Downhill biking, as far as adrenaline sports go, is relatively young. If you’re new to the sport, even a quick glance at photos and videos can cause a serious case of sweaty palms. But as the sport grows, trails are becoming more varied, more accessible, and more friendly to beginners, experts, and every would-be downhiller in between.
If you’ve ever wanted to try downhill mountain biking, from one newbie downhiller to another, here’s a quick look at how to make the most of that first day.
What to Bring, or Rent
The right gear, apparel, and accessories can make or break your first day on the trails. Some of the items on this list can be rented at the bike park, just in case you’re not ready to drop some serious cash on sport-specific equipment.
1. Full Suspension Downhill (DH) Bike (Rent)
Downhill bikes are rugged, and with good reason. They have plush suspension for riding over giant roots and rocks, are generally heavier, and hold up extremely well under intense pressure. The majority have disc brakes, chain guards, a ton of travel, and gear settings specific to gnarly terrain. Though some beginner-friendly trails at some bike parks may give you a chance to use your trusty cross country or all-mountain hardtail bike, renting a downhill bike is highly recommended. They’re built the way they are for a reason, and bike park staff can size and tune them based on your needs.
2. Body Armor (Rent or Bring)
Whether you’re a beginner or a pro, protect your body as much as possible. Knee pads, gloves, and a full padded jacket are highly recommended. Even if you’re in a long sleeve padded shirt, consider wearing a separate long sleeved shirt or jersey to protect your skin.
3. A Full Helmet (Rent or Bring) & Eye Protection (Bring)
Renting a sport-specific noggin protector is a must, unless you’ve got a full face helmet lying around. Don’t take any chances. The helmet should be snug, but not too snug, and shouldn’t negatively affect your ability to see. Speaking of seeing, make sure you’ve got something to protect your eyes. Dirt, rocks, and other debris aren’t friendly to your eyeballs, so don’t let them near each other.
4. Bike Clothing (Bring)
Though you’ll rarely sit down on your bike at the bike park (crazy, right?), it still helps to have bike-specific apparel. Non-cotton, sweat-wicking tops are always great to have, and bike shorts or pants are as well. You can bike in non-sport specific bottoms without anything that might catch on the pedals or other parts of the bike if you take a spill, but protect your skin from gravel, roots, and rocks.
What to Expect on the Trails
If you’re a veteran resort skier or snowboarder, you’ll notice similarities between resort skiing and resort downhill biking. You take a lift to the top of the mountain, and make your own way down. Trails are rated with green circles, blue squares, and black diamonds to signify levels of difficulty. Easier runs will be less steep, flow more smoothly, and force riders over minimal obstacles. More difficult runs may require vertical drops and serious steepness along with narrow bridges and other challenging obstacles. Study a trail map and ask for recommendations ahead of time. Regardless of difficulty, most trails will have spots to pull over in case you’ve got other riders coming up behind you, or if you need a break.
Beginner Downhill Biking Tips
Though reading lists of tips definitely helps, try taking a lesson. Bike parks like Whistler in British Columbia and Trestle in Winter Park, Colorado offer beginner sessions to get you comfortable. Some one-on-one time with an instructor can help you learn the most efficient ways to ride, and how to efficiently load your bike on to the lift (it’s not easy!).
When it comes to loading your bike on the lift, make sure you have your hands free and give yourself enough room between you and other riders. Start by pushing your front wheel into the carrier until it’s secure, then pick up the back tire and set it in. Try loading your bike on the inside of the carrier; it’s technically moving more slowly than the outside.
Once you’re off the lift and on your bike, try riding the same trail a few times to get familiar with the terrain. Knowing where the berms, bumps, and obstacles are can give you more time to work technique and get comfortable. See how it feels going over big rocks, roots, and around corners.
When you’re going over an obstacle, keep your eyes on the trail ahead and in the direction you want your bike to go. Staring at an obstacle almost guarantees you’re going to hit it. And when you’re taking on a steep corner, look for the end of the corner, not at the terrain right in front of you. (Take it from someone who’s launched themselves over the berm!)
Finally, accept that it’s likely you’re going to fall at some point. It might not be on your first, second, or third day, but at some point, it’s probably going to happen, and that’s why body armor, helmets, and pads are so important. But no matter your experience level, know your limits, and be responsible for knowing when it’s time to get off and walk, and when it’s time to push through the fear.