More 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.
It’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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Portions of this post originally published at Liftopia.com 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.
- Fish, Bike, Golf: The Granby Ranch Triathlon, August 22, 2012.
- Family Getaway: Mountain Biking at Beaver Creek, Colorado, August 15, 2012.
- Fantastic Fall Mountain Biking in the North Fruita Desert, September 22, 2011.
- Biking Telluride’s Historic Galloping Goose Trail, August 9, 2011.
- Learning to Love Gravity at Winter Park’s Trestle Bike Park, July 14, 2011.
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