“Okay, now remember, look ahead to your exit. When you do that, the turns will be easy,” said David, our downhill biking coach. My husband, older son and I were at the Trestle Bike Park at Winter Park, Colorado. It was a beautiful July morning with bright sun, puffy clouds, gorgeous wildflowers and a mountain covered in adrenaline-pumping, endorphin-loading downhill bike trails.
“Slow down going into the turn, pressure your handlebars and accelerate out. You are controlling the bike and the mountain, not the other way around” said David. He could see the doubt in my eyes and hesitation in my movements. One might think that since I ski aggressively, I’d be comfortable with going downhill and making tight turns. I am — on skis.
But take me off my feet, eliminate the connection between me and the ground and I develop an unreasonable fear of gravity. I like to slog uphill when I bike, mainly because when going uphill I feel that I am in control of my bike, rather than my bike being in control of me. Going downhill, I panic a bit and often cede authority to the bike. While this may work on short descents, it is treacherous on longer downhills and it certainly wasn’t going to work at Winter Park.
Gravity Biking Isn’t Mountain Biking
As we quickly found out, downhill, or gravity, biking is completely different from mountain biking. We started the morning at the Trestle Bike Shop in the Village, dressed in our sporty mountain bike shorts and brightly colored jerseys, only to find out that we’d be covered in enough body armor to take on a battalion of Roman gladiators: Full face helmets, chest protectors, elbow and knee pads and goggles.
Fully decked out, we went to get our bikes. No peppy, cross-country models these. The downhill bikes were sturdy to the extreme, with industrial-strength suspension and ridiculously low seats. We pedaled over to the Zephyr Express lift and I boarded with David, our coach. A former pro, he spent 15 years on Wall Street after leaving cycling and returned to coaching in 2009. “When Wall Street went south,” he told me, “I went north.”
Like any good coach, he asked me what I wanted from today’s lesson. “I want to be able to go downhill and make tight turns without being terrified,” I answered. “We can do that, ” he confidently replied. When he asked my 14 year-old son what he wanted from the day, my son stated “I want to be challenged.” “We can do that,” affirmed David.
And, sure enough, David expertly met both of these goals throughout the course of our lesson. Up at the top, in front of the Sunspot Lodge, we relearned how to ride a bike. We learned a new way to turn, a new stance, a new approach to braking: basically tossing out everything we do in cross-country mountain or road bike riding. Fully informed (and, in my case, somewhat confused), we started down the Green World trail, which as you might guess, is an easy route down. Like ski trails, downhill bike trails are rated green, blue and black.
Less Thinking, More Riding
Part way down, David noticed that I was “thinking” too much, trying to make all the suggested changes at once. He wisely gave me just one thing to think about urging me to relax my hands, keep just my forefinger on the brake lever and let all the other fingers dangle down. It worked. I released my death grip and started to flow better down the trail. Soon, he had transitioned us to a blue trail and by the time we were at the top again, we were riding blue and black trails, with berms, boulders, drop offs, tree roots, rocks and crazy, undulating, angular wooden bridges.
I couldn’t believe that I was riding these trails. I had started out nervous and ended up much more confident. After going over one bridge that went up, dropped sharply, went up again and then table topped out before one last drop, I laughed aloud, realizing that while I was not riding over the larger features like the guys in my family, I was handling the moderate ones and handling them with increasing confidence.
Keeping my weight way forward was a big adjustment but one which helped me to rule my bike, rather than let my bike rule me. Looking ahead and planning an exit strategy was the next big factor in my improvement. At the end of the lesson, I was much more confident, going downhill and turning without (much) fear.
As for my son’s desire to be challenged, here’s some of what he and my husband accomplished:
When You Go…..
Trestle Bike Park is open 7 days a week this summer from 9:30-5:00. Mountain access is provided by the Zephyr Express, the Eskimo Express and the Gemini Express lifts. Daily tickets are $37 for an adult and $29 for a child. Half-day tickets (1:30-5:00) are $29 and $19. For a Trestle Bike Park trail map, click here. Hours are extended to 7:00 p.m. on Womens’ Wednesdays (guys can ride late too — but the girls get the deals) and Freeride Fridays.
While we saw plenty of people on regular mountain bikes without all the gear, you can rent a downhill bike and all the equipment at the Trestle Bike Shop. Or better yet, take a lesson and the gear is included.
This upcoming weekend, July 16-17, Winter Park is hosting the Trek Dirt Series Mountain Bike Camp for women only. Spend the weekend honing your cross-country or downhill skills. The Trek Camp is open to women of all abilities, just so long as they ride on dirt.
On July 28-31, Winter Park hosts Crankworx Colorado, one of the largest gravity festivals in the U.S. Think X-Games on downhill bikes and you’ve got the idea. Participation by the pros is by invitation only, but you can get in on the fun as a spectator or as a participant in the Intergalactic Pond Crossing on Saturday, July 30. While there is an entrance fee to cross the pond, and on-mountain races require a lift ticket, it is absolutely free to watch the Slopestyle, Dual Slalom and Pond Crossing action at the base.
Finally, for more information about lodging and all the summer action at Winter Park, including concerts, Star Safaris, movies, festivals and a multitude of base activities including Colorado’s longest Alpine Slide, please visit the Winter Park website and calendar of events.