Scott Mercier: A roadie’s day trying out the Snowmass Bike Park
August 16, 2018
Why ride up when you can take the lift?
As a roadie and relative newcomer to mountain biking, the thought of taking a lift up to ride back down seems almost anathema to me; even worse, it seems like cheating. Don't get me wrong, half the reason I suffer up is to get the thrill of riding down. But take the lift? Never! You have to "earn your turns." And I know I'm not alone in this thought process, because almost none of the guys I ride with in the valley ever hit the park.
To be frank, downhill mountain biking looks and sounds intimidating. The bikes are heavy and set up like motorcycles, and the protective gear makes you look like Robocop. The trails seem packed with huge gap jumps and obstacles that turn bones into mashed potatoes, and the speeds seem straight out of Formula One. In other words, lots of opportunities for a 50-year-old to really hurt himself.
This week, however, I set out to change that. I met up with Tyler Lindsay, the event coordinator for Aspen-Snowmass, and he gave me a guided tour of the Snowmass Bike Park. I had mixed feelings about gearing up; on the one hand, it would provide nice protection in the event of a wipeout. But on the other, would I take unnecessary risks and have a feeling of invincibility? I geared up anyway.
We rode the gondola and then the Elk Camp lift to get to the top of the mountain. Sitting on a lift without heavy ski boots is weirdly liberating. I couldn't stop swinging my legs. The midsummer views were fantastic, but a heavy layer of smoke obscured the distant mountains and was a reminder of how dry and hot this summer has been.
At the top, Tyler gave me the lay of the land before we took our first lap. Snowmass employs a summer crew of 10 to 12 to maintain and expand its trail system. There are currently six downhill-only trails, offering nearly 3,000 vertical feet of descending. The trails off the Elk Camp lift are more technical, old school style trails, while the trails below Elk Camp are faster, flow-type trails with wooden features, big burmed turns and gap jumps. They have something for everyone, with easy beginner trails and advanced technical trails. Most of the trails were reworked this summer, and they are making a significant expansion to French Press; when it's finished, it will be 5 miles long. Animal Crackers, aka Trail 16, is the most technical with steep drops and a rock garden. This trail was built for the Enduro World Series in 2017.
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Our first lap was on French Press. Tyler led the way and it was obvious his bike was pretty much an extension of him. I watched with slight envy at the ease with which he could clear the gaps, whip his bike and sweep the corners.
Half way down he explained bike and body positioning. It's very similar to making a high-speed giant slalom turn on the groomers — 80 percent of your weight should be on the outside, or downhill, pedal. You have wide knees and your upper body is low, but upright over the bike. Your eyes are looking through the turn toward the exit. You want enough speed to enter the turn high. Not only is this the best line, but the dirt is firmer, and you'll have more grip with your tires; all the dust and fluff falls to the bottom of the turn and your chances of sliding out are much higher.
When we got to Elk Camp, we chose Viking. Viking is the intermediate flow trail from Elk Camp to Base Village. It's built for speed, with smoothly banked corners and lots of small and medium sized jumps. Flat pedals are not something I'm used to, and my feet kept flying off the pedals as soon as the bike was in the air. Tyler explained that I should drop my heels and load the bike equally into the jump; meaning that both the front and rear shocks will spring at the same time. Otherwise, you can get bucked up and potentially over the handlebars. He also looked at my running shoes and suggested we get some downhill-specific ones. The downhill shoes have a sticky, rubber sole, similar to rock climbing shoes, that help keep your feet on the pedals. I was surprised at the difference they made.
Tyler decided I was now ready for Valhalla. Valhalla is built for speed and air. The ramps on the gap jumps and rollers are bigger and steeper. Tyler flew through the air with ease, whipping his bike off each kicker. I did my best to follow his lead and load my bike into the ramps. I'm comfortable with speed, but I have a mental issue when air is under my wheels. It's not something I'm used to. Even with the downhill-specific shoes, my feet kept flying off the pedals on the bigger jumps. I kept thinking of Dr. Kaz, who told me that he sees a constant stream of patients because of Valhalla.
By the end of the afternoon, I was worn out. Downhill mountain biking is not easy, and it's a full-body workout. It's also a great way to improve your overall skill level for descending. Snowmass is a world-class resort, both in the summer and the winter. If you live here and ride bikes, the bike park should definitely be on your radar. The prices are reasonable, and you'll have a blast on the corners and jumps.
Have fun, and good riding!
Scott Mercier represented Team USA at the 1992 Olympic Games and had a five-year professional career with Saturn Cycling and The U.S. Postal Services teams. He works as a financial adviser in Aspen and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.