If you’ve spent any time in the mountains this summer, particularly around ski resorts, you’ve probably seen a lot of bikes.
Mountains and bikes have gone together since the first knobby tires hit a hiking trail in either Marin County, California or Crested Butte, Colorado – depending upon your geographic prejudice and the story you’re being told.
And while many resorts still feature, and are expanding their cross-country and single track offerings, it seems that summer operations at ski resorts are increasingly all about downhill.
Families, Please Apply
Once a sport dominated by twenty-something men, downhill now attracts a more diverse crowd.
“We’re starting to see a lot more women and families get involved in the sport,” shares Steve Hurlbert of Trestle Bike Park at Winter Park, Colorado. “This is a great sign of the sport’s well-being.”
In order to serve this expanding demographic, Winter Park (like many resorts) has added additional beginner and family trails, as well as very popular clinics and camps for women.
Downhill biking is not just riding a mountain bike downhill. It’s a totally different sport with totally different equipment and technique.
An Expert’s Perspective
While I have my own opinions about downhill, I wanted an expert’s take, so I turned to Noah Sears, a pro racer, and the Product and Marketing Manager for MRP, a high-end mountain bike component manufacturer.
BSM: What’s the difference between cross-country and downhill biking?
NS: Let’s draw a parallel to skiing. Unless you’re racing, cross-country and downhill skiing are both skiing. Yet they’re completely different beasts altogether. The same is true with mountain biking.
Cross-country (XC) is very much focused on fitness and endurance and in downhill (DH), all-out speed, momentum, and bike handling are critical. Enduro, or all-mountain, is a combination of the two.
While downhill riding at resorts is definitely gaining momentum in the US, the scene still lags behind what’s happening in the UK and Europe.
BSM: Talk to me about bikes.
NS: Downhill bikes are expensive and specific to the sport. They are really on fun on specialty downhill courses. But these courses can be few and far between, aside from at ski resorts, where you can usually rent a DH bike.
If you want to ride your typical “trail bike,” or at least the type of bike you might throw a leg over daily, look for traditional single track or enduro-type trails that combine the best of XC and DH.
BSM: How would you introduce a friend to DH?
NS: Just about everything you need to know about DH biking can be learned from two YouTube videos: Danny Hart’s famous World Championship run from Champery and Sam Hill’s from Val di Sole in 2008.
Downhill is all about getting down the hill fastest and the top racers have unreal skill at doing so.
BSM: Since most of us aren’t going to ride like Danny Hart or Sam Hill, how do you suggest we get started?
NS: Visit a resort, rent a downhill bike and take a lesson. But be prepared to get hooked!
BSM: And your favorite trails are?
NS: That’s tough – I’m pretty spoiled with such great trails nearby (I live in Fruita, Colorado).
But aside from home, and for DH trails, I’d have to give the nod to Whistler. It’s just the best place on earth. So many types of riding, amazing people, beautiful scenery, and chill, docile black bears everywhere! The resort has invested millions in creating the most extensive lift-accessed trail network in the world. The trails themselves are masterfully built, allowing you to try and do things you never thought possible on a bike.
A Sampling of What’s New
Want to try DH biking? As Noah said, many of the trails are at ski resorts, where you can rent bikes.
Here’s a brief, not at all inclusive, look at what you can enjoy during this last full month of summer.
Trestle Bike Park/Winter Park, Colorado
Kids and families should look for “Green Horn-It!” a new 1/3 mile beginner trail, located next to the tubing hill. It’s designed to give beginners a taste of what to expect in the larger park, including rollers, banked turns, bridges and a pump track.
As for classes and clinics, “Intro to Trestle” is a new 90-minute class for beginners teaching all the skill they’ll need to tackle Trestle’s 40 miles of DH trail, while Trestle’s most popular clinic, the 2-Day Gravity Goddess Camp for women, takes place on August 22-23.
On August 15 -16, Northstar hosts the Pumps on Pedals Weekend for women, with two full days of mountain bike coaching, breakfast and lunch. Participants can participate in downhill, free ride or cross-country mountain biking, as well as hone some other, sometimes neglected skills, like bike maintenance.
And if you can’t make it for the weekend, join the crew for the Pumps on Pedals weekly ride, Friday evenings, now through September 4th.
The self-proclaimed “Bike Town, USA,” Steamboat began cutting DH trail three seasons ago. This summer, work continues with several trail reroutes and expansions, as well as a redesigned pump track in Ski Time Square.
This summer Deer Valley Resort is working with Gravity Logic to update their existing trail inventory and expand their offerings. Check out Tidal Wave, a new intermediate flow trail from the top of Bald Mountain to Silver Lake.
Bike Snowmass continues to expand their progressive terrain, adding new options for beginners and intermediate DH riders. The new Verde beginner trail offers 3.5 miles of fun flow, with an emphasis on cornering and fundamental skills.
The next step up is the improved 2.7 mile Viking trail, which has been redesigned to get riders ready for Valhalla, Snowmass’ signature DH trail. Starting at the top of the Elk Camp Gondola, the Viking trail winds through forest and across meadows before ending at the Snowmass base. Finally, an advanced trail, Vapor Trail, has been improved with berms up to six feet high and other natural features.
There are 14 downhill specific trails at Big Sky off of two lifts, Swift Current and Explorer. Two and one-half hour group and private downhill lessons are available for beginners and up, every day.
If XC is more your style, cruise through the forest on over 40 miles of trail, including new flow trails connecting the Mountain Village and Moonlight areas.
Whistler, British Columbia
As you might guess from Noah’s comments, the Whistler Mountain Bike Park has it all. With almost 5,000 feet of lift-serviced, descending trails, they’e got rides for every ability, age and taste, whether you prefer XC or DH, or a little bit of both. This summer, look for reworked and improved DH trails, including A-Line, Crank it Up (both of which are ready to ride), while work continues on Crack Addict.
Also check out the new Creekside Gondola, that opened on August 7th and provides more convenient access to the bike park.
And families take note. Whistler offers bikes for little people, including 24-inch dual suspension DH bikes and kid-sized mountain bikes.
You can read about those experiences and my tips for first-time and/or timid (that’s me!) downhill bikers at each of the above links.
- Learning to Love Gravity at Winter Park’s Trestle Bike Park, July 14, 2011.
- Downhill Biking: Is Dirt the New Snow? August 21, 2013.
- 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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