My wisest uncle once told me, the quickest way to get good at riding a bike (or anything, really) is to start at the top. My interpretation of this is: skip the pads, spandex and full-face helmet (they are simply devices that enable you to fall), and be sure to arrive at Killington for your first attempt at downhill mountain biking (DH MTB, yo!) on opening weekend. Ya know, when there’s only one lift open and every super serious downhiller in a 500-mile radius is there too!
For the record: the last time I attempted DH MTB at the Beast, it didn’t have a catchy acronym and the K1 gondola was a double chair. 25 years ago, and I left bleeding and in need of several stitches.
But last fall, when deciding between a basic winter-only pass and Beast 365 pass, I said ‘fuck it, let’s give downhill MTB another shot.’
Surely the equipment has improved, and if the summer terrain is anything like the winter stuff at Killington, that’s improved, too. Add in my co-workers’ encouraging words and my recent pandemic-inspired fitness journey, and my physical confidence was at a relative high.
In addition to all this bluster, I was outfitted with base-model Schwinn mountain bike from Dicks’ in Rutland, a no-face-mask helmet from Giro that matched my outfit, and a really dope Carhartt rain coat I got at Rutland’s-best-store, Tractor Supply. My Airblaster wizard hood completed the outfit, because… did I mention it was freaking cold, Bob?
With temps in the low 40s and the impending doom of rain chilling things down to the bone, Sunday, May 30 (day 2 of the summer of 2021) was as good a day as any to pop my modern downhill cherry.
To say I felt under dressed, well, that’s something I’d prefer not to admit to in writing. Plus, I looked damn good. But the best DH MTB riders with the sickest, most appropriate gear were all there too, making me question my footwear decision of muck boots.
Luckily, I live mostly inside my own head, so ignored all the signs that this shit might actually be dangerous and rolled right through the singles line. At the front, I randomly loaded the lift with my cousins from the recently-concluded snowboard season, one of whom had done some electrical work at my house this past winter. Small world!? Check.
As I nervously cracked a medicinal CL smooth, they assured me I’d be fine. This instilled at least as much confidence as two mountain friends’ opinions ever could. They also suggested they’d be having their own medicinal safety meeting at the top, which I quickly invited myself to, before the smart part of my brain reminded me the more keen senses I had for this experiment, the better!
At the top of the snowshed lift I finally realized something. That bunny slope trail I can rip down in about 4 seconds on my snowboard? It looks a lot longer and scarier without snow and with every single rock showing…
…but, I was committed.
One of many rules to live by at a resort if you wanna hang with the locals is that you never take the lift down unless walking is your only other option (gross, walking.) And since I did have a bike, I was doing it, dude!
I procrastinated the inevitable by snapping some pics of the lush greenery and dark clouds from Vermont’s (hopefully) final cold spell of the season. Eventually, I had finished my Coors light — it was now or never.
My cousins on the lift, my friends on the park crew and the signs at Killington, suggested I take it easy my first run. So as any logical person might do, I opted for ‘Easy Street.’
With a name like that, how could I go wrong?
Turns out, DH MTB is all go — no right or wrong! Something about how gravity works, I think. Thankfully, the fresh new brakes on my bike worked well, and I would know — I tested them aggressively. I also tested the brakes and skills of everyone who ripped past me as I tried hard to convince myself to let go, just a little.
The actual experts zipped past shouting “on your left,” as if my brain could possibly tell the difference between directionals while I white-knuckled around the berms. One guy shouted out a supportive, “you’re doing great” as I squealed an apology for being little more than a slow-moving obstacle.
But through whatever miracle, I bounced, skidded and bobbled my way down the first section of Easy Street, coming out unscathed on a nice flat service road. There, two youths waited for their crew with shit-eating grins in their faces.
I excitedly exclaimed, “you guys do this for fun!? This is terrifying!”
The laughed, disagreed and and pointed me in the direction of ‘Roller.’
“The easiest way down,” they said.
The good news is, my the second half of the trail, I actually did feel slightly better. Roller was as advertised — rolling enough that I didn’t need to hold my brakes the whole time!
Dare I say, I was starting to feel like… not a beginner? I mean my kit still screamed Jerry, but the loosening-tension in my back said, ‘you might make it to the bottom without dying!’
In fact, by the third and final section of Snowshed, I was actually starting to be the one the yelling. I passed a group of women who had stopped to enjoy the view.
“What did they do with all the snow!?” I shouted without a pause, making myself cackle and eliciting a classic East Coast sarcastic “sorry” from one of them.
The people I’d just spent the spring with? It turns out, they just switched from snowboarding/skiing to downhill for the summer.
When I finally emerged (unscathed) at the bottom and could see the lift, lodge and parking lot, it was executive decision time. As a freshly-intermediate downhill mountain biker, I made the was a quick one to go back to the car and switch to skateboarding. My back and legs hurt, and I was ready to not suck at something again. Plus, the rain drops were threatening and if I wanted to get in some loops on the Darkside mini, well, time was a-wastin’!
Alas, my attempt was foiled – and the rain started to fall shortly after anway! But hey, that one-run counts for a lot of back-to-back axle stalls, so I’ll take it!
p.s. This is what it looks like when you get good