It’s August in Colorado, and I’m chasing my sons, ages 9 and 11, down Paper Boy, a fast, banked dirt trail at Winter Park’s Trestle Bike Park. They’re way ahead of me as I lean into one of the final turns. The trail angles downward, then shoots up, and momentum carries me up a pitch so steep that I would never be able to pedal it on my own. That same speed pops me off the ramp at the top. I stand on my pedals in the air, land with both wheels on the ground and veer left, exhilarated.
In this innocuous game of chase, I’m riding more fearlessly than I have all summer, and I feel like a kid myself. I’m not really thinking, just flowing along with my bike as the trail undulates and crosses a road before heading through a thicket. Into the trees I go, then over a shallow creek. For a brief moment, all is sublime: the slant of the sun’s rays through the pine boughs, the promise of the skinny trail. Then I emerge into what feels like a party, a line of 20 or so people at the bottom of Olympia Lift. Bass pumps from a large speaker, and all around me riders who look like comic book characters — they’re wearing full-face helmets and have gladiator-like pads on their chests, backs, elbows and knees — wait in the lift line with their bikes for their turn to ride a chair. The air is alive with laughter and glee; everyone, myself included, seems to be riding an adrenaline rush of their own.
This is downhill mountain biking. Also known as lift-served or gravity-assisted mountain biking, this mode of riding differs from cross-country in one key regard: Instead of pedaling to the top of a mountain — or uphill at all — downhill mountain bikers ride lifts or gondolas to the top, then let gravity do its thing on the way down.
Downhill mountain bike parks are usually located at ski resorts, a seasonal solution to monetizing the ski resort infrastructure outside of winter. Like their winter counterparts, the parks are staffed with trail builders and patrollers as well as instructors and coaches. There are parks at resorts all over the country — and the world.
In the Lower 48, some of the most popular parks can be found at California’s Mammoth Mountain, Colorado’s Keystone Resort, New Mexico’s Angel Fire and New Hampshire’s Highland Mountain Bike Park. Other downhill bike parks are rapidly developing and building more trails each year. Still others are low-key and offer friendly introductions to the sport. Given the proliferation of mountain bike parks in the past two decades, chances are that a ski resort near you either offers summer lift-served biking or is in the process of doing so.
Riding at the parks costs money, with day passes tending to range from about $40 to $70. Like ski resorts, mountain bike parks also sell season passes, which can make economic sense depending on how many days you expect to ride.
The appeal of gravity-assisted riding extends beyond the fact that it spares riders the aerobic, lung-pounding climb to the top. In downhill riding, cyclists have vast choices. They can choose from flowing, freestyle trails or technical ones with jumps, raised bridges and other constructed features. These trails come with plenty of options, so riders can try to clear a tabletop jump or go around it. Bike parks also allow for repetition, which can lead to a faster learning curve: Riding the same trail repeatedly allows users to anticipate and prepare for challenges. And there is an evident progression. Like winter ski trails, mountain bike park trails are ranked on a green (easy), blue (intermediate) and black (expert) system.
Another bonus: Skills developed in the bike park translate to cross-country trail riding. I figured this out last summer when I took my boys on more traditional rides and watched with delight as they playfully descended trails that we rode uphill to access.
It took me years to warm up to bike parks. In the early 2000s, I was an avid cross-country mountain biker living in Bend, Ore., and my friends would invite me to travel north with them to Whistler, B.C., to that resort’s mountain bike park. At the time, I couldn’t fathom why anyone would forgo a three-hour ride in the backcountry, up and down mountains — or, in the case of Oregon, around volcanoes — just to suit up in full body armor and fling themselves off raised bridges, gap jumps and massive drops. Like some purists today, I even ridiculed the activity as “cheating,” as if there is a set of rules people must adhere to if they wish to properly ride a bike.
But something happened to my riding skills as I aged, and especially after I became a mother. I slowed down. My nerves kicked in, and previously inviting trails seemed full of hazards. At first, I mourned the loss of the mountain biker I once was, then I accepted the change, assuming that my endorphin-producing mountain biking days were behind me.
Then, in 2018, my husband suggested we take a family lesson at Trestle Bike Park in Winter Park. He was curious about the bike park phenomenon and thought this would be a good way to introduce our boys to mountain biking, because my attempts at taking them on long cross-country rides had more or less ended in tears every time (mostly from them).
We rented bikes with big, squishy front and back shocks, donned loaner pads and bobbleheaded helmets, and hopped into a gondola with a patient instructor named Jake. It took us three hours to descend the five-mile green run from the top of the mountain to the base — an extraordinarily long time mandated by the pace of our youngest child. I was certain they’d be bored and frustrated at the bottom, but to my delight, when we got to the resort base, the kids begged to ride up and do it again.
In the intervening years, we have paid for lessons and coaching for the kids and have ridden as a family for countless hours in the summer. At first, I simply appreciated my sons’ progression. Although their personalities are very different — one is laid-back, the other a ball of fearless energy — both began to prefer more challenging trails that they eagerly shared with us. Over time, their progress on the bike also became my own. It happened so naturally that I wasn’t even aware of it until last summer, on that fast ride down Paper Boy.
In the flow of the chase, as my sons pulled away from me in a clearing and had their own joyful ride down, I stopped worrying. It wasn’t that I let go of fear, it’s just that fear was not part of the calculus. I was simply riding my bike with the same love I’d brought to the sport 30 years earlier when I got my first mountain bike. In the three decades since, riding had been how I made friends, explored new places and became surer of myself — athletically and emotionally.
Becoming a mother nearly ended that part of me, but downhill mountain biking, which I never would have explored without motherhood, brought my riding full circle. By introducing my children to downhill mountain biking, I had inadvertently spawned their love of the sport and, in turn, reignited my own. These days, I am back to riding not like a mother, but like myself.
I tried to explain this to the boys over bottles of root beer after that terrific August day, but they weren’t having it. They aren’t old enough for soul-searching or nostalgia. To them, riding bikes is throwing a leg over the saddle and pointing downhill.
Having recaptured my love for speed and even a little air, I’m right there with them.
Walker is a writer based in Boulder, Colo. Find her on Twitter: @racheljowalker.
If You Go
Where to stay
Zephyr Mountain Lodge
201 Zephyr Way, Winter Park, Colo.
Located near the Winter Park Resort gondola, Zephyr Mountain Lodge offers ride-in/ride-out one-, two- and three-bedroom condos. Condos from about $219 per night.
Gravity Haus Winter Park
78869 Hwy. 40
Located in downtown Winter Park, this dog-friendly boutique motel has 38 rooms, a gear “library” where patrons can rent equipment, and a co-working space. Rates from $159 per night.
What to eat
Durbar Nepalese and Indian Bistro
47 Cooper Creek Way #222
Authentic Indian and Nepalese food with vegan, seafood and meat offerings. Open Tuesday to Sunday, 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. and 4:30 to 9 p.m. Entrees from $14.50.
125 Parry Peak Way
A popular family-owned pizza joint at the base of Winter Park Resort. Open daily noon to 3 p.m. and 4 to 7 p.m. Small pizza $10.95.
Big Trout Brewing
50 Vasquez Rd.
A locally owned craft beer brewpub with a satisfying menu of salads, soups, sandwiches, pizzas and appetizers. Open Thursday to Monday, 11:30 a.m. to 9 p.m.; closed Tuesday and Wednesday. Entrees from $8.
What to do
Trestle Bike Park
85 Parsenn Rd.
Winter Park Resort’s downhill mountain bike park offers a variety of trails for all levels. A summer riding school holds private and group lessons, and shops offer rental gear, including bikes, helmets and pads. Bike rentals, as well as day and season passes, are available.
Potential travelers should take local and national public health directives regarding the pandemic into consideration before planning any trips. Travel health notice information can be found on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s interactive map showing travel recommendations by destination and the CDC’s travel health notice webpage.