Different Strokes: Downhill Mountain Biking

Different Strokes is a blog post series focusing on almost all the different ways you can bike.  The goal of these posts is two-fold: 1) to educate readers on different styles of road biking, mountain biking, and everything in between 2) to inspire our readers to try something new, explore, and have an adventure! As always, ‘run what ya brung.’  There are no specific skills necessary to explore or try something new, nor should feel the need to purchase a fancy-schmancy new bike. 

If you crave speed, seemingly impossible obstacles, and defying gravity, then downhill mountain biking is for you.

Downhill mountain biking is really mountain biking in its original, purest form.  Mountain biking started in the early 1970s by teenagers and young adults in Marin County, California.  Many of these young guys were cycling enthusiasts and worked in local bike shops.  Having a thirst for adventure, they took old “paper boy” or balloon tire bicycles from the 1930s and 1940s and decided to bomb down the forest service roads of Mt. Tamalpais.  They would walk their bikes to the top of a forest service road and race to the bottom of the hill.  Of course, these old, single speed bikes with coaster brakes (deemed “Klunkers”) weren’t made for this purpose and would break often.  Being the constant tinkerers that they were, the early inventors would fabricate parts that they found worked better on Klunkers, such as cantilever brakes, flatter handlebars, and eventually suspension to absorb shock.  You might even recognize the names of some of these early tinkerers such as Gary Fisher, Joe Breeze, Keith Bontrager, and Tom Ritchey. (source: Marin Museum of Bicycling)

By the mid 1980s, mountain biking reached global popularity and manufacturers were producing bikes especially for the sport.  But people weren’t just climbing forest service roads and racing each other downhill, they were riding everywhere they could.

As the sport of mountain biking developed, several subcategories emerged.  Cross country (XC)/trail riding is arguably the most popular and what most riders do on a daily or weekly basis.  If you’re on any of the trails in the parks around Atlanta, you are most likely trail riding.  These bikes are usually hardtails (suspension in the front fork only) but some nowadays can even be full suspension (suspension in both the front and the rear). Then of course, there are smaller disciplines such as dirt jumping (using mounds of dirt specially to launch yourself into the air) and the newest discipline that has taken the mountain biking world by storm, enduro (think of it as “all mountain,” very similar to trail riding, but you would definitely prefer to have a full suspension bike as there are more technical features).  With so many disciplines, it is entirely possible to be riding XC and “all mountain” on the same trail, at the same time, then go ride “freeriding” without switching bikes.

So What Is It?
Downhill mountain biking is exactly as it sounds.  You basically try to go down a hill as fast as you can on your mountain bike, just like those guys did in Marin in the 70s.  As bike technology progressed, so did the skills and trails people built for mountain biking.  Today’s downhill mountain biking takes place on trails specifically built for mountain biking rather than gravel or dirt roads.  The trails have technical features and obstacles such as berms, jumps, drops, rocks, and even really big tree roots you must navigate.  The idea is to run the course as fast as you can while navigating all these features.

DH trail features

Examples of downhill trail features. Click the photo to expand.


The Bike
Downhill specific mountain bikes are usually very heavy full suspension bikes designed to help you ride these features and absorb bumps without damaging you or your bike.  These bikes usually have the most play in suspension, usually 7-8 inches (or about 180-220 mm).  Wider tires with more grip are essential for not slipping on the technical terrain.  Other key features of a downhill bike include larger brake rotors for ultimate stopping power and a smaller head tube angle that allows for more slack in the top tube so the bike is free to move beneath you.

MTB differences

Differences between mountain bikes. Click the photo to expand.


Tips and Where To Go
When first trying downhill (DH), go slow and roll your way through the trail, noting the big rocks you need to go around (or over if you wish), the drops that are there, and the jumps.  Get to know the trail and its features before going faster.  After you roll through the features slowly, go back to the top and try the same trail again, remembering where the challenging spots are.  The best body position is standing up off the saddle, with your weight over your rear tire.  This will keep you from flying you’re your handlebars.  Part of the fun of DH is getting better at tackling features.  Also, safety gear is no joke.  A full face helmet is usually recommended, along with elbow and knee pads.  Mountain biking is fun but it CAN be dangerous.

Part of the fun of mountain biking in general is enjoying nature and seeing new places.  Hardly any metropolis, Atlanta included, has mountain biking trails, so you’ll need to get out of the city a little bit.  The closest downhill specific trails near Atlanta is Big Creek Park in Roswell.  Big Creek has it all from beginner trails to advanced freeride trails, to dirt jumps and a pump track.  Safety gear is of course recommended, but you definitely don’t have to have a downhill specific bike to enjoy these trails.  There are also several other mountain bike parks in the southeast that either shuttle you to the top of the hill using trucks or ski lifts.  These type of parks usually charge a fee for the lift or shuttle service, but as a trade-off you don’t have to pedal uphill!

Singletracks-mountain bike related news, articles, and trails nearby

PinkBike– Downhill/freeride mountain articles and videos

Klunkerz: A Film about Mountain Biking
Available to rent on Amazon. 


Don’t forget to check out Sopo’s new VINE!  Recently posted are some Vines from the RAMBO Big Creek DH Time Trial #3, held on Wednesday, August 26.