Baldy Mountain outside the US mountain resort of Aspen is more than just a haven for skiers and snowboarders. During the summer months, the snow slopes are transformed into alpine meadows, cross crossed by trails purpose-built into the mountainside for a different kind of adrenaline-fuelled downhill sport: gravity mountain biking.
RSNG headed here, to the Colorado resort of Snowmass, swapping a snowboard for a long-travel, burly MTB to find out how carving down the mountain on two wheels feels. Gondolas that in the summer are packed with Gore Tex-clad winter sports fans are given over to transporting mud-streaked mountain bikers in full-face helmets, wearing body armour.
Not for these guys the long, aerobic grind in the saddle – here it’s all about going with the flow, although as we found out, charging down a hill can be as demanding as fighting your way up one. Here’s what you need to know to tackle the Snowmass Bike Park – and don’t worry, these skills are transferable wherever you are…
1. There’s No Need To Invest In Kit Just like skiing or snowboarding, you don’t have to go shopping for expensive equipment before you hit the Bike Park. As I rock up on one sunny morning, I’m dressed in baggy shorts (with a butt-saving padded insert) and a riding jersey, but I have no other kit with me.
I meet Snowmass MTB guru Tyler Lindsay, who tells me with a grin that he’s already lined up my ride. It’s an Ibis Mojo HD4 performance enduro model, with long-travel front and rear suspension, and a starting price that busts through the $4K mark, but you can blast it around the park all day for less than $100 a day, if you book in advance.
Safety is important at Snowmass, so by the time I leave the shop I’ve been fitted for, and given, a full face helmet, torso body armour and knee pads (included in the hire price). The look is a bit Master Chief vs Mad Max but I feel a surge of confidence, knowing that I’m prepared for a tumble. I grab some gloves off the sales rack, and I’m good to go.
Snowmass has 3,000ft of vertical drop, and the gondola uplift means you can do laps!
2. You Don’t Need To Be Superfit If you find riding a bike on the road hard enough, and just looking at the steep, rocky gradients of off-road tracks is enough to turn your legs to jelly, then don’t stress, the gondolas take the strain on the way up, and you get a gravity assist on the way down.
Tyler Lindsay (who is the rider showing off his skills in the photos) explains: ‘In traditional mountain biking the biggest barrier to entry is aerobic. You’re riding up these hills, trying to keep up with your fast friends – it’s an exercise activity. But here in the Bike Park it is much more akin to skiing, where once you have acquired the basic skills, then it’s really just a matter of refining and developing those skills further.’
Of course, this being RSNG, I soon find a way to make Bike Park riding a physical challenge. It turns out riding a long-travel bike down through high berms, over drops and jumps – as I thread my way down twisting rock and root-strewn singletrack, while putting in pedal strokes to maintain my flow – is a great way to shred your leg muscles. Snowmass has 3,000ft of vertical drop, and the gondolas uplift means you can do laps! It also calls on upper body muscles you would never normally use on a bike.
It’s just that I’m free to make it as mellow, or as intense as I like – the faster I go and the harder I push, the tougher it gets on my anaerobic system, as my arms and legs act like additional suspension, soaking up the terrain.
2. A Is For Attack The first thing to learn about riding in a bike park is that you always need to be ready, and as Lindsay says, that comes from how you are on the bike. ‘A is for attack position. It’s the same athletic stance that you have used in just about every sport you have ever played: feet about shoulder-width apart, knees moderately bent, chest and head up looking out in front of you, hands out in front on the bars. And really seeking to maintain that athletic, attacking body position throughout.’
3. B Is For Braking Burly bikes need powerful brakes, and the combination of dinner-plate rotors and hydraulics mean that I only have to rest a single finger on the brake lever, covering it at all times while the rest of my fingers are free to keep a firm grip on the bar, essential when you’re shredding the trails.
I have power, but also control, because the brakes allow you to feather them, slicing off speed in increments rather than all at once, helping me avoid any Over The Bar (OTB) incidents. ‘We talk a lot about the importance of relying on both of the brakes evenly – if you use only the rear brake, what happens is that your weight shifts forwards a bit, it removes your weight from that rear brake and you just end up skidding everywhere,’ adds Lindsay.
So, the more you brake the more your weight moves forwards – counter this by shifting your hips up and back, behind the saddle. ‘If you get on something steeper, or you really needed to slow down quickly then you shift your weight further back.’
3. C Is For Cornering Part of the fun of bike parks is they are actively designed for flow – to allow you to swoop from one high bermed corner to another, feeling your tyres bite hard into the compacted earth and hardly losing any speed. One section of Snowmass trail looks like a rattlesnake coiling its way down the hillside – it’s a ludicrous amount of fun to ride. But first you need to stop thinking about turning the handlebars…
‘You tip the bike over underneath you, you maintain an upright body position and you put the weight on the outside edge of the tyres, so that you can carve around those corners – it’s very similar to a giant slalom turn on skis,’ says Lindsay.
4. Look To Your Exit For Confidence The other things to learn when riding berms are line choice and using the right speed. ‘In the straightaway, reduce your speed to where you can feel you can make the upcoming turn without braking.’
Then, use the radius of the turn to your advantage: ‘You come in straight at the centre of the trail and as you enter the turn you want to sling the bike up into that high pocket, but then maintain position inside of that high pocket, where the grip is best, all the way though… Act as though there is a flashlight where your belt buckle would be and rotate your hips to the inside so that you are shining that ‘flashlight’ to the exit point of that corner.’
Just make sure you don’t end up going up the berm and over it! Start on smaller banked turns and work your way up to bigger, faster ones.
Push your heels down a little bit, like being in the stirrups, to help with grip on the bike
5. Thinking About Your Feet Helps If you are used to riding a road bike clipped into the pedals, then you’ll probably ride the flat pedals of a Bike Park bike with the ball of your foot on the pedal. This isn’t ideal for gravity riding, says Lindsay.
‘The preference in the bike park is to shift your feet forwards a bit so that the spindle of the pedals is right near the arch of your foot. That takes a bit of pressure off your calf muscles and applies the force directly up your tib fib bones, rather than relying on muscle power, to give you a stable platform. And then push your heels down a little bit, like being in the stirrups, to help with grip on the bike.’
Soft running shoes aren’t really going to cut it here, so try and find a pair designed for mountain biking, such as Five Tens, which are stiffer and have grippy rubber on the soles, to help your feet stick.
6. Unlocking Jumping Is Massive Fun If there’s one skill that will make you feel like a gravity biking pro, it’s jumping. By my second run I’ve clocked the best spots and I’m soon popping off lips and clearing small table tops – the combination of flow and adrenaline is ridiculously fun. All of the trails at Snowmass are graded from Green to Black, and on the easier trails it’s not compulsory to jump anything, but you’ll have a lot of fun if you do.
To unlock this achievement, the trick is to start small, learn the basics and work your way up. You’re going to have to get your bike’s suspension on your side, though: ‘As you approach that first transition at the base of the take off face, what you want to do is push your heels and your hands down, at the same time to compress all of this suspension together. I think about pushing my pelvis down through my feet. It’s not that different from if you were standing on the ground, you compress down before you stand up to jump,’ says Lindsay.
‘As you come up the face of the jump, you want to be slowly extending your legs back to your normal moderate knee bend stance you have been riding with. As the front and rear suspension unload together, that’s going to throw the bike up towards your body – go ahead and allow it to, and then you can extend your arms and legs back down into the landing to set it down gently. As you land, ideally you want to have the angle of your bike match up with the angle of the terrain.’
7. Bombing The Drop Zone Mountain bikers love riding off steep stuff and Snowmass is no different – the harder trails have some commiting drop-offs where you ride off a ledge in the trail, into thin air. Going weightless for a moment before plummeting down to the trail is an awesome feeling, but you don’t really want to get it wrong.
‘The biggest mistake that people make on drops is that they go too slow. You want to have enough speed so that you have a little bit of the ‘Willie Coyote’ effect, where your front wheel doesn’t ‘realise’ that it has gone off the drop before your rear wheel has also come off the drop, so that it can drop at a relatively even keel,’ says Lindsay.
‘You approach it in your very neutral stance, and as your front wheel crosses that drop barrier, lunge the bike out in front of you by extending your arms and pushing your heels forward, so that shortens the distance between the front and back wheel, so even if you are going a little bit slower your back wheel will still get off the edge before the front wheel starts to descend.’
I’m soon putting all of this advice into good use on Snowmass’s Viking, Vapor and Valhalla trails. I find you can ride hard all day and really dial in your skills.
At the end of one really good session I find myself launching off the huge tabletops of Valhalla, time seems to slow down while I’m in the air, flying between two towering flanks of silver birch as a golden sun bathes the mountains through the trees, before winding back up to charging speed as my tyres kiss the fine dust of the landing. It’s the kind of moment that makes you feel truly alive.
HOW TO GET THERE RSNG flew with Norwegian to Denver and then connected to Aspen Airport. We stayed in Snowmass Village, at the base of the runs, where a brand new hotel has opened for 2019 – the Limelight Hotel with 99 rooms, a new restaurant and a five-storey climbing wall, open to the public. The hotel is right next to the Snowmass Elk Camp Gondola for easy access to the bike park.
WHAT NEXT? Watch this short edit that shows the flow of drops, jumps and berms at Snowmass Bike Park.
Photos by Matt Ray
Visit Snowmass Bike Park online for more info
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Mountain biking is a dangerous activity and should only be done on supervised trails with the correct equipment, training and insurance. Comments are for information only and should not replace medical care or recommendations. Please check with your Doctor before embarking on exercise or nutrition regimes for the first time.