The first time I saw a “dirt is the new snow” t-shirt, my family and I were checking in at Winter Park’s Trestle Bike Park to try downhill biking.
Experienced mountain bikers, we thought we’d be coasting downhill all day, subbing in chairlift rides and subbing out sustained climbs.
We didn’t realize that we were about to try a new sport, as different from cross-country mountain biking as alpine skiing is from telemark skiing.
Downhill Biking is Everywhere
Since that summer day, downhill biking has become commonplace at ski areas and resorts across North America.
From major resorts, like Mammoth Mountain and Killington, to smaller ski areas like Angel Fire and Spirit Mountain, letting gravity guide you downhill has become nearly as popular in summer as in winter.
The most recent count by MTBParks.com shows 107 bike parks in North America, with 93 in the U.S., most of which are at ski resorts.
This makes sense. Ski resorts have the terrain and uphill infrastructure. And summer in the mountains is both beautiful and blissfully cool. Ski resorts also have visitors looking for fun, photo ops and new experiences.
This gives downhill biking a lot of appeal, whether you’re a complete novice, an expert rider, a family with kids or retired nomads cruising the country.
If you’re looking for some fast-paced summer fun, a new challenge and possibly a new recreational addiction, it’s time to try downhill.
Starting Off Right
Yes, you can show up with your mountain bike and happily ride some of the easier trails, but the downhill experience is safer, more stable and more fun on a downhill specific bike.
While one can dive into the specifications, all you need to know is that downhill bikes are heavier and longer and have more suspension than cross-country bikes. They also have different gearing and brakes, and a much lower seat, making pedaling uphill nearly impossible.
As for clothing and gear, some of it, like flat shoes and full gloves, crosses over. However downhill riders also sport full face helmets and body armor.
Fun for Everyone, Especially Beginners
In 2015, I interviewed a spokesperson for Winter Park who told me, “We’re starting to see a lot more women and families get involved with downhill.”
While this was notable four years ago, it isn’t anymore, with bike parks expanding their terrain to appeal to all types of riders.
Just as with skiing, there is no “right” age to start, you just have to want to try.
If you’re a newcomer to downhill, rent a bike and take a lesson. Go at your own pace. Stop when you need a rest. Drink water and eat snacks.
And if you’re riding with kids, be prepared for your children to catch on quickly and pass you.
It isn’t so much that dirt is the new snow, as that dirt is just dirt.
And come summertime, dirt is fun for everyone.
Tips for Success
Birgit Morris is a national champion downhill racer at Marion University. Morris started mountain biking in western Colorado when she was eight years old, but didn’t try downhill until 2015.
She’s been hooked ever since.
“I love the thrill, the adrenaline, the aspect of taking risks and not knowing what is around the next corner. With downhill, you never know what to expect.”
Here are her tips for getting started, enjoying the sport and staying safe.
1. Start slow. Start on an easy trail and progress from green to blue to black trails as you get more comfortable.
2. Follow riders who are better than you are. Morris learned to ride by following her dad on trails and she believes this is a great way to learn. Observe and mimic the lines other riders take. Copy how they shift their weight and improve by matching their movements.
3. Don’t start off too big. Apply the snowsports terrain park mantra to downhill biking: pre-ride, re-ride, free ride. Start slow on new trails. Scope out the terrain and the features. On the next ride, cautiously pick up the pace. On your third ride (or whenever you’re ready), bump up the speed and the adrenalin.
4. Have fun! Morris happily admits that she still feels “a little bit scared” when riding downhill, but she embraces this, believing that the fear adds to the challenge which adds to the fun.
Just remember, when starting out, make sure the fun outweighs the fear.