I remember clearly the word that came to mind upon seeing a downhill mountain bike for the first time: Burly. New to the mountains, I was intrigued by the suspension-laden forks attached to beefed up frames slung over the backs of trucks. How did “downhilling” come into being? When did it arrive in Winter Park? And why?
According to the Mountain Bike Hall of Fame in Crested Butte, mountain biking came to fruition in the early 1970’s on an old dirt road in Marin County, Calif. Adventure-seekers and limit-pushers would haul ballooners (think clunky, 60-plus pound, few-to-no-geared, back-pedal braking balloon tire bikes) up the road, and, inevitably, race down to see who was fastest. Later coined Repack Road, the trail descends 1,200 feet in just over two miles, and hosted the first-ever recorded mountain bike race on Oct. 21, 1976. There in the hills of Northern California, with 10 bold participants, mountain biking was officially born.
From there, mountain biking has taken on a variety of styles and forms: Cross-country, downhill, freeride, and many more. The diversity of bikes and ways to ride a bike are endless, and Fraser Valley residents and visitors partake in several of them.
How is downhilling different than, say, cross-country biking? “Similar to the difference between cross-country and downhill skiing, downhill mountain biking is exclusively descent riding,” said Steve Hurlbert, Public Relations and Communications Manager at Winter Park Resort. “Also similar to skiing, downhill requires different equipment, as a downhill bike is much heavier and sturdier than a cross-country bike. Downhill mountain biking also includes purpose-built trails and features that you wouldn’t find in the forest on a typical cross country mountain bike trail.”
Winter Park Resort has offered mountain biking since the early 1990’s, allowing visitors to take bikes up the lifts and ride along a pre-existing rudimentary trail system. “Beginning in 2005, a plan was put in motion to create a downhill bike park that would rival the one at Whistler, considered to be the best bike park in the world,” explained Hurlbert. “After two years of master planning, getting the necessary permits from the Forest Service, and building trails and features, Trestle Bike Park was created in 2007 and has rapidly expanded since, becoming the fastest growing mountain bike park in North America.”
The answer to why Winter Park decided to bring downhilling to the Resort seems pretty clear cut to me: Because downhilling is awesome. Typical downhill bikes have at least 8 inches of travel on both front and rear suspension to make the ride a bit smoother, and trails and features are challenging for riders at any level. Downhill mountain biking tests physical and mental stamina, strength and control.
Downhill mountain bikes and equipment can be expensive to purchase and maintain, but Winter Park Resort has made it pretty easy to get involved. Grab a friend and head to 2-for-1 Local’s Wednesdays from 4:30 – 7 p.m. For $24 each, you and a friend get lift tickets, bikes and all the protective gear your heart desires. First timer? “Try Trestle 101, our intro to downhill mountain-bike riding,” said Hurlbert. “Your guide will coach you the ins-and-outs of the bike park and provide you with the best methods for bike control, braking and cornering. If you feel confident on a bike but have never ridden in the downhill bike park before, [it’s] the best way to start.”
Mountain biking has grown, changed and splintered off into ways those original Repack Road racers likely couldn’t imagine at the time. We’re lucky here in the Fraser Valley to have access to a multitude of the types of biking, including downhilling, which opens for the summer season in Winter Park on June 15.
As for the winner of that first race? His name was Alan Bonds. He was the only one that didn’t crash.