Winter Park, CO Colorado
Standing at the base of the Zephyr chair lift at Winter Park Resort on Wednesday afternoon, clad in full (pink) body armor and pushing a (purple) bike I could barely lift, I felt like a dwarf in a giant’s mansion.
I’m a 36-year-old mother of two and there I was for the first time in more than a decade starting a brand new sport – downhill “gravity” biking.
The only biking I’ve done in the last decade involves a girlie fat tire cruiser bike with a wide, padded seat and basket, pulling a trailer full of kids. The last time I rode a mountain bike, in fact, it was my circa 1990 aluminum frame Trek 7000 with about 30 gears and no shocks.
This world of downhill biking is entirely new to me, and male-dominated more than almost any sport I’ve seen outside of wrestling and professional football. Zooming around me at the base area were hundreds of boys and men, ages 12-60, all mud, pads and testosterone.
I didn’t see a single other female on the slopes aside from my guide – fellow mother Heidi Godsil. At 39, Heidi only just started downhill biking three years ago. Before that she was an endurance cross country bike racer for several years, having competed in the Leadville 100, and last year she was the Cat 1 cross country champion in her age group at the SolVista National Mountain Bike Championships.
She’s made it a personal mission to encourage more women to try downhill mountain biking, and this summer she’s coaching a two-day program just for women called “Gravity Goddess Camp.”
“Women learn differently than men,” Heidi said. “Men have testosterone. They say, ‘It’s biking. I can do this.’ And off they go. Women are more cautious, and that’s something I understand because I am cautious.”
Heidi takes the time with her female clients to stop and examine more difficult elements on the trail before attacking them, which is something the men should do as well but often don’t, she said.
“When we get to something a little more difficult we’ll stop, walk down and look at it, maybe the students will watch me ride it and then I’ll walk back up and we’ll all do it together.”
Heidi also brings a woman’s patience to the lesson. She stops to teach the most essential tool necessary to downhill biking – loading the beefy bikes onto the chair lift trays.
This wasn’t something that I had even though about beforehand. I’ve been using chair lifts for more than half my life – how different could it be? Let’s put it this way: I don’t think anyone has ever had to slow down a lift for me before but, even after practicing on a demo log at the base three times, I struggled to heave the 35-pound bike into its slot on the rack as it moved away from me.
“That’s the hardest part,” Heidi said.
Up at the top of Winter Park, I learned my second and most important lesson – braking. Whereas road biking may be all about shifting, downhill biking is all about brake management – especially for a beginner woman such as myself. If I were to recommend acquiring only one skill before bombing down a 30-degree slope on a narrow trail, learn to brake.
These aren’t your mother’s brakes either. They are highly sensitive disc brakes. Even a gentle touch with one finger to the front brake could have been enough to throw me over the handle bars. On the other hand, I used the back brake the entire way down the mountain to the point that my right forearm, hand and fingers were stiff by the time I reached the bottom.
Before going anywhere, we used a short track of wide, relatively flat dirt road at the top of the mountain and took more than a dozen practice runs, working on my brake management and posture. If you think the guys stand up on their mountain bikes like that just to look cool, well apparently the position has some real purpose. I learned to stand on the pedals in “attack position,” chin forward, heels down, elbows out, legs bowed, eyes ahead.
Only then did we attempt “Green World,” the mountain’s new and only green run. It took me the remainder of the 2.5-hour lesson to complete that one run. Mind you, I am an athletic person. I ski and hike and carry 60-combined pounds of toddler around on my hips regularly. But, by the end of that one run, my legs were starting to shake, and I was out of breath.
Heidi told me that she recently gave a lesson to a 52-year-old woman from North Carolina. Respect. That’s all I have to say to that woman. I can’t imagine how people from sea level come up here and do the stuff they do. She’s also coached a couple in their late 60 who just wanted to ride the road the whole way down to get a feel for the sport.
The top of the track was narrower, steeper and rockier than I had imagined – thinking mostly of the green runs I’ve skied – but once I made it down the first short segment, I realized I was completely in control. I was thankful for the extra time we spent practicing up at the top.
Once we got going, I followed the path, which ran through the trees became mostly gentle and rolling with soft bank turns, some roots and rocks, a couple wooden bridges and even a couple uphill sections. There were a few steeper and bumpier sections, but not until farther down the course.
I was shocked by how different the ski area looks in it’s full cloak of summer green.
I found myself a few times at junctions that seemed oddly familiar closing my eyes and trying imagine everything covered with snow.
We stopped a lot along the way so Heidi could offer me hints and tips, and I asked about a million questions – about her, about the sport, about the equipment. She learned a lot about me too, which is something she said she does during every lesson. It helps her tailor her teaching style to the student, knowing what sports they’ve done and what they hope to get out of the lesson in the end.
Biking with Heidi, I never felt that I had to go any faster than I wanted to go. Heidi kept reminding me that if I got uncomfortable, I could sit down, stop, walk or take the road. She stayed directly behind me, coaching me the entire way down the mountain.
Naturally competitive, I couldn’t help but push myself. By the lesson’s end, I was letting off the brakes through the bank turns, fearlessly gaining some speed through the straight sections and comfortably absorbing the bumps along the way.
Having taken a lesson, I can’t imagine jumping on a downhill bike for the first time and heading down the hill without some sort of guidance. In fact, since I’m a true beginner, I would probably take a second class just to build some more confidence and to nail down the skills before trying it on my own.
My husband called at the end of the day, joking that he hadn’t seen any ambulances or helicopters go by. I was happy to report that my first experience downhill biking didn’t involve any stitches, slings or broken bones. Not even close. Just a few sore muscles and a burning itch to get back out there again soon.
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