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New to Mountain Biking? Here's a few tips!



Hopefully this thread will help a new rider to get the basics right, therefore providing a solid foundation for them to build on.

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Bike setup is vital for any style of cycling and helps to ensure that you efficiently transfer the power from your legs into the pedals and also are able to assume the correct position depending on the terrain you are travelling over.
As your rides get longer, the correct bike setup helps you to avoid muscular and bodily mechanical problems.

Seat Height Learn how to set up your seat height
Seat Position Learn how to set the foreward and aft positiion of your seat
Handlebar Height Learn where to set your handlebars
Clipless Pedals Learn to set your cleats for clipless pedals

Everyone develops their own style of riding as they learn to ride and knowing a few basics can help you develop these quicker and hopefully less painfully.

Braking Correct braking makes you faster and safer for both yourself and the trails
Focus Body language plays a big part when riding your MTB
Spinning The most efficient pedalling technique
Climbing How to climb more efficiently
Descents How to descend safely
Logs Getting over logs and similar obstacles
Ruts How to live with them
Crashing It will happen. It's one of the things you can count on when you ride a mountain bike.

Now that your bike is set up correctly and know a few basic riding skills, there's a few other things to consider.

Trail Manners You aren't the only person, or creature for that matter, using the trails so a bit of trail ettiquette should be exercised.
As much as we'd all like to have the trails to ourselves, we do share them with other people

Trail Laws Don't assume that every trail you see is legal for you to ride on.
Training & Nutrition Fitness plays a big part in MTBing and has a large bearing on your skills.
Being able to jump a log or fly along a bumpy track doesn't make you a good rider if you can't sustain that pace for long. Also, the more tired you become on the ride, the more sloppy your riding becomes, the less nimble you are when getting over logs and obstacles.

Spares & Supplies What should a new rider have?
Finding a Ride Finding the best places to ride can be difficult for a new rider.
Basic Bike Maintenance Learn about the basic things you should do to keep your bike running smoothly.

Bike setup is vital for any style of cycling and helps to ensure that you efficiently transfer the power from your legs into the pedals and also are able to assume the correct position depending on the terrain you are travelling over.
As your rides get longer, the correct bike setup helps you to avoid muscular and bodily mechanical problems.

Seat Height
Although for styles such as Downhill, Freeride and Dirt Jump a lower seat height is necessary for ease of changing your body position, and also avoiding the dreaded bashing of one's special bits.

However, for trail riding and efficiency for hill climbing, a higher seat position is needed.

When riding (hopefully your foot is correctly positioned on your pedal) you should have a slight bend at the knee when your crank is inline with your seat tube

Seat Position
Your bike seat can be positioned forwards and backwards and in a perfect world it should be set exactly in the centre assuming your frame size is perfect for your body. However, your body type and frame design can make adjustment necessary.

Handlebar stem can also make a difference but for now we'll assume the bike has the correct size stem fitted.

The correct position is when your knee bone (just below your kneecap) is directly above your pedal axle when you have your pedals level.

Another rough guide is to look at your front hub when you are riding the bike in your usual position. The hub should be slightly behind the handlebars as you look down towards it.

Handle Bar Height
As a general rule, to have the correct handle bar height, you should be able draw a level line across the top of your seat over your bars and have between 25 - 50mm clearance.

You then adjust according to your body type or any deficiency you may need to accomodate such as a back problem for instance.

Clipless Pedals
Clipless pedals and shoes are a definite advantage to the cross country or trail rider. They help the rider to ensure more of their effort is transfered into the pedals and therefore the rear wheel. However, if not properly adjusted they can also be inefficient.

Whether you use clipless or not, the most efficient setup is when the ball of your foot (the bunion) is directly over the pedal axle.
It's almost like pedalling ever so slightly in a tip toe position and this is why cycling shoes are designed with the solid sole bent at the same point into the slight tip toe position also. The solid sole stops energy being lost as your foot flexes and bends. Instead the stiff sole and cleat concentrates your pedalling stroke into the axle of the pedal.

If you do have clipless pedals and shoes then get them adjusted by someone who knows how to do it properly.

Everyone develops their own style of riding as they learn to ride and knowing a few basics can help you develop these quicker and hopefully less painfully.

There are several schools of thought on the best braking practices so we'll look briefly at a couple.

Firstly, almost every new rider enjoys locking up the rear wheel and flicking the bike through a turn.
It's fun, looks cool and you'll lose respect from experienced riders every time you do it. Why? Cause it's the slow way around a corner and it damages the track. Heavy rain finds any depression in the trail and will erode it out or sit in it making a mud puddle. Either way it spells problems for everyone else using the trail. Don't do it.
People spend alot of time building and maintaining the trails, as well trying to convince the councils and rangers to give us more trails and every skid makes that a little bit harder. Watch the better, faster riders, smooth is the key. Brake before the corner and then roll through it.

More rear, or more front brake? This where opinions differ.
Briefly the dynamics of it are simple. When you brake the weight of yourself and bike shift forward which necessitates using more front brake.

By using more front brake than rear, you lessen the chance of locking the rear wheel and having it flick the bike's rear out wide which slows you up causing you to use more energy to accellerate again, increases your chances of falling off and digs up the trail. This is something that takes practice and is probably not achievable by most new riders until they have some experience behind them. If you think you can do it then go ahead.

However, as most new riders tend to fear going over the handlebars due to locking up or loosing the front wheel they are going to use more rear braking then front. I, myself ride this way also. However I use plenty of front brake too. I tend to pull both brakes on together but use the front brake to keep the rear brake from locking the wheel up. I keep an even pressure on the rear brake while modulating my front brake as I need more or less stopping power. By shifting your body rearwards a bit under braking you can place more weight over the rear wheel making it less likely it will lock up.

Most new riders are paranoid about where their front wheel is going. This leads them to concentrate strongly on looking at exactly what the front tyre is running over. By doing this and not focusing on further ahead they rob themselves of advanced warning of what lies ahead. This leads to slower and more erratic riding in general.

What you need to learn to do is primarily focus your vision several metres ahead of your bike. Only look at your front tyre and what it's running over when you have to, for instance, when you are rolling over rocks, ruts or big roots.
In times of uncertainty when you suddenly think you may crash, slip off the trail etc then you should focus on where you want the bike to go, NOT, what you don't want to hit or go.
By doing so, your instincts, body language, reflexes etc are all concentrating on getting you where you should be. If you look at what you are afraid of hitting or going, then you are fighting these human resources instead of working with them.
This is a lesson even taught to race drivers and defensive driving students.

Spinning - Learning to stay seated and to pedal in the right gear for the terrain you are travelling on and in a circular motion and at quick rpm (fast cadence) is the most energy efficient way and also reduces your recovery time after climbing and also when the ride is over.

By spinning the gear you can keep the pedals turning ahead of where the gear feels 'heavy' to pedal. This puts less stress on your legs and builds up less lactic acid which builds up in your muscles and quickly reduces your muscles ability to operate properly.
Spinning takes some practice and training. You need to learn to pedal in circles rather than up and down. You need to learn to keep your upper body steady and let your legs do the work. You need to condition your lungs to accept the faster cadence.

Once you can perfect these things and therefore be spinning efficiently, you will climb faster, travel along flats faster and recover quicker. A fast cadence is between 70 - 90 rpms. Sometimes you'll spin faster than this but keeping the cadence within this range will be more obtainable at this stage.

If you don't have a HRM or computer to tell you your cadence you can work it out easily by counting how many pedal rotations you are getting in 15 secs then multiply that by 4. So 15 roatations would give a cadence of 60.

Hills. To a newbie they are the bane of trail riding. To an experienced rider they are a challenge and where time is gained or lost. Climbing well makes a racer faster and a weekend ride more enjoyable. In the most basic of categories there are two types of hills we'll talk about here ... long climbs and short steep climbs.

Like many riding skills, the placement of your body weight is crucial when climbing. As the hill gets steeper, the more you need to move yourself forward so as to keep your weight centered. It's not uncommon to be sitting right on the front of the seat on steeper climbs. (See pic)

On a long climb, staying seated and spinning is the most efficient method. You move slightly forward on the seat to keep your legs over your pedals.
Standing up only puts extra pressure on your legs, forces your upper body to work which increases your energy usage, and slows your recovery time.

On short steep climbs your weight placement is even more crucial. The bike wants to lift the front wheel up, spin the rear wheel ... or both. This means you have to be alert and shift your weight constantly to arrest both problems as they occur.
Spinning again is the best method. If you are stomping the pedals, the surging of the pedals encourages the front to lift and the rear wheel to break traction. Usually you are making it worse by pulling up on the bars too. By spinning, you eliminate the surges of pressure on the pedals and you can pull backwards on the bars instead of up. This all helps to keep the momentum going.

The reward for those tough climbs. But some are tougher than others. Again we'll concentrate on two basic types ... long fast descents and steep slow descents.

Again your weight placement is important. Like climbing you need to keep your weight centred which means moving your body back as far as the decent demands. This often means your bum is well behind the seat (See Pic)
In extreme circumstances on very steep sections you may even have your stomach resting on the seat!

On steep descents you need to control your speed from the start. Once you let your speed get too high it is very difficult to get it back under control. Stay off the seat and let our knees help provide extra suspension and control.
You need to keep your weight well back, often with your bum over the back of the seat and above your rear wheel. I often descend by locking my thighs on the back of the seat where it gets wider. This helps me to control the bike better.
Keep the bike moving. Don't go so slow that the front wheel can stop. That's when you are likely to go over the bars. The only consolation there is that you usually don't hurt yourself too much when that happens on a descent because you hit the ground and slide rather then just hitting and stopping.
Work hard to avoid locking the rear up but don't risk locking the front one. I'd rather have the rear wheel lock momentarilly than have the front lock at all.
Read the terrain also. If the trail seems to have a rut or low area in the center then your bike is likely to want to slide there if you do lock up. Be ready for that to happen so it doesn't take you by surprize if it does.

Fast descents and yet again you get your weight back a little. Keep your speed to what you are comfortable with, don't try to keep with the faster riders. Pick your lines through the turns and focus on where you want that bike to go. (See 'Focus' section above)
Be ready for water bars and lumps that might throw the bike into the air. If you see them then as you hit them pull up on the handlebars a little so the rear of the bike doesn't buck you off. Try to land as flat as possible for now.

Logs come in all different sizes, in all different locations. Some can be rolled over, some can jumped ... most can be taken either way.

For a new rider a log can be a very intimidating obstacle. Fear of digging a front chainring into the log, or simply going over the bars is often present.

Some more experienced riders will bunnyhop or use the more technical kangaroo hop to negotiate the log. A bunnyhop is when you hop the whole bike over the obstacle in one movement without any launch device like the log itself. A Kangaroo hop is the fluid 2 step movement of first lifting the front wheel over the obstacle and as it lands immediately hopping the rear wheel over as well.

For a new rider the best options would be to roll over and also learn to jump the log. Lets look briefly at both techniques.

The roll over technique is simply that. You ride up to the log out of the saddle and simply ride right over it. You do this by slowing your speed down and shifting your weight slightly back to take the weight off the front wheel. You may need to help the front wheel up and over depending the size of the log. If so, you simply pull up on the handlebars as you push down on one of the pedals.
As the front wheel clears the log and the rear wheel is about to hit, you slightly shift your weight forward to get the weight off the rear of the bike.
If you can do his with enough momentum then you can get over the log quite smoothly.

Jumping the log is done by hitting the log with enough speed to carry you over it. You stay out of the saddle and keep your pedals level ... 3 and 9 o'clock position.
As your front wheel is about to hit the log you shift your weight backwards to get the weight off the front. As the front wheel hits you pull up slightly on the handlebars and using your feet (easy if you have clipless shoes and pedals) hop the back of the bike. The speed and momentum will see the rear wheel lightly skip off the log and you should jump the log easily landing close to flat on both wheels together.

These develop on the trails due to erosion caused by water flow. They are most prominent on fireroad climbs and descents. They are sometimes found on singletrack also and can develop due to excessive skidding.

In most cases it's best to try to avoid the ruts as they are usually bumpy and narrow.
But there are times when ruts can be your friend. Well not really because they shouldn't be there in the first place, but if they run around a tight corner you can often use them to guide you around. If it's a good rut you'll get around the turn like you are on rails.

Often you'll find yourself sliding towards a rut during a descent and if trying to stay out of it is going to end in disaster then it's best to just roll into it and ride it out.

Crashing occurs for many reasons. Equipment failure, outside interference, terrain, to name a few.
As a new rider though, the most common reason will be user error ... meaning you will stuff up and cause the crash yourself.
The comforting thought is you'll crash many times during your years of riding MTBing and may never hurt yourself badly. You will get a few thousand scratches though, you will get a few hundred bruises, you may even get a fracture or two or even break something.

There are things you can do to help reduce the chances of hurting yourself though and the most obvious is to wear a helmet at all times. School kids might think wearing helmets is uncool but in the bush with real cyclists (like you will become) only a fool wears no helmet.

Bike maintenence done on a regular basis can also reduce the chances of crashing. Learn to do basic maintenence yourself or get your bike to your local bike shop before things break or cause problems.

By far the most regular reason a new rider falls off his or her bike is their own fear. It causes them to ride too slowly when momentum is necessary. Fear causes them to brake too hard or too often or at the wrong time.

Be sure that momentum IS your friend. Without it your forward motion stops or slows to the point of raising your chances of a fall.
If your wheels stop your control is gone. Always keep your momentum going.

Now that your bike is set up correctly and know a few basic riding skills, there's a few other things to consider.

Trail Manners
Other Riders - Obviously you will meet other riders out on the trails. If they are coming towards you on a flatish trail then try to give them room to pass even if you have to dismount. Hopefully if they have a better spot to pull over they will do so first.
If you are descending and see another rider coming up the hill do your best to give way to the climbing rider. It's alot easier for you to get going again then it is for the rider trying to climb if he is forced to stop.

Horses - Sometimes you'll find horses (and hopefully a rider on top) on the same trail. The rider usually knows their horse well so listen to their instructions if they give you any. Until then it's best to slow right up and stop on the side of the trail and let the horse and rider pass. While in the proximity of the horse keep quiet and make no sudden movements.

Walkers and Joggers - The speed difference between you and a walker or jogger is big enough, but on a tight trail it's even worse.
These people will usually do their best to get out of your way, so do them the courtesy of slowing up and thanking them strongly for their effort.
Some of these trail users have dogs with them also, some on leash, some not. Either way, if you see a dog, slow up and give the owner time to restrain, give the dog orders, or at least reassure their dog. Again, thank them for their effort.

Wildlife - We ride in their backyard, please remember that. Man takes more and more of their precious habitat away each year. The least we can do is try to minimise their inconvenience and give them right of way if we encounter them. It's common to see large spiders, small and large snakes, lizards and goannas, Koala's, wallaby's and roo's. Most of these will easily scamper or hop away in time to avoid you. Sometimes though you'll surprize a snake, especially the larger pythons. Simply give them time to move on and enjoy the chance to observe them from a safe distance. This is the best action for when you encounter all wildlife.

Trail Laws
Legal Trails - Although great headway is being made in getting us more legal MTB trails by groups like the GCTA, many that we ride on are grey areas at best and we must show as much courtesy as possible to stop the authorities from banning us from them. Bit by bit MTB only trails are being designated and in the same way there are walking only trails too. Look for the signs.

National Parks - As a general rule National Parks are out of bounds for MTB's. Most National Parks have designated restricted vehicle access tnhat you may be allowed to ride on but certainly no singletracks or walking tracks are legal for mtbing. Check with the park Ranger if you are unsure. I suggest sticking to State Forests.

Permits - Some of the State Forests require permits to be carried. These are currently free and all you need to do is apply for one.

Basic Training and Nutrition
As a new rider you are often amazed at the speed of experienced riders or the fact they ride along chatting the whole ride while you are struggling for breath with muscles that feel like jelly. It seems like those better riders must train extensively to be so much better.
Some probably do train quite hard, but most don't at all. A simple but regular training schedule can have big results for a new rider. The better you get, the harder it is to make big improvements, so as a newbie you are fortunate that any training should help significantly.

For the body to operate efficiently when riding it needs several things. , Fuel, Air and Blood circulation, Waste disposal, Stretching, Strength. Lets look at these briefly.

Fuel - food and water. Without these your body shuts down, we all know that. But when you increase your excercise your body demands more of both. Very quickly, your body depletes the fuel it stores in your body so you need to make sure you enter a ride with a good meal eaten in the preceding couple of hours. If you get hungry during a ride, your body is already suffering and not operating as well as it could. It's best to take something good to eat during a ride that's longer than an hour.
Same goes for water. If you are thirsty then you should be drinking more. Without water your body loses the efficiency of being able to turn the food into energy, get rid of waste etc. I usually ride with a weak mix of gatorade to help replace lost salts, electrolytes and such. On average you should drink around a litre of water every hour of riding. This can vary according to your body size, air temperature and also intensity of the ride.

Air / blood - For your muscles to operate well they need good blood flow. For the air to effectively be used by your body, your lungs and breathing need to be good also. This is where cardio training comes in.
Having some sort of cardio training each week will help to expand your air capacity in your lungs, your blood circulation, and even aid in waste removal for your muscles. Cardio training could be something as simple as doing intense Aerobics in front of the TV, spinning sessions on a magneto or wind trainer, to a complex high paced riding session.
For best effect you are looking at doing these activities at around 80 - 90% of your bodies capability. As a new rider you would probably begin with a cardio session of less than 30 mins and build up a little as you get better. Cardio sessions do not have to be long to give benefit. 1 or 2 of these sessions per week would be plenty.

Waste - Under intense exercise your muscles produce a by product called lactic acid. This is what makes your muscles burn when you are climbing a hill. When it builds up enough it concentrates itself together in your muscles and you find that your muscles simply don't feel as strong as they do normally and start to feel like jelly. The stronger you get and more efficient you get in pedalling etc the longer it takes for lactic acid to build up and the quicker your muscles can disperse it so you can continue riding for longer periods. How efficient your body is in dealing with lactic acid is called your lactic threshold (LT). As a new rider your LT is low and you'll find that burning sensation and even limb shaking quite common.
There are few things you can do to improve this.
Drink plenty of fluid before and during riding for a start.
Also learning to spin the pedals even when climbing puts your muscles under less intense (heavy) load and therefore lactic acid doesn't build up as quickly.
Also at the top of climbs try to not just stop and rest but roll around pedalling easily in an easy gear. This helps your muscles disperse the lactic acid again.
Cooling down with a few minutes of easy pedalling after a ride and also stretching before and after a ride also aids tremendously in removing and reducing lactic acid build up. A leg massage before and after a ride is also an excellent way to reduce the lactic acid.
You can increase your LT by doing a few excercises during the week that make your legs burn. Each week increase the duration you do the excercise.

Stretching - Stretching before any exercise is vital but it's something many people don't do.
If you don't, then your muscles are fighting against themselves (think of it like putty that gets softer and more pliable the more you work it) and are more subject to injury. Because you are riding with this 'muscular friction' instead of nice warm, flexible muscles, your lungs have to work harder due to the effort. This also reduces your energy store for the ride and lactic acid builds up more quickly. Stretch both legs, back and upper body before the ride and definitely at least the legs afterwards.

Strength - Strength is obvious I guess and elite athletes usually incorporate some type of gym program into there schedule to give them a good strong body with which to hone when they train.
As a new rider, doing too much training will only result in you not giving your body time to benefit from the training before you go out and make it hurt again. When this happens you don't improve, you feel tired often, and your muscles are often tender to touch. Time to leave the bike alone for a few days or even a week. Usually after the break you'll find yourself riding better than ever. This is because both mind and body have had time recover and also the muscles have grown a little.
To begin with simply ride your bike for a few weeks, maybe a month or two depending on how often and far you ride, to build up a foundation of muscle strength suited to riding your bike. Try to do at least 1 long ride each week of at least 1 1/2 hours in the saddle. When you can see you've improved somewhat you can then start tailoring a training program that looks at specifics in your riding and goals you hope to achieve. It's usually best to seek informed advice on doing this.

Spares & Supplies
Spares & Tools - By taking the right spare parts and tools, you ensure that you are not a liabilty to others on a ride. Experienced riders will be happy to help a new rider by waiting for them to catch up, showing them how to ride, even helping to fix a flat tyre, but don't tend to be impressed with people riding without so much as a spare tube on them.

A spare tube is the most obvious spare you need for most rides. As a new rider you probably don't know enough about your bike to warrant dragging along lots of tools you don't know how to use. So aside from a spare tube you should at least also take cycling tyre levers. Other tools you may like to take is a set of allen keys (4,5,6mm) in case something becomes loose. A small screwdriver, spoke key, chain breaker and 4 inch shifter are other handy tools to have. You can also buy a cycling multi-tool that incorporates all these things.
Zip ties are another handy thing to have in the event of something breaking as they can be used to repair or hold things out of the way so you can still ride home.

To carry your tube and tools there are 3 basic ways.
Firstly, if you can afford one, a hydropack is the go. It provides pockets for carrying things and also of course you can drink from it.
2ndly, you can buy a tool bag that straps and/or clips under your seat.
3rdly, you can wear a cycling shirt with pockets.

Supplies - A few simple items taken along can help you survive the ride with more smiles than frowns.

1st Aid Kit - A basic 1st Aid kit is one idea. See our 1st Aid page for more details on this.

Food - Getting a hunger flat is a demoralising way to ride. A hunger flat is when you haven't eaten enough and your body is demanding energy that isn't stored inside any more. Take along a simply snack or two and eat at least once in the first hour of the ride. This way your body processes the food and releases the energy for you when you are tiring and need it most.
Suggested snacks are things like bananas, yogurt covered muesli bars, energy bars, bread rolls. You want stuff that is easy to eat and digest. Having some sweet food is ok but not whole chocolate bars for instance. These just give you an energy burst that lasts for a short time. Your body reacts by countering the sugar intake and usually overdoes it and this gives you an energy low.

Basic Bike Maintenance
As a newbie to MTB riding it's likely you know little about looking after your bike.
It's unlikely that you would have the correct tools or know how to use them. For this reason it is reccommended that a qualified bike mechanic carries out any repairs or major work for you.

Here is a list of a few very basic clues to keeping your bike running smoothly.

Washing after a Ride
Washing your bike after a ride is sometimes necessary to ensure your bike runs smoothly. Of course you may be someone who simply likes a clean bike because it just looks better clean.

So what do you wash it with? How should you do it?

Below are our suggestions.

Carwash - I personally like to use carwash solutions as they don't contain harmfull salts or aggressive detergents. For that reason I never reccomend using household cleaners. Quality Carwash's also don't remove any polish you put on either.

Brush - I find a soft bristled brush is the best tool for cleaning the bike. The powder coated finishes are strong enough to within stand the brush.
Make sure you clean around the seals on your forks and shocks to minimise grit scouring the stauntion(s).

Hose - I don't reccomend the use of high pressure cleaners like Karchers etc as they tend to force water past seals on things like headsets and bottom brackets. A Hose set on a medium spray pattern is a safer option.

The Process - Hose the bike completely ina general manner to simply wet the bike, or more accurately, wet the dirt, mud and grime on the bike. Be careful not to concentrate the water on areas that have bearings within like bottom brackets, headsets, hubs.
While the bike is still wet, scrub it with the brush and carwash solution in a bucket.
Don't bother trying to clean the chain or anything greasy as they need cleaning separately only when necessary.
Once you are happy the bike is clean, hose off the bike again being careful not to force water into those sensitive areas.

Quick Lube - Having a good quality spray lube around (TriFlow quality, not WD40) is handy now to spray the moving bits on the derailers and perhaps where the v-brakes pivots (careful not to get any on the pads of course).
Silicon Spray or bicycle fork oil is good spraying around those seals on the shocks and forks to stop stiction.

That's it ... unless you want to polish it.

Cleaning the DriveTrain
Cleaning the drivetrain (chain, deraileurs, chainrings, cassette) is more complex than washing the bike.
How often you clean the drivetrain depends on the type of lubricant you use, the conditions you ride in, and how particular you are.

A good lubricant comes in many forms, most are based on either wax or oil.
Good wax lubes tend to collect less grit than oil based ones and therefore the drivetrain stays cleaner longer. However the oil based lubes tend to run smoother for longer although there are exceptions to that rule.

Chain - The removal of the chain may or maynot be necessary depending on the buildup. Regularly cleaning the chain with a cloth soaked in degreaser will often do just fine.
It really isn't necessary to get the chain perfectly clean, in fact the residue lube that has seeped well into the links and rollers is benficial. Completely soaking the chain in degreaser breaks that residue down and actually causes more friction. This is one reason I don't take my chains off and soak them unless it's necessary. The other reason is unless your chain has a breaker link in it then you will need to know how to use a chain breaker to get it off. MTB chains with their flared pins tend to be compromised everytime they are removed.

Deraileurs - The jockey wheels (two plastic chain guide wheels) on the rear deraileur also collect greasy buildup. Although it doesn't affect the performance of the chain until the buildup literally gets thick enough to impede the chains flow, it's stil lgood practice to clean them regularly.
By removing the wheels from the deraileur you can more easily clean them but I don't reccomend you do this unless you know what you are doing. You can clean them sufficiently with a rag while they are on the deraileur.
I also lube the moving parts of the deraileur from time to time with a spray lube that doesn't attract grit, like silicon spray.

The front deraileur very rarely needs any cleaning other than a spray of water when you wash the bike. Like the rear deraileur, the front one just needs lube every now and then with something like silicon spray.

Chainrings - Like the jockey wheels, the chainrings need alot of buildup before it interfers with the flow of the chain. Yet again you can remove the chainrings for easier cleaning but persistence with a rag will again clean them sufficiently.

Cassette - Remove the rear wheel to clean the cassette. Again you don't need to do it unless the buildup is substantial. Sometimes it's necessary to remove grass and the like though. Once you have the wheel off, you can use a rag in a shoe shine style motion to clean in between the gears (cogs).

Checking for Problems
Learning to find potential problems before they occur or early on is not only a good safety factor but also helps to lessen damage to your bike as well.

Now in no way do I reccomend not taking your bike for regular services to a qualified bike mechanic, but in between these visits you should keep a close eye on a few things. Hopefully you can avoid major equipment failure like my frame break shown at right.

Start with a simple inspection when you are washing your bike.

Cracks - Get in the habit of casting an eye over the frame around all the welds for hairline cracks.

Cables - look at the cable ends to see if they are frayed. Those little aluminum cable ends are so cheap it's silly not to have 20 of them in your toolbox. A fraying cable can slwoly cause the cable to loosen up and also restrict the movement of the cable and therefore effect the function of the gears or brakes depending on it's purpose. Having a proper set of bike cable cutters makes a massive difference when cutting the cable, makes side cutters look pathetic.

Brakes - Whether disk or V-brake you should check your pads regularly. V-brakes can go from good to useless after a single ride in wet conditions if enough grit is around. Even disk pads have been known to suffer a similar fate although it's far less common with those.
Also check the bolts that retain your brakes to the bike.

Lubrication - Check the drivetrain to ensure your chain has enough lube on it. Too little and the friction level rises dramatically. Over the course of a ride this will cause wear on the chain and chainrings as well as demanding much more effort from you to pedal. Try it sometime. Clean the chain right up and ride the bike in a certain gear without lube. Then Lube it and ride it again. Always use a quality bike lube.

Wheels - Your wheels are the front line defence out there on the trail. They are the ones that cop the impact first and therefore a few things should be monitored.

1st check your tyres. Apart from the obvious tread level and tyre pressure, look for splits in both the sidewalls and in between the tread blocks. Sharp rocks etc can often cut the tyre and cause the tube to be exposed.

2nd check for buckles and loose spokes. These weaken the wheel considerably if not attended to. If you have V-brakes then buckles are usually easily seen or even felt. With disk brakes it is much harder. You'll need to hold a finger (or something safer) near the rim to see. If you know how to use a spoke key properly then you can sort it out quickly but if you don't, don't stuff with it. Take it to a bike shop for proper repair.

3rd check your hubs. They to can become loose. Simply hold the rim or tyre and wiggle it side to side while holding the bike upright and steady as possible. If the hub is loose you should be able to feel it. There should be no discernable sideways movement at all. Cone spanners are needed to fix this problem and often removal of the cassette on the rear wheel also. Unless you know what you are doing, tightening hubs correctly is a difficult task and can result in the wheels alignment (or dish as it's called) being put out. Again this is best done by a qualified mechanic.

Rear Suspension - If your bike has rear suspension then you have several bushes and/or bearings that allow the rear suspension to move properly. Each one of these should be tight with no sideways movement at all. Holding each pivot point in one hand and wiggling the bike side to side should show up any movement.
Also check the rear shock bolts to ensure they are tight.
Periodically check your air pressures in both your forks and rear shock if you have an air shock on the rear.

Headset - Headsets can come loose and often do. With your weight leaning on them and the impact from the bumps and jumps combined with the leverage created by the stem holding the bars forward of the fork steerer tube, it's really no wonder.
These days threadless headsets and stems have lessened the problem. As most bikes have these now we'll assume yours does too.

1st check for looseness. Standing next to the bike apply the front brake hard! With your free hand gently hold the headset and rock the bike to and fro. If it's loose you will definately feel it moving. If you can't feel the movement with your hand but something feels like movement it's likely the V-brakes or forks, both of which tend to have a small amount in them anyway.
If the headset is loose then it's the stem that tightens it. Loosen off the allen bolt on top of the stem and also the two allen bolts on the side of the stem where it connects to the fork steerer tube. Now tighten the top allen bolt first. Do NOT over tighten it ... just so you can feel it is pressurising the stem downwards a bit. Once that's done make sure the stem is straight and tighten the side bolts back up ... a little each at a time until tight. Now redo the test for looseness to be sure.

2nd check for bearing wear. Simply lift the bike's front wheel up off the ground while you turn the handlebars side to side slowly. The action should feel smooth. If it's notchy then you are up for a new headset as the bearings have worn dimples into the bearings running surface (called the 'race').