One of the joys of riding a bike is that you can just jump on and pedal away in whatever you’re wearing. But if you wander into a bike shop or bikewear website, you’ll find that there are infinite opportunities to spend your hard-earned cash on bike-related kit. So this article aims to look at what you really need when you’re starting out, and what’s nice to have.
The good news is that very little mountain bike specific kit is needed to get started, although if you ride a lot it is easy to get pulled into buying it. Clothes that you wear for going to the gym, walking, running or other outdoor activities are often fine. However there are a few area where I’d recommend buying cycle-specific.
First on this list is a helmet. While we all hope that we won’t need it, there are risks in mountain biking, and protecting your head against injury just makes sense. No one comes on my guided rides without a bike helmet.
If you already have a bike helmet that you use for commuting or road riding and it has a CE code showing that it meets the required standards, and it fits and is comfortable, and is not damaged, then it should be fine for getting started on a mountain bike. Most bike hire places also have helmets which they hire out along with a bike.
If you want to buy a helmet, prices range from £15 to around £150. Generally the more you pay, the lighter, and better ventilated the helmet, and the snugger the fit. It’s worth trying on several different makes, as the fit and comfort does vary. I recommend getting one that has an adjustable band at the back, as they tend to fit better and be more comfortable.
There are now women-specific mountain bike helmets on the market, but there’s a much wider choice available in the men’s section. Personally, I can’t see any need for gender specific helmets, and suspect that it’s mainly a matter of slapping some girly colours on them.
Cycling gloves do more than keep your hands warm (although that’s really important in winter). They improve your grip on the handlebars and protect your hands if you fall off. They also make it more comfortable the padding on the palm reduces judder. Mountain bikers tend to wear long fingered gloves which have the added benefit of protecting against nettle stings and brambles in summer.
As a beginner you can get away with wearing non-specific gloves. In winter, you’ll ideally want wind and waterproof ones. In summer fingerless, or lighter full-fingered gloves are fine. You can find fingerless gloves from around £5 - £10; full-fingered start at £10.
As a contact lens wearer, I always wear glasses on my bike. They prevent mud etc getting in my eyes. They also help stop my eyes watering from the wind. I have photochromatic lenses which are clear when the weather is dull, or I’m in a wood, and darken in the sun. They also protect me from harmful UVA/UVB rays.
However, whether or not you wear eye protection is up to you. Suitable options are protective glasses with clear, plastic lenses, or sunglasses. The downside of the latter is that when you go from sun to shade you may have to stop and take them off.
What to wear
Mountain bike clothes need to allow you to move freely, without being too loose (you don't want your trousers to get stuck in the chain!). They should provide some protection in the event of a fall.
The ideal top is lightweight and breathable, and if it’s cold you can add extra layers. There are many cycle specific options available, but if you already have something like this for the gym or running or cycling on the road they will be fine. Cotton is not suitable as holds moisture from sweat or rain and you will get cold.
I always carry a waterproof jacket. You never know when the weather will change. And it also works as a windproof, and keeps me warm if we have to stop and mend a puncture or do other repairs.
Shorts or leggings (called tights in the cycle world) are fine for the bottom half. Again, avoid cotton, as it can get very cold. Once you know you like mountain biking, then you’ll probably want to buy some padded shorts. There’s no getting away from it, when you first get on a bike your bum will probably be a bit sore at the end of the ride. Padded shorts help make it more comfortable, and the more you ride, the more your body gets used to the saddle.
The fashion for mountain bikers is to wear baggy shorts over a padded inner short. These tend to be made out of a lighter fabric than the lycra shorts that roadies wear. But if you already have lycra shorts for riding on the road, then I’d wear them off-road too.
The type of shoe you need depends on what pedals are on your bike. If you are new to a mountain bike, I suggest that you start with flat pedals, even if you ride with clip-in pedals on a road bike.
Any flat-soled shoes or trainers are suitable for riding a mountain bike. Shoes with a heel are not suitable. Once you know that you like mountain biking, you may want to get some cycle-specific shoes. They have a stiffer sole than trainers making your pedalling more efficient. Flat pedal shoes have a sticky rubber sole giving really good grip on the pedals. They are also easy to walk in if you have to push over an obstacle. Long laces should be tucked away to avoid getting stuck in the chain.
So to summarise, there's no need to go on a spending spree before you try out mountain biking. If you are a kit freak, there's plenty of opportunity to flex your credit card, but it's makes sense to wait until you get hooked by the bug before you start.
In forthcoming blogs I'll cover other elements of getting started, including choosing your first bike. Let me know if there are any topics you'd like me to focus on.