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Learning to Ride Part 1: Back in the Saddle Again

By Nicole Miller

I’m relatively new to Steamboat Ski Area, where I work as the social media specialist. When the Steamboat Bike Park opened for the season in June, I was posting a YouTube video of guys flying down the trails, hitting jumps, doing tricks and being generally rad.

The problem is that I’m not that rad (seriously, ask my friends), and I was pretty sure I’d die if I ever ventured out onto the downhill trails.

 I should have known better than to mention my fear of the Bike Park, which promptly lead to me being assigned to learn how to downhill and write a series of blogs about my experience. So late last month, I sucked it up, put on a full-face helmet and got back in the saddle.

To be clear, I’m a pretty mediocre mountain biker and haven’t spent much time on my mountain bike in years. Most of my pedaling comes in the form of riding my road bike to happy hour.

As I got ready for my first lesson, there was some ribbing in the office. One of my co-workers told me the cooler temps that day were to my advantage because I would bleed slower in the cold.

In case I didn’t make it, I posted on my Facebook page to tell my mom I loved her, and then I headed to the Steamboat Bike Shop to get outfitted for my adventure.

My first lesson was a two-hour 101, which is designed for people who are comfortable on bikes but have never ridden downhill trails. My instructor, Andrew Burns, and I spent the first 30 minutes or so focusing on getting comfortable with the equipment while riding around in Gondola Square.

If you’re used to mountain biking, there are a few notable equipment differences for downhilling: a full-face helmet, elbow and knee pads, a full-suspension bike and flat pedals.

I’d never ridden a full-suspension bike and needed some time to get to know my Specialized Status II on flat ground. A full-suspension bike has shocks in the front and rear of the bike to help absorb the bumps along the trail. The ride was noticeably more comfortable than my hardtail mountain bike, which only has front shocks. I also found I didn’t tire as quickly because the bike, rather than my body, was working to absorb the impact.

The biggest equipment adjustment for me was the flat pedals. After years of riding with clipless pedals, I was worried about losing power and control. I did very little pedaling while riding the downhill trails, so power wasn’t an issue, and the flat pedals have little spikes that keep your shoe in place and offer plenty of control.

One great tip from my instructor was to keep the pedal centered under my foot rather than under the ball of my foot. This took some of the weight off my calves and prevented my legs from quickly getting tired.

After I felt comfortable with the equipment, we headed to the skills park at the base of the mountain to practice some of the techniques we would be using on the trail. I practiced shifting my weight to maintain balance as I rode over ramps and obstacles, and I practiced breaking smoothly and evenly as I rode down a grassy hill. If you’ve never ridden a bike with disc brakes, practicing slowing and stopping will keep you from flying head first over the handlebars in a moment of panic.

After my instructor felt satisfied with my progress, it was time to hit the trail. Steamboat’s Bike Patrol drove us to the Wrangler Gulch trailhead at the base of Thunderhead Express. The green trail, which merges with E-Z Rider, is about 1 1/2 miles long and features smooth dirt, slightly banked turns and small bridges. Practicing my new skills on the beginner features helped me feel more comfortable and gain confidence on my bike.

Just like the trails in winter, bike trails are rated green, blue and black. Wrangler Gulch is one of the mellowest trails I’ve ridden in the Steamboat area. If you’ve ridden Emerald Mountain or the popular Spring Creek and Mad Creek trails, the greens in the Bike Park are the perfect place to whet your appetite for downhill biking.

I had a great first day in the Steamboat Bike Park thanks to my instructor, who made the experience feel approachable for a beginner. Check back next week to read about my experience riding a more advanced trail from the top of the gondola and follow my summerlong downhill biking adventure at www.steamboat.com/nicole.

Today’s tip: Unlike other types of bike pedals where you’re clipped in at the ball of your foot, you should center your foot on a flat pedal while on a downhill bike. This will prevent your legs from getting tired as quickly.

Read more:

Learning to Ride Part 1: Back in the Saddle Again

Learning to Ride Part 2: Set Yourself up for Success

Learning to Ride Part 3: Mileage Matters

Learning to Ride Part 4: Progressing in the Park

Learning to Ride Part 5: Getting Back up After a Crash

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