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Going Somewhere Fast

One family discovers the thrill of downhill biking at Snowmass.

Downhill biking is a way to experience the thrill of Snowmass’ slopes in the summer months.

It’s a perfect July day in Snowmass. You know the kind: blue skies, warm sun and enough breeze to keep the air cool. Yet I am anything but cool.

Clad in head-to-toe body armor and pushing a heavy downhill bike, I’m boarding the Elk Camp Gondola with my husband, two teenage sons and Kevin Jordan, an affable, endlessly patient ski and bike instructor with a palpable passion for teaching. Just before we enter the gondola, we see a man wearing a T-shirt proclaiming, “Dirt is the new snow.” Today, we will find out if that is true.

As the gondola ascends, Jordan, who coordinates the mountain-biking program at Snowmass, explains the basics of downhill biking, immediately drawing parallels with skiing. “Most skiers and snowboarders do not know they are downhill mountain bikers… yet,” he explains. “Downhill biking is a gravity-fed sport that produces similar sensations to skiing and snowboarding while shredding the dirt.”

Over the course of the morning, we will learn the basics of downhill biking and, hopefully, progress to the mountain’s most difficult trail, Valhalla. 

But before the fun began, before we even boarded the gondola, we had to get geared up. Putting on body armor for the first time feels intimidating, and also a bit silly. When we arrive, we are wearing loose biking shorts and T-shirts. Moments later we are covered head to toe, sporting a jacket with built-in chest protection, full-face helmets, goggles, shoulder and elbow pads, and knee and shin pads. Even our shoes have been swapped out for thick-soled ankle boots.

But the biggest change is in our confidence. Before gearing up, we were all a bit nervous. Now fully padded, we no longer feel silly. We feel invincible.

Sure, you can ride any of the trails at Snowmass on your regular mountain bike. But to really experience them, especially Valhalla, it’s worth trying out the downhill equipment. Purpose-built for downhill riding, these bikes are heavier and sturdier than other mountain bikes. They have thicker pedals, wider handlebars and a much lower seat (which you will barely use, by the way). And they are perfectly balanced for laying the tires on edge, cornering into turns and flying confidently over jumps.

As first-timers, we’re grateful to be taking a lesson. Downhill biking is so completely different from mountain biking that even my teens, who are skilled mountain bikers, needed to start at the beginning. I’m pretty much an intermediate, although one with lots of experience. As with beginner ski lessons, we start out on a mostly flat slope at the bottom of the mountain, learning to stand, start and stop. Jordan also teaches us the ABCs of downhill biking: action stance/braking/cornering.

Next we progress to the on-mountain skills park and pump track. Here we practice crossing small wood bridges, cornering on banked turns and raising and lowering our upper bodies to compress and decompress the bike’s suspension as we ride over arched bridges.

And then the moment of truth arrives; we are ready to tackle the trails. Snowmass has three lift-served trails dedicated to downhill biking: Easy Rider, Vapor (added last summer) and Valhalla. While Easy Rider and Vapor resemble more traditional mountain-biking trails, Valhalla is a different animal. With immaculate grooming and downhill-specific features like jumps, berms and drops, it is more course than trail, perfectly banked for confident turns, rapid descents and even short moments of flight.

During our first run down, Jordan stops us periodically to explain how to ride each upcoming feature. Fully prepped, we don’t hit anything blind. Amazingly, thanks to the instruction we received, Valhalla is not superintimidating, but rather an exhilarating combination of challenge and controlled descent, due to the calculated gradient and shaping of the trail. Thanks to physics, I quickly learn that riding a banked curve is actually easier than turning on flat ground.

Turned loose later in the day, I venture down Valhalla once more while the rest of my family fits in as many laps as they can before the gondola shuts down— each time pushing just a little harder, a little faster and falling just a little bit more in love with gravity. So is dirt the new snow? Come summer in Snowmass, you bet it is.

Learn to Launch
Snowmass offers several downhill bike lessons, from private instruction for groups of up to six to a package that includes bike rental, safety equipment, lift access and a lunch voucher (kids must be 8 or older). The popular Perfect Summer Package + Downhill ($99) includes three days of unlimited gondola rides, a one-day Bike Snowmass ticket, a half-day downhill bike rental and a one-hour downhill bike clinic. During Valhalla Nights (most Fridays through July and August and—new this summer—three Tuesdays in August), the Elk Camp Gondola will run until 7pm for biking, and the Elk Camp restaurant will stay open for dinner, with live music and other activities outside.