Killington — At the 4,241-foot summit of Killington, Ben Colona’s advice to me was straightforward:
“If you happen to fall,” he said, “get away from the bike. Jump off that thing and let it go who-knows-where. You can always buy another one, but it’ll be hard to buy new arms.”
Colona wasn’t joking. The bike I was sitting on was an impressive feat of engineering, designed to tackle whatever the mountain threw at it. With full suspension and massive tires, there was no question that the bike could make it down the trail; the question was whether I would still be on it.
And now, after giving me some tips on the finer points of riding, I was about to follow him down what is universally known as “The Beast.”
I checked my helmet and started to pedal toward the slope with a white-knuckle grip on the handlebars.
When the ski slopes of Vermont sit devoid of snow, the mountains’ steep slopes and dense glades become home to a different kind of speed seeker. Wearing arm, leg and chest protection, as well as full-face helmets, riders fly down trails in an aggressive and fast-moving variety of mountain biking that’s been in Vermont since the 1990s. Today, many of Vermont’s ski resorts are also home to expansive networks of single-track and downhill biking trails as well as full rental shops with experts offering lessons to help get you out on the hill for the first time.
Eager to try something new, I headed to Killington Resort to get some tips from the riders that know the trails and the bikes. My guides for the day were Michael Joseph, director of communications at Killington, and Ben Colona, Killington’s bike shop manager. Both are seasoned riders (Colona has been riding the trails at Killington for the past seven years) and were more than willing to show me some tricks for the trails.
Fortunately, my day didn’t start at the summit, but on the easier trials lower on the mountain, where I developed the techniques of body positioning, turning and braking.
The morning’s rides were on versatile cross-country mountain bikes with full suspension. These bikes were designed to go both up and down the mountain with 2.1-inch wide tires and adjustable front and rear suspension, making them nimble and responsive on the descents and efficient on the climbs (the larger and more technical downhill bikes would come later in the day).
The bike’s natural tendency is to follow the path of least resistance with the help of gravity. Your job as the rider is to provide enough resistance (through braking) and direction (done by steering) to guide it. When riding downhill, Colona says, this is done from two positions: a “neutral” or seated position, and an active or “ready” position for attacking the mountain. The rider’s position needs to be constantly changing depending on the conditions.
As you descend, keep your rear end as far back as possible – as far back as over your back tire without losing control of the bike. If the front end seems squirrelly or wobbly, you might be leaning too far back.
The best tool for absorbing the shocks and jolts of the trail isn’t the front or rear suspension – it’s your arms and legs. By keeping yourself as relaxed as possible, you’ll be more responsive and absorb many of the biggest hits and keep yourself maneuverable. Keep your elbows bent at an angle slightly greater than 90 degrees and avoid gripping the handlebars too tightly.
“Ideally, you should be able to drum your fingers on the handlebars,” Colona says. “Otherwise you’re holding on too hard.”
Even if you’re not riding a hardtail, keeping your legs bent and ready to absorb any bumps is still essential. The three things to keep in mind are: keep your weight back, grip the seat with your thighs, and keep your knees bent and relaxed.
Admittedly, keeping relaxed is hard to do when confronted with narrow turns, boulders, tree roots and sudden hair-raising drops. When the going gets steep, your feet can be a source of stability. By keeping your feet at 9 and 3 o’clock positions (left or right foot forward, the other directly behind), you’ll be able to distribute your weight evenly and give yourself enough clearance over the ground to avoid snagging rocks, roots or other obstacles.
A gondola ride to the top
The morning was a good warm-up, but after getting used to the trails, we swapped out the cross-country bikes for the much bigger downhill bikes and boarded the gondola for a ride to the top. We also strapped on knee and elbow pads and I put in a mouth guard.
Weighing in at 40 pounds, the Kona Park Operator is a serious bike for serious downhill riding. When placed alongside the bikes we had been riding in the morning, the difference was like going from driving a compact car to driving a school bus. Mine featured eight inches of travel on the front suspension (the bikes we rode in the morning had four) and extra wide handlebars with a sticker that read: “Caution! This bike is for competitive use only!”
On the cross-country mountain bikes we had ridden that morning, the rider is positioned squarely in the center of the bike, giving the rider balance while seated or standing on up the pedals. When seated on this bike, however, the full suspension slouches low to the ground and the pedals are tucked under the rider.
Pedaling around the flats, I felt like a trained monkey at a circus, with my knees almost coming up to my chest with every pedal stroke. Clearly, these are not bikes for casual trail rides or a leisurely spin around the block; they’re designed to go hard and fast downhill, which is also why they have 2.8 inch-wide knobby tires.
After taking off down the hill, the bike’s capabilities became immediately apparent. As we picked our way down the access road to the head of a trail (Killington has 35 miles of trails with a 1,700 vertical drop), we traveled over gravel, stones, loose dirt, roots and stumps of trees with the bikes’ suspension systems working beautifully.
A beginner’s mistake is looking at what you want to avoid rather than focusing on where you want to go. Fix your eyes on your chosen path and stick with it; keep your line of sight down the trail, and not at what’s just inches in front of you. When you look straight down, you’ll find yourself making lots of unnecessary braking and steering that will inevitably tangle you up and toss you.
Turning is a function of more than just twisting the handlebars, which follows one of Colona’s favorite expressions:
“It’s called tip to grip,” he says, describing proper turning technique. “But if you steer, you’ll smear.”
As with other styles of riding, turning requires only small adjustments of the handlebars and shifts in the rider’s balance. As with all kinds of biking, the faster you travel, the more finely tuned those adjustments become.
A downhill bike’s hydraulic disc brakes are another feature that requires finesse. The brakes are so sensitive you only need apply pressure with one or two fingers to bring yourself to a complete stop, so use both brakes evenly to avoid skidding and watch out for over-braking – that’s how you go over the handlebars. For added stability when braking, angle your heels slightly down to keep your feet firmly planted on the pedals.
When encountering technical portions with obstacles like rocks or roots, it’s important to remember that your best defense is a good offense. By actively engaging with the hill instead of simply responding to it (or just holding on for dear life), you’ll stand a better chance of powering through it.
Maybe it was the mouth guard clenched between my molars or the eight inches of suspension and 2.8 inches of tire width working under me, but flying down a mountain and through the woods inspires a feeling of confidence – one that might have been a little too heady.
When learning downhill, taking a tumble is inevitable and you’ll never forget the first time you go over the handlebars.
Mine was when I was flying down a stretch of access road with the wind in my face and loose gravel and stones rattling underneath. The road came to a sharp turn down the fall line and I was carrying too much speed. The ground fell away from me and like an ejecting fighter pilot, I became fully separated from my bike and airborne. The ground and sky tumbled end-over-end and I finally came to rest in the grass downhill of where the bike lay. With only a few scrapes and bruises, I dusted myself off and climbed back onto the saddle, sore but not discouraged. Joseph and Colona were waiting around the bend, and I still had a long way to go.