Mountain biking is a challenging sport that comes with a variety of health benefits. It is considered an effective form of exercise due to its employment of multiple major muscle groups and has been linked to improved mental health. Biking in natural and oftentimes isolated environments, however, makes the sport inherently dangerous.
The good news is that the risk is highly controllable, so long as you take appropriate safety measures. Adequate head protection slashes the most problematic risk factors for cyclists of all persuasions. For mountain bikers, especially those braving their favorite trails alone, helmets become even more essential to rider safety, along with other pieces of gear such as knee pads, body armor, and gloves. Drops, rocks, and trees significantly increase the potential for an accident to result in traumatic brain injuries or worse.
Beyond personal protection, an aspect of safety often neglected by newer bikers is preparation. Be mindful that trails vary widely when it comes to the severity and shade of hazards they possess. Wildlife density, natural and constructed obstacles, and maintenance quality are all factors to consider. Prudent bikers adapt their gear, including their bikes, to maximize the quality of their experience and their personal safety.
A simple, yet persistent piece of advice is to avoid routes that prove too challenging. Several biking trails are evaluated based on the IMBA Trail Difficulty Rating System, derived from a similar system for skiing. It assigns a color-shape ranking scheme that allows bikers to quickly estimate the smoothness, grade, and obstacle intensity of a trail. As a participant in a relatively young and decentralized sport, one may encounter other difficulty rating systems; when in doubt, it’s best to check ahead of time and brush up on the regulatory bodies maintaining a particular trail.
Financial and practicality concerns may cap a biker’s potential to select a trail, but even if you aren’t spoiled for choice, you can still mitigate the risk of injury via scouting. Taking the time to read reviews and peruse a topographical map helps; walking the trail on foot when ordinances permit helps more. For those who want to serve their fellow enthusiasts and familiarize themselves with a trail, volunteering as a part of a local maintenance crew can be deeply rewarding.
As useful as it is for bikers to have a good understanding of the risks they expose themselves to, one should never forget that personal protection and preparation can only do so much. Crashes are often treated as an eventuality in the sport. In case of an impact, bikers should protect the head first, followed by limiting bodily contact with obstacles, perhaps using the bike as a shield. An initial impact to the shoulders, buttocks, and thighs, or the arms for frontal collisions, is considered favorable to taking a hit to the head or core.
Additionally, bikers should consider setting out in groups or, at least, letting close friends and family members know when and where they plan to ride. If injury occurs, this can make the difference between getting immediate help and hours of discomfort and vulnerability alone.