Learning How to Downhill Mountain Bike: A Woman’s Perspective

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Photo courtesy of Trestle Bike Park, Winter Park Resort

Downhill mountain biking can certainly be intimidating. There are bigger and heavier bikes involved, lots of protective equipment to don, speeds you imagine only a motorized vehicle should be going, and getting big air on jumps for the fearless and/or a little bit crazy. The best way to learn how to downhill mountain bike is to ride with an experienced rider or an instructor and there’s actually no need to make a huge investment in a downhill bike or gear if you’re just starting out. At Trestle Bike Park, for example, you can rent all the equipment you need, including your choice of many high-end downhill bikes, and get expert coaching from instructors who know every square inch of the mountain. So if you’re new to mountain biking or are a veteran cross-country rider, young (10 year olds can do this!) or old, downhill mountain biking can be a safe and exciting sport.

The Trestle Bike Park school offers four levels of classes, from beginner (Trestle 101) to advanced (Trestle 200 & 300) and even pro-style skills training. I’ve ridden over 130 mountain bike trails in the US, including downhill at Keystone and Northstar resorts, and always felt confident enough in my bike handling skills to make it down the mountain, so I opted for the Trestle 200 to learn proper freeride stance and better cornering techniques. Boy, was I in for a surprise! Figuring out the freeride stance was a bit unnatural as my body kept reverting to a comfortable XC riding position, but the stance really is the key to making downhill riding more enjoyable. My instructor, Bob Barnes, Director of Winter Park Ski & Ride School, showed me some important aspects of the freeride stance:

  • Since you don’t have to pedal much when riding downhill, you’ll be standing up out of the saddle with your pedals horizontal and your heels pointed down and knees slightly bent.
  • In the freeride stance your weight should be shifted forward almost over the center of the top tube, compared to XC riding where your weight is usually over the pedals. Keep leaning forward so your chin is directly above the headset and fork.
  • Most downhill and freeride bikes have wider handlebars for a reason;keep your arms wide and elbows forward and bent. Yourforearms should be positioned at nearly the same angle as the fork.

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Photo courtesy of Trestle Bike Park, Winter Park Resort

In Bob’s words, this stance should allow you to “go where you want, when you want and as fast as you want.” Keeping my elbows in the proper position was the hardest thing to remember. My elbows kept falling in a parallel to the ground position, common for climbing hills in XC mountain biking. This naturally pushes your center of gravity back towards the seat more and what happens is the bike takes the lead and you’re just holding on for the ride. It was also hard to make myself lean forward and stand upright going downhill. Just like downhill skiing, if you lean forward you’ll go faster. My (tense and nervous) instincts were telling me to move back and slow the bike down, but it actually became a much smoother, and yes, faster ride when I remembered to lean forward. Fortunately you always have the brakes to control your speed. It’s important to remember never to lock up on either the front or rear brake while you’re riding downhill. It’s ok to ride your rear brake going downhill and then give it a firmer squeeze (along with the front brake) when approaching corners or technical sections.

Maintaining the stance is a little tricky when taking corners. For many turns you can get away with your feet still being horizontal, but ideally you will have your outside foot down. You should keep an upright stance and lay the bike down towards your knee of the leg on the inside of the turn. We’ve all seen this cornering technique before and watched with amazement at how a rider can lay their bike almost horizontal to the ground while riding a banked turn. The trick is keeping the bike’s momentum going forward and relying on the outer knobs of your tires for grip.

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I’m really glad I got the chance to take a class on downhill mountain biking at Trestle Bike Park – I honestly can’t imagine a better place to learn. And with 33 miles of downhill trail, there certainly is plenty of terrain to practice on and advance to when you’re ready. You also won’t find a better value for your money – it’s actually cheaper to take the beginner downhill class at Trestle packaged with a demo bike, protective gear and lift ticket than to just rent a bike and buy a lift ticket for a half-day. Trestle also hosts “Women’s Wednesdays” all summer where ladies can get 2-for-1 lift tickets, rentals, and instruction.

Seriously, anyone can learn how to downhill mountain bike. If you like riding bikes, its 10 times more fun when you hardly have to pedal, especially uphill!

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