Thrill Seeker? Check Out Downhill Mountain Biking

Check out what's happening on the slopes during the summer season
Downhill mountain bikers navigate a series of rocks, roots and man-made features on their way down the trail.
Photo by Max Gosselin/Attitash Mountain Resort

Across New Hampshire, downhill mountain bikers take the lift before busting through the woods on narrow single track, maintenance roads, along S-turns, over wooden bridges, through water, around tight corners and more.

They wear an assortment of protection that came from the motocross world, making them look like dirt trail warriors. There are knee and shin guards as well as forearm and elbow guards. For the hands are full-fingered gloves, some with carbon fiber in the knuckles as a safeguard against scraping trees while taking a tight, lean line. On the head is a full face helmet and goggles.

“Any equipment that can prevent injury is a good idea as long as it doesn’t limit your ability to maneuver the bike,” says Nate Waterhouse, Attitash mountain bike programs coordinator.

Dedicated downhill bikes are different than those used by traditional cross-country riding mountain bikers. Among the characteristics are lower seats and wider tires.
The sport has California origins in the mid-1970s when dedicated Marin County cyclists rode their old-school, balloon-tired bikes with coaster brakes down fire roads. The 1984 Kamikaze Downhill at Mammoth is heralded as the first lift-accessed downhill mountain bike race.

Downhill centers offer clinics and are stops for races too.

“Check out a race and see what it is like,” says Waterhouse. “The events are exciting to watch and you get a sense of the cycling community.  The riders take the racing seriously but still are really excited for everyone who competes.”

So get up and let gravity do its thing.

Fact: Downhill mountain biking is a nerves-of-steel, time-trial discipline on the World Cup circuit.

Photo by Max Gosselin/Attitash Mountain Resort

Expert Advice from Nate Waterhouse

How does a downhill mountain bike differ from a regular mountain bike? The major differences will be in the amount of suspension travel and the geometry of the frame. A DH bike typically has eight inches of rear suspension travel, some have as much as 10 inches. The fork will look more like what you would see on a motocross bike than a bicycle also with eight inches of travel. The extra suspension travel allows you to get through the rougher terrain easier. The geometry of a DH bike is a bit slacker, meaning that the front wheel is a little more out in front of you. This helps you to keep from going over the bars when you start going downhill. They tend to be a bit heavier with wider tires and burlier parts. The bikes are geared for going down, not climbing up, so climbing efficiency is not a priority.

What kind of features will riders find going down the trails? We like to keep it as natural as possible. You would find rocks, roots, varying width of trails and some man-made bridges to help you get over some nastier sections. There are also drops, jumps, banked corners and other things to play on. We like to let the riders interpret the terrain and have multiple line choices on the trail.

What’s the best way to get into downhill mountain biking? Try it with a guide. They can help you with some of the trails to start on and some of the tactics for braking and bike handling that will make your first runs a lot more fun.

Isn’t it scary? It can be a bit scary. When you get more comfortable with what you can do on a DH bike and how much the bike will help you, it gets more fun. I think the thing that scares people a lot is using the front brake. We often see people trying to do all of their braking with the rear brake. This will slow you down but will take a lot longer to stop, and you also lose control of the rear wheel while it’s skidding.  A balanced braking approach can make your first rides a lot more fun.

How do I get good at it? There are lessons and camps available to help you develop skills to become more successful and confident. You should also ask some of the riders that you see out on the hill. Most are really friendly and willing to share their knowledge and experience.

Is there some sort of trail rating and responsibility code like skiing and snowboarding have? We use a similar trail rating as ski areas use with green circle, blue square and black diamond. There is a code that IMBA (International Mountain Bicycling Association) uses for the trail riding that is a good guide to use. If you are going to stop while on run, be sure to stop and move off the trail so that other riders can get past you safely.

Isn’t this more of a youthful pursuit? You’re only as old as you feel. We have some people that are still riding hard and fast in their 50s and beyond. I think that this is a sport that anyone can enjoy as long as they are tactically smart and willing to ride within their limits.

Categories: Outsider, Summer Sports