ASK THE EXPERTS

Woody (he refuses to use a last name, like Cher) owns and operates Woody’s Mountain Bikes in Helen, Georgia, one of the most successful mountain bike guide companies in the Southeast. After years of leading Florida riders on their first mountain bike experience, he’s found a niche for his business: getting new riders hooked on singletrack.

BRO: Do most people who try mountain biking fall in love with it right away? Woody: A lot of people who try it on their own don’t like it. Most of the time, they’re getting in over their heads, attempting trails that are too technically, or aerobically challenging. You’ve got to pick a trail that’s right for your skill level. It also helps if there are diversions along the trail. We do a great waterfall ride along Forest Service roads that beginners absolutely love.

BRO: Any common mistakes newbies make?

Woody: Most often, people get the wrong size bike. They also go out unprepared. They get too far out and realize they don’t have enough water, or they blow a tire and realize they’ve got nothing to fix it with. Or they go riding without helmets. That should be your first purchase.

BRO: Do people assume they can mountain bike just because they grew up riding a bike?

Woody: Actually, it’s just the opposite. I find most people have more reservations about the sport than they should. They have this perception from the Mountain Dew commercials that they’re going to be riding over cliffs or doing something insane. That’s an unrealistic perception.

BRO: Any common mistakes that result in accidents?

Woody: Accidents are rare, but it’s an inherently dangerous sport, like trail running or rock climbing. You can always fall. But most accidents happen toward the end of the ride when people are tired and over-confident. That’s when they give blood. Also, a lot of beginners will panic when they get going too fast and clamp down on the front break. They end up going over the handlebars and coming back mangled. At high speeds, everything happens at warp speed.

BRO: Why do you feel the need to introduce new people to mountain biking?

Woody: Mountain biking keeps you young. It’s what we did when we were kids and it makes us feel like kids again. Plus, it’s just good to be around healthy people. It’s a lot better than guzzling beers at the 19th hole. I have one customer who came to me for his first ride, got hooked, bought a bike and lost 70 pounds over one year. Now he’s introducing his wife to the sport.

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BEGINNER GEAR

“If you spend around $500, you’ll get all the bike you’ll ever need,” Woody says, adding that beginners shouldn’t be wooed by the promised comfort of full suspension bikes. “All you need is an aluminum frame with disc breaks and front suspension.”

Just about all bike manufacturers make entry-level bikes within the $500 price range. Marin makes a great line of all mountain rides between $500 and $800. Try the Marin Hawk Hill SE. For $675 you’ll get 7000 series aluminum (light as a feather), Hayes disc breaks, and solid Shimano components.

“The most important thing when you’re buying a bike,” Woody says, “is to get a frame that fits you. You’d be surprised how many people are riding bikes that are too big or too small.”

Take the time to test ride a variety of bikes so you can determine what’s comfortable and have the sales associate help you with finding the right size frame.

If you’re just starting out, forget mountain bike cleats and clipless pedals-you’ll just kill yourself. Instead, try a standard pedal with plastic toe clips (Nashbar ATB Toe Clips $5.95 at www.nashbar.com). This set up will give you the stability of clipless pedals without soldering your feet to the bike so you can bail if you get freaked out.

You could spend $200 on a helmet, but unless you’re trying to shave seconds off your XC time or pick up chicks, there’s no reason to. Try the Bell Influx ($59 www.bellbikehelmets.com), it’s got 18 vents, a visor, and an on the fly adjustable fit system.

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BEGINNER BIKE TRAILS

Tsali Recreation Area, N.C.: Tsali’s 40 miles of trails are split into four excellent loops surrounding gorgeous Lake Fontana. The trail surface is buttermilk- smooth and well maintained. Directions: From Asheville, take I-40 west to Hwy 23-74 west for 45 miles until you intersect with NC 28. Turn right on NC 28 for three miles and turn right into the Tsali Recreation Area.

Panorama Farms, Va: With more than 25 miles of sweet single-track trails that traverse 850 acres, the privately-owned Panorama Trails is a favorite fat tire spot in central Virginia. Located in the foothills of the Blue Ridge in Earlysville, Va., just outside of Charlottesville, this best-kept secret has riders cruise on well-maintained loops of open pasture meadows, hay fields, mature hardwood forests, bold streams and tricky log crossings. This mix brings some perfect beginner options, but there are also enough hills, rocks, roots, and off-camber sections for those ready to step it up.

Tanasi Trail System, Tenn.: Designated by IMBA as an epic ride, Tanasi boasts 30 miles of sweet singletrack, and more is being built every year. Much of the trails are a little tough for your first ride, so start out with the two-mile Bear Paw Loop near the Ocoee Whitewater Center. Directions: From Knoxville, take I-75 south to exit 25/Hwy 64. Go east on 64 until you hit Ducktown.

Gainesville College Trail, Ga.: The College Trail is four miles of beautifully maintained singletrack built with beginners in mind. You can do multiple loops and develop skills that will get you to the next level. Directions: From Atlanta, take I-85 north to I-985 north. Take exit 16, turn left and go to the second entrance for Gainesville College. The trail starts at the end of the parking lot.

Clemson University Experimental Forest, S.C.: The Issaqueena Lake Trail is eight miles of forested singletrack surrounding a lake. Most Clemson students cut their teeth on this mostly flat trail before exploring the other 50 miles of trails within the forest. Directions: From Clemson, take SC 133 North. Turn left on Old Six Mile Hwy, then right on Issaqueena Main Road. The recreation area will be a half mile on your left.

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MY FIRST RIDE

“The first time I tried mountain biking, I couldn’t pee for a week. It hurt too bad,” says Damian Hartsock of Atlanta, Ga. His first off-road experience was on the trails along the Chattahoochee River in metro Atlanta. Hartsock says his urinary pain stemmed from two problems.

“First, I was sitting down too much. Nobody told me you’re supposed to hover over the seat when you’re going over rocks and stuff. I was riding the bike like you ride a 10-speed when you’re 11 years old. My luggage suffered some serious abuse that day. But that wasn’t the real problem. The real problem was that I was having too much fun so I didn’t stop when I started to feel the pain. I kept telling myself, ‘just a couple of more miles. Just one more big downhill.’”

Eventually, Hartsock says, the pain subsided, but his love for mountain biking grew. “It was fun that first day because it was new and exciting. But the more I get into it and the better I become, the more fun I have. I like looking at a trail map and knowing there’s nothing out there I can’t handle. It’s a powerful feeling.”