I’m not a very good mountain biker. I live in a mountain biking town, where people regularly throw down 40 miles on technical single track. Not me. Exposure terrifies me, and after a broken ankle, I like my riding easy.
Five years ago, my husband, oldest son and I tried downhill biking at Winter Park’s Trestle Bike Park. We were totally clueless at the start of the day, yet enthralled by lunchtime. Although I didn’t progress as rapidly as they did, choosing the bail-out routes around features such as rock gardens and wall rides, it was a blast.
Since then, we’ve sampled some of the best downhill bike parks in Colorado, including the Snowmass Bike Park, the Steamboat Bike Park and the Evolution Park at Crested Butte. This summer, we’re totally stoked to give our new local bike park, at Powderhorn Mountain Resort, a try.
And let me tell you: if I can downhill bike, you can downhill bike.
Downhill Biking Tips for Beginners
Rent a Bike
While you can use a cross-country mountain bike on downhill trails, the trails are designed for downhill bikes and you’ll have more fun using the proper equipment.
Downhill bikes are built to coast, corner and brake under the power of gravity. They are heavier than cross-country mountain bikes. The geometry is different, the travel in the suspension is deeper, and the seats are lower. Riding a downhill bike uphill is not only difficult, it’s nearly impossible.
Best Tips: Rent a bike at the resort. Just as you wouldn’t want to alpine ski on skinny cross-country skis, you don’t want to downhill bike on the wrong type of bike. Save time by reserving your bike online and it will be ready when you show up.
There’s a reason downhill bikers wear full-face helmets, shoulder and chest padding, arm and leg protection and sturdy boots.
Downhill biking is not more dangerous than other types of biking (in my experience, it’s less dangerous), but as you improve you go faster and if you fall, it’s going to hurt.
Best Tips: Start out right, wearing protective pads. You can rent body armor when you rent a bike. Mountain biking shorts and a shirt work well under the pads, as they fit comfortably and wick well.
Sunglasses and gloves are a must. While many downhill bikers wear full finger gloves, not all parks supply them. If you’ve got bike gloves bring them.
Also, since bike shoes aren’t designed for the flat pedals and the nearly constant standing used in downhill biking, it’s helpful to rent DH shoes or boots, if available.
Take a Lesson
Just as with skiing, it’s smart to take a lesson your first time out. The best downhill bike parks for families (and that is most of them) offer package deals for beginners. While these packages vary, they often include bike rental, protective gear, a lift ticket and a group lesson.
Here’s what you’ll learn: Proper stance, steering the bike with your weight, coasting and braking. Often the first lesson will take place in a special beginner area where you can practice rolling over berms, bridges and other barriers.
After working on the fundamentals, you’ll get on the lift with your instructor. If you don’t know how to load your bike, ask for help. Then relax. At many parks, bikes go up ahead of riders and will await you at the top.
Best Tips: Make it a party and take your friends or family. It’s more fun if you know the people in your lesson. Plus, when the lesson is over, you can learn from one another and help each other improve.
Save money by buying your lessons and rentals online through vendors like Liftopia.com.
Enjoy the Ride
Downhill mountain biking is all about momentum and flow. With gravity fueling your descent, you need to look ahead and anticipate the trail, while shifting your weight through the turns and over obstacles.
As in skiing, trails range from easy green beginner runs to double black extreme runs. In my opinion, the best downhill trails are usually machine-graded with banked turns for optimal speed. In between features, they are butter smooth and forgiving.
Best Tips: Embrace the flow. Resist the urge to clamp down on the brakes as you approach corners or features. Let gravity pull you down the mountain and focus on effortlessly flowing through turns and rolling over obstacles. While you will use the brakes to moderate your speed, try not to come to a full stop (unless you mean to). I look for a personal sweet spot where I feel comfortable and at ease.
Feeling overwhelmed? Focus on once aspect of technique (maybe balance and stance or shifting your weight through turns).
When I need to concentrate, my go-to focus is Head up. Eyes forward. This helps me anticipate the trail and my movements.
It’s good advice for any type of biking and almost any challenge in life.
Why I Choose Downhill Trails
The best downhill bike trails are often, wider, smoother and, to my mind, less intimidating than many cross-country trails which can be eroded with roots and rocks sticking up or built along ledges and edges.
While all downhill trails will have some features, most of them have alternate routes that let you bypass challenging obstacles. You won’t have to jump if you don’t want to jump.
But you may surprised how quickly you’ll gain confidence. As I said, I’m not a strong mountain biker, yet on just my second day of DH biking, I was riding Valhalla, the marquee trail at the Snowmass Bike Park.
And while I may have skipped the largest jumps, I happily took on three consecutive table tops known as the Three Amigos.
This was huge for me, as I’m someone who balks at rocks in the trail when I’m on a mountain bike.
So truly, If I can do it, you can do it – most likely better than me.
More Downhill Biking:
- Keep Looking Ahead: Family Biking at Crested Butte’s Evolution Bike Park, September 3, 2015.
- Downhill Biking for Everyone, August 10, 2015.
- Downhill Biking: Is Dirt the New Snow? August 21, 2013.
- Learning to Love Gravity at Winter Park’s Trestle Bike Park, July 14, 2011.
- Summer in Steamboat, Part 2: Bike Town, USA, July 10, 2014.
- Fish, Bike, Golf: The Granby Ranch Triathlon, August 22, 2012.
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