Head to the hills
Riding down hills is great fun. Add fresh alpine air, well-made trails, bush scenery and a lift back up to go again, and you have the perfect mix for a memorable day of entertainment, finds Eleanor Meecham.
Anyone who’s ever ridden a bike will be familiar with the joy of going downhill. There is nothing quite like it: the moment you reach the top of a torturous incline, catch your breath and feel the momentum pulling you down the other side. This is the essence of downhill riding, and with a growing world-wide popularity it is more accessible than ever before.
The sensation of exhilaration is loved by so many that downhill mountain biking, also just called ‘downhill’, is now a dedicated sport. Purpose-built downhill bikes have been on the market for around fifteen years, with enthusiasts addicted to the sport’s combination of speed, skill, and fun.
But you don’t have to be a devotee of the sport or own specialist equipment to enjoy a great day out riding down hills in the mountains. Tracks now cater for all ranges of ability, from complete novice to serious enthusiast, with training and bike hire available. And if you want to mix your riding up and just enjoy the alpine air, many mountain resorts also offer superb cross-country mountain bike runs for varying abilities.
If you’ve spent any time riding off-road you’ll already have some skills that can be applied to downhill and mountain biking. If you are solely a road rider, don’t fret: there are numerous types and grades of off-road biking, with many options for beginners.
Like ski runs, downhill tracks are graded as being green for beginner riders, which are usually a shorter distance trail requiring a basic level of skill and fitness; blue for intermediate riders, suitable for those seeking a short to medium distance trail requiring a moderate level of skill and fitness; and black for the most difficult grade, for experienced riders seeking a very challenging trail requiring a high level of skill, fitness and endurance.
Start with the green trails, and take it easy: start small and work your way up.
Where to ride
The more familiar you become with a particular trail, the faster and more smoothly you’ll be able to ride it. For this reason, shuttles and ski lifts are great services to take advantage of, allowing you to put all your effort into doing multiple runs without wearing yourself out by riding back up each time.
Victoria’s Mount Buller, for instance, is an ideal place to give this a go in summer. There are four dedicated downhill tracks of various degrees of difficulty and you can hire a downhill bike and equipment on site. Mount Buller also has an extensive network of cross-country routes suitable for all ages and abilities.
At Thredbo, New South Wales, all downhill riders must complete an initiation day on their first visit. This includes a three-hour training
session and a lift pass, and bike, helmet and body-armour hire. If you like the idea of having time with an experienced instructor before letting rip on the trails, this could be a good option. And as an alternative to downhill, Thredbo also has many easy mountain bike cross-country trails for all to enjoy.
Other favourite Australian downhill trails can be found at Dwellingup in Western Australia, and Fox Creek and Belair in South Australia.
Across the ditch in New Zealand you’ll also find loads of great trail choices. Whakarewarewa Forest, in Rotorua, has a network of over 30km of flowing trails, graded from easy to extreme. Southstar operates a shuttle service and you can hire bikes and equipment onsite at Planet Bike or from several bike shops in central Rotorua. See www.southstaradventures.com.
In Dunedin, Signal Hill has trails for all skill levels, and the good folk from Bike Otago run a shuttle there every Sunday. See www.bikeotago.co.nz
In Queenstown, head straight to Vertigo Bikes. These guys rent out all the gear you’ll ever need, have all the local info and run a range of guided and self-guided tours. See www.bikeotago.co.nz.
If you’ve got time, you could consider organising a trip to New Zealand around a downhill-specific session with MTB Skills Clinics. These clinics are very popular, have an excellent reputation and take place at various places around the country. Browse the website for one that suits your holiday schedule. See www.mtbskillsclinics.co.nz
Close to home
To find trails closer to home, ask at your local bike shop or get involved with a club. Current Downhill World Champion, Australian Sam Hill, has raced on courses all around the globe but he’s never lost an appetite for his local trails. He recommends getting out and enjoying whatever terrain you have at hand. “I used to push my bike up fire roads and ride down those,” he says. “I think that’s a perfect place to start out.”
Seb Kemp is a professional bike coach in Whistler, Canada. Here are a few of the basic tips he gives his clients.
- Stand on the pedals with knees bent and apart, not clamping the seat or bike. Keep your pedals level and your elbows out to the sides. Don’t hunch your back. Keep your head up.
- Keep one finger only on the end of each brake lever. Set them up in the correct position to do this. Think of the levers as dimmer switches, not light switches.
- Forget the idea of being at one with your bike. Instead try to isolate your body from the forces created by the bike interacting with the trail, and allow the bike to move beneath you.
- Turn the bike by leaning, not steering. Keep your body upright and your weight centred over the part of the tyres that are in contact with the ground. Learn to corner well before trying drops, jumps and more technical trails. This will make everything else much easier.
- Braking and pedalling are two forces you need to reduce. More pedalling results in more braking and both will tire you out and make you slower in the long run.
- Look where you want to go. This may sound obvious, but it’s all too easy to be mesmerised by the things you really don’t want to hit. Wherever you look is where you will end up, so focus on your chosen line and you’ll be ‘magically’ transported there.
- Practise your skills on a wide, open area with a small gradient. It’s best to have the basics sorted before hitting a technical trail or there’ll be too much for the brain and body to deal with.
- Don’t forget that learning is a never-ending process. Small steps add up to giant leaps, so take your time and set yourself feasible goals.
“Just playing on your bike can teach you so much bike skill,” says Tracy Moseley, Women’s Downhill World Champion for 2010. “It’s all about having a go and not being afraid to try stuff.”
For the flattest continent on the planet, Australia has several excellent dedicated downhill trails. Most major ski resorts have summer programs where the chairlifts are used to transport the riders to the top of the mountain, with ski runs transformed into downhill tracks. Here are some of the best:
Mount Buller, Victoria
Four downhill mountain biking trails serviced by the Horse Hill Chairlift. All riders must have a valid pass that covers the use of all mountain bike trails and the chairlift.
The downhill trails begin at Spurs Restaurant and are marked with trail-head signs detailing their degree of difficulty (green for easiest, blue for more difficult and black for most difficult), length and elevation loss.
Cost: Unlimited Horse Hill chair lift day pass: $53 per person, Season Pass: $330 per person
bike, helmet and gloves: Half Day – $35 / Whole Day – $45. Downhill bike,
helmet and body armour: Half Day – $90 / Whole Day – $120.
Cross-country hardtail with helmet and gloves: Full day $45 / Half or second day $35.
Cross-country dual suspension with helmet and gloves: Full day $65 / Half or second day $55.
Downhill with full face helmet: Full Day $120. Half or second day $90.
Info: 03 5775 2724
Mount Buller also runs several specialist downhill and mountain bike clinics over summer, including beginner women’s courses, kid’s mountain biking clinics and coaching courses with professional riders.
Other trails in Victoria included the You Yangs, Mt Baw Baw and Barjarg.
The biggest and most commercialised downhill region, Thredbo has everything you could ever need for downhill riding. The trail is one of the longest in the world, at 6.2km.
All riders using the chairlift must be on a guided or patrolled Downhill Unlimited Session with South East Mountain Bike Co and must have completed an initiation session.
Costs: $99 (own bike and gear), $249 (basic downhill bike and gear) and $299 (downhill race bike and gear).
Includes a full day of downhilling with 3 hours of instruction, covering chairlift use, trail access and technical riding skills. The package includes front suspension bike, full body armour, full-face helmet and all-day lift ticket.
Downhill Unlimited Session
Gives unlimited rides up the chairlift and costs $69, plus extra hire costs for bikes and equipment.
Thredbo also offers pro rider clinics, private lessons, group clinics and women’s weekends. Bookings essential.
Dwellingup, Western Australia
A good range of tracks to suit all skill levels, from beginner riders to downhill aficionados. Well maintained with good pine forest soil.
Fox Creek, South Australia
A public MTB park about a 30 minute drive into the Adelaide hills. A wide variety of trails, from difficult black trails to easier fire trails.
Belair, South Australia
A good series of government-funded downhill tracks about 7km from the centre of Adelaide. The train line goes directly along the trail, allowing riders to get a lift back up to the top! The downhill tracks virtually start from the train platform. Belair has some green and blue tracks for newbies and some excellent trails for hard-core riders.
With a tagline like ‘scaring mountain goats since 1984’, this site has plenty of information and inspiration on all aspects of downhill. Also has a great trail finder to help locate tracks near you.
The website of the peak governing body for all types of mountain biking. Features news and information on events, MTB clubs and trail access.
Pure inspiration: if these photos don’t make you want to get on a bike, then you better stay at home!