Some, perhaps all, of you may want to be seated for the next sentence. (Seated? Good.) I went downhill biking on the weekend and managed not to kill or maim myself. wat? srsly, DH!
I really love riding on the road and haven’t touched a mountain bike in years (and never a cross bike), but when I got an invitation from a friend to go to Kicking Horse for his wedding and found out from him that it has some awesome and unrelenting downhill, I was intruiged. Now, any reasonable person who has not ridden a mountain bike or on the dirt for years may have stopped at the intruiged stage and left it at that. I think my last real dirt ride was 10 or 11 years ago on some trails of questionable legality in Toronto’s Don Valley and I really hadn’t had too much fun on them. A person who is not a great descender (and has crashed on descents) may also have left it at that..
However, the more I looked at the trail maps the intrigue turned into fascination. My wife was a bit concerned, not wanting me to injure myself, not only on the day of a wedding, but only a few days before our trip to Le Tour. But she let me go anyways (the “be careful”s kept coming though). I have heard stories of people breaking legs while mountain biking on days of weddings, but figured that since I wasn’t the one getting married, I’d be fine :)
I watched downhill on youtube (well, ok, just danny hart’s epic run at the worlds and the video of the urban downhill race in valparaiso). As the day of the trip approached, let my hair grow longer and didn’t shave to help make sure I didn’t stand out amongst the local dirties (well, ok, I was just being my usual lazy self) and I booked a rental bike and armor, hesitantly asking the rental lady if they offered lessons (they didn’t anymore) and if I’d be ok without them (they recommend having some background with cross country - following Isaias on some fireroads would have to do). At that point, I still could have bailed entirely or gone to a cross country bike and hit the moonraker trails just down road from the resort.
The drive from Calgary to Golden on Friday was fantastic - perfect weather and the rockies just like I remember them. At the rehearsal dinner in the evening, I caught up a bit with friends. Any mention of biking was greated with raised eyes and “are you sure?” and “don’t hurt yourself”. Even Andy, whose wedding I was attending and who had originally mentioned the downhill there, was surprised. While not a competitive cyclist by any means, he is adventurous and has gone riding at kicking horse many times and still said that even the intermediate runs were a bit much some times.
The wedding wasn’t until the evening on Saturday so I had a whole afternoon of riding ahead. I wandered over to the rental shop, signed all of my legal rights away, suited up in armor and a full face helmet, and picked up the bike. The guy showing me the bike asked if I had ever downhilled - nope - and then sent me on my way after making sure I knew where the brakes were and giving a few tips on braking and how to (or rather, how not to) sit. I pushed the beast of a bike, a nice Giant Glory, over to the field by the mid-mountain lift and did a few circles. I’m glad I didn’t have my heart rate monitor on because it would have been showing that I was in z5 already. I’ve never had nerves like that before a ride. Then I saw a kid who couldn’t have been more than 6 or 7 get on the lift with his dad, their bikes already in the chair in front of them, and knew then that I had to do it - if a 6 year old could do it then so could I.
The thing about being a roadie is that you develop leg muscles to the detriment of all other muscles in the body. In particular, and as many us of can atest to, arms turn into little twigs. Now the thing about downhill bikes is that they are bloody heavy. Kicking Horse has two ways up the mountain: a chair lift that goes half way up and a gondola that goes to the top. Taking the chair lift involves getting the bike onto a hook onto one chair and then taking the next. You can see where this is going. I managed to heft my bike up and then started teetering around trying to get it onto the hook. The lifty was nice enough to slow it down, but it didn’t help as I lurched after the lift, struggling to just keep the bike in the air. He took pity on me and stopped the left, but by that point what little strenght I had in my arms vanished and he had to put the bike on the hook for me. Fail. I got onto the next lift, and started the ride up the mountain. The rollers at the first support pylon were making a nice euro-techno untz-ing that helped me relax on the way up.
Then came the first ride down. The easy trail down was the access road - light gravel with some bigger rocks here and there and definitely not technical. I got the hang of braking and where my weight should be and then headed down a slightly twistier path with some nice berms. Going around then is almost like riding the banks at the velodrome - you have to have enough speed to flow nicely along the banking. I channeled Danny Hart a couple of times, getting the opposite foot down while going through some corners, and started feeling more comfortable. The next time up the lift, I still couldn’t get the bike on the rack but got a couple of centimeters closer. Since the first run had felt good, I took a stab a blue run called Buffalo Jump which gets its name from some crazy quick and steep up and downs that I guess you would be jumping over at speed. I, however, had neither the speed nor the guts and rolled over the flatter option at each bump. At the bottem, there was a ramp that let you get some nice air. It must have been the adrenaline from the ride, but I threw caution into the wind and took the jump, got a bit of air, and stuck the landing. The third time up the lift, I managed to hook the bike. I opted for the intermediate Super Berm run - a nice twisty trail with berm after berm and some nice sections of wooden plank trail. Again I hit the jump at the end and stuck it.
Three times from halfway up was feeling good so I decided to step it up and take the gondola to the top. Loading the gondola is much easier than the lift - just back the bike in and you’re good to go. I don’t have any personal reference to compare Kicking Horse to but as a ski resort its known for steep and black / double black runs. It has 4000 feet of vertical, but it’s only about a 5 mile trip down to the resort so maybe not as long as Downieville, but maybe steeper. The run from the top starts at the top of the ridge - breathtaking views where you can see everything - and drops into a bowl. As I was looking at the trail map at the top, I saw the bride and groom getting pictures. We chatted briefly - the first question that Andy asked was “have you hurt yourself yet?”. Thankfully, I had not. With the pleasantries out of the way, I headed down the mountain. Most upper trails were closed because of snow and trail work, but I did get on to Kranky Pants and then back to Super Berm. The last run of the day was also from the top. I had planned to take an intermediate run called Showdown but as I approached I saw that it started with a narrow plank bridge that I was not quite ready to try yet, so I went down through Kranky Pants, over to Buffalo Jump where I took the proper paths, and across another trail called Hop A Long to the bottom to wash down the bike, drop it off, and get ready for the wedding. Sharing in a friends wedding, staying up until 1:30 and dancing at the top of a mountain is probably not the best way to recover, but it was a great way to cap a day. We took off early the next day and stopped at the hot springs in Banff for some much needed soaking.