My favorite road sign is a truck on a triangle: STEEP DOWNHILL AHEAD. Descending a long hill on my bike, I can catch my breath, stretch my back and relax my legs and shoulders. Usually I've earned the reward by climbing.
Downhill mountain biking sounded even better. Ride the chairlift to the summit of a ski area, and bomb to the bottom. No trucks, either.
I gave it a try last weekend at Mount Snow in Vermont. Forget about relaxing. Even though it's all downhill, biking down a mountain is nerve-wracking. It demands concentration, quick reflexes and bike-handling skills much different than my roadie ways. It's also a blast.
After adjusting the seat on a Specialized Stumpjumper from the rental shop ($29 a day) and shifting through the gears on a preliminary spin around the base lodge, I was ready to get on the Summit Triple chairlift. With the bike hooked securely on a rack on the back of the chair, I sat back and enjoyed the 1.25-mile ride to the summit, elevation 3,600 feet. Cool fog replaced the hazy mugginess below.
The trail map said the 2.3-mile gravel work road was the easiest route down -- and the only way rideable all the way up, "for those who must climb." Immediately I found my fingers clenched in a death grip on the brakes as I bounced over loose rocks. I kept my toe straps loose, ready to "dab'' (put a foot down) in an emergency. Water bars, puddles and rocks were the only obstacles on the road, but gravity posed the major challenge. On steep sections, control gates forced riders to slow down.
Shaken but unscathed at the bottom, my friend and I paused to watch racers in the Vermont State Slalom Championship Series. Modeled after ski races, the dual slalom sends pairs of riders snaking down the wide face of a ski slope, where steep, slippery, off-camber turns challenge them not to slide out, and sudden dips send them airborne. The course drops about 300 feet in less than a quarter of a mile. Some racers got down in 30 seconds.
Roundabout is the longest downhill trail, with single-track on the Sunbrook area offering "spectacular views to the south," according to the trail map. My eyes were on the ground, not on the horizon. I braked too hard on one steep spot, slick with mud, and flipped in slow motion over the handlebars. The only damage was a scratch on my shoulder. I was relieved to see the riders ahead of me walking down the next steep bit -- until I stopped, too, and bloodthirsty bugs swarmed.
Somehow we ended up on a narrow trail called Switchback, winding through dark woods where roots and rocks, camouflaged by mud, waited to trip us up. But that led to the wide, undulating Training Loop, where I actually got to shift gears and pedal.
On the next run, a detour on the Somerset Road added a little climbing before the final descent on the slalom course, now emptied of racers. By now, I had the hang of it. I could brake just enough, keep my feet on the pedals and shift my weight behind the seat to avoid skidding on the turns.
I rolled to the base lodge mud-splattered, bug-bitten and triumphant.
In line to hose off the bike, I met two racers from O'Neil's Bike Shop in Worcester. Eric Olson had placed 14th in the race, Ken Mareau 10th. I told them I still favored road biking, but could get into more mountain biking. It was vice-versa for them. Really, we each had the same wish: More time to ride -- and another bike.
A full-day lift/trail pass at Mount Snow (800-245-7669) costs $25. The lift is open from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays through Oct. 10. The Crosstown trails across Route 100 from the ski area also offer riding for all abilities and do not require a lift pass. The Mountain Bike School runs a two-day course for $135 ($151 with bike rental), including trail/lift fees, guided tours and lunch each day.
Other ski areas in Vermont that take mountain bikes up the lifts include Stratton (800-843-6867), Killington (800-621-7669) and Jay Peak (800-451-4449). In New Hampshire, there's Bretton Woods (800-232-2972), Loon Mountain (603-745-8111), Waterville Valley (603-236-4666) and Attitash (603-374-2368). In Maine, Sunday River (800-543-2754) has downhill mountain biking.
Lift passes cost $15 to $20, and full-day bike rentals typically are $20 to $30. An extra $5 at Waterville Valley or Stratton rents a high-performance suspension bike with a shock-absorbing fork. Loon Mountain doesn't rent bikes for the gondola, saying the downhill trails are for advanced riders only. Ditto for the Jay Peak tram. At Attitash, the passes are good for the waterslide, too.
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