Why You Should Try a Downhill Mountain Bike Park
In this innocuous chase game, I ride with more fearlessness than all summer, and I feel like a kid myself. I don’t really think, I just sink with my bike as the trail undulates and crosses a road before crossing a thicket. I go into the trees, then over a shallow stream. For a moment, everything is sublime: the angle of the sun’s rays through the branches of the pines, the promise of the thin path. Then I emerge into what looks like a party, a line of about 20 people at the bottom of the Olympia Lift. Bass pumps from a big speaker and all around me are riders who look like comic book characters – they wear full face helmets and have gladiator type pads on their chests, backs, elbows and knees – wait in the lift line with their bikes in turn to ride a chair. The air is alive with laughter and joy; everyone, myself included, seems to experience their own adrenaline rush.
It’s downhill mountain biking. Also known as lift-assisted or gravity-assisted mountain biking, this riding mode differs from cross-country in one key respect: instead of pedaling to the top of a mountain – or climbing at all – the Downhill mountain bikers ride in lifts or gondolas for the top, then let gravity do its work on the way down.
Downhill mountain bike parks are usually located at ski resorts, a seasonal solution to monetize ski resort infrastructure outside of winter. Like their winter counterparts, the parks are staffed with trail builders and patrollers as well as instructors and coaches. There are parks at resorts across the country – and around the world.
In the Lower 48, some of the most popular parks are in California mammoth mountainfrom colorado Keystonefrom New Mexico angel of fire and New Hampshire Highland Mountain Bike Park. Other downhill bike parks are growing rapidly and building more trails every year. Still others are low-key and offer friendly introductions to the sport. Given the proliferation of mountain bike parks over the past two decades, chances are a ski resort near you is offering summer biking serviced by lifts or is in the process of do it.
Riding in the parks costs money, with day passes ranging from around $40 to $70. Like ski resorts, mountain bike parks also sell season passes, which can make economical sense depending on how many days you plan to ride.
The appeal of gravity-assisted riding goes beyond the fact that it spares riders the aerobic, heart-pounding climb to the top. Downhill, riders have plenty of choices. They can choose between flowing, freestyle or technical tracks with jumps, raised bridges and other constructed elements. These trails offer many options, so runners can try to cross a table break or go around it. Bike parks also allow for repetition, which can lead to a faster learning curve: riding the same trail repeatedly allows users to anticipate and prepare for challenges. And there is an obvious progression. Like winter ski trails, mountain bike park trails are graded using a green (easy), blue (intermediate), and black (expert) system.
Another advantage: the skills developed in the bike park translate into the practice of cross-country. I realized this last summer when I took my boys on more traditional rides and watched in delight as they playfully descended the trails we climbed to access.
It took me years to get used to bike parks. In the early 2000s, I was an avid cross-country mountain biker living in Bend, Oregon, and my friends would invite me to travel north with them to Whistler, BC, at the bike park of mountain of this station. At the time, I couldn’t understand why anyone would give up a three-hour backcountry ride through the mountains – or, in Oregon’s case, around volcanoes – just to s dress in full armor and throw down. high bridges, gap jumps and massive falls. Like some purists today, I even ridiculed the activity as “cheating,” as if there was a set of rules people had to follow if they wanted to ride a bike properly.
But something happened to my driving skills as I got older, and especially after I became a mother. I slowed down. My nerves kicked in and the previously inviting trails seemed fraught with danger. At first I mourned the loss of the mountain biker that I was, then embraced the change, assuming my endorphin-inducing days of mountain biking were behind me.
Then, in 2018, my husband suggested we take a family class at Trestle Bike Park in Winter Park. He was curious about the bike park phenomenon and thought it would be a great way to introduce our boys to mountain biking, as my attempts to take them on long rides across the country had more or less ended in tears every time (especially from them).
We rented bikes with big spongy front and rear shocks, donned loaner pads and bobblehead helmets, and hopped in a gondola with a patient instructor named Jake. It took us three hours to descend the five mile green trail from the top of the mountain to the base – an extraordinarily long time mandated by the pace of our youngest child. I was sure they would be bored and frustrated deep down, but to my delight when we got to the base of the resort the kids begged to get on and start again.
In the years that followed, we paid for lessons and tuition for the kids and rode as a family for countless hours in the summer. At first, I simply enjoyed the progress of my sons. Although their personalities are very different – one is laid back, the other a fearless ball of energy – both began to prefer the more challenging trails which they enthusiastically shared with us. Over time, their progress on the bike became mine as well. It happened so naturally that I didn’t even realize it until last summer, during that rapid descent on Paper Boy.
In the flow of the hunt, as my sons wandered away from me into a clearing and made their own joyous descent, I stopped worrying. It wasn’t that I had let go of the fear, it was just that the fear wasn’t part of the calculation. I was just riding my bike with the same love I had brought to the sport 30 years earlier when I got my first mountain bike. Over the next three decades, horseback riding allowed me to make friends, explore new places, and become more athletically and emotionally confident.
Becoming a mother almost ended that part of me, but downhill mountain biking, which I never would have explored without motherhood, has come full circle. By introducing my kids to downhill mountain biking, I had inadvertently engendered their love of the sport and, in turn, reignited mine. These days, I’m starting to ride again not like a mother, but like myself.
I tried to explain this to the boys around bottles of root beer after that wonderful day in August, but they had none. They are not old enough for introspection or nostalgia. For them, riding a bike means throwing one leg over the saddle and pointing downhill.
Having rediscovered my taste for speed and even a bit of air, I’m here with them.
Walker is a writer based in Boulder, Colorado. Find her on Twitter: @racheljowalker.
201 Zephyr Way, Winter Park, Colorado.
Located near the Winter Park Resort Gondola, Zephyr Mountain Lodge offers one-, two-, and three-bedroom condos. Condos start around $219 per night.
Located in downtown Winter Park, this dog-friendly boutique motel has 38 rooms, a “library” where guests can rent equipment, and a shared workspace. Rates start at $159 per night.
Nepalese and Indian bistro Durbar
Authentic Indian and Nepalese cuisine with vegan, seafood and meat offerings. Open Tuesday to Sunday, 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. and 4:30 p.m. to 9 p.m. Appetizers starting at $14.50.
A popular family pizza place at the base of Winter Park Resort. Open daily from noon to 3 p.m. and from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. Small pizza $10.95.
A local beer craft brewery with a satisfying menu of salads, soups, sandwiches, pizzas and appetizers. Open Thursday to Monday, 11:30 a.m. to 9 p.m.; closed Tuesday and Wednesday. Entrances from $8.
Winter Park Resort’s downhill mountain bike park offers a variety of trails for all skill levels. A summer riding school organizes private and group lessons, and shops offer rental equipment, including bikes, helmets and protection. Bike rentals, as well as daily and seasonal passes are available.
Prospective travelers should consider local and national public health guidelines regarding the pandemic before planning any travel. Information on travel health advice can be found on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s interactive map showing travel recommendations by destination and the CDCs travel health advice web page.