Mountain biking: play it safe!

Mountain biking: play it safe!

Taking to the saddle of a mountain bike to enjoy breathtaking views with a breeze on your skin and a touch of adrenalin – what could be more satisfying? Yet this is a pastime that’s not entirely without risk. Daniel Schefer, founder of the Swiss Bike School, tells you what to take note of and how you can help to ensure your own safety.

Mountain biking is a major trend right now. Nevertheless, contrary to what its name might suggest: “Mountain biking takes place mainly in urban environments”, explains Schefer, “and only 20 percent of bikers opt for alpine settings.” A mountain bike is an all-terrain, spring-mounted bike on which many enjoy setting off from home to take a ride. “Leaving behind the daily grind. Getting away from the noise and fumes of the traffic – that’s what mountain biking is all about really,” explains Schefer. “Actual mountain riding is more likely to be part of a long weekend or a holiday.”

Mountain biking demands balance, strength and stamina

Regardless of whether you’re on the road or in the mountains, mountain biking is a demanding sport. To be safe, bikers need good balance and plenty of stamina. They also need a certain level of skill and a touch of courage. “It’s important that beginners first practice on stony forest tracks and gritty field trails before heading onto other types of terrain,” explains Schefer, who offers biking courses at various levels (see interview). “Mountain biking is never boring – there are always new riding techniques and trails to try out.” 

Which bike is right?

There is a broad range of mountain bikes: Different bikes are suitable for different purposes, for example tackling climbs comfortably or enjoying steep descents. Leisure mountain bikes are suited to riders who want to enjoy simple pleasure riding, and are advantageous for urban cycling, while cross-country bikes are more suited to sports cyclists who want to ride trails at higher speeds. Anyone who dreams of heading into the mountains, on the other hand, should opt for an all-mountain design, and descents are best enjoyed on an enduro or a freeride/downhill bike. Hence, it’s important to consider what you actually want to do on the bike, and ultimately it’s worth getting some basic advice from a specialist. Beginners will probably be happy on an all-rounder.

Tip

Incidentally, there’s also the e-bike: The inbuilt motor makes it possible for the rider to regulate their own physical activity, meaning they can take climbs relatively easily and then enjoy the subsequent descent. “E-bikes are booming, most significantly among business people who don’t have a lot of time, or among couples who don’t have the same levels of stamina,” Schefer reveals. “This means they can enjoy a ride together without the individuals’ fitness playing such a significant role.”

Equipment: the right outfit

Mountain biking is not entirely without risks, so the equipment used plays an important role. “The most fundamental piece of equipment is the helmet,” explains Schefer. It needs to fit perfectly, and a pair of biking pants, a shirt and a jacket are also recommended, as are gloves. Anyone who is cycling for prolonged periods should have a drinking bottle and sunglasses handy too, and if the weather is not entirely predictable, it’s also good to take oversleeves and leggings. These provide protection against the morning and evening chill, without making the rider too hot during a climb. In the mountains in particular it can get cold, so clothing needs to be warm and waterproof.

Tip

TIP: If you are taking a fast, sporty ride (downhill, cross-country or freeriding), then you should also protect your knees, shins, elbows and lower arms. When it comes to downhill and freeriding, it’s also worth wearing back and chest protectors.

Breakdowns

Flat tires, twisted rims and faulty brakes – breakdowns are frequent occurrences in cycling. It’s therefore worth carrying a tire pump, a spare inner tube and mini-tools, and it’s also worth knowing how to change the tube. “A flat tire can be mended in ten minutes,” says Schefer, “and it’s a process that’s easy to learn.” He recommends taking a repair course, for example with a cycle retailer. Things get tricky when, for example, the brake disk is bent, the pedal thread displaced, spokes break or the replacement inner tube goes flat. Anyone who doesn’t fancy going to great lengths to repair their own bike, knot an inner tube or stuff a tire with hay and grass should sign up for a 24-hour breakdown service. This can generally be arranged as an optional extra with an insurance policy.

What insurance do I have for my bike?

What sort of protection do I have if I have an accident or someone steals my bike? If the bike is stolen from your house, then your basic home contents insurance will cover it. You will need a corresponding additional module, however, if you want to protect the bike from theft while you’re out and about on it. Anyone wanting additional insurance against damages should conclude a comprehensive insurance policy, i.e. special bike insurance. This is useful in the case of accidents in particular: for example, if the bike is damaged because you hit a rock. It’s particularly worthwhile for valuable bikes.

And what happens if it’s not only the bike, but also the rider who suffers? As a general rule, accident insurance will cover injuries sustained while mountain biking. Nevertheless, this does not release the biker from their own responsibilities, and anyone who thunders down a mountain at excessively high speeds, in very unfavorable weather conditions or with defective brakes is likely to have their benefits reduced. 

What insurance do I have for my tricks?

Anyone who attempts a somersault while riding, turns on their own axis, takes their hands off the handlebars or their feet off the pedals is taking a relative risk, according to the Federal Accident Insurance Institution, and is therefore not fully insured. Bike expert Daniel Schefer also warns against reckless experiments on the bike. Most importantly, you shouldn’t attempt any stunts you’ve seen on YouTube, he says. “YouTube conveys a false image: You only ever see everything going right, but these people are professionals,” says Schefer. “Anyone wanting to learn acrobatic tricks should practice in a skills park under professional supervision.”

9 tips for safe mountain biking

  • Accidents
    You should bring a first-aid kit with you in your backpack in case of accidents: This should include a plaster and some wound cream as a minimum.
  • Friends
    If you’re heading into remote places or into alpine areas, you should always ride with another person. Don’t forget: Often you won’t have any mobile phone reception. 
  • Caution
    Take care when you encounter pedestrians or horses. Never brake suddenly, but make your presence known and overtake with caution. 
  • Dangers 
    Note: You may encounter dangers along the trail, for example as soon as you see fence posts, there may also be dangerous, hidden wire. 
  • Expertise
    Have your mountain bike checked and maintained regularly by a mechanic. If the bike is not safe to use, any benefits you receive would most likely be reduced in the event of a loss. 
  • Bounce
    A bit of bounce is very important for mountain biking, so you should be sure to have the right suspension. This way, you prevent somersaults, reduce the impact on joints.
  • Ground
    The terrain may be dangerous. It’s particularly important to exercise caution, especially on descents and beside rivers and streams: If you’re not sure of the terrain, it’s best to dismount and walk.
  • Helmet
    Be sure to wear a well-fitting helmet and gloves.
  • Mobile phone
    This is another important item you should always have with you for emergencies. Exchange numbers with the other participants and save emergency contacts.

Interview with Daniel Schefer, Swiss Bike School

Cyclist Daniel Schefer is a former top sportsman. When he was 23 years old, he had to give up competitive sport due to a serious knee injury. He spent many years working in the insurance industry until, after about 20 years, he decided to follow his dream: Together with his wife and with the support of his children, he set up the Swiss Bike School. The cyclist now holds courses in more than 20 different locations in Switzerland, where clients can get their License to bike®. In addition, Schefer offers tours all over the world, for example in Italy, Croatia, Morocco, South Africa and New Zealand.

Three questions to Daniel Schefer:

We learn to ride a bike when we’re children, of course, so what’s the purpose of the bike school?
It’s true that you learn to ride a bike in school, yes, but there the focus is primarily on how to behave in traffic. Our courses cover the technical demands of mountain biking as a sport: Participants learn to position their weight correctly, to brake in the right way, to ride safely down steps, to do an emergency stop on gravel and to jump over barriers. The courses are staggered for different levels, from nervous beginners who have just bought a bike to experienced cyclists who want to keep learning new things. By the way, there are also courses for women with a more relaxed approach and more chats about fashion accessories (laughs).

“License to bike”: Do people need a license to bike?
After the course, participants receive a certificate with a “license to bike”. This isn’t an official certificate, but rather a personal record of achievement. On top of this, the Swiss Bike School also trains people to become cycling instructors.

Do you have any other tips for mountain bikers? 
Use the bike to keep discovering new things. Personally, for example, I don’t have a favorite route or a favorite holiday destination, but rather I keep heading off to discover new routes, areas and cultures. Last winter, for example, I spent three months in New Zealand. My recommendation? Don’t bike alone, particularly in mountain regions and in valleys with no mobile phone reception, for example in remote parts of Engadin. If you ever do have to go out cycling on your own, then be sure to take the necessary technical equipment. Connect your mobile phone to GPS and add an alarm function, so that an alarm is triggered via the GPS if you have an accident. Nevertheless, cycling with a friend is not only safer, but also more fun.