Downhill Mountain Biking For The First Time – Andrew Clayton

In this guest post by Andrew Clayton…he takes us through his first dedicated, armored up, downhill riding experience. I especially like how he expands on trusting the bike and letting go. Our bikes have far more ability than we do and if we trust that fact…we end up riding at a level that we didn’t think was possible. He also goes on about how professional coaching severely shortened his learning curve…another thing I 100% agree with. So…battle what Andrew calls “getting MTB old” by getting out and trying a new style of riding.

Downhill Mountain BikingI’m writing from the Ben Nevis gondola, heart pounding , hands aching – holy crap this is an adrenalin rush. Just completed 4 down hill runs.

The world down hill record is held here by Greg Minnaar in 4:43:52 ! Like me, he is from Pietermaritzburg – must run in the blood, but I take 3+ minutes more than him 🙂 He is a Pro and I’ve never done this before , cut me some slack!

So the key rule here is to not touch the brakes says my pro coach James – easier said than done !

This is serious down hill – the boards at the start say Extreme Down Hill riders take this on.

This is tough work, every rock and drop off shudders up through the arms, through the neck, down the back and down out through the legs. The back really absorbs most of the bounce but the hands get so sore I finally battle to hold on tight and pull on the breaks (maybe a good thing – refer above to James’ tip, it’s the speed that glides you over the rocks).

Downhill Mountain Biking SignJust to set the scene. I’ve never worn body armor nor a full face helmet before. I’ve never ridden a custom made down hill track (they are usually 2 to 4 km long) let a lone a downhill mountain bike. They have much more travel – think big springs and shocks. There is no real need for a seat , although I like to ride with it clenched between my knees to help guide the bike (my knees and thighs will still be bruised for a week or so later) as I bounce down the mountain. One of the biggest differences for me is no cleats on my shoes! (that’s my shoes ‘attached’ to the pedals) Bouncing around I find it tough to just keep my feet on the pedals which is key to giving balance to the ride. Looking down trying to get your feet back onto the pedal platforms can be tricky and very costly! Sadly my bike, hired from the shop is a medium frame, they did not own any larges! It will do although on my 3rd ride down the chain just broke right at the start of the run. I completed with no chain but on that gradient it is not a ‘must have’ although useful to power over and out of rocks – my third run was to get pictures and my speedy second run was already in the books leaving me very satisfied (and James the coach I might add!) so not having a chain was not too much of a problem.

One of the big keys to downhill racing is reading a line and keeping up the forward rolling momentum. Stopping will almost certainly guarantee a fall! The track is very narrow and no matter the line you pick it will be tough but unquestionably there are better lines to pick and this has to happen at high pace often as you pop over a tricky rocky section that lays bare a scene that looks unconquerable ahead of you and usually well below your eye line. Remember this, 100’s of bikes have done it before you so it must be doable …. for the bike at least 🙂

Hanging Chain on Downhill Mountain Biking RunSo how do you read a line? I was chuffed with my riding not really knowing what to have expected, this is after all the Expert Pro World Champ Downhill course! I road the champ course 3 times and the red run 2 times and stayed up over everything it threw at me – no falls (big bonus). Sure, I did not hit all the ramps made for the big air stuff on the flatter section and I never cleared the gnarly stuff by flying over it as the champs do, but I rode it all none the less and at good speed (you have to speed as oddly enough it is your friend in this type of stuff) making jumps where I could, and trust me…jumps help clear the gnarly stuff so it is a very worth while skill to have but you gotta be confident to land. Know this though, no matter your ability, these bikes can ride it all even if you can’t. Sure picking a line helps but sometimes riding hard, weight back from center and keeping momentum is worth more than the best line! You gotta just go for it, ride by the seat of your pants with your hair on fire!

Downhill Mountain BikingBig no no’s are riding up to a tough rocky downhill section (note- the entire downhill is tough but certain sections tougher than others) stopping at the top to see whats ahead and then choosing a line. Sounds crazy but you loose the momentum – you need to trust the bike, it can do it and now u have to as well. Apply skill – weight back, let the bike roll – the front wheel will roll through pretty much anything (this is where the pros just ‘cheat’ and clear it – okay controlled landings are tough), hold tight on the bars but be loose with the hands to let the front wheel pop over and around rocks, nooo front brakes here – better still no brakes if you can. Keep balance , even pressure on the pedals , you may have to help lift the front wheel a little – don’t loose your nerve, eyes up looking ahead – always head up focus on whats up ahead- where you look on a bike you will go! You should find your entire back muscles are put to good use as you control the bikes movement even when the entire back of the bike may be in the air – you have to control the bike ensuring it rides where you want it to – you are boss of the bike!

But trust me you do not want to be the dude who rides to the top of a tough section, where cameras gather, then stops and looks before backing up to ride it. I rode the whole down hill section without stopping and looking first, I knew the bike could do it! Had I stopped, as I did on my third run to get snaps – the momentum is gone and u can’t clean a tough section from a standing start, you have to roll into it – balanced , weight back , comfy , adrenalin pumping, moving forward with a bit of pace. When you stop at the top of the gnarly stuff you end up walking. Blind if there are cameras around, as was the case as I waited on a rider to take a snap of him as he looked to be flying down only to yank on anchors at the top of the gnarly stuff and walk around and down – blind, I took pics just so you folk can see the big – no no!!!

Downhill Mountain BikingSo what is your level, I know I can ride anything, any mountain – that’s not being arrogant, it is my level. I turned up and road the entire Champ Downhill today having never been on a downhill bike before let alone a DH course. How did I do this? I took lessons about 4 yrs ago in the Peak Districts and have since ridden a lot. Investing in a coach is critical, saves on cash wasted on broken bikes and bones! The downhill sections on the 7 day cross country stage race on www.ironbike.com. It would rival this Ben Nevis DH. Being 3200m up in the Alps, you can only imagine what was thrown at us by crazy Italians who like to pride themselves on the tag they have secured for hosting the toughest MTB race on the planet! 14 hrs a day made it necessary to ride these tough downhill sections otherwise I think I would have been out there for 18hrs a day!! That’s when you learn and skill up fast, by day 7 of Iron Bike I knew there would never be a downhill that others rode that I could not – you can only get so vertical! So where do my skills lack?

The ramping over the tough stuff, getting air and landing! That’s what slows me down. What did I do? I hired a pro coach here at Ben Nevis, James Shirley. Boy can this 20 yr old ride. He had me pushing my limits and I repeated a few ‘fly – off’s ‘ a drop off above my ability. With his help I got it right and I’ll be back for more to skill up. Hopefully in time I won’t have to ride over the gnarly stuff but just know how to land properly on the other side of it.

Downhill Mountain Biking

You have to keep pushing the boundaries cause one day you will get ‘MTB old’ and stop testing those boundaries, nothing wrong with that but right now my learning curve is up – exponentially up – and I hope yours will be ! It is a mad rush and thrill – it’s rewarding to beat the course, now it is just the clock!

At the start looking around absorbing the view up there I felt one with nature. The air is crisp and clean, birds roam the skies and the city rush is far off in the distance barely visible to the naked eye. The quite rush , the raw rock challenging me – just me vs. the mountain, it was peaceful and fulfilling. My soul was topped up again with earthly goodness.

This guest post was submitted by Andrew Clayton over at Pedal Studio. Thanks for taking the time to send this over Clayton! Looks like a blast.

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