‘Hesitation is your enemy’ on a downhill bike
EAGLE COUNTY – There is a breed of body-armor-clad adrenaline junkies that try to get in as many summer days as they can on the mountain.You thought a season pass was just for the winter? Wrong.Downhill bikers have been using theirs all summer, putting in as many runs as allowed in their work day schedules and weekends.”I get a split shift, so I just got done doing two runs,” said Jay Madrid, who works at Wheel Base bike shop in Lionshead. “I’ve been up 32 times this year. I go every chance I get.”Madrid recently relocated to Vail from the East Coast, where he was the Mid-Atlantic Cup downhill masters champion in 2004. He said he moved to Vail specifically to ride downhill.
“I’ve been to other places that have a whole lot more,” he said. “Vail only has four trails. But this mountain is so tall. Back East, you spend a day going back and forth on the lift. You spend 20 minutes going down the hill here versus five back East. It’s definitely better that way. I wish there was more. I wish it was more like Whistler with all kinds of terrain parks and like 100 trails.”Vail’s downhill evolutionWhile it has yet to match some of the offerings of British Columbia, which in the last five years has earned itself a reputation as something of a downhill biking Mecca, Vail has come a long way, according to DH riders who have been in town a while.”Vail kind of went through a renaissance,” said Jay Lucas, who opened Wheel Base in 1993. “Vail saw downhill as sort of an outlaw sport. After a lot of community involvement, we changed their minds. Downhilling has grown tremendously. What we have now is a better riding trail system than we’ve ever had. In the last three years, they’ve done nothing but build trails. And all the jumps and features are hand-groomed and handmade. You can’t beat that. Before, all we had was renegade trails.”
The downhill trails on Vail Mountain are marked with black or double-black diamonds, equipped with signs recommending downhill equipment and specifying “experts only.”While downhill is a genre of mountain biking, many downhillers feel a closer affinity to motocross riders than with their cross-country counterparts.”Most guys who do it have a BMX background,” Lucas said. I used to cross-train with road bikes. All I do now is ride downhill bikes and dirtbikes. All the bike-handling skills you learn as a kid can be used for both.”Madrid, who also has a history of riding BMX as well as crosscountry, said that downhill is a natural transition for crosscountry mountain bikers who prefer going down to going up.
What goes down, goes down fast”If you really like coming down better than going up and you’re not so concerned about checking your heart rate or eating protein bars, it’s really more of an adrenaline thing,” Madrid said. “I personally don’t go up at all any more. I have a hard time with stairs.”While some people stare perplexed as downhill bikers pedal through Vail on bikes with low seats that look like motorcyles with no engines, wearing full-face helmets, knee, elbow and sometimes chest pads. But the ride, downhillers say, is unlike anything other cyclists are used to.”A downhill bike is so different,” Lucas said. “It changes your perspective on what a bicycle can do. Obstacles that look difficult on a crosscountry bike look natural and easy on a downhill bike.”Some downhillers catch grief from crosscountry cyclists, many of whom feel it’s necessary to pedal up before riding down. Any downhiller will point out that the weight of their bikes (about 45 pounds), coupled with the technical nature of the terrain with rock drops and other obstacles involving quick moves, makes for a physically demanding activity.
“If you get two hours in, it’s like having a day on the mountain skiing,” said Michelle Rampelt, who just began downhilling three years ago and has done a few competitions as a beginner and a sport rider. “Some people think it’s just coasting down the mountain. But it’s completely taxing and physically exhausting. You have to be so alert and aware.”Most downhill bikes feature about 9 inches of front and rear travel. Riders say that speed is the recommended technique when attempting to clear technical obstacles on a trail.”Hesitation is your enemy in any kind of downhill situation,” Madrid said. “You just have to go for it and take the consequences. If you make it, you’re stoked. If you don’t, you eat (expletive).”Crashing is often a part of any kind of mountain biking. Many downhillers feel they’re safer than mountain bikers with full suspension or hard-tail bikes because of their heavy hydraulic brake systems, suspension and required protective gear. That’s not to say there’s nothing frightening about bombing down a dirt trail as fast as possible, jumping and dropping off of rocks, berms, ramps and walls.
“Our bikes are so cushy,” Rampelt said. “You have to protect yourself, though. I don’t know how crosscountry riders go downhill without a full-face helmet. Downhill is a rush. I think I definitely like to be scared. In-bounds, on the mountain skiing in the winter, you typically aren’t scared. Most of us who have lived here for a while aren’t scared anymore. I can still scare myself on a downhill bike.”Season winding downThe downhill season in Vail is in its last few weeks. Bikers can haul their bikes up the gondola in Lionshead from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily through Labor Day for $29 per day for an adult ticket. The same ticket can also be used to ride the Vista Bahn in Vail Village from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Friday, Saturday and Sunday through Labor Day. Both the gondola and the Vista Bahn will run from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. the following two weekends: Sept. 9, 10, 11 and Sept. 16, 17 and 18. Some shops in Vail (Wheel Base, Vail Bike Tech) rent downhill bikes and gear. Prices range from $40 for four hours to around $85 for the day.Sports Writer Shauna Farnell can be reached at 949-0555, ext. 610, or firstname.lastname@example.org.Vail, Colorado
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