What the expert says
Oli Beckingsale is the British mountain bike champion and Commonwealth Games silver medallist.
Keep your tyres soft Unlike a road bike, where you want hard tyres for speed, you should ride your mountain bike with soft tyres. This gives you better traction and more suspension. Aim for about 30psi (pounds per square inch) - you should be able to push your thumb into the tyre.
Stay out of the saddle When riding downhill, stand on your pedals and position your bottom about an inch behind the saddle - this keeps your weight towards the back of the bike. Move your weight farther back as the steepness increases. Have your knees and arms bent, ready to take any bumps, and keep your pedals horizontal when you're freewheeling to prevent them catching on the ground (when taking a corner, bring your inside pedal up to 12 o'clock).
Stay in the saddle When riding uphill, stay in the saddle, unless it's a short, sharp ascent. Remaining seated uses far less energy than standing on the pedals.
Take the smoothest line Always look for the path with the fewest obstacles (rocks, etc), instead of charging at whatever is in front of you. The smoothest line isn't always the shortest, but it often saves you having to get off and walk.
Cover your brakes Always have at least a finger over both brakes, so that you're ready for any eventuality. Your front brake is the most effective, but never jam it on or you'll fly over the handlebars. Avoid using too much back brake when riding downhill, as it makes the bike skid.
Be aerodynamic On the flat, make yourself as aerodynamic as possible by bending your arms and flattening your back, so that your body offers less resistance to the wind.
Don't brake on the bends Always moderate your speed before a bend, not in it. Braking makes the wheel want to straighten up - not what you want while taking a corner at speed.
Pedal fast You should be maintaining a high cadence throughout the ride. Cadence is the speed at which your pedals turn and is measured in revolutions per minute (rpm) - count how many times your right foot hits the bottom of the pedal circle in a minute to gauge yours. You should be aiming for 80-90rpm, including up hills, so choose gears easy enough to do this.
Don't look down Always look as far ahead as possible, instead of down in front of your tyre. This allows you to change your speed and line before you reach obstacles, rather than the second before you hit them.
Adjust your suspension Mountain bikes generally have front suspension. Most people, however, have it set too tight, which means the front forks absorb the bumps and fly back up towards you too fast, so forcing your arms to take the shock. Slow the suspension by following instructions in your bike's manual.
There are dedicated mountain bike centres all over the UK where you'll find bike hire and equipment shops, as well as information on routes that are colour-coded according to difficulty. You can also hire tag-alongs (mini bikes that attach to the back of yours), so you can take the kids, too. You'll find mountain bike hire in most tourist destinations. When you hire a bike, make sure it's clean and well maintained. The proprietor should also spend time making sure your bike fits you properly (as a guide, your knee should have a slight bend in it when you're in the saddle and your foot is at the bottom of the pedal circle). Don't worry if the frame looks too small for you - mountain bikes tend to have smaller frames and longer seat posts, so you can slide off the saddle without injuring yourself on the top tube. Bike hire costs around £10 to £20 a day.
There are also plenty of mountain bike clubs in the UK. They go for weekend rides (often involving a pub stop), and some organise trips abroad, too. If you want to try racing, British Cycling runs 'enduros', which involve non-technical routes of varying distances. To find a club, a route or for more info, try the International Mountain Biking Association at imba.org.uk or go to go to britishcycling.org.uk.
If you're going to buy a bike, consider the terrain you'll be riding on. For example, you don't need a super-deep tread on the tyres on gentle hills in the New Forest. Front suspension is a must, but don't be tempted by a cheap bike with full suspension (front and back), because it's likely to mean the bike itself is lacking in quality. Hydraulic disc brakes won't clog and seize up like traditional brakes that grip the wheel rim. An entry-level mountain bike costs around £300 to £400. Giant, Trek, Specialized and Scott are good brands.
You can also invest in clipless pedals and cycling shoes, which means your feet will be attached to the pedals for more control and power. Get used to these on the road first.
A helmet is essential (the more you pay, the more ventilation you get). Wear cycling shorts, which have padded crotches and seamless inside legs for comfort, and a top made of sweat-wicking fabric to keep you warm and dry. Full-fingered cycling gloves are a good idea (even in summer) for grip. Try your local bike shop, or go to evanscycles.com or cyclesurgery.com.
You have to clean all your gear As well as sweaty, muddy kit, your bike is likely to be caked in mud, leaving you with the onerous task of washing it after every trip (this is essential for preserving the parts).
Risk of injury If you take up extreme downhill riding, you may sustain an injury, such as a broken wrist or rib, but everyday mountain biking is more likely to leave you with cuts and bruises from tumbling off.
It's weather-dependent A little rain doesn't need to stop you, but it's not advisable to go out in storms or strong winds.
It can be expensive The gear comes at a price, but once you've invested, your bike and kit should last years if you maintain them properly.