Mental and physical preparation. Your new biker isn't ready to be "one of the guys." You need to spend some one-on-one time getting him ready. For a not-so-tough kid, that means general physical conditioning first. Make it fun. Kids hate the "death-march" type of "getting-in-shape" activities adults go for. Don't assume that BMX skills are enough for mountain biking. It's different. The bikes and the riding position are different, and picking your way down a rough steep rock face is very different than "taking a run" at the dirt bumps next door. A kid who's good at BMX will often be over-confident, and that can be dangerous.
The right equipment. Let the child be part of the decision process. They're more likely to enjoy the bike if they helped pick it out. But that means you need to do a little prep work, so he's ready to recognize that a good bike is more than a bright-colored paint job. Size the bike correctly: biggest wheels he can handle on a frame that fits his size. Most 20-inch-wheeled bikes are crap -- and the small wheels make life difficult off-road. Get solid quality. If you can afford it, go top-of-the-line. Quick-release skewers, trigger shifters, light frame. On kids' bikes, grip shifters are the usual, but they're hard for kids to twist while trying to stay on a bumpy trail. If your budget is limited, consider a good frame with cheaper components. When he's good enough to need better parts, upgrade the components. Time spent in the garage wrenching with your little biker can be as valuable as time on the trail! But if you're not mechanically skilled, spend the money to get quality. Customizing: Consider building up a 12 or 13 size frame with disc brakes. Then fit it with smaller wheels (24") and a smaller crank to start. As the child gets bigger, move up to standard (26") wheels and a standard crank.
Getting started. Get ready for that first ride carefully. Remember the terror you felt when you faced steep downhill slopes -- slopes you now take with confidence. Save the rough stuff until he's ready. Spend some time riding on the lawn. A nearby park with rolling grass hills is perfect for getting used to that "off-road" feel. Grass-riding also gets legs toughened up. Go to the church parking lot and set up a steering course using cones, so he can practice tight turns. Lay a series of 2x4's down where he'll ride over them, so he gets used to hitting bumps as he turns and pedals.
Starting to ride off-road. Pick easy trails at first. Your first dirt can be a broad jeep trail, or an easy spur off the neighborhood paved trail. For very young kids, consider a trail-a-bike so he can get used to the feel of trail riding and build strength. Let your new biker learn at his own pace. Often, it's best to let the child lead out, especially on the uphill part of the ride. When it looks like he's wobbling, take a break. Keep it simple; make it fun. (This goes for teaching the wife or girlfriend, too.) Don't push to go too fast. Speed will improve as ability and physical condition improve. Spend enough time, often enough, on easy dirt before you go for the "real thing."
Facing harder trails. Never belittle his abilities, and never push him to take dangerous slopes. Let him find his own solutions, and make it clear you don't mind if he gets off and walks the rough or steep sections. In fact, maybe you should get off and walk with him. Have the child practice standing on the pedals. The natural tendency for most kids is to take their feet off the pedals and put them out to the side when they get nervous. They need to understand that the safest way to go through tricky stuff is with all their weight coming down through level pedals, and with the butt off the seat. Monitor the child's energy level, and build a lot of breaks into the ride. Being tired can be very dangerous in difficult terrain, and your kid may not want to tell you he's bushed.
The following is a brief description of some basic riding techniques. Always remember to ride within your level. It is better to get off and walk an area that you aren't comfortable with than to risk injury.
Balance – Balance is crucial in mountain biking, not just left-right balance, but front to back balance. Weight over the rear wheel is what gives you traction: if your back tire is slipping, try moving back on the seat, or if you are standing, transfer more of your weight to the rear of the bike. If your front wheel comes off the ground, then you need to transfer more weight to it.
Climbing – Most riders will do at least some of their hardest climbs out of the saddle. It is necessary to rock the bike gently with each pedal stroke in order to keep the bike in a straight line. As your right pedal goes down, rock to the right, as your left pedal goes down, rock to the left, and so on. If you are climbing in the saddle, make sure and use a low enough gear that you are "spinning". Too high a gear is inefficient, and can cause pain or injury.
Descending – Stay back on the bike. On steep descents, you may have to be behind your seat. Use your brakes before corners, not in them (see braking). Don't descend anything you are not sure of; walk if in doubt.
Cornering – Learn the technique of "counter steering". Brake before corners, not in them. Look where you want to go, not at what you don't want to hit. Bikes have a way of going wherever you look. Slow down to a safe speed, then accelerate out of corners. Don't skid, it looks fast, but it isn't. Lean into turns; you can "lead" with your inside knee to help with this.
Braking – Most of your braking force is in the front brake. Use both brakes simultaneously, and brake before corners, not in them. Do not lock your back brake to skid! It is destructive to the trail, and not as effective at slowing you down.
Shifting – You should always pick a gear that allows you to "spin" your pedals at between 60 and 90 rpm. (note: racers may spin more). Try counting your revolutions for 10 seconds, then multiply by 6, or get a cyclometer with a cadence (RPM) function. Different shifters work differently, so get the salesperson who sold you your bike to show you how to select gears on your bike. Lower gears are "easier" to spin on hills, while higher gears are "harder". The smallest chain ring (on the crankset, where the pedals are) is your lowest gear range, while the largest chainring is your highest gear range. The largest cog on the freewheel (on the back wheel) is your lowest gear, while the smallest cog is your highest gear. It is the combination of your chain ring (gear range) and cog (gear) that gives you the overall gear ratio you are in. Try shifting to a lower gear before you are in the middle of a steep hill.
Singletrack – On these narrow trails, don't look off the trail, instead focus on the trail ahead. Slow down around blind curves; other riders, hikers or equestrians may be around the corner.
Mud – Do not ride in mud! It leaves deep groves which water follows, causing erosion. If you hit a small patch of mud on an otherwise dry trail, pull up lightly on the bars, and either maintain speed or pedal through. If the mud is deep, walk your bike around it. Do not try to ride around – this causes the trails to get widened beyond what they were originally intended.
Sand – Similar to mud, but try a slightly higher gear than you would normally ride in.
Rocks, holes, and bumps – When going over rocks, holes, or bumps that may trap your frontwheel, you need to move your weight back so that the wheel can "float" over the obstacle. Sometimes you will need to pick up the front wheel (called "lofting") to get it over the obstacle. Your rear wheel will often just roll through the obstacle.
Water and water crossings – Avoid riding through streams where possible; a tire's passage causes sedimentation of the stream. If you must cross, maintain momentum in a low gear, and use a light touch on the handlebars. Let rocks deflect your tire gently.
You may prefer to have a shop do all your major maintenance, but there are certain maintenance tasks that need to be done often. You should learn how to do these.
Lubricate chain and wipe off excess lubricant
Check and adjust tire pressure
Check headset for play
Check wheels for alignment
Lubricate cables and derailleurs
These are things that need to be done often. Again, get a book or take a class at a local bike shop.
The International Mountain Biking Association (IMBA)
The International Mountain Biking Organization that ROMP is affiliated with, has set the following rules of the trail (in bold). We have added descriptions of the rules to make sure they are clear and help explain why they should be followed.
IMBA Rules of the Trail
Ride on open trails only – Respect trail and road closures (ask if not sure), avoid possible trespass on private land, obtain permits and authorizations as may be required. Federal and state wilderness areas, along with many regional open space lands, are closed to cycling.
Leave no trace – Be sensitive to the trail beneath you. Studies have shown that mountain cycles, when ridden appropriately, cause no more wear to a trail than other trail users. Two of the times that cyclist can cause significant trail damage are when they skid their tires and when the trails are muddy. Skidding your tires is not the fastest or safest way to stop, and does cause significant damage. Riding in muddy trails leaves grooves which enhance erosion and dry to form permanent marks. These marks show how bad bikes can be to the environment when ridden foolishly.
Control your bicycle! – Inattention for even a second can cause problems. Obey all speed laws. Remember that what seems a reasonable speed to you may seem like out of control to a hiker or equestrian. Slow down or stop when approaching other trail users, even if there is "plenty" of room. If another trail user moves out of the trail in fear, they may believe they were "run off" the trail.
Always yield the trail – Make known you approach well in advance. A friendly greeting (or a bell) is considerate and works well; don't startle others. Show your respect when passing others by slowing to a walk or even stopping. Anticipate that other trail users may be around corners or in blind spots. When approaching equestrians, yield means stop and get off! Yield to Uphill Bike Traffic - Your fellow cyclists traveling uphill on a narrow trail have the right of way! Stop and let them go by if you are traveling downhill. You can get going again easily, they can't!
Never spook animals – All animals are startled by an unannounced approach, a sudden movement, or a loud noise. This can be dangerous for you, for others, and for the animals. Give animals extra room and time to adjust to you. In passing, use special care and follow the directions of horseback riders (ask if uncertain). Running cattle and disturbing wild animals is a serious offense. Leave gates as you found them, or as marked.
Plan ahead – Know your equipment, your ability, and the area in which you are riding and prepare accordingly. Be self-sufficient at all times. Wear a helmet, keep your machine in good condition, and carry necessary supplies for changes in weather or other conditions. A well-executed trip is a satisfaction to you and not a burden or offense to others.