I Tried It: Downhill mountain biking

dropkickI spent the past week in Utah with Brian, visiting my family. The trip coincided with a peak week in our respective triathlon training plans – a half-ironman for me, a full ironman for him – so we tried to do as much training as we could, including hikes up mountains, running in my parents’ neighborhood and swimming in a fitness center’s pool of awkward length. (Twelve yards long? Sixteen yards long? I still don’t know!)

One thing we couldn’t really fudge was the bike training, but I wasn’t satisfied to let that go, especially after we made our first of several trips up to Park City, where the streets were full of people on all kinds of bikes and seemingly every corner was home to a bike rental shop.  We made plans to come back up to rent some bikes and ride on a recreational trail we spotted on the road near the Utah Olympic Park, but those plans changed after we made a quick stop by the Canyons Resort and found a pamphlet advertising the resort’s Mountain Biking Academy, which includes a half-day bike rental, a full-day lift pass and the services of an experienced guide.  Since mountain biking is not something we get to do a lot in Florida (lol) we decided to sign up for the 101 class, intended for super-duper beginners.

We showed up at the resort on Saturday morning and the bike rental shop’s staff got to work outfitting us with helmets that covered our entire faces as well as our heads and pads for our elbows, knees and shins. They found bikes to fit us, pumped up the tires and adjusted a few things, then sent us out to ride a couple of laps around the resort while we waited to meet our guide.

Before I go further let me say that while road/triathlon biking and mountain biking are ostensibly similar, the reality is that they are similar in the sense that a hamburger and a filet mignon are similar. The basic elements are the same but the final products are wildly different. For one, I’d forgotten what it was like to ride a bike with flat pedals.  For another, it’s been years since I’d ridden a bike while basically sitting upright.  The saddle was so low compared to the handlebars that I kept feeling like I was going to accidentally knee myself in the stomach. (My tri bike’s saddle is higher than my handlebars.)  Third, the brakes were incredibly responsive.  I’m used to the v-brakes, which squeeze the rim to stop. The bikes had disc brakes, which only required the slightest squeeze to bring the bike to an abrupt halt. And finally, the shocks on my rented mountain bike were incredibly bouncy, which made sense but again, was not something I was used to.

Getting used to our mountain bikes and gear before we head up the mountain.

Getting used to our mountain bikes and gear before we head up the mountain.

We met up with our guide, Dan, a laid-back dude who seemed to be in his early 30s, and he explained the basics of downhilling. One of the most important things he stressed was that when we go downhill – and that was most of what we’d be doing – we had to stand up and use our arms and legs as shock absorbers of sorts, and that sitting down would make things much harder for us. He also told us to make an effort to scan the trail ahead of us so we’d be aware of obstacles well in advance, and told me that I only needed to use one finger on each brake lever, because I’d need all of my other fingers to handle the bike.

After he checked our bikes again, we loaded them onto an enclosed gondola and rode up the mountain, passing over a million pine trees and a huge canyon on our way to the dedicated bike park.  (Everyone who worked there seemed particularly proud of the fact that it was the only dedicated mountain bike park in Park City.)  After that, we got onto another ski lift, this one tricked out with special carriers for mountain bikes, then rode even further up the mountain.

I had been pretty insistent on doing the 101 class, just because I tend to be fairly cautious but also because I had this vision of wiping out and breaking my leg and not being able to race for the rest of the season. However, Brian, who still has a bit of the teenage daredevil in him, was a little concerned that the beginner trails we’d be on were going to be boring and sucky.  His concerns quickly vanished when we made it to the top of the easiest trail, known as the White Rabbit, then started our first descent. (Check out a map of all the trails.)

The trail was narrow single-track that was mostly dirt but went over some pretty big rocks and was lined on both sides by bushes and trees. Some of the downhill areas were pretty steep, with hairpin turns and berms.  The trail also had a wooden feature with two small hills that we called the “rollercoaster,” and while some spots were wide open, other spots were fairly narrow.  You had to be on your game the entire time because crashing was a very real possibility.

I was maybe twenty seconds into my first ride on the White Rabbit when I thought to myself, “Holy shit, THIS is the beginner trail?!” I was clutching my handlebars for dear life, the rocks on the trail threatening to rattle me right off the bike and onto the dirt below. I picked up a lot of speed when I hit some of the few straight downhills, and then suddenly there’d be a turn I’d have to negotiate without eating dirt. I quickly became grateful for the disc brakes, which kept me from hurtling off the trail and into space/trees/rocks/etc. several times.

Every minute or so, Dan would stop at a clearing and wait for us to catch up with him.  We’d catch our breath while he gave us some suggestions on our riding, specifically finding the widest line possible for our turns instead of sticking close to the inside of the trail, then we’d push off again for more downhills and hairpin turns.

Finally, we hit the clearing at the bottom of the trail and rolled up to the base of the ski lift.  Brian and I looked at each other, eyes gleaming, and said, “Let’s do that again!”  We loaded up our bikes and got on the White Rabbit trail again.  This time we knew what to expect, so we could be a little more daring.  I pedaled a little harder on the flats, kept my fingers off the brakes a little more on the downhills. We came upon a set of three small hills, and when I crested the middle hill, I felt myself and the bike become weightless for a second.  “I think I caught some air!” I told the guys during our next stop.

Our next time up, we decided to go for a slightly harder trail, known as the Flying Salmon.  The Flying Salmon didn’t have as many sharp turns but it did have a lot of downhills, and it was very easy to go fast. I was still as cautious as ever but I also wanted to push things a little farther, to go further into the psychological experience that Dan described as “the edge of control.” See, the thing about the kind of cycling I do is that it’s very controlled and repetitive, even when I’m outside.  Sure, you have to dodge obstacles and be alert for potential dangers, but the kind of alertness I feel when riding my tri bike outside is NOTHING compared to the kind of full-body stand-at-attention electrification that happens when you are barreling down a mountain.

A biker flying over a hill on one of the more challenging trails. I did not do this but damn, it would have been cool if I could have.

A biker flying over a hill on one of the more challenging trails. I did not do this but damn, it would have been cool if I could have.

What I’m saying is, it didn’t take long for me to really get into what we were doing. Once that initial period of wariness passed, once I’d felt things out and figured out the basic mechanics of what we were doing, I discovered that I relished that rush of adrenaline that flooded my body as we rumbled down those trails. I started to see why people moved to the mountains and took jobs waiting tables at resorts or as mountain-biking guides, and why they’d risk the possibility of broken limbs and why they’d get back on their bikes again as soon as possible – that feeling was amazing, but also incredibly fleeting, lasting only minutes after the ride ended.

The only times I have that kind of feeling, where I’m feeling completely alive and in the moment and completely, utterly engaged with what I’m doing, is when I’m racing short distances like sprint triathlons and 5Ks.  Your entire being becomes focused like a laser on what you are doing at that exact moment, and there’s no room for anything else, no doubt or fear or apprehension.  You just have to go.  It’s a glorious counterbalance to the predictable comforts of my everyday life, which don’t get me wrong, I appreciate very much, but I also love those little spiritual elbows to the ribs that remind me of how exciting it can be to be alive.

(A quick aside: we noticed that there were some women up there mountain biking, but that it was mostly a sausage fest. Dan said it had actually gotten a lot better in recent years, that more and more women are coming up the mountain to ride, and that some of the women who rode on the mountain were really good. So here’s hoping that gender ratio continues to change!)

Of course, there’s risks involved in things like this, as we found out during our fourth trip down the mountain, when Brian took a berm a little too aggressively.  He overcorrected, then fell off his bike and hit his helmeted head on a rock.  Fortunately he wasn’t injured, but that could have turned out much worse had he not been wearing a helmet. (PLEASE WEAR YOUR HELMETS IF YOU AREN’T ALREADY.)  I was lucky enough to not have any such mishaps – the only bruises and scrapes on my body came courtesy of the ski lift – but I was definitely rattled by Brian’s fall.  It was a reminder that risky behavior can be fun and exhilarating, but it’s also risky.  (Not that I needed the reminder but still.)

After a couple of hours, the altitude had caught up to me. My legs were worn out from being used as shock absorbers, and my knuckles hurt from clutching the handlebars in their death grip. I was totally worn out.  We came back over the canyon and down the mountain, then turned in our bikes and thanked Dan for taking such good care of us. After that we went to a little snack stand/bar in the middle of the resort and I drank some Golden Spike beer (btw delicious and highly recommended!) and we split a chicken Caesar salad.  Both of us were so excited about what we had just done, it was all we could talk about.

Bonus ski lift selfie! Now with extra crooked sunglasses.

Bonus ski lift selfie! Now with extra crooked sunglasses.

We still had the all-day lift pass, so after we finished up, we went back up the mountain and hiked along the ridgeline on the west side of the property.  From there we were able to see some of the more challenging bike trails, and to watch some of the more experienced bikers, especially on the jumps that let them catch some serious air. We heard one guy, who had just landed a pretty serious jump, say, “Man, that was so fun!”

I don’t think I’ll have the opportunity to do anymore downhilling like that in the near future, but it definitely whetted my appetite to explore different kinds of cycling, like the single-track in the Croom tract near Brooksville, or even cyclocross, which is increasingly appealing to me.  But even though I’ll most likely never be as good as the riders who were flying through the air on those jumps, I’m still happy that I got the chance to try downhilling, even if it was only for one day.


12 responses to “I Tried It: Downhill mountain biking

  1. I LOVE mountain biking. I picked it up when I moved to Colorado last year. It’s so hard and the beginning had lots of gasping for air, crashes, swearing, and crying. Thankfully that’s considerably less now. I’ve grown to prefer it over road riding because there aren’t angry middle aged white guys in SUVs screaming at me on the trails.

    I wish I could get more women to bike. I’ve found some really badass ladies to ride with here which has really improved my confidence. Plus, mountain bike chicks are the coolest. The response I get from a lot of people about it is that they’re scared to do it because they’ll crash. (And yes, I crash – A LOT. I just figure it makes me tougher.)

    Nice work on DH! I’ve never tried it, but there’s a women’s Wednesday at Breck that sounds pretty awesome.

    • The crashing part is the one thing that gives me pause, because I KNOW it’s going to happen if I were to do this again. (Just like low-speed crashes were inevitable when I learned how to use clipless pedals.) The only thing I can take comfort from is knowing that if I fall it’ll be on dirt instead of asphalt.

      Also, I totally hear you on the angry dudes in SUVs screaming at you. I rarely ride on roads so I don’t have any personal stories but the people I know who DO ride on roads…oh boy, they’ve told me some things! There are some scary people out there.

  2. I’m glad you liked it. I prefer cross-country, as I really enjoy the cardio, and also, let’s be frank, the much reduced speed…
    There are many women riding groups now, everywhere. They (She Jumps, Muddbunnies, and other grassroots groups) really thought me a lot, without ever discouraging me. Join one!

    • If I decide to change my sporting focus – right now I’m pretty dedicated to triathlon – I will definitely keep this in mind. Thank you!

  3. This sounds amazing! My husband and I are going to Big Bend National Park in TX over Thankgiving Break and we’re hoping to do some mountain biking there. I don’t think they have downhill mountain biking with a lift and everything like you experienced, but I think it will be fun nonetheless. We tried mountain biking for the first time on some trails near Bend, OR last summer and it was such a fun ride!

  4. I bet you would LOVE cyclocross. That laser-sharp focus you are talking about? It happens in cyclocross more than anywhere else, for me at least. And on top of that, there’s ALL THE SUFFERING involved. Cross HURTS … but it is ridiculous amount of fun. It’s been really great int he last few years to see more women coming out and racing cross. I started six(ish) years ago and then took a couple years off to have a baby. My first few years we’d have 15-20 women in the Cat 4 race. Last year we had 50-60! It is so much fun. You might also really dig XC mountain biking. Bikes are the best. Go bikes!

    • I would so love to do cyclocross! I’m kind of obsessed with it and really want to give it a try. I had initially thought that the bike issue would be an obstacle, but I was thinking about this after I saw your comment and it occurred to me that I could probably swap out the tires on my old road bike for something more appropriate and put some flat pedals on it. What kind of bike setup do you use for cyclocross?

      • I have no idea if you could use a modified road bike as a cross bike. It’s not at all uncommon for people to ride hardtail mountain bikes when they’re just getting started but I’m not sure about road. I ride a Ridley CX bike with Crank Bros mountain bike pedals on it. The good thing about cyclocross bikes is that you can use them for so many different types of riding. My husband got rid of his road bike and uses his cx bike on the road and I have a friend that did a full Ironman on his cx bike. And they’re awesome for riding gravels, easy dirt, etc. In other words, cross bikes are awesome and a great excuse to get another bike. 😉

      • OMG I’m a little overwhelmed by how many different kinds of bikes there are. I’m really starting to see how people end up accumulating a bunch of bikes. I’m about to get a cruiser just for kicking around town, which will make it the fourth bike in my house, for two adults! We’ll be overrun soon, I just know it.

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