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

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