The Chainlink

Mountain Biking 101: What’s the Deal with Dirt, Anyway?

With the trails finally drying out, we here at The Chainlink thought it fitting to resurrect an excellent article written last year by Becky Mikrut. All the local trail recommendations are at the bottom of this article. 

Mikrut is a nine-year veteran Chicago cyclist. She's also on her sixth-year competitive cycling, and recently formed the brand new Skunkworks Racing team. Mikrut has participated in all types of riding, but she's happiest when the pavement ends and the trails get rocky, twisty and technical. Though Chicago lacks mountains, there's actually a lot of fun and challenging mountain biking in the area. Mikrut has done a great job introducing new riders (particularly women riders) to trail riding in Illinois, Wisconsin and Indiana. Here, she shares her thoughts on the basics for getting started.

And, since The Chainlink's HQ recently relocated to the trail riding hotbed of Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, we've added a few more spots to the "where to ride" section at the end.

By Becky Mikrut

I have been an evangelist for all kinds of off-road riding for years now and as the popularity of gravel rides, cyclocross, and bike camping grows, mountain biking is a natural part of this equation. It can be a bit mystifying for the newbie, so my goal here is to break down some of the barriers to mountain biking so that everyone may experience the joy that comes from whizzing through the woods on two wheels. Follow along, and I’ll cover the basic how, what, and why’s around my favorite kind of riding.


Why should you mountain bike?

Because it’s awesome! Generalizations aside, mountain biking is a really great way to learn and improve on your bike handling skills. The skills you acquire by riding through the woods will come in handy in any kind of bike situation—bunny hopping potholes, whizzing through narrow passes in traffic, keeping the rubber side down when your rear wheel slips on ice, and handling your bike through that sandy section on the Lakefront Path.

Mountain biking is a great way to make some personal improvements. There’s something truly meditative about riding through the forest and over obstacles. It’s beautiful, quiet, and just you and the trail. It’s a kind of forward momentum and quietness that is so hard to come by in our modern, always-on world. Plus, mountain biking always holds new challenges each time you ride. It asks you to conquer your fears, builds confidence, and allows you to achieve personal victories on every ride. Plus, it’s exhilarating! There’s nothing better than jumping over a log at high speed or railing switchbacks downhill and laughing the whole way because you’re having so much fun. Not to mention there are no cars, which is quite enjoyable after spending so much time riding in a city full of ‘em.

It’s a great way to stay fit. Mountain biking places dynamic physical demands on your body far beyond that of simply riding on the pavement. It’s not just pedaling at a high cadence for hours on end. It’s that, plus getting up short steep climbs, long, potentially rocky, switchback-back filled climbs, lifting the front wheel up and over a log or rock, and so much more. The thing I hear most from new riders is how much of a total-body workout mountain biking is.

One of the cool things about mountain biking is that it works muscles and skills not typically used on pavement. Here, Mikrut is demonstrating a combination of strength, finesse and balance while navigating up a steep switchback.

What you need to mountain bike

Baggy shorts? Suspension? If you’ve never been out on a trail with your bike, this can all seem very intimidating. I’m going to just touch on the basics to get you going, and save the very detailed aspects for another article.


Bike: Generally speaking, you need a mountain bike to go mountain biking. Usually that includes flat handlebars for leverage when cornering and navigating over and around obstacles. Most of the time, this also includes some form of suspension in the fork, and sometimes in the back end of the frame. You also want some bigger, knobby tires for traction. Lower tire pressure = more traction, and this is achieved by a larger volume tire. Just like how you might lower the pressure in a car tire to deal with snow or sand, it works similarly for bike tires.


Beyond the basic points, there are many different kinds of bikes and components, and a lot of it comes down to personal preference. If you aren’t sure where to start, look to some of the bike manufacturers who typically do demo days at trails around the country where you can try out various bikes. Locally, CAMBr routinely hosts manufacturer demo days at Palos Forest Preserve in Willow Springs, IL. You can also visit the websites of your favorite bike manufacturers to see if, when, and where they might host a demo day in the area.


Renting a bike is also a good way to get started before committing to purchasing a bike. 2Bici Bike Shop in Willow Springs and Backyard Bikes in La Grange, WI, both rent bikes right near popular trail heads. NOTE: In the winter, a lot of rental places offer fat bikes, allowing you to experience riding trails covered in snow.


Food: Bring food and water, and bring more than you think you need. Oftentimes, there are not places to refill water bottles or stop for snacks when you’re out in the woods, so come prepared. Mountain biking is often more demanding than the same amount of time spent road biking, so you may need to consume more calories on the ride to avoid the dreaded "bonk."


Apparel: Mountain bikers wear a variety of clothes including jerseys, baggy shorts, spandex, flat shoes, clipless shoes, hydration backpacks, and so on. None of these things are required, however some things are highly recommended:

  • Eye protection. Tree branches, dust, dirt, bugs and debris can all get in your eyes while mountain biking. Wearing some sort of glasses will help keep your eyeballs safe and working well.
  • Gloves. Long finger gloves are a favorite of many mountain bikers for the same reason as the glasses. Tree branches and vines smacking you in the fingers doesn’t feel great, and neither does hitting the ground or tree bark with your bare hands. Gloves soften the blow AND improve your grip on the handlebars when you need it most.
  • Helmet. I personally believe a helmet should be worn whenever you’re on your bike, but arguments about this aside, you should always wear a helmet while mountain biking. Mountain biking is inherently risky, and if you go over the bars and land on a rock with your head… well you’re going to really want a helmet on.

Tools: Since you might be far away from any help while mountain biking, it helps to carry the basics. A multi-tool, tube, tire levers, and an inflation device should get you through most challenges.

Back in the day, logs were passive aggressively put across the trail by horseback riders who (when mountain biking first became popular) were suddenly having to share the trail with cyclists. Nowadays, they are a favorite obstacle to challenge dirt riders, as Mikrut demonstrates here.

How to learn to mountain bike

Mountain biking is an eternal learning process. No matter how long you do it, you’ll always find new ways to conquer the trail better, faster, and in new places. But for a beginner, a clinic or a group ride can be a really great way to learn the basic skills needed.


Locally, we have a few options. CAMBr (Chicago Area Mountain Biking Association), is an IMBA-affiliated group (International Mountain Biking Association) who puts on various skills clinics throughout the summer season. Check out their website for up to date information. CAMBr also hosts weekly group rides where you can meet other riders and learn from them.


If you’re a woman, you can also attend the Womens Dirt Days rides, which are a series of monthly women-only group mountain bike rides open to riders of all skill levels.


Where to ride a mountain bike

Ready to hit the trail? Some great places to ride are not that far away. Popular spots for Chicagoans include the Cambr-managed trails at Palos Forest Preserve in Willow Springs, and Saw Wee Kee in Oswego. See the CAMBr website for more details and notifications of trail closures.


Additionally, just over the border in Wisconsin is Southern Kettle Moraine trail system in La Grange and the Alpine Valley trail in Elkhorn. Another local favorite is Imagination Glen in Portage, Indiana.

The good folks at Lake Geneva's Treadhead Cycling manage the excellent trail system at Lake Geneva Canopy Tours, and just received permission to maintain the fast and fun trails at the Grand Geneva Resort.

You might also want to check out Kenosha's Silver Lake Park, which offers nine miles of mountain bike trails.


Want to start on something a bit more low-key? You could also take a cyclocross bike, hybrid, or mountain bike out on some gravel to get your feet wet. Great places to start are Waterfall Glen, Swallow Cliff Forest Preserve, and the Des Plaines River Trail.

With all of that information, you should be well equipped to try mountain biking and see why it is so addictive. Keep the rubber side down and enjoy the trail!


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Comment by Jeff Markus on August 1, 2015 at 6:54pm
All the descriptions of trails in the southern Palos Hills while accurate, and Wisconsin to the north describe fine examples of technical trails that can test the mettle of dirt riders.
However there are dirt tails that are great recreational opportunities and can offer ways for a rider to enjoy relaxed fairly comfortable rides.
The Forewst Preserves that run from Madison Ave to County Line Road contain the remains of what once was a extensive series of bridal paths that while still in use at the north end have fallen into disuse since the stables that used to proliferate along Cumberland Ave. The south end still has the untended trails lacing those woods along with trails the local youth has 'burned in' by years of meandering thru the wonderland of a lush greenery so near to the urban scene.
Tho some stretches of the trail have been lost to use do to recent flooding and changes of the warter levels of the Des Plaines River.
These much flatter but in some ways more fun meanders need to be brought into better veiw to imp[rove thge needed service they need for increasing the quality of the green necklace experiance that was the design of these WPA created areas. Some of these areas actually predate the WPA and I have memories of my mother telling stories of family outings to the river when she was a child and the releif the woods offered to city residents escaping the city strife....sounds familiar donn'it.
Plus their are approved trails in the west section of Deer Grove that still allow playing in the dirt.

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