My relationship with bicycles has always been rocky—literally and figuratively. Like most, I learned to ride as a kid, and spent many days cruising around on two wheels. But when I grew up and moved to a metropolitan area, I didn’t have much need to get around by bicycle, and thus the pastime lost a little luster.
After relocating to Colorado, it seemed like the perfect opportunity to rekindle my love of cycling. It was complicated. My experiences ranged from too tame (bike paths) to too scary (my first downhill experience, during which I managed to sprain my ankle). Finally, four years ago in Kathmandu, Nepal, I threw my leg over a mountain bike for one more ride. Somehow, I managed to fall over in what I hoped was mud but, judging by the number of goats milling about, probably wasn’t. After this experience, I decided to hang up my bike shorts for good, resigning myself to hiking while my friends tackled the trails on two wheels.
Then, a friend invited me to try downhill mountain biking. The sport works like this: You ride a ski lift to the top of a hill or mountain, and then cruise down a prepared singletrack trail. I was skeptical. After all, I had seen people racing down the trails at resorts, fully decked out in full-body padding that suggested perhaps jousting was also part of the fun. (For what it’s worth, I donned a helmet, biking gloves, elbow pads, and knee/shin guards, as well as eye protection. There are also protective jackets you can wear, but I only suited up in that for a picture.)
I didn’t want my fear to keep me from a good time, so I signed up for the beginner’s package at Evolution Bike Park at Crested Butte Mountain Resort (CBMR), which includes a bike rental, lift ticket, and two hours of expert instruction. By the time my stomach reminded me about lunch, I was hooked. Downhill mountain biking was not what I had expected: I felt in control but, as I rolled through dips and over small hills, I also felt free—I was experiencing what my guide, Woody Lindenmeyr, called “the flow.” I’m no hard-core athlete, but with Lindenmeyr’s expert tips and techniques (and the occasional reminder to breathe while I was riding), I ended the experience flush with excitement and without any trace of fear.
The biggest perk to downhill mountain biking is the lift, which Lindenmeyr says can be beneficial to someone honing their skills. “With the lift, you can have repetition to practice without expending all your energy on the uphill,” he says. And that practice is important. “All the technical aspects of riding are in downhill. You can learn to uphill in an hour—downhill can take days.”
One of the best ways to learn those techniques is to get a guide who can provide insight as to stance, head positioning, and other elements that make the downhill experience that much smoother. Still, it’s no walk in the park—even with the lift.
“There’s a big misunderstanding about how difficult downhill riding is,” says Lindenmeyr, who is also director of the Crested Butte Mountain Sports Team. “You’re not just sitting there; the bike is not doing everything. You have to program the bike to do exactly what it needs to do and that can take quite a bit of effort.”
The effort is well worth it. As I progressed from one trail to the next, riding through groves of aspens and getting a thrill when I picked up speed and navigated a turn, I realized that this was what biking was supposed to feel like: heart racing, breath quickening, and the sheer joy that elicited a slightly manic grin.
Ready to give it a shot? These Colorado parks offer everything you need for beginner-friendly downhill mountain biking.
CBMR’s Evolution Bike Park includes 29 on-mountain trails covering 30 miles. The clearly marked, well-maintained trails are an ideal location to hone your skills before heading out into Gunnison County’s 750 miles of backcountry singletrack.
Open: Friday through Sunday through September. Evolution’s final weekend (Red Lady Express lift only) is October 6–7
Cost: One-day lift tickets: $47 for adults, $40 for children; Guide package: $140–$160 for adults, $86–$102 for children
Trestle Bike Park offers more than 40 miles of trail (with more to come in the next few years) on Winter Park’s mountain and one of the biggest rental/demo fleets, too. With a mix of hand-built and machine manicured trails, Trestle is one of the most popular parks for riders who want to progress to the next level.
Open: Daily until September 30, and October 5–7
Cost: One-day pass: $34–$49 for adults, $23–$34 for children; Lessons: $70–$249
With 55 downhill trails of progressive terrain, it’s easy to find a run that’ll have your heart pumping as you race down Dercum Mountain. Keystone also offers a variety of lessons through the Keystone Bike Academy.
Open: Weekends through September 16
Cost: One-day pass: $46 for adults; $25 for children; Bike clinics: $58–$150
Celebrating its 6th summer in operation, Steamboat Bike Park continues to grow in size and popularity: The park now has 50 miles and nearly 2,200 vertical feet of lift-served, gravity-fed, downhill-only flow and tech trails. Steamboat’s park is also designed for progression: The trails are marked from easiest to most difficult to help riders pick the best route.
Open: Weekends through September, and October 6–14 (weather permitting)
Cost: One-day pass: $25–$45 for adults, $15–$35 for children; Bike clinic: $69–$109