Notes From the Road: The Best Sports You’ve Never Heard Of: Downhill Biking

When I first moved to Montana’s Yellowstone Country, I’d heard the mountain biking was the stuff of legends. I don’t even really know what makes mountain biking legendary, but suffice it to say, the mountain biking around these parts was going to blow my mind. (Really, if I managed to complete a 10-mile round trip without bursting a lung, my mind was blown.)

After I’d had a few practice rides on my acquired-second-hand bike, we set out to do a few, “Fairly mellow,” (famous last words) rides in Hyalite Canyon. No big deal. Just a few creeks to cross and hills to climb.

Sometime around mile four, I unclipped, stepped down and started crying because my lungs and legs hurt so much. After a while, I pepped myself back up and then began hiking my bike uphill, because I WOULD reach the halfway point. I would!

After a brief rest on a log, at what seemed like our 90th creek crossing, another biker that I hadn’t seen before, came trudging past us, pushing his bike, looking severely out of breath, but in a great mood.

“How’s the day,” he called behind him as he hiked past us.

“See? Now that guy has got it together. He had to get off his bike, walk a ways and I’m sure will get back on in no time,” I whispered to my friend. I resolved to change my attitude. If that guy could walk and be spritely, so could I.

“Well, his bike is about three times as heavy as yours. And he’s pretty much been walking the entire way. He’s a downhill biker,” chimed in my so-called friend.

After which I immediately thought, “Wait. We’re not going to be going downhill? You’ve got to be kidding me.”

No, we were going to go downhill, but we were not going to do it with the speed and force of the man that had just passed us. We were not downhill biking. We were merely mortals.

What is downhill biking?

Downhill biking is a specialized sport for those adrenaline junkies who prefer to lug a heavy bike up a hill and then ride murderously fast down it (which is weird to me, because I greatly prefer the uphill and am very good at braking to a snail’s pace the entire way down). Downhill biking celebrates letting the brakes loose, careening over small jumps and abandoning the sense of safety enough to plummet down steeper terrain than would generally be advised on a regular, lightweight mountain bike.

To recap, regular mountain biking = sane and leisurely; downhill biking = total insanity. Just so we’re all clear.

How is it different than regular mountain biking?

Downhill bikes are big, burly behemoths. Often weighing twice (or more) than a regular mountain bike, downhill bikes have heavy frames, better suspension, bigger brakes, stronger wheels and sturdier hardware (like a triple crown fork) to protect the bike from collapsing after hitting a big jump.

Downhill biking also allows bikers to access steeper, more dangerous terrain. Because of the bike’s weight, riders can careen over tree stumps, rocks and logs without a great danger of bike injury (but not without danger of personal injury). One rider that I talked to even compared it to dirt biking without the motor.

Most downhill bikes can also be difficult to ride. They are so big and heavy that it makes it almost impossible to pedal up the steep terrain that downhill bikers choose. Additionally, because downhill bikes can manage steeper terrain, the hike up while pushing the bike can be an even bigger workout than normal mountain biking.

And finally, downhill bikers are in it for the glory only, as they generally get just one ride in per day (if they’re backcountry biking). Unlike mountain biking, which can be a mix of uphill, rolling terrain and downhill, downhill biking is all about the descent. Which often means, like backcountry skiing, riders will work all day, pushing their bikes up steep terrain, simply to ride back down. One time.

What equipment do you need?

Downhill biking is pretty rigorous and can be a bit rough on the body. Many riders wear a full set of pads (elbow, knee and sometimes a whole chest and back pad) and top it off with a full-face helmet, akin to a dirt bike helmet. It’s also important to bring lots of hydration and snacks, as well as a full tool set in your backpack (because nothing ruins a day more than getting a flat within the first 10 feet of your 4-mile descent.

Where can you downhill bike in Yellowstone Country?

Mount Blackmore, in Hyalite Canyon, is a great downhill biking area, but anywhere wheeled transportation is allowed, you can downhill bike. Mount Blackmore is great because you can ride some of it on your bike, before you have to get off and hike. The terrain is very technical, so it’s important to have a meaty frame and meaty wheels. It takes about 2.5 hours to hike to the top and about 45 minutes to ride down.

If you want to try the sport, but aren’t keen on hiking your bike up a few thousand vertical feet of elevation, Big Sky Resort has a great trail system that is accessible via their chairlift. They also rent downhill bikes that are geared up for this kind of “abuse.” Just buy a lift pass, grab a bike, mount it on the chairlift and you can ride 10+ rides per day, without all the bike schlepping.