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Learning to Ride DH at Killington Bike Park in Vermont

photo: Killington Resort

Downhill occupies an interesting place in the sport of mountain biking. It’s one of the most watched forms of mountain biking, and in many ways represents the pinnacle of our sport, but few of us are able to do it regularly. And while it might appear the guys and girls ripping down the slopes in DH competitions like the recent Fox US Open are just faster versions of ourselves, the fact is they have skills most of us didn’t even know existed.

photo: Chris Kelly

With that in mind, Singletracks decided to see what would happen if we sent our friend Chris Kelly — a self-described spandex-onsie-wearing, cross-country rider — to learn how to ride downhill at Killington Bike Park in Vermont. Killington is one of the top mountain bike parks in the east, and their “Learn to Mountain Bike Packages” are perfect for riders who are new to the sport, or even experienced riders like Chris who are looking to branch out.

Learn to Mountain Bike

Chris says, “I’ve ridden mountain bikes for a long time but never ridden downhill, so it felt a little silly to take a ‘How to Mountain Bike’ class. I was worried I wouldn’t get anything out of the class.” Still, Chris had heard from friends that Killington is the best bike park on the East coast, and caving to peer pressure, he decided to give downhill a shot.

photo: Chris Kelly

Killington offers a 1-day package that includes 2 hours of professional instruction, gear rentals (a DH bike, full-face helmet, and pads), and lift access to the lower mountain trails. Suiting up, Chris says he was a little intimidated to ride in a full-face helmet, but happily reports the pads and helmet “smelled a little better than I’m used to rental equipment smelling.”

Chris is ready to rock.

For those who have never worn pads for mountain biking, doing so for the first time is a learning experience. Modern pads are much more comfortable than the one-size-fits-all rigid plastic shells from days of old, but as Chris found out, they can feel uncomfortable when pedaling uphill. Fortunately, when riding park at Killington, pretty much everything is downhill, and pads are designed with a downhill stance in mind. Still, pad sizing and strap adjustment is an art unto itself.

photo: Chris Kelly

Killington rents bikes onsite from Scott, Norco, and Devinci. Chris borrowed a 2018 Scott Voltage FR 720, which is approximately 100% beefier than the Yeti ASR he’s used to riding at home. The rental shop offers higher-end rental bikes as well, and students in the “Learn to Mountain Bike” class can upgrade for an additional $25. It turns out the Voltage FR 720 would be more than enough bike for Chris.

Instruction

After getting suited up, it was time for Chris to meet his instructor and fellow downhill classmates. The two other students in the class had never ridden a mountain bike. Ever. This was going to be interesting…

photo: Chris Kelly

Chris’s instructor was Bryan, a PMBIA-certified instructor who races mountain bikes, does a lot of trail work, and “has good bike stories to tell.” Killington chooses instructors like Bryan who are friendly and approachable, and who can clearly communicate to students who might be intimidated or just plain clueless about downhill mountain biking. Chris says Bryan came prepared with a plan of attack, and did a good job paying attention to each student’s progress so he could adjust his lessons on the fly.

The class starts out with the basics, which includes walking the bike and braking on a grassy slope. Sure, experienced riders know not to grab a fistfull of front brake at speed, but might still be interested to learn that the front brake actually offers more stopping power than the rear when a bike is pointed downhill. It’s knowledge like this that comes in handy for a day of downhill mountain biking, but is also applicable for everyday riding.

Saddling up on the Scott DH bike for the first time, Chris reports the ultra-low seat position makes pedaling feel super awkward. Not only that, standing up for a long time — either pedaling or riding downhill — is tiring. Sure, everyone knows climbing on a mountain bike can be exhausting, but as Chris learned, going downhill can be just as taxing. By the end of a short weekend of riding downhill, his hamstrings and calves would be sore in ways he’d never imagined.

Chris reports the DH bike handled great and immediately gave him confidence on the steepest trails. It turns out those awkward-looking park bikes are actually pretty effective for getting down the mountain!

Loading a bike onto a moving ski lift for the first time is intimidating for inexperienced park riders. Not only is there the potential for embarrassment, it’s important to stay safe. Having an instructor and other newbs around makes the whole experience much more approachable.

Mad skills

The “Learn to Mountain Bike” class is set up to give riders a set of general skills they can apply to downhill mountain biking, rather than a narrow set of skills for specific situations.

  • Braking: Use both brakes for maximum control and stopping power.
  • Pedal position: Keep pedals horizontal while descending.
  • Body / bike movement: Move the bike while keeping your body in position.
  • Etiquette: Stop safely on the trail and yield to others.
photo: Chris Kelly

Chris says the two complete newbs in his class had little trouble picking these basic skills up from the 2-hour class. Drills include riding slowly around a track while keeping proper pedal positioning, which Chris reports is much more difficult than it sounds. Bryan’s only rule for the class is that no one is allowed to pass him on the trail.

“It was nice getting 1:1 feedback on my technique from someone [who] knows what they are talking about. The two beginners in my class absolutely loved the entire experience.”

Of course it wasn’t all sweetness and light for this experienced XC rider, as there were a few growing pains along the way. It turns out clipless pedal bunny hopping is actually cheating, and doesn’t translate easily into actual bunny hopping on flat pedals. On more than one jump trail, Chris found his feet and shoes flying off the pedals in mid-air, unchained by the security of toe cleats. The good news is, Chris finished the weekend without a single dirt nap.

Chris on the loose at Killington

photo: Chris Kelly

Following the class, Chris decided to put his new skills to the test on the trails at Killington Bike Park. Trails accessible from the lower lift are appropriate for beginners, though Chris reports some of the “green” trails might feel a little boring to experienced riders. Everything at Killington is said to be rollable, even on the first run, so there’s little risk that riders will find themselves over their heads. In just two hours, Chris managed to blast out 7 runs from the Snowshed Express lift.

The park offers a good variety of terrain for all skill levels, from wide, smooth flow to steep, gnarly tech. Killington boasts 29 named and mapped trails covering 30 miles, spanning 3,050 feet of vertical drop from the top to the bottom. Three lifts ferry riders to various points on the mountain, and Chris reports lift lines were virtually nonexistent on a weekend in July.

Progressive, sculpted jumps, rollers, tabletops, doubles, and berms offer riders a chance to hone their skills and build confidence at their own pace. Having recently moved to New England and discovering that pretty much every trail in the region serves up a heaping helping of jumbled rocks and roots, Chris was surprised to find so much flow at Killington.

“The berms and flowy jump trails were completely unexpected and tons of fun.”

photo: Chris Kelly

The blue trails at Killington offer enough to keep intermediate riders busy for a whole day. Most will choose to take a slow first run down a trail to scope everything out, then a second, slightly faster run to try out the lines. Finally, a third run is the time to let ‘er rip! Sticking to this template, riders can easily spend more than a couple days properly riding all the trails Killington has to offer.

For his second day, Chris explored the trails off the Ramshead Express lift, which offers 1,110 vertical feet of descending and a mix of slightly more difficult trails. The longer runs, combined with fatigue, meant Chris was able to get in (just!) 5 runs in two hours.

Next stop: World Cup DH?

New riders and even juniors can learn to DH at Killington. photo: Killington Resort

The “Learn to Mountain Bike” class is clearly confidence-inspiring, so much so that one of Chris’s classmates inquired about purchasing his rental bike at the end of the day. Chris says, “The class was totally worth doing for someone [who] has never ridden a DH bike before, and I’d recommend anyone heading to a bike park for the first time to take one.”

Riders will get an excellent DH skills foundation from the 1-day class at Killington and from there, are generally ready and able to tackle more advanced trails at the bike park at faster speeds. While the skills and drills might not translate into at-home-practice, the knowledge can definitely be used to enhance everyday rides and lead to faster, more confident descending.

photo: Killington Resort

Chris is already looking forward to another bike park trip this season to practice his skills and enjoy some descents without all the pesky climbing. And he’s even starting to notice there’s extra space in his garage for a bigger mountain bike.

“Downhill isn’t scary or impossible,” Chris says. “Hitting jumps and railing berms on well-made trails is a lot of fun, and this experience completely changed my mind about downhill and I want to do more of it in the future.”

Learn to Mountain Bike Package from Killington

Killington offers a 1-day class for $130 ($100 for kids) that includes 2 hours of professional instruction, gear rentals (a bike, helmet, and pads), and a 1-day lift ticket with access to the lower mountain trails. Riders can add on lift access to the upper mountain ($40) or a second day of instruction, rentals, and lift access for another $130.

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