#VailBen Dispatch 6: Mountain Biking Down Vail

Jul. 2, 2014

An intro to mountain biking with on of Vail’s expert guides.

Benjamin (right) with friend Carrie Wilbanks and guide Steve Hill.

You can’t fight Vail mountain.

I learned this back in college, when several friends, who were into downhill mountain biking, told me that speed was your friend.

Now I’m a pretty cautious guy, so the idea of not breaking while roaring down a mountain biking trail is a scary one. Instead, when I bike, I stick to dirt roads—like Utah’s White Rim Trail—where I can avoid speed and enjoy the view.

But last week, after renting a full-suspension bike from the friendly fellows at Vail Sports, it was time to meet my downhill destiny. I had been told Vail Valley is home to world class mountain biking and I couldn’t leave town without sampling a little Vail singletrack. “The diversity of the riding in our valley is unequaled from high desert riding in the Eagle area to Colorado’s mountainous single-track,” says local mountain biking aficionado John Bailey. He explains that mountain biking has been a major part of valley life since the early 1980s. In recent years the area has hosted two UCI World Mountain Biking Championships. That is some serious cred, so I wasn’t going to attempt this alone. My guide to Vail single track was Steven Hill, a local father, ski instructor, and—lucky for me—a mountain biking pro. His calm demeanor and laid-back attitude on the ride up the Eagle Bahn Gondola—inside which our bikes fit comfortably—couldn’t stop me from freaking. What if I went off a cliff? What if I hit a tree? What if I disfigured my face!?

My classroom would be Big Mamba. This intermediate downhill mountain biking route switchbacks underneath the gondola (For everyone to see. Great!) before traversing into thick Aspen groves. Before we began our decent, Hill gave me short class in Downhill 101. He reviewed my brakes (left is forward, right is back) and gave us pointers on how to avoid flying over the handle bars. He said we’d take it easy (both in speed an attitude) and everything would be OK. As we rode the short road from the gondola to the trailhead, I tried to relax and enjoy the view. (It really is an incredible view.) This wouldn’t be that bad I told myself right before we peddled onto Big Mamba.

Benjamin on Big Mamba. Shot on GoPro.

My first few hundred feet were a disaster. I braked too hard and came to jerky stops. I used my feet to get around the perms (i.e. turns) for fear of flying off the trail. Hill remained calm, and gave pointers as we went. “Stay to the bottom of the perm,” he instructed before showing me how to position my pedals so I’d avoid hitting the ground. He also suggested I stand up instead of sitting on my seat and look ahead as opposed to looking right in front of me.

We took a few more switchbacks together and I started to put it together. Hill said learning downhill mountain biking was a bit of trial and error, and he was right. I played around with my speed and my breaks. I took a few risks and it payed off. My heart started to race, but not from fear. “This is fun!” I said aloud to no one as my inner daredevil kicked in.

Turns out my college friends were right. Once I was comfortable giving into the mountain, it did become easier. I trusted the bike to do what it was supposed to do and it came alive. Turns out I felt safer easing off the break than I did when I was squeezing it the whole time. It took us almost an hour to get to the bottom, but I did so without falling off. Hill complimented my beginner’s skill, much to my amusement.

But, I’ll admit, the five or so miles we spent on the mountain did cause my brain to start thinking differently. It was ready to give control over to the mountain. It was ready to ride.


*** Guided mountain biking is available daily on Vail Mountain.***

Vail America's Best Summer Job BenBenjamin Solomon is the winner of America’s Best Summer Job, a 10-week, all-expenses paid summer job exploring what summer in the Vail Valley has to offer. A freelance writer based in New York, Benjamin has contributed to publications such as Vanity Fair, New York, Travel + Leisure and is the former editor of Next Magazine. Follow his journey on Blog.Vail.com as well as on Twitter and Instagram using the hashtag #VailBen.