The Bike Life

What to Expect in Downhill Mountain Biking

Downhill Mountain Biking
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For years now, ski resorts have been working to draw mountain bikers in the off-season by developing trails that can be used in conjunction with ski lifts. Known as downhill, flow or gravity trails, these are fun, fast and take a different set of skills from normal cross-country mountain biking. Have you thought about doing this? Here's what you need to know as you get started with downhill mountain biking. 

Trail Set Up

Downhill mountain bike trails are coded like ski runs. White is easiest, then green, blue, black diamond and double black. Also, mountain bike trails, while sometimes sharing the same names as the ski trails, will typically not follow the ski runs they're named for all that closely. This is because in general, skiers can handle much steeper runs than mountain bikers. So while the mountain bike trail will go "down" a slope, there are many more long back-and-forth segments in the typical MTB trail that run across the face of the mountain versus going straight down.

Additionally, mountain bike trails will often intentionally run in the wooded areas between ski slopes, in the places that skiers mostly avoid. This is because of the interesting terrain dimensions that trees can offer as well as the fact that features like ramps, jumps, walls and tabletops can be constructed here that might otherwise be in the way out on the slopes. This is especially true when you've got a dedicated area specifically for bikes, with numerous obstacles and features, such as the bike park at Canyons Resort in Park City, Utah.

Lessons/Guides

All of the ski resorts that offer downhill mountain biking also offer guides, generally for three-hour blocks of time, longer if you want it. Sometimes they'll call what these guides offer "lessons" much like you can take ski lessons when you're first setting out on the slopes.

I've got a decent amount of mountain bike experience, so frankly I was like "what do I need this for?" when they asked if I wanted lessons from a guide. In truth, a guide is a really good idea for just about everybody when you're first going out. If you haven't done any downhill MTB, their tips and pointers will be invaluable. Also, their knowledge of the local trails will be perfect for matching you up with the best places that fit your ability. Their job is to give you the best day possible on the bike and that won't happen if you're either unchallenged and bored or scared to death cause you're in over your head. Though they may not say it, from the moment you get on your bike, they'll size you up to see if they've got a complete rookie or someone who has some experience on the bike. And they'll naturally adjust their advice and the trails you ride to fit that.

A word of guidance to families who want to try out mountain biking or those people just starting out. Though you can get lessons and there are "easy" trails coded white or green, in truth it's difficult for many novice cyclists to feel comfortable on downhill mountain biking. The descriptions of the "easy" trails may make them sound like the Katy Trail, smooth and flat and wide, but most of even the "easy" trails require some experience on a mountain bike to successfully negotiate. My guidance would be to develop a basic level of skill and comfort on standard cross country mountain biking before attempting to learn downhill MTB.

Physical Exertion

One of the most surprising things about downhill mountain biking is how physically demanding the sport is. It's not just coasting downhill on a bike. In fact, after a five or six minute ride down the mountain, I was breathing as hard as if I'd been running fast trying to get away from the cops - a total anaerobic workout. This exertion is because you're using all your major muscle groups -- legs, back, chest and arms -- to guide your bike and keep your body positioned as you make your way down the hill.

Initially then too it seemed the typical summer lift hours, 10 a.m. to 4:30 or 5 p.m., made for a short day. But actually by the end of the afternoon I was totally beat, a happy sort of exhaustion brought on by riding hard and having fun.

How to Use the Lifts

Just like in skiing, one of the trickiest parts of downhill mountain biking is figuring out how to use the ski lift that carries your bike to the top. The best rule is to simply allow the attendant running the lift to tell you what to do. Sometimes they will take your bike and hang it on the back of a specially designed lift chair for you. Sometimes there are special baskets specifically for mountain bikes in place of the chair lift that you'll set your bike in as it comes around. The attendants will be quick to offer assistance and direction if needed.

Equipment used in Downhill Mountain Biking

At first I thought all the layers of padding issued to me by the great people who rented us bikes at the Deer Valley Resort in Park City, Utah, was a bit over the top. They were pushing things like shin guards, elbow pads, gloves, and full helmet with face shield. "I'm like, dude, I'm not planning on going all "Queen of Pain" Rebecca Rusch here."

But again riding down the mountain soon showed me that some wipe-outs are part of the deal. Most of them are not going to spectacular, kill-yourself crashes. Just sliding off the trail, or going off the side of your bike, where knee pads and elbow pads will protect the parts of your body most likely to make contact with the ground. After one trip down the mountain I was glad I had the gear and certainly would not have felt comfortable riding without them.

Final Thoughts

All in all, downhill mountain biking is an absolute blast. You'll find yourself shredding down the mountain, riding down, over and off terrain and obstacles that you never pictured yourself being able to manage on a bike. The key is to relax, have fun, be safe and enjoy the ride.

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