I’m not one for body armor. While I always wear a helmet when I ski or bike, my taste in sports tends to run toward puffy jackets and cute running skirts. Yet here I was with my family, dressed in head-to-toe padding, boarding the Elk Camp gondola at Snowmass, Colorado with our downhill biking coach, Kevin Jordan.
Aboard the gondola, we extricated ourselves from helmets and full-face masks and began talking about biking. Surprisingly, the discussion wasn’t about how different downhill biking is from cross- country mountain biking, but rather, how similar downhill biking is to skiing.
Dirt is the New Snow
Some of the parallels are obvious: A lift takes you to the top of the mountain and gravity brings you back down. Runs are rated green, blue and black and to play, you have to pay, by buying a lift ticket and bike haul pass.
And, just as with skiing, to really enjoy the sport there are a few common sense rules.
1. Wear the Right Clothes.
Start with loose shorts and a shirt and then pile it on: sturdy-soled shoes, knee and shin pads, back and chest protection, shoulder and elbow pads, gloves, a helmet and goggles (or sunglasses).
While you can get on the bike and the mountain without all of these pads, we quickly found that being padded up made us more confident. Who cares if you fall when it’s not going to hurt?
Or, as Kevin Jordan, the Mountain Bike Coordinator at Bike Snowmass puts it, “In the winter, we’ve got a huge white mattress called snow that softens and pads you if you fall. Now, there’s no snow, so you need pads for protection.”
2. Use the Right Gear.
Downhill bikes are not the same as cross-country mountain bikes. They are much heavier, with sturdy pedals, wide handlebars and a much lower seat. The bikes generally have about 8 inches of suspension front and rear and the overall geometry is different. Designed for the downhill sport, they are worthless on a cross-country trail, put perfect for rolling, jumping and flying downhill. Sure, you can use your cross-country bike on downhill trails, but to really enjoy the sport you will want the right equipment.
3. Invest in a Lesson.
Resorts that offer downhill biking offer downhill lessons and clinics, along with equipment rentals. At Bike Snowmass, beginners are taught the “ABCs” of downhill biking, in which the “A” stands for Action Stance, the “B” stands for Braking and the “C” stands for Cornering.
As with first time ski lessons, we started on flat ground learning how to stand, go, stop and turn. After we could control our forward motion effectively, we progressed to a skills park and pump track part way up the mountain.
Here we practiced cornering and riding over bridges and arches. When Kevin felt we had the necessary skills in place, we got back on the gondola and rode trails the rest of the day.
4. Know where to Après.
As every skier knows, at the end of the day, you need a place to celebrate and share with friends the absolute-incredible-ness of the day. It’s no different with biking. A fun choice in Snowmass is the adult- and kid-friendly Ranger Station, adjacent to the Westin Resort.
Affiliated with New Belgium Brewery, Ranger Station is bright and comfortable with thirteen beers on tap. With so many options, a beer tasting is the way to go, unless you’re a kid, and then it’s all about the fresh-squeezed lemonade.
On the menu you’ll find pretzel rolls, paninis, nachos, chili and more. To top it off, or maybe to get things started, check out the S’Mores Chocolate Chip Waffle. Looking for something a bit fancier, yet still Rocky Mountain casual? Cross the courtyard and enjoy the Snowmass Kitchen’s casual, yet gourmet home-cooking and unique cocktails.
From Easy Rider to Valhalla
Bike Snowmass has three dedicated downhill trails and over 50 miles of cross-country track. We started on the green downhill trail, Easy Rider. Thanks to our morning lesson and controlled practice, we felt comfortable on this initial descent. After one run on Easy Rider, Kevin took us to Valhalla, the premier trail at Bike Snowmass (Vapor Trail, higher up on the mountain, is rated blue). After one taste of Valhalla, there was no looking back. Downhill biking is 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, Press, Release) progression and jump your skills up to the next level.