Matt Johnson never thought he'd switch from road cycling to mountain biking. Johnson, a chiropractor in Warsaw, Indiana, was a serious triathlete who was looking for a change when he took up mountain biking. He was hooked immediately.

"It's a whole new world when you're mountain biking," adds Johnson. "You have so much more stimulus with the trees and the terrain." While still putting miles on his road bike, he gets better workouts in shorter periods of time with the mountain bike.

Johnson isn't the only one who's made the switch from road to dirt. In fact, mountain biking, or all-terrain biking (ATB), is one of the fastest growing sports, according to Ashley Korenblat, president of the International Mountain Biking Association (IMBA), an organization formed to promote responsible mountain biking. Korenblat also runs Western Spirit Cycling in Moab, Utah, which offers fully-supported bike trips throughout the west.

As Korenblat says, "Mountain biking isn't just great exercise, it's also a great way to take a break from everything," including the harrowing traffic that plagues road cyclists.

Shopping for a Bike

Plan on investing some money in a quality mountain bike, $600 at the very least, Korenblat says. You can find cheaper bikes, and you can always find ways to shave a few dollars, but in the end, you'll be sorry you did. "If you want to be athletic on the bike," Korenblat says, "spend the money."

Also, forget about accepting a hand-me-down bike unless it fits your body, says Gil Willis, owner and director of Elk River Touring Center in Slatyfork, West Virginia, which instructs about 600 riders a year in its mountain bike clinics. Make sure whatever bike you're using fits your body. If you're not certain, take your bike to a local bike shop and ask someone to check the fit.

Beginner's Basics

Your first several rides should be on dirt roads before you hit the singletracks, mountain biking jargon for the trails that snake through nature's playground. "Get used to how the bike handles on the dirt," Korenblat says. Once you feel confident, then graduate to the singletracks.

Don't go out and expect to cover as many miles as you would on the road. Fifty or 60 miles of road riding usually translates into about 25 to 30 miles of mountain biking, even less if it's more technical riding, Willis says. Start with a terrain and distance that you can handle and gradually progress from there.

Taking to the Trails

You'll notice that mountain biking requires a greater amount of upper body strength than road riding. Just remember to stay relaxed, Korenblat says. Tense up and you'll get tired faster and will be more likely to make mistakes. Your goal is to keep your upper body relaxed and calm.

Positioning on the Bike

As you ride, assume what Korenblat calls the ready position which gives you complete control on the bike. Relax your elbows and knees. Keep your pedals at the three and nine o'clock positions. Most importantly, don't sit directly in the saddle. Center your weight over the bike. Keep your back end lightly touching the seat without putting too much pressure on the seat.

Low Gears and RPMs

Unlike other beginning mountain bikers who have never cycled before, you hold a major advantage: your spin. Korenblat recommends using small gears, shifting early as you approach hills to keep your RPMs up. "If you do that," she says, "you'll make it over all kinds of things you never thought you could."

Heads Up

Expect to run into things like rocks, logs, and potholes that you may not be able to get over. That's why you have to anticipate those obstacles. "Think about how you're going to get around them before you get to them," Willis says. Steer around them and continue looking ahead of them. It's a well-known fact in cycling that if you look at something long enough, you'll steer your bike toward that obstacle and will then have to go over it.

By the end of the ride, you'll most likely be wearing more dirt than you ever did when cycling on the road. You may also be a little bloody. In mountain biking, it's easy to fall or let your foot slip off the pedal, causing cuts and bruises, Willis says.

Safety First

To maintain your safety, ride trails that are legal and follow these "Rules of the Trail" from IMBA:

  • Ride on open trails only.
  • Leave no trace.
  • Control your bicycle.
  • Always yield the trail.
  • Never spook animals.
  • Plan ahead.

Before you head out, pack accordingly. Carry more tools and food than you normally would if you were cycling on the road. And give your bike a good check before you go. "There's more self reliance in mountain biking because there are no convenience stores in the woods," Korenblat says, adding that sometimes even cell phones give out. That's a good thing, she admits, as long as you're prepared.

Because you could cut or scrape easily when mountain biking, carry a basic first aid kit. And of course, always wear a helmet.

Also, understand the level of the trails that you're riding. Trails may be marked differently around the country; ask about the level of difficulty if you're not sure. And if you find yourself on a trail that you can't handle, then back track, Willis says.

From Beginner to ATB Enthusiast

If you're like most road-to-mountain biking converts, you may soon prefer the trails of nature to the tar-ridden roads ruled by cars. Maybe you're even ready for more adventure. If so, consider competitive racing, observed trials (competitions with challenging obstacle courses), longer charity rides, or off-road vacations. After all, some of the most beautiful places in the world are accessible by bike.

Consider, too, helping maintain public lands for riding. Contact IMBA to find out how you can volunteer to help with trail work. In addition, join a local mountain biking club where you can learn more about the sport and find out how to help maintain trails in your area.

Whatever you do, though, keep the focus on fun. "Remember how you felt when you were a kid riding a bike?" Korenblat says. "Mountain biking gives you that freedom and that sense of being alive."