XC to DH conversion


Okay, I know that this is a really in depth request, but I have decided to make a big change in my life and your book sort of inspired it. I am a pretty average mountain biker, I’ve raced XC at the collegiate level but I’m not happy with it. I tried a DH race a month ago and it was amazing. I would like your opinion on how to really get into DH. For example what are the skills, in what order should they be learned, what kind of schedule do you have to follow, etc… Basically I am starting at square one, but I am prepared to focus a lot of energy on this. My goal is to race Expert class with some proficiency.

Thanks, JOSH


Abby gets it going on. Colorado XC trails can be pretty DH.

Wow, what an excellent question. As a long-time rider, you have fitness and general skill, but a lot of your habits will actually limit your downhilling. Each of these points can be explored in great depth, but here are the main ideas:

Dial in your basic skills

The faster and gnarlier you ride, the more essential your core skills. XC riders can get away with poor technique ’cause cornering and riding over stuff is such a small percentage of their time. As a downhiller, you have to be spot on. Not only is correct riding faster — it’s much safer.

You already have Mastering Mountain Bike Skills, so you’re set there. Spend serious time on position, cornering and terrain absorption. If you could take a clinic with me, it would be GAME ON.

Learn what a DH bike can do

Here’s where the kids have a huge advantage. They’ve never ridden a rigid Diamond Back with a 150mm zero rise stem and flat bars cut to 20 inches (remember those days?). They just assume they can plow through anything, which is pretty true on a modern DH bike (as long as your form is good).

Gradually ride burlier terrain. Ease into bigger rocks, bigger drops, rougher turns and higher speeds. Very few riders reach the limits of their bikes. When you realize what a Demo 8, M3 or V.10 can do, you’ll be amazed at what you can do.

Ariel pins it on the downhills, but deep down he’s an XC racer. No wonder he kills Super D.

Tweak your fitness

A generally fit mountain biker can do fine in downhill. But you’ll race better if you back off the crazy miles and focus on intensity.

Most of the top riders incorporate these elements into their training. Smart riders mix it up and go by how they feel — don’t force it, or you’ll burn out.

– Ride road/XC for endurance. At least 30 minutes. Longer than two hours is silly.

– Do sprints for strength and power. 30 seconds max effort, preferably on real terrain, but trainers are OK. BMX!

– Do intervals of 3-5 minutes. As many as you can until you fall apart. Do these on real terrain if you can. DH runs are perfect.

– Resistance training for overall strength. Weights, yoga, digging, moto or whatever.

– Ride DH! Race Super D!

– Continually work on skills. BMX, pump track, dirt jump, trail riding, moto, skate park, urban, parking lot drills … it’s all good.

Case in Point: Abby and Ariel

Abby Hippely and Ariel Lindsley race pro XC-type events for Maverick American. They’re both strong, skilled and aggressive, and they love to have fun on their bikes: dirt jump, pump track, downhill runs or whatever.

As a species, the Maverick riders are formidable. Ariel, Mike West and Abby.

Paul Turner, founder of Maverick, offered them a big bonus if they could win a pro/semipro national downhill on an ML-8 with a DUC32 fork. Ariel’s a really fast expert-level DH racer, but he’s not quite there in semipro. A DH bike and some armor would definitely help! Abby Hippely has the speed, and she’s a maniac, but she crashed and hurt herself on the east coast.

Either of these guys could be a top downhiller. All they need to do is spend more time riding crazy stuff and less time pounding out miles.

Ariel’s tips

(Added Aug. 9) – I ran into Ariel yesterday at The Fix jumps, and here’s what he has to say:

Get full armor. Don’t skimp, and don’t think, “Oh I’ll only race a few times; I don’t need pads” — that’s a great way to get hurt. Ask Abby, who broke herself at Sugar Mountain. Both of these guys were armorless — Lycra Death Sausages!

Get a real downhill bike. The 6-inch-travel ML-8 works amazingly well, but a good DH bike has much slacker angles. More travel is good if it’s quality travel, but slack angles are key.

Build total body strength. You might be strong enough to wiggle an XC bike down a singletrack, but DH is a whole other world. Lift weights, dig or whatever.

Get used to going fast. If you want to pin in during the race, you gotta pin it during practice.

Stay in beginner or sport. The pro/expert courses can get brutal. Hone your craft on a mellower course.

Don’t practice too much at the race. So many racers get sucked into riding more practice laps than everyone else. This doesn’t make you faster — it makes you more tired. This applies to everyone, but especially to beginners who might not be super-efficient: Quality, not quantity. If you overdo it, you’ll blow yourself out, and you’re asking for a bad run or a crash.

Have fun and keep me posted!

— Lee

17 replies
  1. Josh says:

    Thanks so much for the response! I’m glad to hear I’m sort of on the right track. I’ve been doing endless figure 8’s in my parking lot and the local dirt fields to get my turning, braking, positioning, etc down. I just started hitting the weights pretty serious, and will work up to more intervals.

    I guess that putting some new brakes on my BMX and hitting the local track would be good practice, thanks for the tip. Trying to get my MTB in would probably be even better.

    Lastly, I’ll definitely be trying to schedule some clinic action. If you’re in Santa Barbara/ Orange County or know someone there that would be great.


  2. leelikesbikes says:

    Josh, right on. Looks like I’ll be doing some SoCal and NorCal clinics this fall. I’ll post my sched.

  3. Wayne says:

    Five years ago I met a guy that claimed to be the number one DHer in Wisconsin.Having been to Wisconsin I commented that there are no mountains in Wisconsin. He said he used to live in Colorado and switched from DH to XC when he moved. Therefore he certainly had a reasonably legitimate claim as far as I could tell.

    I asked him how the transition was from DH to XC. He said they all beat him on the uphills, but that he completly smokes them on the downhills. To quote “Those guys just have no handling skills at all”.

    As a spectator, it seems to me one way to spot a DHer from an XC rider at a distance is the DHer is more inclined to pedal down the hill while the XC guy is more inclined to coast and save energy. XC guys win with their legs. DHers win with upper body strength.

    If you aren’t about to get ill at the bottom of the DH course then you didn’t pedal enough. The guy that stays off the brakes the most and pedals the most will win, subject to the crash issue.

    I have also oberved different kinds of DH riders. Sprinters do well on short courses. Endurance guys do well on long courses. Some guys are jumpers, and love the triples. Some do better manualling the first and then doubling the second and third. Some slow down for drops. Some riders freak when they see a rock garden. Others will hit a rock at the beginning of the garden and use it to launch themeselves over the top of it. I hear rock gardens are really mooth when you are airborne. I will never know.

    Each course is different. I find it interesting to compare the abilities and limitations of each rider that I know. For each course you race try to figure out what skill you were most lacking in and work on that for the next race. The purpose of the race is to determine your own strengths and weeknesses so that you can determine what to work on next. Ya gotta keep all of the different skills in balance.

    As a dad I spent many a day walking down the course with my son during pro practice at the NCS races. We would watch what lines they used and discuss it often. Especially the knarly spots. Be a good observer of others. Since he no longer races amateur I don’t walk the course much anymore. I kinda miss those days.

  4. Abby Hippely says:

    hey lee

    thanks for posting some funny pics of us! ariel and i are pretty silly huh, trying to race dh on 6in. bikes, but for all those doubters out there, i’d say, you don’t always need 10in travel dh rigs. more important i’m learning, is a slack(er) head angle. also protective pads are really nice…..

    one other thing though, as i am a fan of riding more than 2hrs on an xc ride, you’d be surprised how much pinning a gnarlly descent after a 3hr xc romp will help your dh racing.

    anyway everyone has their little training secrets, and i’d say that every bit of advice lee has given me has definatelly helpped…rock on lee


  5. stacy kohut says:

    great advice lee……………………..

    some great dh ers have a xc past back there somewhere…………

    one thing though josh……………

    at some point in time, the shit will hit the fan, and you will get injured.

    and how you bounce back from minor or major injury will determine how far you will take your dh…………….

    learn how to fall, when to fall.

    wear FULL protection at all times.

  6. Wayne says:

    Good point Stacy.

    There’s nothing like being in the ER room with you son bleeding all over. Cracked jaw and permanent tooth knocked out and lost in a creek. He was 15 at the time.

    Says I, “Well so much for your future pro downhill career”.

    Says he “Heck no dad, this is nothing compared to what happens to the pros”.

    It never slowed him down at all.

    Worst year for him was cracked ribs, twice, dislocated shoulder, the first of many, cracked finger and cracked ankle. But the ankle doesn’t count because it was caused by pickup basketball.

    I hear chics dig scars. He must be real popular with the ladies.

    Please make sure you have adequate medical, disability and life insurance before you get too crazy. If you aren’t old enough to have a job yet, and you become permanently disabled, are your parents financially and emotionally prepared to take care of you for the rest of their lives? What happens when they are gone and you are still disabled? Wife and I have had these conversations several times, and we are prepared to take care of our children if it comes down to that. We hope it never happens. Stories like Saboo Takaki made us revist the topic.

    I don’t want to make any racers paranoid, but you should at least have a plan. Insurance might be part of that plan. Staying in the Sport class is also a viable plan, but even those guys can get hurt.

    A man’s got to know his limitations.

  7. Josh says:

    Thanks a lot for the Advice guys. I actually started this quest after I crashed in a XC race and took the skin of the right sight or my face. A concussion and ambulance ride later, I realized that I had was not controlling my bike. The crash ended up being the fuel that led me to buy Lee’s book, and dive into the endless world of skill improvement. One step on the way was to test everything in a DH race, and it only took one to get me hooked.

    I have insurance, I wear pads, and actually I am mostly independent of my parents. I know that all of that is important, I know you have to prepare, but I also know you just have to go for it some times. I just want to chase this dream to whatever end it may hand me.


  8. wayne says:

    Watching many riders at various skill levels for the last 7 years, it seems to me that a rider that approaches DH/MX/DS with the attitude of “if I crash I lose” will never win. They may podium, but never win. If you push the envelope, sometimes you win, sometimes you crash and lose. These races are won by fractions of seconds. One pedal stroke can make a difference.

    Of course, just being a spectator, I have no idea how much a crash actually hurts. Some riders agree with my theory and some don’t. I think it is an interesting thought though.

  9. Josh says:

    Thanks again for doing the research Lee! I definitely need to work on just pinning it down steep stuff, and pay attention to my energy during practice. One of the guys I raced against actually rode the XC race earlier the SAME DAY. The guy didn’t even look like he could stand! I’ll be sure to not follow that example.

    Wayne brings up a question that could be another topic! I know some riders focus on being super clean and consistent while others throw that to the wind and just try to be over all fast. I’m probably in the first category, but that is probably just under the category of “worrying too much.”


  10. Grant Shoemaker says:

    Wayne’s comment about racers with the “if I crash I lose” attitude really strikes a chord with me. I guess I am one of those guys. With another 2nd place this past weekend in Snowmass for the National, I am beginning to wonder what it is going to take for me to get my first win. In my last two years now, I have nine 2nds, five 3rds and rarely am out of the top 5, but just cannot seem to get on the podium. I think when I started racing, I came in with the idea that consistency is the goal to a series award, but with the way the points are scored and dropping worst results, I get bumped from the top spots. This winter, I will be focusing on whatever it is that I am lacking to force myself to ride on the ragged edge.

  11. Grant Shoemaker says:

    “but just cannot seem to get on the podium” = “but just cannot seem to get on the top of the podium”

  12. leelikesbikes says:

    Grant, you are killing it!

    The win is arbitrary. You never know who’s gonna race, who’s gonna step up from the younger class, or who’s gonna step down from semipro 🙂

    I say keep perfecting your skills, and learn how fast you can go without blowing up.

  13. Pee-Who says:

    Oh.. Shoesmachen..!

    Booo.. Whoo Whooo! I’ve got 9 podiums but NO first place.. DANG IT!! “What do I need to do? Also did I mention my new Cadillac’s leather’s kinda sticky and my italian wallets too small for all my hundreds…. DANG IT..! 🙂


  14. brent says:

    No Phu… You are WRONG!

    Grant said I have nine second place finishes and five third place finishes… that would be fourteen podium finishes not nine. Get it together!

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