Dressed like Darth Vader, I’m about to ride down a cliff over giant rocks, drop-offs, berms, and table-tops with a bunch of crazy badass kids and I’m freaking terrified.
As a typically lycra-clad, skinny, weak-armed XC mountain bike racer, I feel awfully out of place, and slightly uncomfortable wearing baggy shorts and full body armour as I take my bike on a chairlift up a mountain for the first time in my life.
By Paul Reinis.
Even on the occasions I rode in the mountains out West, when everyone thought I was crazy to do it, I’d pedal up the hills. I actually enjoy it! Climbing is my specialty as a racer; it’s where I can gain the most time on my competition. The downhills were always about resting and making sure I didn’t lose any time by crashing. Now, however, I can barely push my monster of a bike up the hill. I’m not alone. We all take the chairlift.
Riding the lift up, I wonder: “Will this downhilling experiment make me a better XC racer?” The bikes are so different. My race bike is a custom-built 20lb hardtail that fits me like a glove. I can ride it like the wind on tight and twisty singletrack. It climbs like a mountain goat, but on technical descents and rock gardens, it’s not so great.
The rental downhill bike is heavy, saggy and unwieldy. That is, until I start riding down the steep descents where it suddenly comes alive. The huge, knobby tires grip the trail on the berms while the forgiving suspension absorbs bumps that would’ve knocked me off my XC bike. I feel like I’m floating in some sections. Once the trail gets really rough, I’m still able to steer the bike and keep riding, even if my heart is pounding in fear. Fortunately, I’m taking lessons from Ben, a Blue Mountain instructor. Riding behind him is inspiring: he’s able to ride the intermediate trails with flair and style, tailwhipping small bumps and accelerating out of berms. His advice was simple, but helpful: “Keep your chin over the handlebar so your weight is optimized for traction, drop your ankles and push back on the pedals on the upstroke.”
Indeed, these spiked pedals are my nemesis. Because I’ve always ridden with clipless pedals, I’m used to pulling up on my pedal stroke—something that doesn’t work so well with platforms. My old habits don’t die: every time I attempt even a small jump, my feet float in the air. This is awfully unsettling. Next time I’ll keep my clipless pedals and stay firmly attached to the bike. And at the end of the day, after stepping out of my sweaty Darth Vader suit, did this experiment in fear improve my riding? Too soon to tell, but I’m feeling confident and exhilarated, and I can’t wait to try it again. Yeah!