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So you’re thinking about going to the downhill bike park for the first time, awesome! Bike parks with lift-served trails can be a ton of fun and a great place to get a bunch of laps in without tiring you out as quickly as when you’re doing a lot of climbing. Going to a downhill bike park for the first time may seem intimidating, so we’ll go over some tips for new bike park riders so you feel confident and prepared.
Ask for advice – Chances are, even if you’ve never been to a downhill bike park, one of your mountain biking friends has. Ask them what they would recommend for a first timer, as they probably have some valuable tips to share with you about which resorts are the most friendly for first-timers, which trails to try or to avoid, loading the lift, etc. The people in your network can be a helpful resource for this type of information. Even if you don’t know anyone who has been downhilling, bikers are typically very friendly people so if you ask a fellow rider at the resort, they’ll likely help you out. Or, you can always ask the bike/rental shop employees, as they’ve probably ridden the trails hundreds of times themselves and can give you some great recommendations for your skill level.
Watch others – One of the things that can seem the most intimidating about riding a lift-served downhill bike park for the first time is loading the lift. Some resorts have older lifts with chairs that seem to whip around pretty quickly when you’re trying to load your bike onto a narrow tray. Also, some resorts will load your bike for you, so before it’s your turn in the lift line, take a minute to look and see how other people are doing it, if there are attendants to help load your bike, what side of the bike people stand on for easy loading, timing the chair, etc. Keep your hands free when it’s your turn to load the lift, pay attention, and don’t panic. You’ll get your bike on in time and it’ll all be fine.
Use the proper equipment – While your regular trail bike may be in pretty good shape, riding a real downhill bike at a downhill bike park is going to be the best experience. Having the proper bike for the terrain is going to make it a whole lot easier and more fun. Your trail bike may work, but set yourself up for success by renting a new, top-of-the-line downhill bike so you can properly enjoy the terrain. If you’re planning on bringing your own bike, some resorts have regulations that require all bikes to at least have front suspension, so check with the resort to make sure your bike meets the criteria.
This goes for the rest of your equipment too. You definitely want a full-face helmet so if you don’t have one, rent or buy one so you can properly protect your noggin. We wouldn’t necessarily recommend borrowing one from a friend because if the helmet is older or has been compromised, you might not know and could be at risk should you take a fall. Having a new helmet or one that’s been inspected by a professional is your best bet. Sure, you don’t need all the body padding such as elbow pads, knee pads, chest and back protector, and neck brace, but if you fall, you’ll be happy you had all the right gear. You can often rent that gear right at the shop or borrow pads from a friend (as long as they’re clean!).
Go with a friend – If it’s your first time at a downhill bike park, definitely go with a friend. It’s always safer to bike with a friend anyway, plus, it’ll make it more enjoyable all around. If your friend has been there before, even better, because they’ll already be familiar with how to get on and off the lift, which trails are the best, and have other helpful tips too. If they haven’t been there, you have a buddy to share your first time experience with, and chances are there’ll be some laughs along the way.
Take breaks as needed – If you’ve never downhilled before, different parts of you are going to get tired that you never expected. Unless you’re a rock climber or just bike a ton, your hands will likely get super tired and sore from gripping onto the bars. Your quads and glutes may get tired from being up and out of the saddle more than you may be used to. Don’t take this as a sign of weakness, it’s just that you’re using muscles that you’re not used to and riding in a way that might not be as common for you. It’s perfectly fine to stop safely off to the side at intersections to regroup with your riding buddies, shake out your hands, and take a moment to rest. Don’t forget to stop for snacks and water breaks too. Hydration is key!
Go when it’s less busy – We once rode at a downhill bike park during a big race and as a newer rider, that just wasn’t fun. The lift lines were super long and the other riders were so fast that we had to keep pulling over to the side to let them pass. It might not hurt to just look at the resort’s calendar to see if there are any events going on, so you don’t have to worry about it being overcrowded. Going during the week would be a good opportunity to have the trails more to yourself, as opposed to a busy weekend. If the weekend is your only option, just make sure it’s not a race weekend.
Go with a group – If you’re still nervous about going on your own, find a women’s intro to downhill group so you can get some tips from a certified instructor. Often times, these group ride weekends will offer deals for a bike, all the other equipment, and lift ticket, making it more affordable than getting everything a la carte. If there are no women’s specific downhill groups, that’s totally fine! The resort probably offers group lessons or clinics so you can still go with a certified leader and have someone who knows the mountain show you around. This is a great way to meet other downhill riders and have a group to share the day with.
Choose the trails for your skill level – Just like at a ski mountain, all the trails will be marked by level of difficulty. The ratings are usually similar to that of a ski hill, with a green circle meaning easiest, a blue square meaning intermediate, a black diamond meaning difficult, and a double black diamond meaning more difficult. The bike trails at a downhill park will likely be classified the same way so find the trails that are right for your skill level. Riding a trail that’s above your pay grade may not make for good time. Start off with greens and blues to warm up and assess your comfort level from there.
Look before your leap – This may be an overplayed phrase but it’s still super relevant. If it’s your first time on a particular trail, ride the trail at a moderate pace so you can see all the lines and features. At some downhill bike parks, there are A and B lines (or, two different line options), sometimes with a rock feature or drop, so you want to make sure you know what the feature is so you can choose the line that matches your skill level.
Know when to call it a day – At this point, after a bunch of runs, rest breaks, snacks, and more runs, you should know when it’s time to call it quits. When you have to peel your hands off the bars, you feel like you can’t hold on safely anymore, and every muscle in your body is sore, that’s when you know you’re past done. You don’t want to push it too much when you’re tired so give your friends high fives for such a fun day and move on to après. There’s always more riding to be had next time.
At first, it may seem like everyone else is a seasoned pro, has all the latest gear, and has been downhilling for years, but after a time or two, you’ll be feeling just as confident and comfortable as everyone else. Don’t be intimidated, get out there, and have fun!