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By Janet Lafleur

About this blog: My love affair with the bicycle began with a crush on my first red tricycle that I pedaled in circles on the driveway. The crush grew into full-blown passion when my dad threw Stingray handlebars and a banana seat on my older sist...  (More)

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Hitting the Dirt on Mountain Bike Trails

Uploaded: Aug 27, 2013
Did you buy a mountain bike because of the big fat tires and easy riding comfort, but the only times you've ridden it off-road were on the levee trails along the bay? That was me, until my friend Steph took me out on some dirt trails at Arastradero Preserve in Palo Alto where I put the mountain back into my mountain bike.

To me, mountain biking is a lot like hiking. You get out of the city and feel like you're far away from it all, even when you're only a few miles away. I'm always surprised how much wildlife there is so close to town, from deer to wild turkeys to coyotes to gopher snakes. If you're lucky, you might spot a bobcat or tarantula. I've seen all that and more, especially since I cover a lot more distance on a bike than on foot.

If you've only ridden on pavement before, there are some things you should know before hitting the dirt that will make your first ride a lot easier. Riding dirt isn't hard if you make a few simple adjustments.

First, on the trail there are a few new rules of the road. As a mountain biker you need to yield to hikers and horses, as well as uphill riders. In particular, be aware that you and your bike can make horses nervous because you look too much like predator. As you approach horses, slow down to crawl, call out "hello" as soon as you're within voice range, and ask the horseback riders how to proceed. Sometimes they will want you to stop and let them pass, other times they'd rather pull off the trail and let you pass. It's all about communication. The same advice works for hikers. Be polite, communicate with them and don't buzz by.

As for your bike, any bike with knobby tires works and some people can rock the dirt on slick tires too. Having a fork with front suspension smooths out the trail, but isn't necessary for the moderate trails I've listed below. To set up your bike before your first dirt ride, all you'll probably need to do is pump up the tires and go. But not too much. Lower pressure in your tires gives better traction on loose dirt and gravel. I set mine at 35-40 psi, which is the far low end of what my tires recommend.

If your attitude about shifting gears is "set it and forget it" on the streets, you'll need to review shifting. Most trails in our area have steep sections so you'll want to use your gears. In particular, the wide gravel roads that may look easier than the narrow trails also tend to suddenly get steep. Unlike the narrow trails, they were built for farm trucks with engines, not people on foot or on bikes.

After that, it's all about the ride. Here are some techniques that can help you feel more comfortable and stable riding dirt.

Ready position
The ready position is used when you're rolling down a trail like my friend Cindy is in the photo above, or rolling over obstacles like ruts or roots. First, put your feet in the pedals level at 3 o'clock and 9 o'clock positions in a wide stance, then lift your rear out of the saddle, bend your elbows wide and look straight ahead down the trail. The goal is to stay balanced as the bike moves underneath you, like an English-style equestrian, where your legs are shock absorbers and you move forward and back and side to side as needed to stay balanced. Put one or two fingers lightly over each brake lever, place your palms lightly on grips and you're ready to go.

Roots, rocks and ruts
You'll need the ready position to roll over obstacles like ruts, roots and rocks. The other key is to brake as you approach the obstacle, then let go of the brakes and let your bike roll over the obstacle. For obstacles too big to roll over, look where you want to go to roll around it. Stare at that big rock and you'll hit it for sure.

Mountain biking gets its name because most trails are hilly, at least in our area. The good news is mountain bikes have lower gears than road bikes. Use them! Downshift to your small chainring (left hand shifter) before the hill and then use the gears in your cassette (right hand shifter) to find the right gear. On really steep hills, the tendency is either for your rear wheel to slide out or your front wheel to pop up. The trick to staying balanced is to stay in saddle, slide forward on the saddle and lower your chest toward the handlebars. And there's no shame in walking up the hill if it's too steep.

Descending starts with the ready position described above with your rear out of the saddle. As the trail gets steeper, move your body further back behind the saddle. Moving your body back means you can brake with both your front and rear brakes together without flying over the handlebars.

Tight turning
Tight turns in trails, also known as switchbacks, can be challenging and rewarding when you learn to ride them. The best line to take is to go wide before the turn, look down at the apex to turn sharply and as soon as your front wheel gets close to the apex, look far down the trail. And keep pedaling, especially as you exit the turn when the tendency is to coast. Don't feel bad if you can't make the turn. It takes practice and some are hard to clear for experienced riders.

Walking the bike
In mountain biking everyone walks the bike sometimes. The easiest was to push your bike is to stand on left side of it so you can avoid bumping the chainring. Put both hands on the handlebars. If you're walking the bike downhill, feather the rear brake (right hand) to control your speed. On super steep uphills, you can brake hard and use bike as a cane to help balance as you walk up.

Finally, as trite as it sounds, relax. If the trail feels too intense or you find yourself tensing your body or squeezing the hand grips tight, slow down and or stop for a bit. A stiff body makes everything harder. Take a breath, enjoy the scenery, walk it off if you need to and then roll again.

Here are two of my favorite local parks and trails that are great for first-time mountain bikers.

Arastradero Preserve in Palo Alto
Arastradero Preserve offers rolling grassy hills with wide gravel roads and narrower smooth dirt trails very close to town. The park is small, but with proper planning, you can ride a dozen or more miles without too much repeating, and you can reverse direction for a new experience. I've marked an easier first-timer's loop on the map in pink, plus a bonus loop in purple. The blue loop is where my friends and I ride after work, which is a good time to visit since the park has very little shade.
Map: http://goo.gl/maps/DGEXS

Long Ridge Open Space Preserve on Skyline Boulevard
Long Ridge offers smooth and shady trails along Peter's Creek and great views from the ridge along Skyline Boulevard. My favorite starting location is Grizzly Flat, which is 3.1 miles south of Page Mill Road or 3.3 miles north of Highway 9. Watch your odometer to find the trailhead at the unmarked roadside parking.
Map: http://goo.gl/maps/XNJEn
What is it worth to you?


Posted by parent, a resident of The Crossings,
on Aug 27, 2013 at 12:09 pm

A huge difference between mountain biking and hiking is that mountain bikers can often just ride their bikes from home to the trail. No need to burn gasoline and pump out air pollution, especially when one of your goals is to enjoy the fresh air.

While the trails west of Skyline may be out of reach of most flatland families, there are several parks with nice mountain bike trails that are closer to residential areas. We always ride our bikes from home to Arastradero. There are other nice trails in Cupertino, Portola Valley, and other areas that may be convenient to where you live.

Posted by Let's hope, a resident of Old Mountain View,
on Aug 28, 2013 at 6:03 pm

All cyclists remember that the number one cause of head injuries in the U.S. is bike accidents. I hope those who bike on the dirt trails are more courteous and sane than many who bike dangerously on the Stevens Creek Trail out to Google and others in that area.

Posted by Janet Lafleur, a resident of Rex Manor,
on Aug 29, 2013 at 6:56 am

Janet Lafleur is a registered user.

@Let's Hope The #1 cause of head injuries in the U.S. is NOT bike accidents. It's falls (35%) followed by motor vehicle-related injuries (17%). As for head injury related deaths, motor vehicle crashes are #1. The data is here: Web Link

There is obvious potential for head injuries while riding a bike, but your actually more likely to have a serious head injury in a car, where incidentally only professional drivers wear helmets. Helmet use while mountain biking is close to 100% compliance in our area as the parks require it.

Posted by Sniveler's Tissue, a resident of Bailey Park,
on Aug 29, 2013 at 1:51 pm

Why is it that everyone who seems to have the need to chime in and tell everyone ELSE how they should act, most always has the facts incorrect?

Maybe its too easy these days to make passive aggressive snipes at folks. Case in point:
I hope hikers walk more safely than many of the dangerous walkers on the Stevens Creek Trail who walk with ear buds, two and three abreast and make turns without looking to see who or what they may run into.
Oh well, I guess there's always going to be complainers who want to drop a wet blanket on the fun bonfire.

Posted by Steve, a resident of Jackson Park,
on Aug 29, 2013 at 4:46 pm

I started hitting those ridge trails in the late 90's, and at age 53 today am still doing so with a passion. It's simply beautiful up there.

As far as hikers and horses go, we always stop and move over to let equestrians pass, but most people on foot are kind enough to move aside and let us pass, and we do so slowly and carefully. We always sound a warning when approaching from the back, but it's up to hikers to make sure they can hear such things (leave the buds at home anyway so you can hear what you've been missing. Nature has some important things to say to you...).

Enjoy your ride, and wear a helmet! County parks require 'em on unpaved trails anyway.

Posted by Janet Lafleur, a resident of Rex Manor,
on Aug 29, 2013 at 10:20 pm

Janet Lafleur is a registered user.

@parent We prefer to ride to Arastradero Preserve and Fremont Older than drive. Arastradero Road between 280 and Page Mill is completely torn up for a trails project but once it's done it should be much easier to ride to the park. Unfortunately, that hill is still painfully steep.

@steve Only 53? Pshaw, you're just a babe. We rode Arastradero on Father's Day and say a father/son pair with a father that was clearly over 70. They were riding slowly on the gravel road along the creek, with the 30-something son smiling ear to ear.

@Sniveler's Tissue "drop a wet blanket on the fun bonfire" Love it! I may have to steal that one.

Posted by Hiker, a resident of another community,
on Aug 29, 2013 at 10:21 pm

MTB trails and hiking trails are very different and serve very different needs.

As a hiker, I do not want to see out of control mtbs approaching me while I am hiking on a narrow trail with very little width to get out of the way.

Most other countries have had to separate these trails with some for just mtbs and some for just hiking. They do not mix well. We should do the same here. We have enough mtbs on our hilly roads and we do not want the same number of mtbs on our hiking trails.

Please keep off our hiking trails and get your own.

Posted by Janet Lafleur, a resident of Rex Manor,
on Aug 29, 2013 at 10:32 pm

Janet Lafleur is a registered user.

@hiker There are many parks and trails that are dedicated to hiking only. Rancho San Antonio Open Space, Edgewood Park and Huddart Park come to mind as local parks where bikes are completely excluded.

The trails in other parks that are open to mountain biking are multi-use off-road trails, not hiking trails per se. If you are concerned about sharing trails with bikes, then I encourage you to hike in parks where bikes are not allowed. I personally don't enjoy passing hikers that don't think I have a right to the trail, regardless of how polite I am.

Posted by Hiker, a resident of another community,
on Aug 30, 2013 at 10:13 am


I am not against you per se riding politely on the local trails. What I am afraid of is serious mountain bikers taking over our trails.

I have extended family members who are very involved in this sport and they are continually looking for new trails to turn into fun runs for their hobby. I have nothing against them doing it where there are no hikers, but otherwise, it is very scary.

Here is a short youtube video showing the sort of thing that can happen on our hiking trails if we do not take precautions to prevent it.

Web Link

Posted by Hiker, a resident of another community,
on Aug 30, 2013 at 10:14 am

sorry, here is the link Web Link

Posted by another hiker, a resident of Old Mountain View,
on Aug 30, 2013 at 12:06 pm

I hike all the time and never have trouble with bicyclists. If it is a big issue to you, there are plenty of local public trails where bicycles are banned. Yes, bicyclists have taken over rare areas, like El Corte Madera in San Mateo County, but bicycles are banned from almost every other park in San Mateo County, so you can't really blame them for using the one place open to them. I just hike somewhere else.

Posted by Janet Lafleur, a resident of Rex Manor,
on Aug 30, 2013 at 2:14 pm

Janet Lafleur is a registered user.

@Hiker The video you linked was shot at a ski & bike resort in Canada where I suspect hikers are not allowed. We have no such facilities in the Bay Area. I believe the closest are at the ski resorts at Tahoe. Are you suggesting that we convert a local park or open space to such use and ban hikers?

If so, El Corte de Madera (aka Skeggs) off of Skyline would be ideal. Years ago, it hosted a dirt motorcycling park and it's popular with mountain bikers that have strong bike handling skills and like more difficult terrain. Still, that's a park that's not great for mountain bikers looking for more mellow trails like you find at Arastradero or Long Ridge. I would never take a first timer to Skeggs.

As for aggressive mountain bikers "taking over" local trails, the rangers do patrol and ticket riders who go faster than 15 mph. I've seen them several times with radar guns and have met people who have been ticketed.

And once again, trails that allow mountain biking do not belong to hikers exclusively. They're shared use trails, not hiking trails.

Posted by Hiker_and_Biker, a resident of Blossom Valley,
on Aug 30, 2013 at 5:31 pm

Hiker, your fear has been a fear for the past 30 years that I have been mountain biking on the Peninsula. What has actually happened is that many trails have been designated as no bikes. No, the scarey boogie man mtn bikers who will one day run amok have never appeared, and in fact hikers now have far more hiking _only_ trails than they ever did.

You're gonna have to share the area sometime, and nobody is asking because nobody should have to ask. We're all entitled to lawfully enjoy our area and if unlawfulness occurs Mid Pen is good to quickly snuff it out as they have done in the past.
Cheers and one your right. Its mtn biking season.

Posted by Bex, a resident of Shoreline West,
on Sep 9, 2013 at 5:53 pm

I love biking Arastradero. I can ride from my home (about 5.5 miles), ride around for an hour and then head back home. Makes for a good evening after work. I try to be very courteous to the walkers and those on horseback. Here is a video I shot with my GoPro at Arastradero!

Web Link

There is a great website for mountain biking on the peninsula at bayarearides.com.

Web Link

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