Woods & Mountains
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Downhill Mountain Biking

Ski areas aren’t just for winter anymore

By Mike McQuaide
Published: June 8, 2010
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Ski resorts offer a variety of trails for riders of all skill levels. For beginners, unwind on a gently sloping, picturesque trail ride.
Photo by Northstar-at-Tahoe Resort
Descending alpine meadows on a mountain bike – becoming one with the swerves and curves of a serpentine dirt trail that twists and winds through forested glades – is certainly one of the most fun adventures an outdoor enthusiast can experience. That rush of speed, those panoramic vistas wherein mountain upon mountain extends as far as the eye can see, that intoxicating buzz of fresh, unspoiled alpine air – it’s easy to understand why untold thousands of fat-tire enthusiasts head to the higher elevations.
   
There’s just one problem: Pedaling a bike uphill in order to reach those higher elevations can be as frustratingly unpleasant and tedious as riding down them is exhilarating. Luckily, dozens of ski areas across North America keep their chairlifts and gondolas running in summer to transport mountain bikes and their riders to the high country.

Where To Do It
   
There, just as skiers and snowboarders do in winter, bike riders have their pick of any number of groomed trails to get them to the bottom. From gentle, meandering cross-country trails (green runs) that are perfect for families, to tight twisty single-tracks with huge drops and man-made death-defying obstacles (double black-diamond runs), most ski-area bike parks offer a range of riding experiences.
   
Places such as Mammoth Mountain in California offer more than 70 miles of lift-accessed riding, with over 3,000 feet of descent possible. Whistler-Blackcomb in British Columbia, North America’s biggest lift-served bike area, is crisscrossed with more than 100 miles of trails that lose some 5,000 feet of elevation. And while there might be more bike parks in the West, ski areas in the Midwest and Northeast have their share of lift-served riding as well. Marquette Mountain in Michigan, Killington in Vermont and Hunter Mountain in New York State are just a few of the other ski areas across the country that offer summer biking.

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When you feel the need for speed, unleash your bike on the black diamond downhill speed runs found at most ski resorts.
Photo by Hunter Mountain
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Ski resorts provide the perfect opportunity to practice and hone your trail riding skills.
Photo by Hunter Mountain
How To Do It

Now that you know what lift-served biking is, and where to do it, how do you go about it? Not surprisingly, you approach it in much the same way you go about skiing or boarding. Assuming the bike park you choose has a rental shop, you can either ride your own bike or rent one. Renting is often a good idea, not only because it’s less for you to have to stuff into your car or trailer, but also because the rental shop will likely offer a fleet of bikes appropriate to the ski area’s particular trail, as well as your riding preference.

For instance, if you want to ride gentle cruiser trails, there’s no reason to ride a 50-pound dual-suspension bike that’s more appropriate for some adrenaline junkie itching to launch off every rock and steep drop in the park. And if you are an advocate of anti-gravity biking, you sure don’t want to be riding a bike that’s not built to withstand that kind of riding.
   
As for gear, once again it depends on the kind of riding you want to do.  Certainly you need a helmet – it goes without saying that all riders need to wear helmets – and if all you’re interested in are gentle green and blue trails (beginner and intermediate), that might be the only special equipment you need.
   
But if you want to go fast or challenge yourself on black diamond trails with huge drops and skinny ladder bridges, some sort of body armor is advisable. Most ski areas rent shin guards, elbow pads and guards, plus full-face helmets.

Something For Everyone
   
Bike parks offer a great environment also for improving your riding skills and learning new ones. Just as with skiing and snowboarding, most ski areas offer riding lessons for everyone from first-time mountain bikers to hard-core free-riders who want to challenge themselves with bigger jumps and deeper drops. Private lessons abound, and some hills even offer kids camps and women-only rides too.  
   
For never-evers who might be interested in mountain biking but are afraid of becoming lost, ski area bike parks offer an excellent introduction to the sport. Trails are well-marked and maintained, supervised and ridden often by park staff, and handy maps detail all the trails in an enclosed area.
   
And it’s not just the biking that’s great at bike parks. Depending on the area, the summertime après-bike scene is every bit as enticing as the winter après-ski life with restaurants and bars offering ways to relax and unwind – not to mention replace calories – after a thrilling day on the dirt. Lodging is often available too.
   
So grab a bike, let the chairlift do the dirty work, and hop on gravity’s back for a thrilling downhill ride. Ski areas aren’t just for winter anymore.

Mike McQuaide of Bellingham, Wash., is currently training for his first 100-mile mountain bike race. 

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Photo by Hunter Mountain
Ski Resorts for Summer Fun

Looking for that perfect place to try out your new bike? Here are three prime downhill mountain biking resorts that will put it through its paces.

WEST
Mammoth Mountain, Calif.
When the snow melts at this California downhill ski destination, it transforms into a downhill mountain biker haven. For families, there are miles of cross-country and gentle downhill rides, with plenty of places to stop and admire the view. Adrenaline junkies can fulfill their need for speed by heading down trails with names like “Kamikaze,” “Shock Treatment” and “Bullet.” (800) 626-6684, www.mammothmountain.com.

MIDWEST
Marquette Mountain, Mich.
Located just miles from the shore of Lake Superior, this resort offers its summer mountain biking trails free of charge; you just pay for the lift service. And with miles of trails, and everything from slow and picturesque winding trails to pulse-pounding downhill screamers, you’ll likely find an ideal trail for yourself no matter what level of experience you have. (800) 944-7669, www.marquettemountain.com.

EAST
Hunter Mountain, N.Y.
This full-featured resort in the Catskills offers fly fishing, hiking, golf and zipline tours in addition to an impressive array of downhill mountain biking trails spread over 200 acres. And if you’re anxious to graduate from the lazy, twisting trails to the vertical plunge of a black-diamond course, you can gain experience and improve your technique at the Hunter One Skills Center.
(800) 486-8376, www.huntermtn.com.

– Andy Bennett
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