Go Fast, No Engine: Downhill Mountain Biking Will Scratch Your Speed Itch
Because you have to get out of the car sometimes—but that doesn't mean you can't still feel the blur.
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I'm a fairly obsessed skier. As such, downhill mountain biking always seemed like an excellent activity to do during the off-season, those eight to nine months without snow on the ground. In fact, a lot of the top pro skiers do it. So I thought, why not? It looks fairly straightforward.
Despite a few mumbled "You're crazy" and other such statements from The Drive editorial staff, I loaded the awesome DiamondBack Mission Pro downhill machine on the no-less-fantastic Volkswagen Golf R, and took off for the Mountain Creek bike park, in New Jersey. Of course, it was slightly more complicated that that: turns out, mountain biking requires a good amount of gear, most of it to prevent injury: helmet, goggles, shoes, gloves, spine protection, elbow and knee pads. Full body armor is optional. But, long live the carrying capacity of hatchbacks, because I got all of that loaded into the diminutive Golf R, and off I went.
A surprisingly accessible adventure
A nice thing about mountain biking is that you don't need to purchase all the gear just to give the sport a try. The local mountains have packages including bike, helmet, and knee- and elbow protection that will keep you safe. If you really get into the sport, you'll want your own gear, but such packages are a convenient and affordable way to start.
In the beginning I thought—naïvely, as it turns out—there would be a decent amount of common skills between skiing and mountain biking. As it turns out, except for taking a ski lift up the mountain, not so much. On the bright side: You know how to ride a bike, right? Well, same thing.
I couldn't find any instructor available when I showed up, so I just asked the 16-year-old from the shop. He gave me two pieces of advice: Have both index fingers on the brakes at all times, and your feet level. Turns out, those are two crucial pieces of knowledge.
Here is the most surprising part of the sport: I had a blast from the first run. This is very unusual. If you think about other extreme or adventure sports—skiing, snowboarding, surfing, and kitesurfing all come to mind—the first few days are fairly miserable. It is hard to enjoy those sports with hardly any skills. Downhill mountain biking is the exception. Even on the fairly slow green slopes, it's a blast.
After the third or fourth run, things start to fall into place a bit. You even feel emboldened to try some of the wooden modules and a couple of small jumps. You also start to get a feel for the bike, so naturally, speed increases. Then we moved on to some blue slopes. (Black slopes, which are high-speed and full of rocks, force you to let the bike figure out its path as you react; we weren't at all comfortable attempting riding at that level, and so decided to leave those for another time.)
Surprisingly, the mountain was pretty much empty. Except for the bike shop, the lodge at the base was mostly closed, giving it a ghostly feel. On the upside, there was zero line for the lift.
The whole process is far easier than skiing during the high season: park at the bottom of the mountain, around the corner from the lift; put all your gear on; immediately jump on the ski gondola that's set up to accommodate mountain bikes; charge down whatever slope you find appropriate to your level. Rinse and repeat—it only gets more fun the more practice you have. Take an optional lunch break. We brought along a brilliant picnic. Do the whole thing again in the afternoon. We played it safe on the first day, finding the early runs to be pretty taxing, and didn't push our fatigue level too far. No crashes to report. Well, no major crashes; there might have been a minor mishap or three.
Given the ease, low barrier to entry, and high level of fun for the adrenaline-minded, I can't recommend this highly enough.
While we (thankfully) didn't test our safety gear against any major tumbles, it's just common sense to equip yourself with as much safety kit as possible. Here's everything I used.
I rode the DiamondBack Mission Pro ($3,399.99), DiamondBack flagship downhill model. With 160mm of travel in the front and great components all around (including a Fox suspension, Shimano XT hydraulic disc brakes, 27.5-inch Race Face Turbine wheels, and a Shimano XT 1×11 drivetrain) this bike is ready for anything. Plus, the great thing with DB is that the company ships straight to you, which means you can trade a bit of assembly work for a better price.
Bell Full-9: Much of what Bell engineers learned from Motocross helmets went into the Full-9 full-face mountain bike helmet. When you can incorporate feedback from the cream of the crop of downhill- and BMX pros, you wind up with an safe, comfortable, and awesome-looking lid like this one.
When it comes to skiing, I've trusted Smith for years, so I was unsurprised to really enjoy the Smith Squad MTB goggles. They have the same easy screen switch system that allows you to alternate between mirrored and clear lenses should conditions change. The goggles have a wide field of view, are very well ventilated, and fit perfectly on a full-faced helmet.
Elbow and knee pads
The DaKine Anthem knee pads and Slayer elbow pads are both comfortable but with plenty of protection—which is no easy design feat. I forgot I was wearing them after a minute, but was glad to have them when I realized I'd be flying down a mountain just inches from actual trees and branches.
I wore my Dainese Wave 12 D1 AIR, which I wear when riding motorcycles. It's a great spine—light and comfortable. And I figured if it keeps me safe on the road, it's probably fine on the trails.
I really enjoyed the Five Ten Freerider Pro. They are built for this, with an impact-resistant toe box that can handle rocks hitting your feet. They also feature the Five Ten Stealth S1 sole that made it feel like the pedals were glued to my feet.
The Mechanix Wear M-Pact gloves are my go-to gloves for obstacle course races, and they performed very well for this adventure, too.