Mountain Biking Safety

The core of any adventure—and that’s what mountain biking is ultimately about—is looking with an unjaundiced eye at the risks involved and weighing those risks against the potential rewards, tangible or experiential. The key to overcoming those risks is being prepared to independently deal with them. Adventure—at least for most Americans—is leaving his or her society’s immediate support systems behind and interacting with the world one on one. back country adventure is synonymous with self-reliance.

Hank Barlow
Mountain Bike Magazine

Stupid Things I've Done
I thought it would be good to collect all of the stupid things I have done when mountain biking and list them here so that maybe you’ll be smart enough to avoid some of them yourself.

Have you ever gone out without your pump? Or depended on someone else for your air, only to find out they have presta valves and you have schraders? I have. But only once. How many times have I had a flat in the backcountry? Probably fewer than five times. But one of them was when I didn’t have the pump. It sucks not having a pump when you really need it. How far are you prepared to push your bike?

Ever go to patch a tire and find out the glue has hardened? Even in an unopened tube? I have, and it sucks, too. So now I replace my patch kit every six months or so whether I have used it or not—keeping the sandpaper and leftover patches from the old kit. I bring along glueless patches too, just in case (though I’m not sure I really trust them).

Do you check the sidewalls of your tires regularly? It’s quite an experience to have one blow out on you. It not only takes out the tube, but it is a pretty good bet you won’t be carrying a spare tire with you. I’ve twice been with friends who had this happen: once on an overnight in the Sierra Madre and once near the top of the Chalk Bluffs on the way to Little Pine. With duct tape and some small pieces of cardboard we fixed both tires by placing the cardboard inside the tire over the site of the blowout, putting in a new tube, and then wrapping the outside of the tire with duct tape. Without the spare tube, cardboard, and duct tape we might still be walking.

How many times have you wished for a particular piece of clothing that you left back in the car? Spare socks when you are heading up where it is cold and wet? A pair of full-finger gloves on that frigid January morning when you are riding up toward Red Rock? A wind jacket for the long downhill section after you’ve sweated your way to the top of the mountain?

Ever gotten lost and had no clue where you were or which way to go? It’s kind of embarrassing, isn’t it? Especially if you forgot the map too. It is easier to get lost than you think. Two or three hours of hard riding can take you a long way, and it may not be possible (or at least not very easy) to return the way you came. Try riding your bike back up the Forbush Trail from the river and you’ll know what I mean.

How about getting stuck in the mud? Or riding a route that has clay so thick it cakes up on your tires and clogs your brakes until the wheels won’t turn anymore? Try doing the Gibraltar Loop and riding back up the Buckhorn Road to the Camuesa intersection too soon after a storm, and you won’t do it again. I hate carrying my bike when it has an extra five pounds or so of mud added to it.

What about snow? Just this past weekend (January 21, 2001) I had the pleasure of trying to make my way from Potero Seco, near Pine Mountain, over Monte Arrido, but I couldn’t make it. What a pain backtracking and then needing to ride back to Santa Barbara on the pavement since I had been dropped off and my ride was long gone. Ask my friend Roy what it is like having to go over the backside of Big Pine Mountain and then descend 2000 feet to Bluff Camp in more snow and lots of mud.

Well, these are just a few of the things we’ve done over the years, but they all bring up the point that is is critical to know yourself and what your limits are, to keep your bike and other equipment in good shape, to assess your needs for each particular trip, and to make sure you have what you need should something unforseen happen.

Preparing Adequately
In the Santa Barbara back country, preparing adequately means being equipped to deal with almost anything that may come along—whether this means handling a first-aid problem, route-finding on your topographical map, fixing a broken part on your bike, or slogging through long sections of muddy road. 

Ultimately it means making reasonable assumptions about what to expect on your trip and preparing accordingly. Acting responsibly is often determined as much by what you choose not to do as by what you choose to do.

Bring along enough water and food to satisfy your body’s needs. That means two quarts of water at an absolute minimum, and more in the summer. Know where safe sources of water can be found in the back country, and bring along a pocket filter to protect yourself from giardia.

Carry first-aid equipment and know how to use it. At a minimum, bring bandages, gauze, sterile pads, tape, and one or more ace bandages. Antibiotic cream, Betadine solution, Q-tips, and eyedrops are a good idea. 

Check your bike over before the trip to make sure everything works. Does it shift okay? How are the brakes? Do you need to lube the chain? What condition are the tires in? Know enough about your bike so that you can make minor adjustments to it. Tools won’t help if you can’t use them. 

Don’t rely on an already opened tube of glue if you need to patch a tire. Too often they dry out and are unusable. Carry an unopened tube, and use it only if the opened one has hardened.

Bring along a spare piece of sidewall from an old bike tire. If you have a blowout, you can reinforce the tire by putting this inside between the tube and the blowout. In an emergency, duct tape and a piece of cardboard will work.

Carry a brand-new spare tube with you. Patch any flat tire first, and use the new tube only if you have to. If you are doing a long trip which will take you more than twenty miles from your car, bring along a second tube for backup. 

Don’t get in over your head. Keep your trips within the level of your ability and your level of conditioning. Start on short rides if you are inexperienced or need to get in better shape. Santa Barbara has a lot of mountainous country, and you need to be prepared for the long uphills on some of the rides. Get in shape on road rides described in this book and you’ll be ready for the long back country rides.

Don’t ride difficult sections of single track above your ability. Consider getting off and walking your bike down any section with a steep dropoff if there is any chance of going over the edge. Exercise restraint, not ego, and you’ll live a much longer and more accident-free life. 

Stay off most of the trails after it has rained. While many of them can be ridden, a lot of the trails also pass through sections of heavy clay. Not only will your bike clog up with so much mud that you will end up carrying it, but you’ll have a lovely time trying to clean it afterwards. Be kind to the trails and leave them alone for four or five days after rain.

Don’t forget rain gear if there is any chance of precipitation. Hypothermia is a serious concern in the back country. On a bike you are completely exposed to the elements, and wind chill is a factor, especially when you are coasting down long hills.

Don’t ride alone, especially on the longer rides, unless you are sure you can deal with any emergency that might come up. Though I go out alone a lot, I ride much more conservatively than if I am with others, and I carry much more to back me up. I always have my cell phone with me, and usually my GPS as well.

Mountain Bike Safety Checklist 
Before hitting the trail, take a few moments to go over the following checklists. It will make your trip a lot safer and more fun.


  • Squeeze brake levers tightly. Check for cable slippage, frayed cables, and brake pad wear.
  • Check hubs for side play or binding.
  • Check headset for looseness—a common problem on mountain bikes.
  • Check cranks and pedals for side play.
  • Check tires for cuts, abrasions, and correct air pressure.
  • Check packs and racks for tightness. Securely fasten all straps.
  • Check chain for proper lubrication.
  • Spin wheel for trueness. Feel spokes for looseness.
  • Check axle nuts and quick releases for proper tightness.

Are the straps adjusted properly? 
Does the shell fit snugly? 
Are there any cracks in the shell? 

Patch kit (Check the glue? Are there enough patches? Is there sandpaper in the kit?) 
Tire levers—have at least two
Spare tube (proper size and valve type) 
Chain breaker 
Adjustable crescent wrench 
Allen wrenches: 4, 5, and 6 mm 
Socket wrenches—8, 9, and 10 mm
Spoke wrench 
Small screwdriver (Phillips and standard)

Duct tape
Small piece of sidewall
Chain lube
Spare brake cable
Spare derailleur cable
Spare nuts and bolts

Swiss Army knife
Spare batteries
First-aid kit 
Sun screen 
Lip protection 
Matches or a lighter 
Insect repellent 

For overnight trips or long day trips, you can of course prepare for the worst by bringing practically everything you own, including the kitchen sink if you can carry it. The following are those extra things you might think of bringing if you have room or if you dread being stuck out in nowhere without the proper tool or equipment.

Spare derailleur
Extra spokes
A set of crank bearings
Spare axle
Cone/pedal wrenches
Headset wrench
Crank puller
Spare chain (or links)

Oh, by the way: There are no buses in the back country, and the local 7-Eleven is a long, long ways away. Prayers and curses don’t help much either. Be prepared to make do all by yourself. Or with a little help from your friends. 




Wednesday, September 10, 2014