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Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Each ride offers a fresh experience and new discoveries. © CAMBA
Each ride offers a fresh experience and new discoveries.


June 2008

Mountain biking 101

The hills, twists, bumps and grinds are par for the course when you go mountain biking in Wisconsin.

Alisa Lopez

A family activity
Mountain bike comparisons
Mountain bike types
What to wear | What to bring along
If you build it they will come
On track with state trails
Mountain biking clubs and organizations

Anticipation grows as I firmly grasp the handlebars of my bike. I push down on my feet, hear the familiar click of my shoes locking into the pedals and set off down the dirt trail. The wind circles my face and tree branches wave as I pass by. The only sounds I hear are rattling leaves, the frolic of critters and the feverish beating of my heart. My eyes focus on the trail in front of me and there's no other place I'd rather be.

Mountain biking, in the simplest of terms, is riding a bicycle off-road. Although there are different categories of mountain biking trails and experiences such as downhill, freeride, all-mountain and urban riding, the most common style in Wisconsin is cross-country (XC). Cross-country trails differ slightly with the varied terrain, but are most often a mix of rough forest paths, grassy knolls and/or fire roads. Singletrack and doubletrack are commonly used terms to describe XC trails.

Mountain biking is an individual challenge, forcing you to rely on your own skills when out alone. Knowing how to repair your bike or care for a wound are necessary to avoid becoming stranded or worsening an injury. Although many riders choose to ride alone, you'll often see club or group rides, which provide safety and social support. In addition, many bikers turn to racing for social and competitive aspects and to improve their skills. Many races offer categories for newcomers or first timers, like the Learn to Race clinics at each event of the Wisconsin Off Road Series (WORS).

Before heading out on a trail and certainly before racing, it's important to have a good understanding of biking fundamentals and get some practice.

"Beginning mountain bikers should first be comfortable riding on paved roads and then dirt or gravel roads," says Ron Bergin, executive director for Chequamegon Area Mountain Bike Association (CAMBA). "It takes some adjustment to get used to narrower trails with bumps, turns and other minor obstacles. A solid foundation of good balance and basic bicycle handling skills is essential before venturing off onto more technical trails."

The majority of trails in Wisconsin offer routes ranging from easy to more difficult that might cover one to more than 30 miles and can take you 30 minutes to more than three hours to complete. Mileage on a mountain bike trail is harder work than the same mileage on an open road. Distance and terrain will determine your average speed, and five miles on a technical, mountain bike trail will take considerably more time and energy than five miles on a paved road.

A trail's tempo will change regularly, just like a piece of music. Sometimes the pace is fast, uneven and beating hard, while other times it's a smooth rhythm. Each trail has a different composer and with time, each trail is transforming, adjusting to natural and human-made changes. What this means to the mountain biker is a fresh experience with each visit.

It's very important to check the trail map before you head out to determine the difficulty level and length of the routes. You can often find trail maps at DNR service centers if the trail is at a state park, at the trailhead itself, at local bike shops or online. Plan your route before you go and pay attention to whether facilities are located along the route for water refills or bathroom breaks. Although marked signs will often be available throughout the trail to illustrate different routes or facilities, sometimes they can be faded and hard to read, so taking along your own map should be common practice. Before riding a trail for the first time, you should always scout the trail (off bike) to determine if your skills are sufficient for the challenge ahead. Also remember that the "music" of a trail can change over just a short period of time and new obstacles can be just around the corner. Be sure you are prepared and that your bike handling skills are up to maneuvering around unexpected terrain or you can just go slow!

Most mountain bike trails are designed as one-way loops that return you to the starting point. While there are no options to turn around and go back the way you came, many trails have loops of different lengths where you can choose a shorter route and make your way back to the trailhead. Know your physical limits and take your time building up to more challenging routes. Once you pass an opportunity to take a shorter route, your only choice may be to finish a longer route.

Trail obstacles come in many forms – rock gardens, logs or log pyramids, switchbacks, ladder bridges, drop-offs, slippery sand, steep grades, and other natural and manmade elements. It's perfectly acceptable to walk your bike over an obstacle if you're uncomfortable or, if the trail offers a second route, around it. Please keep in mind that riding your bike off a marked trail to avoid an obstacle or mud puddle, can damage the trail by widening it and destroying the vegetation that helps reduce erosion. You will often see bikers coming off the trail full of mud, but by doing so, they may have stayed on the trail and avoided damaging the surrounding area.

Several trails have stream crossings, which are unavoidable when trying to get from point A to point B. A bridge, ford or rock garden will lead you across the stream.

Mountain biking in Wisconsin can be a long season if the weather holds, with most bike trails open year-round unless they get really muddy or they are groomed for ski use in winter. May through October is the prime time for mountain bikers, but you should always call ahead for current trail conditions. Keep in mind that if you arrive at a trail and it starts to rain, it may be closed at a moment's notice to prevent trail damage.

Some trails are dedicated for mountain bikers while others are shared with hikers, horseback riders or all-terrain vehicles (ATVs). When encountering other trail users, follow the DNR trail rules to maintain safety and respect while having a good time:

  • Stay to the right of the trail
  • Pass on the left
  • Alert others that you are passing
  • Control your speed
  • Yield to uphill users if you are coming downhill

A family activity

Mountain biking can start a great family tradition. It gets kids off the couch and away from the TV and computer. It's a chance for quality time together doing something active. Local bike shops or biking clubs are great resources to find out what a child needs, depending on age, to get started mountain biking. You may find you can rent mountain bikes a few times to see if your family enjoys the experience. Also, shops and clubs can suggest easy trails for starters. Your clan can also catch the bug as spectators since many mountain bike races take place throughout the state. WORS has a kids race for riders 12 and under at almost all their events.

In addition, the International Mountain Biking Association (IMBA) is celebrating the fifth annual National Take a Kid Mountain Biking Day on October 4, 2008. Ask your local bike shop about any local events or opportunities.

Mountain Bike Comparisons
Full Suspension
Front and rear shocks
Comfortable ride when dealing with rought terrain

Feel less tired after the ride

Saves your lower back and arms from hard jolt
Typically heavier than a hartail

May feel sluggish while climbing

Sometimes higher priced
Front shock only
Typically lighter in weight

Great for climbing

Helps you develop skills in the correct way

Sometimes lower priced
Can feel more "jarring" on the body

May not be a comfortable as a full suspension bike

Mountain bike types

For most Wisconsin mountain bike trails, you will need either a hardtail or a full suspension mountain bike. We'll describe the differences. Standard, rigid road bikes or department store bikes that don't have suspension and shock absorbers are not recommended for mountain bike riding.

"The best advice I can give anyone is to find a bike dealer who makes them feel comfortable," says Ben Milano, former Project One coordinator for Trek Bicycle USA. "Definitely stay away from department store bikes for this activity. The sticker price will be less, but consumers usually are not getting the warranty, customer service and knowledge level they would find at local bike shops."

A reliable bike shop will help you determine the right bike to fit you and your riding style. Here are some features to compare. The chart below can give you an idea of what type of bike you may need or want.

Given the financial commitment of purchasing a bike, it's important that mountain biking is something you know you'll really enjoy. If you have friends who mountain bike, see if they'll lend you a bike or see if a local bike shop offers rentals. Many shops allow you to rent a bike for a day or a weekend.

"I recommend renting or borrowing a bike and taking it out on the trails before you commit to buying," says Milano. "That way you're going to know if it's something you'd enjoy or if it's really not your thing. This also gives you a chance to try different bikes until you find one that is comfortable for you."

Biking clubs pitch in to work with park and forest managers to design, build and improve public mountain biking trails. © William Lormans
Biking clubs pitch in to work with park and forest managers to design, build and improve public mountain biking trails.

© William Lormans

What to wear

When you first arrive at a trailhead, you may see riders in a plethora of matching outfits. Don't let this deter you. Some may choose to wear a bright bike jersey or skin-tight Lycra shorts. Here are a few suggestions when choosing your riding clothing and accessories:

  • Helmet – A helmet is a must and the most important component of your outfit. This will keep your head safe from unexpected falls and tree branches that stretch across the trails.
  • Sport/weather specific sunglasses – The sun may not be too bright in some areas of the trails, but added protection on your eyes is great when loose tree branches or leaves are hanging into the trail.
  • Bike shorts/tights – These are normally made of Lycra and have a large pad of chamois in the crotch to keep moisture away, prevent chaffing and provide padding. If tight clothing isn't your cup of tea, many companies offer baggy shorts or pants specifically designed for mountain biking with Lycra and chamois built in for comfort and style. Or you can purchase underwear with a chamois built in to wear under a pair of regular shorts if you don't want to spend a lot of money just to try biking. Longer and slightly baggy shorts will work best. Tip: Biking shorts are made to be worn without underwear. Wearing underwear under your bike shorts will result in wetness and rubbing against sensitive skin, which the bike shorts are designed to prevent.
  • Shirt – You can wear any shirt on your ride, but a good jersey with long or short sleeves, made of material that wicks away moisture, typically polyester, will keep the sweat away from your body and keep you drier.
  • Gloves – Protect your hands with a pair of padded mountain biking gloves. These will help prevent calluses, forestall numb hands and are very convenient if you fall and need to catch yourself.
  • Shoes – The type of shoes you wear depends on the type of pedals you will be using. The most common types of pedals are either platform or clipless. Platform (flat) pedals are especially good if you are new to mountain biking. They will help you build good pedaling skills and you can bail off the bike quickly if need be. The downside is that you may lose your footing over rocky terrain or on steep downhills. Any solid outdoor shoe can be worn, but "skate" or "approach" shoes are recommended because the rubber bottoms provide a better grip against the pedal. "Skate" shoes, like those used by skateboarders, have soles with softer rubber that will grip the pedals the way a boarder would want a shoe to grip the skateboard. "Approach" shoes, like those used by rock climbers, are similarly designed to grip the rough rocky surface and provide better traction than a standard athletic shoe. Some platform pedals have metal cages that help provide a more secure fit between your shoe and pedal, but it can be difficult to remove your foot from the cage quickly.

Contrary to the name, clipless or clipped-in pedals have a mechanism or bracket that locks to a cleat on the mountain bike shoe. To engage the locking system, you simply point your toe downward on the pedal and your shoe will click into the pedal. To release your foot from the pedal, you need to twist your heel, which will unlock the clip, releasing your foot. This is a very popular setup among mountain bikers because it makes your pedal stroke more efficient and secures your footing over rocky terrain, wet conditions or steep downhills. The negative side of clipless pedals is the learning curve. It never fails that at some point, usually when there are a lot of people around, you'll forget that your foot is locked to the pedal. By the time you realize that you need to twist your heel, it's usually too late and you slowly fall over.

What to bring along

What you carry depends on how long you plan to be out. For a short 30minute ride, a hydration pack or a water bottle, a map and your trail pass might be all you'll need. If you plan a longer ride or would rather be safe than sorry on a shorter ride, the following should cover most of your basic needs. Carry these in the pockets of a hydration pack, a backpack, jersey pocket or seat bag:

  • Spare tire tube, miniature pump or CO2, and plastic tire levers
  • Energy bar, gel or snack
  • Antibiotic cream and small bandages
  • Personal ID and trail passes if needed
  • Minitool – for basic repairs and bike adjustments
  • Extra chain link and chain tool (if you know how to use them)
  • Shock pump (adjusts suspension)
  • Bug spray
  • Cell phone (if you have one)

If you build it, they will come

DNR property managers, in conjunction with mountain bike associations such as the Wisconsin Off-Road Bicycling Association (WORBA) and the International Mountain Bicycling Association (IMBA), strive to build and maintain trails that are well constructed and mindful of natural resources. Keeping trails in good condition can be a lot of work, so building in the right spot and in the correct way can save considerable maintenance time.

"Water is your number one enemy," says Brigit Brown, DNR state trails coordinator. "You need to be thinking of water flow when designing a trail. If the trail is flat, directly up a hill or directly downhill, water flows down along the trail, channels throughout the trail or just ponds and causes erosion. Initially, it will expose rocks and roots, or lead to a widening as users go around the water. Over time, water problems can severely scar the earth.

"Hydrologically invisible trails (trails that don't disrupt water flow) are an important goal," she says. "Following contours of the land and using native, on-site materials is the ideal situation, and allows you to create great trails that need lower maintenance and are enjoyable for trail users!" says Brown.

The DNR managers hired Trail Solutions of IMBA to design a five-mile connector trail at the Southern Kettle Moraine State Forest in 2003 and 15 miles of new mountain bike trails in the Northern Kettle Moraine State Forest in 2004. A Wisconsin state park system trail crew is constructing the trails at the Northern Unit. Two loops were completed in 2007 and the remaining 14 new miles are expected to be finished this year.

As with any property, more hands make the work go faster, and biking organizations pitch in where and how they can. Wisconsin chapters of WORBA raise funds for trail improvements, and volunteers provide work time to care for mountain bike trails; but the numbers of participants are low compared to the number of bikers who use the trails.

"Thousands of people ride the trails each year but only a few make time to get involved in trail work," says James Wamser, Southern Kettle Moraine chapter representative for WORBA. "If everyone gave even a couple of hours a year, it would make a big difference. It may sound like a cliché, but if you're not helping, you don't get to complain. We're all challenged with balancing work and family, but if you have time to ride, you have time to work on the trail," he says.

If you can lend a helping hand on the trails, visit WORBA for more information on a chapter in your area, ask your local bike shop about participating clubs/organizations that are involved in trail work, or contact Brigit Brown at (608) 266-2183 or Brigit Brown. The trail time you invest today will reap benefits for years to come.

And when the trail work is done and it's time to enjoy your rides, you'll find that mountain biking takes you through the wonderful woods of Wisconsin and will bring many other great adventures your way. Mountain biking brought me strong muscles and strong determination, but it also brought me many unexpected pleasures. I found some of the best fish boils, glasses of wine, and one too many slices of apple pie on my travels statewide. I also discovered family inns, small-town shops, the beaches, lighthouses, the cozy cottages, the homemade ice cream, spring flowers and fall colors. I never went out looking for these things; they found my mountain bike and me.

Alisa Lopez writes with DNR's Bureau of Education and Information.

On track with state trails
State Park and Trail Fees $4 daily fee or $20 annual pass. Vehicle admission stickers are required in all state parks and state trail passes are required on some trails for riders 16 years and older. Trail maps are available at any state park entrance.

Trail Conditions or call the state park office for trail closings and current conditions.

Wisconsin Trail Etiquette and Safety Guidelines Tips for trail users

Mountain biking clubs and organizations
International Mountain Biking Association

Bicycle Federation of Wisconsin

Wisconsin Off-Road Bicycling Association List of clubs throughout Wisconsin

Mad FORCs: Madison's Female Off-Road Cyclists

Chain Smokers (Madison area)

Chequamegon Area Mountain Bike Association (CAMBA)

Human Powered Trails (La Crosse area)

Chain Reaction Cycling (southwest Wisconsin)

Capital Off-Road Pathfinders (Dane County)

Neillsville Area Trail Association and Neillsville Area Singletrack Inhabitants

Kinnickinnic Off-Road Cyclists

Chippewa Off-Road Bike Association (Eau Claire area)

Point Pursuit (Portage County)

Lakeland Area Mountain Biking Organization (Minocqua area)

Metro Mountain Bikers (Milwaukee)

Rhinelander Area Silent Trails Association

Vernon Trails

Wisconsin Off-Road Series (WORS)

Wisconsin Endurance Mountain Bike Series (WEMS)