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Downhill Mountain Biking Demystified: A Beginner’s Guide

Words by Tana Hoffman and Lorraine Blancher, pictured above. Justa Jeskova photo.  

Even as seasoned athletes and adventurers, I’m guessing that most of us have turned down the opportunity to try something new and awesome at least once in our lifetime. Maybe a friend invited us to go climbing for the first time or try our hand at surfing. Whatever it was, we let our inhibitions get the best of us, and we vowed to try another day. 

For me, that opportunity was downhill mountain biking—I spent almost an entire year living at the base of a bike park before I rode my first downhill trail. And I had good reason. 

When I’m scared to try something, it’s usually because I don’t know anything about it. I fear the mystery. As a result, I’ve become almost compulsive about researching new sports before I try them. It gives me the courage I need to get started.

The problem with trying to research downhill mountain biking—a relatively new sport—is that the existing content is so narrowly focused on technical singletrack, rock drops, and 20-foot gap jumps that watching it would make any first-timer’s palms sweat.

Using the internet to determine whether or not you’ll be able to survive your first downhill trail is like trying to self-diagnose on WebMD: you’ll walk away from your computer terrified and convinced you are doing to die.

Why is downhill mountain biking intimidating? Exhibit A: This photo from a professional downhill race on expert terrain at Whistler Blackcomb. Tourism Whistler / Mike Crane photo. 

The good news is, downhill mountain biking is evolving. Terrain is becoming more accessible, equipment is becoming more affordable, modern bike parks are being designed to cater to every skill level, and professional coaches like  Whistler Bike Park's Lorraine Blancher (also former Canadian National Downhill Champion, Masters World Champ, and 2nd in the Crankworx Whip-Off this past week) are dedicating themselves to bringing more people—especially women—to the sport. There’s never been a better time to try your first downhill trail. But for anyone who hasn’t visited a bike park, the sport can still be a bit mystifying.

Using the internet to determine whether or not you’ll be able to survive your first downhill trail is like trying to self-diagnose on WebMD: you’ll walk away from your computer terrified and convinced you are doing to die.

If you’ve ever wanted to try downhill mountain biking, consider this your orientation guide. None of what’s written here is meant to replace a proper first lesson. Rather, Lorraine and I hope that it will arm you with enough information to inspire you to visit a nearby bike park and ride your first DH trail. Three years after my first run, I’m riding three or four days a week, and it’s the most fun I’ll ever have on two wheels.

WHAT TO BRING

Most bike parks provide protective gear with downhill bike rentals. Justa Jeskova photo. 

Before you even get on your bike, there are a few preparations that can make or break your first downhill riding experience. To help, Lorraine and I put together a checklist:

  • Flat soled shoes. Leave the running shoes—with lifted heels—at home. Bike shoes are the best option. Skate shoes are a good substitute. The flat outsole and grippy tread pattern make them ideal counterparts to flat MTB pedals.
  • A full face helmet. It should feel light and comfortable, and it shouldn’t interfere with your ability to see. It is unlikely that your boyfriend’s helmet (or anyone else’s) will be the right fit for you, so rent one if you have to and your experience will be that much better.
  • Goggles. They protect your eyes/face from dust and debris that gets kicked up while you’re riding. In some cases, you can even use ones you ski with. Just make sure you have a lens for the light you’ll be riding in, and maybe bring a crappy pair since they'll be getting hit up by dust and the occasional pebble. 

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  • Armor. Protect yourself with knee pads and elbow pads underneath whatever you’re wearing. Ladies, if you’re worried about pads being big and bulky, know that a lot of the new protective gear for women is fitted and most rental shops have women-specific pads.
  • Bike clothing. The typical downhill rider wears a jersey and loose DH/freeride bike shorts. You may not have those at your disposal, but consider performance wear (not cotton) that is comfortable and can fit over whatever armor you’ll be wearing. I prefer long-sleeve shirts to protect against scrapes. On cooler days, I still reach for my flannels.
  • A bike that fits your needs and abilities. Ideally, you’ll want to ride a full-suspension bike, one with at least 6 inches of travel in the front and rear shocks to smooth out the bumps on rugged trails. Rent a bike if you don't have your own and ask the rental technician to tune the suspension to your body weight and skills. If you only plan on hitting the beginner trail, a hardtail can suffice, but if you plan to ride any technical or freestyle terrain you’ll be much more comfortable on a downhill (full-suspension) rig.

WHAT TO EXPECT ON THE TRAIL

Bike trails have color-coded difficulty ratings just like ski/snowboard trails do. Justa Jeskova photo. 

While bike park protocol and ski resort protocol are not identical, there are many similarities that will make any skier's or snowboarder's first trip to the bike park more familiar and a little less scary. Bike parks—also called gravity parks—have the same green, blue, and black color ratings for trails as ski resorts do. Green trails are for beginners and allow riders to flow and descend down the hill at a mellow rate. Some resorts, like Trestle Bike Park, even have a learning area at the base comparable to a bunny hill, with small drops, jumps, wood bridges, and bermed turns. 

Green trails are a great place to start! Justa Jeskova photo. 

Bike park trail etiquette is also very similar to skiing: stay in control, be able to avoid hazards and other riders, and remember that riders in front of you have the right of way. As a beginner, riders may come up behind you. If someone intends to pass you, he or she will say so and either pass you on a wider section of trail or wait for you to find a place to pull off. This is less likely to happen on a green trail, but if you’re on a more difficult trail (especially a jump line), expect that there may be faster riders coming in hot behind you.

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Don’t let these scenarios scare you. When I started riding, I was horrified by the idea of embarrassing myself. I pulled off the trail fairly often, sometimes to let people pass, other times to look at a drop or new feature I hadn’t ridden yet. The riders who passed me were always chill about it and whenever I was stopped, most riders asked if everything was okay. Riding the bike park is all about progressing your skills and having fun—and it’s an incredibly supportive community to be a part of.

HOW TO LOAD YOUR BIKE ON THE CHAIRLIFT

Some bike parks including Whistler Bike Park and Trestle Bike Park have a stationary chairlift bike carrier for beginners to practice on. Justa Jeskova photo.

As Lorraine says, the best thing you can do is to watch and see what the successful people are doing. Some bike parks have a stationary bike carrier set up to practice on. But in event that your chosen bike park does not, these tips should help.

  • Free your hands! As you’re walking up to the lift, put on your helmet, wear your pack, and find a place to set your coffee down while you load your bike. 
  • Give some elbow room. Each carrier fits three bikes across. When you load your bike, stand on whatever side of your bike gives the rider in the middle the most room. Hint: it will be easier if you load your bike on the side that the carrier is turning towards—less distance traveled means it will be slower.
  • Secure your front wheel and adjust. When the chair comes around, walk up behind it and push your bike up the tray until the front tire sits securely in the holster. Pick up your back tire and set it in straight.

If you’re still nervous, ask one of the lifties for help. That’s why they’re there!  

HOW TO SURVIVE YOUR FIRST DOWNHILL TRAIL—AND HAVE FUN DOING IT

The idea is to progress slowly. Whistler Bike Park provides a trail progression chart that ranks every trail from easiest to most difficult. Justa Jeskova photo. 

Whistler's Lorraine Blancher has worked with every level of athlete and incredibly passionate about giving riders the encouragement and confidence they need to kick ass on a downhill bike. A lot of first-timers are terrified they’re going to eat shit, but as Lorraine points out, the goal is to progress slowly so that doesn’t happen.

With modern bike parks catering more and more to intermediate and beginner riders—possibly in contrast to even your local cross-country network—many have a dedicated beginner trail that's smooth as pavement, free of rocks and roots, and packed with gentle corners and very moderate rollers. So you won't need to be worried about rallying down a root, rock, and jump-littered trail right off the bat.

You will progress and eventually, you will fall—and then you will realize that it’s not nearly as bad as you expected. You’ll ride with more stability and confidence, and start looking at terrain differently.

Ride the same trail a few times. Try to keep your momentum going on the next run. See how it feels to go over some small rocks or a root. You’ll always have something you can start on and you will always have the option to get off of your bike and walk around something if you feel out of your comfort zone.

You will progress and eventually, you will fall—and then you will realize that it’s not nearly as bad as you expected. You’ll ride with more stability and confidence, and start looking at terrain differently. There is a reason downhill mountain bikers wear armor: crashing is a possibility no matter how cautiously you ride. As riders, we accept the risk because the reward is that much greater.

“They call it the difference between fear and butterflies," Lorraine said. "When I know I can do it and I see the landing is a step up and it’s a little bigger, but I still have those butterflies, I’ll push through that. There will be a moment before that takeoff, before the landing, before the lip where I’ll have that hesitation, but I’ll push through that and I’ll go. And then there’s fear. 'Look at that rock... look how that landing looks... what about work on Monday?' When I start thinking things like that, I think, 'Not today.' I’ll come tomorrow when I’m more relaxed and calm and take another look.”

It's ok to stop, get off your bike, and check out a feature on the trail! Just make sure your bike is off trail and you are prepared to move out of the way for oncoming riders. Justa Jeskova photo. 

Once you nail your form down (we still recommend taking a lesson), you’ll start to develop your own style, and that’s when you can really start to have fun with the terrain. Lorraine has a talent for making downhill mountain biking appear graceful, almost like a dance. When she’s coaching, she tells riders to flow down the mountain like water. Ride with strength, beauty, and efficiency. Your bike should feel like an extension of your body.

Flow down the mountain like water. Ride with strength, beauty, and efficiency. Your bike should feel like an extension of your body.

“When I’m about to drop something big, I’ll say to myself 'Style, fluidity, beauty, and grace.' I want to make it look effortless and smooth. I want to make the hard stuff look fluid. I feel like that will inspire other riders because it will make it not so scary.”

If you commit to downhill mountain biking, you will be inspired, push your mind and your body to their limits, and realize your strength and potential as an athlete. Justa Jeskova photo. 

It’s safe to say that downhill mountain biking is not for the faint of heart. You may feel intimidated. You may take a few diggers. But if you commit to it, you will be inspired, push your mind and your body to their limits, join an incredible community, and realize your strength and potential on a bike. 

If you’ve ever wanted to try downhill mountain biking, you only need to accept the invitation. If fear is holding you back, realize that nobody else is thinking about what you’re riding, what you’re wearing, or how fast you’re going. As long as you remember etiquette and ride at your own pace, you’re guaranteed to make it down your first downhill trail. And you'll be stoked to take another run. 

WHERE TO START

While this is not a complete guide, here are a few bike parks in North America that stand out for making downhill mountain biking accessible (and affordable) to beginners:

CANADA

You too can survive your first downhill mountain biking trail—and then you will be hooked. Justa Jeskova photo. 

Whistler Bike Park’s Bike Park 101 (British Columbia)

Guide, lift ticket, bike rental, helmet and protective gear in a 2 hour lesson for $125. Whistler also gets bonus points for having an “orientation guide” available for pick up around the resort and hosting Women’s Nights. On Mondays & Wednesdays from 5:30pm to 7:30pm, ladies can reserve a guide, lift ticket, bike rental, helmet and protective gear for $86 and learn in a women-only environment. If you make the trip to Whistler, consider staying at the  Aava Hotel. Their amenities cater to the needs of downhill riders and the hotel is right by the lift!

Ski Bromont’s Initiation Lesson (Quebec)

Guide, bike rental, helmet and protective gear, and lift ticket for 2 hour lesson: $65

WESTERN U.S.

Trestle Bike Park’s Intro To Trestle (Colorado)

Guide, lift ticket for beginner trail, bike rental, helmet and protective gear in a 1.5 hour lesson: $50. Trestle also hosts a women-specific Gravity Goddess 2 Day Downhill Camp that offers a full rental package, lift tickets, and video analysis.

Keystone Bike Park’s Women’s Wednesdays (Colorado)

Guide, lift ticket, bike rental, helmet and protective gear Wednesdays from 3:30pm - 5 p.m: $30

Steamboat Bike Park’s Gravity Girls Clinics (Colorado)

Guide, lift ticket, bike rental, helmet and protective gear Fridays from 5pm - 7pm: $59

Northstar’s Pumps on Pedals Women’s Evening Rides (California)

Guide, lift ticket, bike rental, helmet and protective gear Fridays from 5pm - 7pm: $55

Angelfire’s Feather Beginner Lesson Package (New Mexico)

Guide, lift ticket, bike rental, helmet and protective gear in a half day lesson: $99

MIDWEST

Boyne Mountain Guided Tour (Michigan)

A 60-90 tour of Boyne's downhill or cross country trails goes for $20, with bike rentals starting at $15 for an hour.

EASTERN U.S.

Highland Bike Park’s Find Your Ride Package (New Hampshire)

Guide, bike rental, helmet and protective gear, and lift ticket for 1 hour lesson: $99. Highland also hosts the Annual Women’s Freeride Festival, offering cross country, downhill, freeride, and dirt jump clinics led by some of the best female coaches in the industry (October 3-4).

Mountain Creek Bike Park’s Women’s Ride Days (New Jersey)

40% off lift tickets, rentals and lessons on designated dates throughout the summer.

ABOUT LORRAINE BLANCHER

Lorraine Blancher rides stylishly and fearlessly, has an amazing attitude, and is completely humble despite the fact that she totally rips. Margus Riga photo. 

Lorraine Blancher is an adventurer, a dreamer, a lover of life, and one of the world’s foremost mountain-bike evangelists. She has dedicated her adult life to sharing her beloved sport’s skill-secrets with others but is never finished seeking improvement in her own abilities. And while Lorraine is one of the most down-to-earth people you’d ever want to meet, she’s happiest when out she's exploring new Alpine rides or her bike has left the ground and she’s floating, weightless, in the air.

Want to ride with Lorraine? Find information about her camps and coaching events at LorraineBlancher.com.

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