Gravity on Wheels: Downhill Mountain Biking at Mount Snow Resort

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My three girls are pretty avid bike riders. We’ve got a great bicycle path near our house where we ride frequently and last summer they pedaled an impressive 150-miles along a converted rail trail in Quebec. Yet despite their comfort on two wheels, they were hesitant to try downhill mountain biking. And despite my own enthusiasm for embarking on new adventures, I’ll admit that I was a bit apprehensive myself. It’s one thing to take a leisurely pedal along a country lane but quite another to rocket down a mountain, gravity spinning your wheels faster and faster along a dirt trail studded with switchbacks and rugged terrain.

But any nervousness had to be cast aside, because that’s exactly what we were scheduled to do during an early autumn trip to Mount Snow.

Mount Snow’s Biking Backstory – 30 years of On-Mountain Rides

For anyone looking for a smooth initiation into mountain biking, Mount Snow is the place. As the first ski resort to offer lift served bike trails, Mount Snow is a front runner in the industry and is a two-time winner of MTB Parks reader’s choice best bike parks award.

“This is our 30th year of mountain biking,” says Jack Fagone, Snow’s Marketing Manager. “We’ve really got our stuff together. I’m not sure how many other resorts have the experience we have. Mountain biking is a long standing tradition at Mount Snow. A lot of bike parks use outside trail building but Mount Snow it’s all home-grown. The same guys who build the parks over at Carinthia in the winter build and maintain our bike trails.”

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With 11 trails and a pump track, all ranked like ski slopes from beginner green to double black expert runs, bikers of every level will find their fun. Riders will even find a daily trail report, just like during the ski season. For beginners like us, the fact that Mount Snow is home to the east’s only lift-serviced beginner downhill trail, which is also the longest introductory trail in the east, meant that we wouldn’t be in over our heads but would still get an exciting ride.

Safety First

Although I have a bit of cross-country mountain biking experience, my girls have never ridden on anything other than paved or hard-packed surfaces—bike paths, wide, gravel trails, the beach at low tide. Since this would be our first time attempting more rugged terrain off a lift-serviced trail, we signed up for the Learn to Downhill clinic that’s part of the resort’s First Lift Program. The focus of the two-hour clinic was for beginner riders to get acclimated with the basic skills and terminology of downhill mountain biking while experiencing the exhilaration of the type of downhill trail usually reserved for those with more skill.

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A quick aside, our lesson was in the morning and right next to Mount Snow Sports is the Grand Country Deli, which turned out to be a perfect place to grab coffee (for me) and breakfast (for everyone) beforehand. Since parents herding children to activities tend to be pressed for time—or maybe that’s only me—it’s always good to know that there’s someplace to grab a quick meal or healthy snack. The deli would also be great for a post-clinic lunch.

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After breakfast we headed over to Mount Snow Sports at the Grand Summit Resort where we met Karl Nilsen, who heads up Snow’s biking program. As I said earlier, I’ve done some mountain biking and as a family we’ve done a good amount of cycling, yet none of us were prepared for the extensive gear Karl handed us when we arrived. This was our first indication that downhill mountain biking was going to be quite a bit different from any other riding we’d done in the past. Karl and one of his colleagues fitted us with full-face helmets, knee pads, and elbow pads before matching each of us to a bike. My girls, being tweens and teens, were not thrilled with the unfashionable helmets, but I was glad that their noggins would be safe and sound.

Our lesson began before we even boarded the lift. We made a few loops around the paved courtyard outside the shop prior to trying our luck on the pump track. Some say that the pump track is a good way to get acclimated to your bike, to elements, to braking etcetera, and in part I agree with that perspective. Yet because these mini-parks are often smaller in scale, I find it challenging to make those tight turns while riding slowly without my bike tipping over to one side. That said, I think that’s part of the skill and the girls enjoyed riding up and over the little hills.

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Karl then had us pedal out along the road to the lift by Snow’s base lodge so that he could assess everyone’s basic pedaling skills. He gave us a brief overview of the parts of our bikes, showed us how to use our brakes—which is essentially the most crucial skill in downhill riding—and taught us to ride standing up on our pedals. We all rode up a small dirt road where Karl modeled the all-important downhill position, which we’d be using as we made our way down the mountain. As soon as he was satisfied that we could all manage that safely, we were ready for the lift.

All Aboard the Canyon Express

This wasn’t our first lift ride of the weekend—we’d been up the Bluebird Express the day before to check out the views, explore the summit, and hike back down. The fall foliage was some of the most spectacular I’ve ever seen in my life—and I grew up in New England. So having the chance to ride a bike down the mountain with that brilliant autumn vista was fantastic. It was, however, the first time I ever saw a bike go up a lift, a bit of minor technology that I found to be pretty cool.

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Our destination was trail number seven—or, as it’s just been renamed—Gateway. Just recently, drawing from feedback gleaned from reviews, Mount Snow decided to give each of its numbered trails a name. The feeling behind the change was that, as with ski slopes, people identify more with trail names—and unique names at that. So for this new season, trails formerly known by their numbers now wear monikers like Evolver, Slickrock, and Swamp Donkey. Much more memorable!

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Riders will find Gateway, a 3-mile, machine excavated beginner trail featuring minor elements like berm turns and a wooden bridge, right off the Canyon Express quad. Hopping off the lift, we walked our bikes to the trailhead. At the top, Karl gave us a brief rundown on what we could expect, letting us know that the first hill leading into the trail had a steep entry. All four of us skidded our way down without much grace and right away I felt my middle daughter steam with mild frustration—she’s my one who likes to be good at things right away. Karl was great with each of the kids, tailoring his instruction to their very different personalities with patience and encouragement.

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We stopped at numerous points on the way down the trail so that Karl could go over braking techniques and instruct us in giving each other ample space on the trail. We learned to navigate berm turns and manage our speed both on downhills and approaching a turn, each of us wiping out on several occasions. By the time we got to the halfway point, the trail began to flatten out a bit, giving us a nice reprieve from having to focus on all those new skills along with the opportunity to coast for a while and enjoy the view.

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I was anxious to go up for one more ride. Though I’d gotten the hang of things fairly easily and my thirteen year old was riding with confidence, the younger two were being more conservative. They’d stopped frequently throughout that first run down, hesitating on turns and braking with jerky movements. I wanted them to have the chance to give it one more go. Happily, we had the time and Karl was game. As I’d hoped, things were much smoother on that second ride and we headed back to Mount Snow Sports sweaty and dusty, but, mostly, smiling.

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The 411 on Downhill Mountain Biking at Mount Snow

Mount Snow offers two different small group mountain biking programs, First Lift and First Jump, as well as more personalized clinics. Learning programs include bike rental, helmet, and protective pads and Karl recommends that riders bring some sort of protective eye gear–even sunglasses will do–and a pair of gloves. We didn’t have either and we were fine, but if you’re planning on spending an ample amount of time on the trails, gloves will keep you from developing blisters.

In addition to downhill riding, the resort has two cross-country trails–which we had the chance to experience at Family Camp–and Mount Snow Sports rents both types of bikes.

If biking isn’t your thing, Snow also has a network of hiking trails throughout the mountain and scenic chairlift rides aboard the Bluebird Express Wednesdays, Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays all summer long.

Regardless of what trail adventures you choose at Mount Snow, you’ll be sure to enjoy the beauty and magic of a Green Mountain summer.

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  1. Getting Outside with Teens:Hiking and Mountain Biking at Mount Snow - August 31, 2016

    […] run by experienced bikers. All Mountain Mamas has a great write-up about their experience with the First Lift Program for kids and adults who are new to mountain […]

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