Downhill Biking: Is Dirt the New Snow?

Bike Snowmass downhill bikingMore and more ski resorts have added dedicated downhill biking trails to their summer offerings. It’s no surprise because downhill biking is surprisingly like skiing.

braveskimom logoIt’s 70 degrees on a clear blue day and I’m sweating – a lot. Dressed in head-to-toe body armor, my family and I board the Elk Camp gondola at Snowmass with our downhill biking coach, Kevin Jordan.

Only 4 months ago, this gondola was a haven from wind and snow. Today, it’s comparable to a sauna.

Heat stroke notwithstanding, as we soar up the mountain, the discussion isn’t about how different downhill biking is from cross-country mountain biking (and it is), but rather, how similar downhill biking is to skiing.

downhill biking bike snowmass

Dirt is the New Snow

When comparing downhill biking to alpine skiing, there are some obvious similarities.

First, you’re using a multimillion dollar lift to take you to the top of the mountain. Some might call this lazy, I call it smart.

Second, gravity brings you back down, on a run rated green, blue or black.

Finally, you have to pay to play, by buying a lift ticket and bike haul pass.

And, just as with skiing, to really enjoy the sport you may wish to follow these four simple rules:

1. Put on the Right Gear.

Start with loose baggy shorts and a shirt and then add the body armor: sturdy thick-soled shoes, knee and shin pads, a jacket with built in back and chest protection, shoulder and elbow pads, gloves and then just as in skiing, goggles (or sunglasses) and a helmet.

While you can definitely get on the mountain and your bike without all of the pads, the armor can equal confidence for beginners.

downhill family biking snowmass colorado

In late July, downhill biking at Bike Snowmass.

As Kevin Jordan, the Mountain Bike Coordinator at Bike Snowmass puts it, “In the winter, we’ve got this a huge white mattress stuff called snow that softens and pads you if you fall. In the summer when there’s no snow, you need gear to protect and pad you if you fall.”

Putting it that way, I no longer felt silly or intimidated by the body armor.

And I was no longer worried about falling.

2. Select the Right Bike.

bike snowmass coloradoDownhill bikes are not the same as cross-country mountain bikes. They are much heavier, with sturdy thick pedals, wider handlebars and a lower seat (which you will barely use anyway).

The bikes have huge travel, generally with about 8 inches front and rear, and the overall geometry is different.

Purpose built for the downhill sport, they are next to worthless on an cross-country trail, but perfectly balanced for rolling downhill.

Just as you wouldn’t wear your alpine gear to skate ski or put a beginner skier on skinny Nordic skis and send them crashing through the moguls, you want to use a downhill bike for downhill biking.

3. Don’t Skip the Lesson.

Resorts that offer downhill biking offer downhill lessons and clinics along with gear and equipment rentals.

ABCs of downhill biking bike snowmass

At Bike Snowmass, beginning downhill bikers are taught the “ABCs” of downhill biking, where the “A” stands for Action Stance, the “B” stands for Braking and the “C” stands for Cornering. As with first time and “never ever” ski lessons, we started our lesson on flat ground learning how to stand, go, stop and turn.

After we could control our forward motion, we progressed to a skills park and pump track part way up the mountain.

pump track bike snowmass

Here we practiced crossing wooden bridges, cornering on banked turns and compressing and decompressing naturally over arches (a skill necessary for successfully riding over step ups, step downs and jumps).

When Kevin felt we were ready to progress, we got back on the gondola and confidently rode trails the rest of the day.

Vapor Trail bike snowmass

The view from Vapor Trail, Bike Snowmass.

4. Know where to Après.

At the end of the day, you need a place to celebrate and reflect with friends on your incredible day.

Without a doubt, our current favorite is the kid- and adult-friendly Ranger Station, adjacent to the Westin Resort Snowmass.

patrick wasserman ranger station snowmass colorado

Ranger Station owner, Patrick Wasserman, serving up the good stuff.

Affiliated with New Belgium Brewery (famous for it’s Fat Tire Ale and more), Ranger Station is a bright, casual bar and restaurant serving up thirteen beers on tap, including a limited seasonal beer and three ever-changing “Lips of Faith” series beers.

The best way to handle all these choices? A beer tasting.

beer tasting at Ranger Station snowmass colorado

Or you can go straight for my favorite, the shandy – a combination of fresh-squeezed lemonade and Shift lager.

On the menu you’ll find yummy pretzel rolls, paninis, nachos, chili and more. Surprisingly, our consensus favorite was the organic mixed greens. Delicious!

Wine and a full bar are available and to top it all off, don’t miss the S’Mores Chocolate Chip Waffle. You’ve been biking all day. You deserve it.

snowmass eats ranger station snowmass kitchen

If you’re looking for something a bit more fancy, yet still Rocky Mountain casual, cross the courtyard and enjoy the Snowmass Kitchen’s unique cocktails and casual, yet gourmet home cooking.

snowmass kitchen

Snowmass Kitchen. Photo courtesy Westin Resort Snowmass.

Journey to Valhalla

Bike Snowmass has three dedicated downhill trails, along with over 50 miles of cross-country track. We started, as you might expect on the green downhill trail, Easy Rider. Thanks to our morning lesson and controlled practice, we all felt great on this initial descent.

bike snowmass easy rider.

Easy Rider at Bike Snowmass.

After one run on Easy Rider, we went back up to Valhalla, the premier trail at Snowmass (Vapor Trail, higher up on the mountain, is rated blue).

In Norse mythology, Valhalla is a majestic hall ruled by the gods in honor the fallen. Not exactly a comforting image when one is about to throw caution to the wind and roll downhill over man-made obstacles.

In the end, it wasn’t an image of the fallen that dominated, but rather the Valhalla-like majesty of the Colorado mountains, the exhilaration of the descent, and the thrill of controlling the bike with our newly learned skills: confidently cornering into turns, putting the bike tires on edge and letting gravity take its course.

It’s not skiing. But when there’s no snow and lots of dirt, it’ll do just fine.

valhalla bike snowmass

Riding Valhalla at Bike Snowmass.

When You Go…

Downhill bike clinics are offered every day through the beginning of September and on weekends until the end of September. Start with the ABCs if you’re new to downhill biking.

More experienced? Check out the DPR (Drop, Push, Release) progression and jump your skills up to the next level.


kevin jordan bike snowmass

Kevin Jordan has a lot to smile about at Bike Snowmass.

Portions of this post originally published at on August 12, 2013.

Thank you to Bike Snowmass, the Westin Snowmass Resort, the Snowmass Kitchen and Ranger Station for hosting us. As always, all opinions are my own and are exactly what I would tell my family and friends. 

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© 2013 – 2014, Kristen Lummis. All rights reserved. Any use or publication of content, including photos, requires express permission.


  1. says

    Hi Kristin, love the article! It’s fun to see so many more resort areas growing their downhill summer activities. I wish I could do more DH riding (I need to move to Colorado!). Jim B

  2. says

    Thanks Jim! It is really fun…but you don’t have to be in Colorado. Apparently Snowshoe in WV has a great DH scene and I’m sure there are many others, too! Enjoy!

  3. says

    I cannot tell you how much I LOVE this article. I live in Dallas….flat, hot, Dallas. I’ve grown-up skiing every winter in CO for 35+ years. Skiing…and CO…is in my blood. But…I live in Dallas…ugh. We have over 100 miles of cross-country…and sometimes ‘hilly’ off road trails w/in 30 minutes of my house….it is my ‘trail fix’ until I can get back to the mountains. Mountain biking has been my ‘skiing’ for 20+ years…..during off-season ski time. I love it ‘almost’ as much as skiing. Thanks for bringing my two loves together in writing. <3 =) Btw, would love a sticker!

    • says

      I just love this comment! Thanks so much Melissa. I hope you enjoy biking the rest of the summer and fall…and then it’s ski season again! Hooray!

      And, yes, stickers on their way to you! Cheers!

  4. says

    Though you distinguish (rightly ) between downhill and XC bike riding, there are some parallels between XC bike riding and skiing/snowboarding. As you mention, having the right gear helps out a lot. Some lessons / tips can help, too. (Yes, you can just go ride an XC mountain bike, but it’s useful to read up or talk to someone about handling drops, rocks, and so forth.)

    XC riding on singletrack through the woods can give a rush similar to skiing/riding in tight trees. Unlike the winter descent, the lines are picked for you, but — to pick another theme from winter — the key to success is to look not at the trees but between them.

    • says

      This is such a great comment. Thank you John. You are correct, there are numerous parallels between XC biking and snowsports as well. I especially appreciate your comment about the trees…SO TRUE!


      • says

        I’m with you, John!! There are times when I am FLYING between trees on single track….flat terrain…ducking and turning and curving….you feel as if the bike is an extension of your body…. and I get this way with skiing to. L-O-V-E. oh man….i need dirt or snow asap. ;)