: If youâ€™re skittish about wearing body-hugging Lycra, go with baggies. Youâ€™ll know you have bike shorts by the anatomically positioned chamois.
Gloves: They help dampen trail vibrations and give you a good grip on the bar.
To find your cycle, go to several bike shops and ride different bikes. The shop will let you borrow a helmet and put a bike through its paces. Each will fit and feel different, so ride the way you plan to ride it on the trail and find the one that best suits you. Quiz the employees on anything youâ€™re unsure of. They ride a lot, love to talk about bikes and know everything from handlebars to derailleurs. Theyâ€™ll also help you find a bike thatâ€™s the right size for you.
Do a lot of research â€” itâ€™ll pay off. Here are the major areas you should consider when buying a bike.
Youâ€™ll find two types of handlebars on a bike. Riser bars keep you in a more comfortable, upright position. Flat bars allow you to stretch over the bike, lowering your aerodynamic profile.
This is the most important part of a bike. It has to be strong enough to absorb impact from the trail, yet light enough to enable the rider to carry speed and climb hills. Aluminum is a popular frame type with these characteristics, though you will also find steel. Along with the stem (the part that holds the handlebars to the frame), the frame determines fit. Ask somebody who works at the bike shop to help you find a bike that fits your measurements.
Basically, you should be able to stand over the top tube with at least an inch of clearance between it and your crotch and be able to comfortably reach the handlebars while having a slightly arched back in the riding position.
Mountain bikes have shocks that take the place of the front fork. There are basically two types: those that use compressed air to absorb shock and those that use coil springs and oil. Donâ€™t get caught up in the eternal debate over which type is better; ride each type and decide for yourself. You canâ€™t go wrong with shocks from major manufacturers such as Rock Shox, Marzocchi or Manitou. Some bike manufacturers, such as Cannondale, make their own shocks.
Make sure your bike has good brakes. Theyâ€™re one component you donâ€™t want to fail. The two parts of the brake system are the levers and the actual brake. When you test ride a bike, make sure the brakes feel firm when you pull the levers but have enough slack to allow you to modulate your speed. You may find disc brakes on some bikes. Theyâ€™re a hot product in the industry, but unnecessary for cross-country riding.
Derailleurs and shifters
Along with your front and rear gears, the front and rear derailleurs and your shifters make up the drivetrain. Make sure the derailleurs move the chain quickly from one gear to the next with no drag. Shifters should feel crisp and give a good indication that the bike is in gear. Mountain bikes usually have three gear rings in front and nine on the rear hub for a total of 27 possible combinations.
Tire tread should match the trail condition youâ€™re riding. Tires with large square knobs work well in mud, but theyâ€™re not as fast on hard-packed dirt, where tires with a lower tread profile excel. You can easily replace your own tires, but if the trail conditions youâ€™ll be riding donâ€™t match the tires on the bike, you may be able to talk the bike shop into swapping them for you.
Most XC bikers prefer clipless pedals. â€œCliplessâ€ is a misnomer, because the pedals actually allow the rider to place a cleat attached to the sole of the shoe into a spring-loaded clip. This is known as â€œclipping in.â€
These pedals hold the foot in the optimum position for speed and power. They can be scary at first and take a while to get used to, but with practice youâ€™ll see why so many people prefer them.
Shoes and cleats
Clipless pedals require special shoes to which a cleat can be screwed. If you buy shoes at the same time you buy your bike, the shop will usually install the cleats for you. But itâ€™s easy to do yourself. Youâ€™ll need a razor to trim the sole of the shoe and an Allen wrench to attach the cleats, which come with your pedals.
STUFF TO TAKE WITH YOU
Hydration pack: You can carry more liquid in a pack than you can with water bottles, plus it has pockets to stash the things youâ€™ll take with you.
Multitool: Like a Swiss Army knife, but loaded with the bike-specific instruments you need if you have a breakdown.
Spare tube and tube-patch kit: Minor punctures can be taken care of with the kit, but if youâ€™ve thrashed the tube, use the spare.
Energy bars or gels: Bars give you long-lasting energy for the ride, gels give you a boost when youâ€™re about to â€œbonk.â€
Shorty pump: A small pump you can fix to the frame or carry in your hydro-pack.
A couple of bucks: In case youâ€™re stranded.
First-aid kit, mosquito repellent, sunscreen and your car keys
Where to ride
L.B. HOUSTON NATURE TRAIL
This is a great place inside the city for beginners and fun for experienced riders, too. It turns through the woods along the Elm Fork of the Trinity River, but doesnâ€™t have a lot of rocks and trees to clear. Great for learning balance and control.
Length: About 4 miles
Directions: Off Northwest Highway just west of I-35E, turn west on California
Crossing. The trailhead parking lot will be about 500 yards on the left.
This trail at Grapevine Lake is one of the most popular among the areaâ€™s mountain bikers. It runs along the north side of the lake between Rockledge Park on the east and past Twin Cove Park on the west. The trail has a mix of sandy and rocky terrain with great views of the lake and the surrounding woods. The eastern end is good for intermediate riders, while the western end has technical challenges for the experienced.
Length: 9.5 miles each way
Directions: Thereâ€™s a trailhead at Rockledge Park just off Fairway Drive. Another trailhead starts at Sneaky Peteâ€™s restaurant.
ROWLETT CREEK PRESERVE TRAIL
Thereâ€™s something for every level of rider â€” from big drops and whoopde-doos to tight singletrack â€” at Rowlett. Ten loops take riders in and out of shady woods, along the creek and through wide-open pastures. This trail is incredibly well-maintained and appears to be expanding every day.
Length: About 12 miles total
Directions: In Garland at Centerville Road and Castle.
CEDAR HILL STATE PARK TRAIL
Like it hot? Like long, leg-burning climbs? Cedar Hill has lots of that. This rustic, challenging trail has three loops rated from intermediate to expert. Along the way youâ€™ll see lots of native plant life â€” including cactus, so watch out â€” plus a nice ride along the shoreline. Youâ€™ll definitely want to fling yourself in the water after this one.
Length: About 12 miles total
Directions: From I-20, take the exit for FM1382 and head south to the state park
entrance. The rangers will be happy to tell you how to get to the trail while youâ€™re paying the entrance fee.