What Goes Up Must Come Down | Lift-Accessed Downhill Mountain Biking Plays With Gravity

Pilar Netzel enjoys the flow of this fun trail.
Kelly Ault enjoys the flow of this fun trail at Sugarbush. All photos by Sarah Galbraith.

“Chin up. Look through your turn.”

These words, so simple, have made a magnificent difference in my trail riding. I had struggled for some time with carrying speed through turns. It was learning to steer with my eyes that did the trick: Look where you want to go and your bike will take you there. This is just one of the many tips I picked up at the First-Timer to Life-Timer Skills for the Hills program at Sugarbush Resort, the first time I had tried lift-served mountain biking.

As Sugarbush program director and Skills for the Hills instructor John Atkinson explained, “Lots of people miss the mountain once the snow melts, but after you’ve ridden down it in the summer on a bike, you begin to realize that skiing, snowboarding, and biking are essentially the same sports. We want people to discover that gravity works year-round, and that it is as much fun in the summer as it is in the winter.”

An instructor explains how to ride the upcoming technical trail features.

Downhill mountain biking had always seemed terrifying to me; I’m a cross-country rider at heart. And I pictured steep rocky descents, gnarly rooted trails, and big air, all taken at breakneck speeds.

Fortunately, the name of the game at today’s mountain bike parks is progression, giving riders plenty of opportunities to practice and gain skills by offering both beginner terrain and opportunities to be gradual about increasing difficulty. With the well-designed trails we have access to today, if you can ride a bike, there is a trail for you to enjoy, no matter your preference or skill level.

A Program for Learning
Because downhill mountain biking can be intimidating, a lesson program, like Sugarbush’s First-Timer to Life-Timer Skills for the Hills, is designed to introduce the newbie to downhill mountain biking by offering expert instruction, quality rental gear, and progressive terrain, all of which are critical for this kind of skills-building.

“The objectives of the program are to safely introduce, share, and promote the sport of downhill biking,” Atkinson said. “We hope that guests will learn that downhill biking is safe, fun, and accessible for all abilities. We also hope that everyone leaves with a sense of accomplishment, great memories, and a desire to ride more!”

Sugarbush Resort offers more than 20 miles of downhill mountain bike trails, including long, mellow cruisers, intermediate single-track, and expert terrain. The mountain is one of several in the Northeast offering lift-accessed trail riding (see box).

I spent the day at Sugarbush with the Mountain Moxies, a team of female cross-country racers, and three highly competent and fun instructors. Although we didn’t know it yet, by the end of the day, some of us would become downhill converts, while others would see their cross-country riding greatly improved with new skills.

We started on a short practice trail with several berms (banked turns formed by soil dug from the track and deposited on the outside rim of the turn) and table-tops (a jump that goes over a hill, with a plateau at the top). Our instructors demonstrated riding these features and, one by one, we gave them a try. This also gave our instructors the ability to assess the group’s skill level in preparation for the day ahead. As we gained confidence on the first set of features, we moved further and further up the practice trail to begin piecing it all together.

Once we had all become more comfortable on our new bikes, it was time to head up the mountain and take our first ride down. The bikes were mounted on to their own lift chairs, and we hopped onto the next chair, just as you would before a ski run. It was great to be on the mountain during the summer, and the ride up gave us the chance to see some of the trails that crossed under the lift line. We grew more excited for our first run as we neared the top.

Our first run solidified everything. I remember looking down the first steep descent we came to. Could I do it? I trusted the bike and went for it—what fun! I tried hopping off a small rock—it was like landing on a fluffy pillow of clouds.

The day was filled with learning opportunities. Our instructors spread out through the group to offer on-trail advice and support as we rode a variety of trail features.

One of my fellow Mountain Moxies, Pilar Netzel of Shelburne, found true love in downhill mountain biking that day.

“I felt well-informed and solidly supported by the teaching team at Sugarbush,” she said. “We gained confidence on bridges, steep and narrow descents, and rocks and roots. We learned how to hold ourselves on our bikes, how to position our feet, and how to ride more aggressively.

Netzel went on to train and even race that summer. “I felt that I had found my sport” in downhill mountain biking. Her new season’s pass at Sugarbush allowed her to ride there several times a week. “The clinic helped me,” she said, “to see that this was something I could do.”

But racing isn’t the only measure of success. We all went home feeling more confident on our bikes. One of the other participants, Heather Steinhour of Montgomery Center, put it this way: “I gained confidence on downhills and learned to make tight turns more proficiently.”

Nina Otter rode trails in Waterbury a few days after the clinic and said, “I dropped Triple Threat—a series of steep drops that not very many people attempt—with little hesitation. It felt great!”

Joanie Kavanaugh changed up her riding style: “I did lower my [mountain bike] saddle a bit, I do not squeeze the saddle with my thighs anymore, and I hover or stand for the most part when I am on trail,” she said. “And I finally mastered turning with speed. Shortly after our workshop, Joanie Kavanaugh e-mailed Atkinson to tell him that she went on her usual trail ride through the Mad River Valley, and she was able to ride a lot more of the trail than she could before.

As for me, I’m looking forward to my next chance to get back out on some downhill trails. The exhilaration of navigating my way down the mountain on an expertly tuned plush trail bike has me wanting to explore more downhill trails. In the meantime, I’m enjoying my newfound skills on my favorite cross-country single-track.

Sarah Galbraith

Sarah Galbraith of Plainfield skis, bikes, hikes, swims, and camps her way through Vermont’s mountains in all seasons. After an adventure, she can often be found with friends, beer, and food.