The Bay Area has some of the best year-round hiking, mountain biking and equestrian trails found perhaps anywhere in the world in such close proximity to a major urban center. However, for those new to mountain biking, the trails and fire roads in the Bay Area can present a unique set of challenges.
Safety is the number one consideration for any mountain biker. Take time to get comfortable both with your equipment and the trails. The first thing to consider is your level of fitness. With the wide variety of challenging mountain biking opportunities on fire roads and multi-use trails in the Bay Area, experience and fitness is important. For the novice or young rider, it is best to start out riding on easy trails and roads.
Winter time in the Bay Area, when the roads are wet and the ground firm, actually offers the best riding surfaces for those appropriately dressed. On the other hand, our dry season, when most people are out, is quite long and runs generally from late spring through early fall. This lack of precipitation allows the trails to become very slippery.
The fire roads, in particular can become loose and unstable. It is almost like riding on gravel in many areas. Coupled with this is the fact that the wildland interface so close to urban centers bringing many people out on our roads and trails. So to avoid accidents, it is important to follow the local rules and ride defensively.
As a novice speak with knowledgeable people, like your local bike shop, about the best places for you to ride. We have many bike shops throughout the Bay Area that are happy to offer assistance. Even at lower elevations, there are very challenging areas in the Bay Area a novice should avoid. For the best experience, initially begin with one to two hour rides with perhaps a 400 to 800′ total elevation change. On hot days we recommend avoiding the mid-day sun as fire roads in the Bay Area do get very hot. Water is always critical. Be certain to carry ample water with you at all times.
Avoid trying to tackle difficult uphill or downhill trails until you gain enough experience. Unlike snow skiing or water sports where a fall usually does not cause injury, falling on a hard trail surface definitely hurts and will most likely cause moderate to serious abrasions, or worse. Falling is not the best way to learn! The key to remaining upright is to stay focused and avoid distractions. Trail and road conditions in the Bay Area can change very rapidly from one curve to the next.
When taking children out, start on relatively flat areas and stay away from the mid-day sun. Kids are a lot less heat tolerant, and you want it to be pleasant for them. Many parks and open spaces in the Bay Area have lakes with beautiful, flat areas to ride. This is perfect for kids! Bring a picnic or snacks along.
We strongly recommend against using those behind-the-bike carts for very small children on fire roads and trails. Young children do not have a lot of neck strength yet. These carts are fine for smooth areas. However, parents cannot see this because they are in front, but on bumpy areas children’s heads are bouncing all over. There is a potential for brain damage that is not being recognized or addressed by the manufacturers of these devices.
Some people insist on riding with their dog next to them on a leash. This is irresponsible. Dogs were never bred to run constant, long distances. Most dogs will run past the point of exhaustion while the clueless owner drags them along. Walk or run with your animals, but not next to you on a bike.
Before going out on your ride, make sure you are wearing a quality, well fitted bicycle helmet. Have a bike shop properly fit it for you and show you how they did it. If you drop or bang your helmet hard, replace it as they are designed to take one major hit. If you have an older helmet, replace it as with time materials break down causing loss of integrity. Your head is worth every penny you invest in it!
The Bay Area is a sports activity hub. Mount Tamalpais, for example, is the birthplace of the mountain bike. You are sharing the roads and trails with many other users. Safety and respect of other users is always paramount. Be kind and courteous! Unfortunately, a minority of bad apples have had a significant impact on how the sport is viewed and have rightfully given mountain bicycling a bad rap.
Slow down considerably when passing others. Roads and trails in the dry months can be quite dusty in the Bay Area. When passing, slow to the point that dust does not rise above knee level. Make your presence known to others in a courteous, unobtrusive way. Never approach a horse and rider at speed as they can be spooked and throw the rider. Take extra caution and always yield to the rider. Remember, hikers and equestrians always have the right of way. Also, a downhill rider always yields to uphill riders. #1 RESPECT OTHER USERS!
Wildlife protection is something we must all take responsible for. Watch for small creatures crossing the trail or road. Roads and trails are unnatural land disturbances that expose small, migrating creatures accustomed to the underbrush to danger and destruction. In the Bay Area, many creatures migrate during the late fall and early spring wet season so be on the lookout. During the summer it is not unusual to see reptiles and lizards sunning themselves on the fire roads. When you do see a creature, please gently help move it away from the trail to protect it. It only takes a few seconds of your time.
Do not scare of chase animals as this stresses them. If there is an animal in front of you, normally they will take off running down the road or trail. Stop or slow down considerably to give them time to get off the trail. If they do not move, gently prod the animal out of your way by waving your arms or making a few noises. Often just wiggling your wheel back and forth is enough. Avoid night riding when animals are feeding as this will stress them. It is their time!
Equipment checks are another critical aspect of safety when you are riding on fire roads and trails. Many forces come into play while mountain biking that will cause equipment to loosen or fall out of adjustment. Before each ride always do a quick cursory equipment check by grabbing each wheel to make certain they are tight and turn freely.
Check your brakes. Contact with brake pads should start after no more than one-half inch application of brake lever pressure. Your lever should never come in contact with your handlebar grips when maximum pressure is applied. If so, they must be adjusted. If your brakes squeal, this is a sign of either maladjusted pads or, most often, pads that have become hardened with age. Replace your brake pads when old as this significantly reduces stopping power.
Next, sit on your bike with the front brake applied. Move back and forth to check for front end looseness. If you feel any rattle, this will lead to instability on the trail. The steering head will have to be tightened. Periodically check all the fittings for tightness. It is not unusual to see parts lying on the trails that have fallen off bikes. There is nothing worse than trying to find a critical nut that fell off when you are miles from the nearest road. We have collected quite an assortment of found parts over the years, so pay attention to your equipment.
A common error for novice users is to set their seat height too low. It is important to set your seat height to allow your legs to fully extend. Your power comes on the down stroke. If you are peddling with knees bent, you are losing a great deal of power. You should set your seat height so that at the bottom of the stroke your foot remains flat but your leg is nearly straight. On a mountain bike, you will sit “high in the saddle.” It may seem a little odd at first if you are used to seat placement on road bikes, but you will see the difference it makes in your ability to climb and control your bike. Ask your local bike shop for fitting advice.
Check tire pressure before each ride. Mountain bike tires should be firm but yield slightly with moderate finger pressure. Tires that are over-inflated will lose traction on slippery surfaces. Tires that are too soft can pinch the inner tube causing flats. It is recommended to always carry a patch kit, tools and pump, and a spare tube if you have room. Replace the patch kit cement about once each year even if not used as it often dries out even when sealed.
For a positive riding experience, maintenance of your drive train is critical. The chain transmits your energy to the wheel. It takes more force when the chain is not well lubricated. A squeaky chain is inefficient and will cost you considerable power. The chain is also more likely to snap under pressure when not properly lubricated.
Always keep your chain and drive train components clean and well lubricated. As off-road riding is generally dusty, it is important to use a synthetic low dirt attraction lubricant specially designed for mountain biking. Wipe down your chain with a rag before applying to remove dust. After application, wipe down the chain again to remove any excess. Only the inside chain rollers need the lubricant. It does no good for it to be on the outside.
Your gears will need periodic adjusting to stay in sync. Use the adjuster nuts attached to your shifter ends for minor adjustments. Turn the adjuster nut incrementally, one-quarter turn at a time, and test. Other than normal adjusting, there are two main causes for gears skipping when the drive train cannot be properly adjusted. If your bike gets dropped on the derailleur side, there is a chance of bending the derailleur hanger; this is the part of the bike the derailleur is attached to. It is meant to bend slightly in an accident to protect the expensive frame and derailleur.
You will need to check derailleur alignment by looking at it from the rear to see if there is a straight line between it and the gears .On some bikes the hanger is cheap and replaceable. On others, it is part of the frame. If this is the case, sometimes it can be carefully hand straightened with a set of pliers. Otherwise, take it to a bike shop for professional realignment.
A second and by far the most common cause for gear misalignment are the cables. They stretch with time and will become somewhat elastic as they age. No amount of adjusting will work. It is the main reason people have trouble with their bike. Periodically replace your cables and the housings if the bike has been exposed to lots of dust and moisture. Your cables may also need to be replaced if your bike has been sitting unused for a long time. It is a fast do-it-yourself, inexpensive fix. You will find your gearing will operate far better and provide you with a better riding experience when new cables are installed on a regular basis.
If you keep your chain well-lubricated but still hear it making noises as you pedal, it is probably time for a replacement. Chains stretch slightly and weaken with age. If you replace your chain and find your gears are skipping when peddling uphill, you probably need to replace the rear cassette. This is not a very great expense but does require special tools. What happens with age is that the chain stretches and changes shape as it wears. The cassette also wears while it meshes with the old chain. Then, when you put a new chain on, things no longer match up resulting in chain skip.
Developing proper riding techniques, riding in places that match your skill level and maintaining your equipment is the key to a safe, enjoyable experience. The Bay Area is a very pleasant place to ride but also quite vast. Make sure that you know where you are going. It is very easy to get lost or get caught out at dusk or in inclement weather if you do not plan properly. Take maps or GPS systems and your cell phone in case you get lost.
Safety is always the first thing that mountain bikers should consider when venturing out. We are fortunate in the Bay Area to be able to go out and enjoy one of the most beautiful places on earth. Have fun out there!