Downhill Biker: Cycling The Ski Slopes

What mountain biker--inching up a steep traverse in lowest "granny gear"--hasn't thought a ride would be much more fun with a lot less uphill? Well, cyclists, your wish has been granted by the same people who added the word "downhill" to skiing.

Ski resorts, hungry for summer revenue, have discovered mountain bikers, and vice versa. In the past four years, the number of ski resorts open to bikes has grown from fewer than 20 to 200 this summer, estimates the International Mountain Bicycling Association. Hot spots like Vail in Colorado and Mammoth in California broke the 50,000-visitor barrier last summer, and many ski areas report strong gains this year in riders both on the trails and using the lifts.

Getting into mountain biking is simple. The first requirement is a bike. Originally, motorcycle and touring-bike parts were cobbled to Schwinn cruiser frames to create mountain bikes. Now they are distinguished from the once-ubiquitous 10-speeds by the number of gears (21 or 24), the fat frame tubes, balloon tires, straight handlebars, and an upright seating position. A decent basic steel-frame bike from makers such as Specialized or Trek starts at about $350, but $4,000 "trick" bikes of exotic materials like titanium (known to cost-conscious riders as "unobtainium") aren't uncommon from specialty builders like Merlin and Nuke Proof.

Sartorially speaking, new cyclists need only the essentials: padded bike shorts, padded gloves, eye protection, and most important, a helmet. Helmets, which cost $35 to $130, should be approved by standards-testers ANSI or Snell. It's also wise to carry a seat pack with tire patches, a spare tube, pump, and compact emergency tools, including hex wrenches, screwdrivers, a chain tool, and an adjustable wrench. And no kit is complete without an energy food bar to avoid the inevitable "bonk" when blood sugar runs low. These basics cost less than $150.

HAND-HOLDING. Ski resorts offer would-be gonzo downhillers an opportunity to ease into mountain biking. Many offer beginner, intermediate, and expert trails, as well as lessons, bike rentals and sales, repairs, and a first-aid center. And there are the lifts, specially equipped to haul bikes. Best of all, ski area summer prices are often half winter rates, and package deals are usually available. For example, Snowshoe Mountain Resort in Snowshoe, W.Va., charges $80 per person for a two-night package, which includes lodging, meals, passes for its 100 miles of trails, maps, and a souvenir water bottle.

Beginners appreciate all the hand-holding provided by resorts. "A lot of people ride on a gravel path and think they have been mountain biking," says Lisa Wolfe, communications manager for Whitetail Ski Resort and Mountain Biking Center in Mercersburg, Pa. "Then they find they are not comfortable jumping logs or riding over rocks, and that's why we teach Mountain Biking 101."

Indeed, unprepared riders strap on the toe clips at their peril. Many newcomers don't realize the average intermediate trail will be steep and dotted with logs and rocks like the pointy, tire-flattening "chicken heads," the loose, round, hard-to-negotiate "baby heads," and the deadly "tombstones"--immobile, squarish rocks that abruptly halt forward progress, inducting riders into "Club OTB," so named for the "over the bars" tumble its members take. Most cyclists take minor spills every ride, from a modest "dab," meaning putting a foot down for support, to the extreme "yard sale," which leaves a rider's gear strewn across the trail.

Even experienced bikers will suffer nicks and scratches on the shins and arms during a routine ride, a problem for the button-down crowd. Ask Jody Oaks, a public relations associate at Trahan Burden & Charles Inc. advertising agency in Baltimore. The physical mementos of an average weekend ride mar the corporate image she likes to portray. "If you wear off-white hose, the bruise shows right through," she says. "They [clients] look at me like a little kid who got her best dress dirty in the sandbox."

Is it worth it? Devout riders say the combination of challenge, accomplishment, and thrill is unbeatable. "There is a self-satisfaction," says Ira Schneider, a 38-year-old Santa Monica, Calif., chiropractor. "You have a challenge--go to an area, clean it without dabbing--and it's a great feeling." Or as veteran downhillers put it, it's always a great ride if you make it to the bottom with the rubber side down.

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