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The Essence of Downhill Mountain Biking

written by: Daniel P. McGoldrick • edited by: Leigh A. Zaykoski • updated: 3/31/2010

Downhill mountain biking can be an extremely challenging aspect of this thrilling outdoor sport, but once you become proficient, it becomes a driving force in using all that leg-burning energy to bring you to the crest of a hill. Learn why, along with the keys to getting better, below.

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    What Lies Beneath your Handlebars

    Handling downhill mountain biking is going to take some practice and you want to be in control for whatever bumps and obstacles lay in wait on the trail because they will come at you fast. You want to level your gaze ahead of you to what is coming and not right in front of your tire because with that tactic you’ll inevitably be seeing blue sky before you meat some form of the earth’s crust, and then see stars. You don’t want that, you want to stay relaxed anticipating and adjusting to the upcoming terrain. And always follow the edict, “when in doubt, dismount.” That’s covered in more detail here in Riding Basics.

    Switchbacks are one of the toughest things about downhill mountain biking especially when it’s a really tight ones like that appear like the letter ‘w’ sideways. When you come upon one of those on a steep decline you can’t help but think how much farther it is to the ground if you can’t make the turn. It’s imperative that you try making turns like this on flat ground before attempting the downhill variety. You can make the turns practically standing still at first; it’s all about balance. Set up a course on a driveway or parking lot where you’ll only have a couple of feet to maneuver the bike around 160 degrees.

    Read Beginning Mountain Biking: Rent Before You Buy if you're looking into buying a new market or upgrading from the one you already have. Don’t let the title put you off, you can learn something there regardless of the skill level you’re at. A lot of shops allow you to rent and they've usually got some of the best models to do so. Therefore, you can take one out on the trail for a test run to learn how it rides and see if you like its features.

    Pick the brain of the sales person at the shop first to see what those features are. For instance do you think you'll want disc breaks or hydraulic depending upon where and how much you'll be riding. The more you know about frame types, brand names, shocks and the like; the better you'll know which bike will be best for you. This is a considerable investment and you want your bike to stand up to rugged abuse so take advantage of the rent before you buy opportunities out there. Also this outdoor sport tends to have riders that do upgrade every couple of seasons which means that a lot of good used bikes on the market too. Bike shops or the various sites on the net will let you in on what’s available.

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    How to Brake and Make Tight Turns Mountain Biking DownhillLearning to use both brakes properly is essential for downhill mountain biking and this article teaches you how to best approach this learned skill. Tips on adjusting rocky terrain and how you can watch other riders to learn is also described here.
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    Downhill Mountain Biking: Brakes, Terrain, and Learn By Watching

    Sunsets On the Trail Rely on that front brake heavily in conjunction with the back break because too much tightening on the back break can result in spin out drifts of the back tire especially on the trails with loser dirt and sand (as opposed to hard pack). Folks may be more prone to avoid the front brake out of fear of being tossed over the handlebars. Therefore, you have to get familiar with that balance with practice on increasingly steep terrain in accordance with your level of comfort (remember, no one is making you do this but it’s a blast when it clicks and you’re confident). Hopping a chair on a ski lift and taking your first downhill run on a Black Diamond trail isn’t the way to do this and you will end up bruised, broken, or even worse.

    With practice, as you learn to handle terrain and obstacles, you will become more and more comfortable on the bike. To get better you can look into joining a mountain biking troop of fellow enthusiasts and you can pick their brains. Don’t be intimidated thinking they’ll all be stuck up experts, many times they have riders of all levels that readily welcome new comers. Advanced enthusiasts all had to start somewhere too, hopefully they remember that. This same learning in the community approach was discussed in Rock Climbing, which might also be an appealing fitness diversion for you.

    Alternatively, take a gander at all sorts of video tutorials you can find on the web particularly after a ride when some problem you had is fresh in your head. For instance, with those really tight turns and switchbacks on a downhill run that require great skill check in with how the experts do it. Drills at home in the yard balancing on the bike without moving will really help you on the trail. Take it from me; I bailed too late on a switchback once which resulted in a sprained ankle and a long painful ride out of a national forest.

    Keep your eyes on the prize which apart from that great feeling you get when you know you’re in shape is the exhilarating downhill run. That self-created breeze, now-centered, and skillful manipulation of gravity you get to do on the way down is the reward for pushing your legs to the limit on the uphill battle. Focus on that on the way up; it’s like the work hard, play hard mentality. If you really like the downhill rush and grow proficient at it; there are races held in many different places that you can be a part of. This link at Mountain Bike Action has a comprehensive listing along with a lot of other good information. Read the next article in this series for some invaluable tips that will keep you wanting to get back on the trail and bike on the next level.

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    Sources:

    Big Sky Cyclery, Helena MT http://www.bigskybikes.com/

    Mountain Bike Action http://www.mbaction.com

    Helena National Forest @ http://www.fs.fed.us/r1/helena/