Week 25: Unplanned Adventures in Mountain Biking [Score +24]
I’ve had “do a mountain-bike clinic” on my list of intrepid activity ideas from the start of this project. Learning some cross-country trail riding sounds like a fun change of pace and a nice departure from my usual road-cycling experience.
Steamboat Springs has become a cyclists’ summer playground, both for mountain biking and crazy-difficult road cycling (those climbs!). I had a hunch, as I was researching ideas for my 12 days in town, that there had to be lessons offered somewhere in the area. With some easy Googling, I found a women’s clinic offered through the Steamboat Resort itself. Perfect!
Steamboat Springs: A Cycling Destination
When my brother, Chase, first moved to Steamboat, and we began hiking trails around town, I noticed that some trails on the mountains had signs posted at intersections with strong warnings such as, “This is a downhill-only trail. Watch for riders traveling at high speeds. Do not hike this trail.”
I’d never heard of downhill mountain biking at that time. Chase—my adventurous brother who’s done his fair share of adrenaline-pumping outdoor sports—characterized downhill bikers as “totally crazy.”
From what I’ve seen with my own eyes and read, his summation seems pretty accurate. As one source says, “Downhill mountain bikes are designed for the riders who just want to go downhill, and fast, and either have no fear or really good health insurance.”
You won’t find downhill mountain biking in the flat Midwest. Of all kinds of mountain biking, this one truly requires an actual mountain: steep descents, hairpin turns, challenging obstacles, and enough ground to let gravity help you get to a high speed while you careen toward the bottom. Off-season ski slopes are perfect homes for downhill trails.
This is not what I wanted to try. Cross-country mountain biking is fine with me.
The Time I Unknowingly Signed Up For A *Downhill* Mountain Biking Lesson
On the night of my women’s mountain biking clinic, I arrived at the Steamboat Bike Park eager to do some trail riding. At the base of the ski mountain, I watched several riders traversing dirt trails and various small obstacles, and it looked challenging but doable. Butterflies of excitement started stirring in my stomach.
I checked in at the Steamboat Bike Shop, and they directed me to the back of the store to get outfitted with rental gear. Bike, of course. Gloves. Elbow pads. Knee pads with shin guards. Full-face, solid helmet with ski-like goggles.
I was glad for safety gear that went beyond the basic bike and helmet I was expecting, but this seemed a bit extreme. Tiny alarm bells started ringing in my head, and those stirring butterflies were fluttering more quickly now.
Outside, waiting for go-time, I chatted with a woman in her 20s who was practically wiggling with excitement. That night was her third week in a row at the clinic, and she described herself as “totally addicted”. I asked her if we’d be riding mostly around the trails at the base of the mountain where we could see riders active already.
She gave me a serious look and said, “Oh, no. We’re going up to the top.”
Suspicion confirmed: This was no ordinary cross-country mountain-biking clinic.
I put my game face on and prepared to dive into downhill mountain biking.
First Challenge: The Basics
In total, seven women came to the Gravity Girls clinic: five who were advanced riders with their own bikes and gear. The one who was eager for her third week. And me, the “never ever”, as they called me.
To accommodate the widely varying levels of experience, they split us in three: the five more advanced riders went with Instructor #1. Totally Addicted woman went with Instructor #2. And Never-Ever me got my own instructor, Li, a guy in his twenties who lives to bike in the summer and snowboard in the winter.
Even though I’m an experienced cyclist, simply riding this downhill bike on flat concrete made me feel like a kid just learning to ride a bike again. It felt and handled entirely differently than my usual bikes. Most strange was the seat position: it’s very low, so it felt like my knees were in my armpits, which threw off my balance and rhythm.
Thankfully, we spent the first 30 minutes of my lesson on flat, paved ground so I could get the feel for the bike and learn the basic principles of downhill biking. Parallel foot and pedal position. Weight back and almost behind the seat while standing in a squat. Arms in push-up stance for control.
And, of course, how to safely make a fast, hard stop.
He then declared me ready, and we caught a (motorized) ride halfway up the mountain to the start of a beginner’s green run.
If You Think It’s Easy to Just Coast Down a Mountain, Think Again
Steamboat Bike Park has 50 miles of downhill mountain bike trails ranging from green beginner trails to advanced, black-diamond, technical trails. The green runs alone from top to bottom are more than seven miles.
Li led so he could show the way and call out to me what was coming ahead. He was also a good enough rider that he could ride while frequently looking back to watch me and coach as we rode.
Do not be fooled into thinking it’s easy, you just have to coast downhill. Yes, it’s a lot of coasting. But it’s coasting over rocks, around boulders and trees, on a single-lane trail through tight turns… all while trying your best not to go tumbling down the mountain.
I continually felt on the edge between being in control and out of it. That edge is also shared with the thin line between comfort and fear, and I was right there all the way.
One of the most difficult elements of the trail that we hadn’t truly been able to practice on pavement was the berm: a banked, sharp turn. To ride it properly, you lean your bike toward the inside to use centrifugal force to your advantage. Leaning the bike enables you to get better grip and speed on the terrain, too.
It was something I had to try to learn on the fly.
Listen to the quick comment the guy in this video makes at 1:26: “Just be careful, if you stuff the front wheel over [the top of the berm], there’s no coming back from that.”
I learned that the hard way.
On my first sharp berm, I entered the curve too low, and my centrifugal force plus novice skills made me come out of the curve too high… sending me in a straight line up over the top. I flew off the bike, tumbled over the handlebars, and thankfully landed in a grassy spot instead of wrapped around a tree or boulder.
As everyone says when they get into an accident, it happened so fast I have no memory of actually flying through the air. One moment, I saw my front tire going straight over the edge, and the next moment I felt the thud of my head hitting the ground.
I heard my instructor, Li, yell my name and come racing back to see if I was okay.
I was fortunate in many, many ways beyond just the area I spilled into: my left shoulder absorbed the most force but because of the grass was just scraped up. My head hit the ground, but I was wearing that full-face helmet and goggles, so I knew immediately I’d have a bad headache and sore neck, but I was able to get back on the bike and finish the ride without trouble.
After a few stunned moments of sitting up straight, mentally checking bones and joints, and recollecting my focus, I realized I’d experienced a rite of passage.
And the thing I’d most feared had happened, but I was okay.
Li told me later that wrecking was a sign that I was trying hard, giving it my all, and doing well. If you’re going too slow, you won’t wreck, but you also won’t be truly learning the new skills. He said when he teaches little kids, they often go out with no fear and ride balls-to-the-wall, the opposite of most adults. It takes a spill for kids to understand that they need to slow down a bit and be more careful.
I wasn’t going to quit; I was rattled, but my pride and intrepid spirit were strong enough that I was going to finish the ride. That next section was the most challenging mentally: I consciously and audibly coached myself, “You can do this. You ARE doing this. Be proud. Be brave. Finish it out.”
It took everything I had to drown out the other voice in my head saying, “THIS IS SCARY! STOP!”
We rode through a few more sharp, banked curves, and I honestly took them too slowly out of nervousness, but I stayed on the bike and upright.
By the time we approached the bottom of the mountain nearly an hour after we started the ride, my legs were quivering with fatigue (remember you ride in a squat 97% of the time), and my upper-body form was collapsing, as well. My head hurt, I wanted to check out my scraped shoulder, and I was dying for a cold drink of water.
Li congratulated me and said, “You know, I think we should go up and do that section again to keep practicing.” He’d told me earlier that the lesson could go on past the stated time, so we’d have the option to do some more riding if I wanted.
I declined. Not from fear, not from unhappiness, but I was just too worn out. I knew that I needed my focus to be 100% ready, and my muscles needed to be fresher in order to maintain my form and be safe through the ride.
Li was completely supportive, and while I drank my free beer (which was really refreshing), he said more people actually need to recognize when that one last run is a bad idea for exactly those reasons. He’s seen too many bad accidents happen when people are tired, and to do downhill mountain biking, you really need to be fresh and energized.
I believed him.
Bruised But Not Broken
A quick stop at Walgreens to get hydrogen peroxide and Neosporin took care of my first-aid needs.
I’ll admit that I googled “concussion symptoms” to keep an eye on myself, and I used the flashlight feature on my phone to check my pupils’ response in the bathroom mirror like I see on television medical dramas.
The next day, my neck pain kicked in. I powered through the weekend (more hiking!), popping ibuprofen at regular intervals. By Monday, three days of turning my head like Batman was enough for me, so I found a chiropractor in Steamboat who diagnosed me with a sprained neck, in addition to some joints out of alignment.
I didn’t even know it was possible to sprain one’s neck.
I felt notably better each day after that.
Would I Do It Again?
I’ve been thinking a lot about this question and don’t have a firm answer one way or the other.
It was fun, and challenging, and thrilling.
It was also scary, and dangerous, and I got really lucky that I wasn’t badly hurt.
Let’s put it this way: I’m glad I did it. I’m proud of myself for making it through the clinic mostly upright and smiling.
And if the situation presents itself again, who knows?
- Did something outside my routine: +1
- Left the house: +1
- Ventured >50 miles from home: +10
- Did something entirely new: +1
- Activity benefits my health/wellbeing: +1
- Burned real calories (so I got some exercise): +1
- Signed up for an activity without knowing anyone else involved: +2
- Had a conversation with a stranger of at least 30 seconds: +2
- Had a conversation with a stranger beyond basics (i.e., work, hometown, what’s your dog’s name): +2
- Learned someone’s name: +3