Downhill mountain biking is great fun—
a wholesome, family-friendly sport that provides the perfect excuse to get out in the fresh air and hurt yourself. Actually, it needn't be unduly risky. More than 80 ski areas around the country now offer lift-served mountain bike trails, and a healthy number of those trails are mellow affairs, suitable for folks with all but the most advanced cases of acrophobia or osteoporosis. If you're just picking up the sport, you don't have to do the things I did. You don't have to mentally dismiss those easy trails as being "for wussies." Nobody will insist that you launch yourself down a run marked "experts only" on your first day. There's no law mandating that you take corners too fast or make even a halfhearted attempt to ride on elaborate man-made "freeride" features. You can have plenty of fun without taking undue risks. But one word of advice: If you're renting gear and you're given a choice, skip the garden-variety ventilated bike helmet and go for the full-face, hardshell, motocross-style model.
Brian Wood wears a motocross-style helmet. This he supplements with an elaborate armature of Robocop-grade shin protectors, elbow guards and padded gloves. I, conversely, have come to Winter Park, Colo., attired for a breezy Sunday cruise: bike jersey, shorts, entry-level bike helmet and no supplemental protection of any kind.
This disparity doesn't bother me as we suit up—doesn't even register, really—though I do notice that one of the back-shop guys has his arm in a sling. Wood, a former road bike racer from Nebraska, manages Winter Park's bike shop and has agreed to introduce me to mountain biking. He'll be my coach and guide on the hill and, by day's end, the source of no small amount of wonder and awe on my part. The guy flies down the side of a mountain on a bike as casually as most people descend the front steps to collect their morning newspaper.
But first we need to get up the hill. We wheel our bicycles across the tidy plaza at Winter Park's base and board the Zephyr Express quad. The attendants hang our bikes on the back of an unoccupied chair behind us. It's sunny and warm, and as we ride up the mountain and chat, it occurs to me that one of the coolest things about mountain biking in summer at a ski resort is that you get a detailed look at precisely what lies underneath all that fluffy, forgiving snow you're used to blithely sailing through all winter. A few of the things you see: small jagged rocks, medium-sized jagged rocks, large rocks that are too big to qualify as acutely jagged but that still present as sharp-edged, multifaceted instruments of potential biker doom. I find myself with an enhanced appreciation for snow.
Things aren't nearly as gnarly as they first appear, it turns out—not on the bikes we're riding. Winter Park and other resorts will happily rent you the latest in specialized downhill mountain bikes. These are no mere bikes: They've got elaborate front and rear shocks, hydraulic disc brakes with the stopping power of a .44 Magnum, sophisticated gearing systems and preposterously knobby steel-belted tires that wouldn't look out of place at a monster-truck show. They're masterpieces of modern engineering, Gear with a capital G. "These bikes will almost ride themselves," Wood says. "It's like what shape did for skis. They're smoother, more stable." And it's true. Today's bikes are capable of absorbing not only the shocks administered by much of the geological detritus that litters the trails, but also the most extreme bike trails themselves—narrow, dusty tracks riven by a devil's dice roll of grooves, cracks, crevices, gullies, wadis and other microtopographical anomalies.
At the top, after we reclaim our bikes, Wood offers a few words of initial advice, which I'll pass along here: As you descend, stand up, keeping the bike's pedals flat, even and parallel to the slope. They're more platforms than anything else. What passes for a saddle is largely ornamental, though you can brace it against your thigh as you lean the bike through turns. And whatever you do, keep your weight back on the way down. "It's just like riding the back seat on a powder day," Wood tells me. "If you're bearing down hard on your front wheel, you're going to sink." Or more to the point, sink your face into the dirt in front of you.
My first run—a winding spin down a blue trail called Cheyenne—goes well. It takes a few minutes to learn the bike, to ascertain what it will and will not tolerate, and to acclimate to (and, ultimately, to appreciate) the runaway-train feel inherent to the sport. You pick up speed fast on a bike on a mountain, and there are so many seemingly worrisome things—rocks, gullies, etc.—coming at you so fast that to try to allot each its own full and appropriate measure of worry is futile. The key, then, is simply not to worry about most of those things, trust the bike to handle all but the truly fearsome, and to relax and enjoy the many joys of the sport. There's the keen sensation of speed, obviously, along with the manifest benefits of being outdoors on a mountain in summer. There's also the opportunity to revel in the paradoxical pleasures derived from a simultaneous sense of yourself as, yes, one small man in the vast embrace of almighty nature—but also as one bad dude dominating that mother with the aid of a meticulously engineered can of two-wheeled whoop-ass. In short, it's exhilarating.
Of course, sometimes nature wins. Later in the morning, just as I'm becoming confident, the trail I'm riding dives and takes a sharp right turn into a stand of trees. I'm going too fast, but not too fast to sense that one of these trees is about to end up someplace it really shouldn't, like in my mouth. I brake and cut the handlebars sharply in a frantic effort to get back on track. If I'd been driving an SUV, I would have rolled the thing. As it is, Newton's First Law of Motion plays slapjack with my bike, and I go down hard on my side. I'm unhurt. A little shaken maybe, dirt-encrusted for sure. But wait. Look at my helmet—my garden-variety, ventilated bike helmet. Is that a crack? Yikes. So it's carefully down to the base to swap out for a new helmet. This time, mine's just like Wood's—though my technique still has a ways to go. I take another run or two, enjoy the views, thrill to the speed, try some more stuff I maybe shouldn't have. Most important, perhaps, I resolve to come back next summer, to practice, to really learn the sport. You don't have to do the things I did, it's true. But they worked out pretty well for me.
FOUR GREAT PLACES TO TAKE THE PLUNGE
>Winter Park, Colo.
Like many of its Intrawest brethren, Winter Park has a highly evolved summer mountain bike program, with lessons, tours and rentals.
Home to regional championship events, Keystone has a broad range of terrain and offers instruction ranging from one-hour clinics to two-day camps. 970- 496-2316, keystone.snow.com
With 80 miles of summer trails and an elaborate bike park, Mammoth lives up to its name. Three-day summer bike camps include one specifically for women. 800-626-6684, mammothmountain.com
>Mount Snow, Vt.
Eastern mountains may be smaller in vertical than their Western counterparts, but Mount Snow rides big. Clinics cover everything from technique to safety to bike repair. 802-464-4040, mountsnow.com