With more and more ski resorts opening their doors during the off-season to mountain bikers lately, downhill racing is becoming increasingly popular, and an ever-growing number of women are being drawn to this exciting and thrilling activity. So if you’re one of those women who have thought to yourself that downhill bike racing sounds fun, but you just don’t know where to start, here is your checklist! First of all, let’s get rid of some of the fallacies about downhill bike racing.
“It’s dangerous.” Yes, it can be dangerous, but so can driving a car or potentially even walking down the sidewalk. You just have to use good judgment, and get properly outfitted – which will be discussed below.
“You have to be inordinately strong to do it.” Women are just as capable of racing downhill as men – while we may not generally be as physically strong, we often have an ability to see lines and finesse our way through some pretty amazing terrain.
“It’s expensive.” Well, it can be, but so can any sporting activity. However, most beginner races, which is probably what you’re looking at doing if this is your first downhill race, can be done on a surprisingly small budget, usually even with your current bike with just a few minor adjustments.
“It’s scary.” Well, yes, it is. But you can make it less scary by following the guidelines below!
Okay, so you’ve gotten past the initial roadblocks and are ready to try your first downhill race. So what do you need to know and do before heading out to the slope for the first time? First of all, for most beginner races, and especially the smaller local ones, your current cross country bike may be plenty suitable with just some minor adjustments as below, especially if it is a full suspension bike (hardtails require a little more skill and are a bit less comfortable to ride downhill, although they are fine on many beginner courses):
Lower your seat. This is very important in order to lower your center of gravity and also to allow you more mobility and confidence over steep terrain. Generally the steeper the terrain, the lower your seat needs to be. Depending on your frame style, you may need to get a second post if you can’t lower your current one far enough. On the really steep stuff, I like to have my seat low enough so that I can sit on the saddle and still touch both feet to the ground.
If you have trouble reaching your brake levers when you have your butt behind your saddle, you may want to bring your levers in (most bike shops can do this for you) or possibly even get a shorter stem for downhilling. Also practice getting behind your seat – it does take some getting used to in order to feel comfortable steering from back there. However, should you get into trouble on a steep section; the safest way to bail is off the back of the bike. NEVER try to dismount by putting your body between the saddle and the stem on a steep descent – that is a very bad place to be, as it can cause the bike to flip over and trap you! While on the topic of brake levers, rotate them so that they are more up, rather than pointing down toward the ground, so your arms can be more in a straight line without an angle to the wrists. In addition, don’t tighten the levers so much on the bar that they will not rotate, as this will allow them to turn rather than break off should you happen to hit them on something during a crash.
Riser bars will help with keeping the front end of the bike up and centering your body weight. For proper downhill bike setup, you should feel almost like you are sliding back toward the back tire when sitting on the bike on level ground, especially if your race course is steep. For the severely steep courses, I actually tip the nose of my saddle up just a bit to ensure that I keep my weight centered back and do not get too far forward!
If you’re using your cross country bike, use fatter tires; these provide more comfort and frequently greater traction for downhill conditions.
All right. Now your bike is set up and ready. But what about you? To ensure your safety and give you more confidence, you’ll need body armor. The standard downhill race armor setup consists of the following items:
Full face helmet. As I have a rather smallish head, I actually use a child’s motocross helmet. The downside is these have no vents so they are hot. However, they are quite solid and extremely protective. Make sure the helmet is not too large. The first few times you put it on, it should actually feel almost tight – the padding inside will compress with wear, and you do not want a full face helmet that slips around on your head. This is potentially dangerous, as a too-large helmet can possibly slip down and obscure your vision. Most of the visors can be adjusted up if needed to avoid interfering with your view. These helmets will often feel bulky and restrictive at first, but you will get used to it. Granted, you can race beginner downhill in a regular cross country helmet, but be aware that you have an exposed face and lower jaw area in that situation, and if you do crash, try to protect those areas.
Goggles or glasses. I prefer goggles as they are generally less likely to break than glasses, and I think provide greater visibility. Ski goggles tend to fog up less than motorcycle goggles as they are designed for slightly lower speeds, more compatible with a bicycle. Be sure to use an antifog agent on them prior to racing. They should fit snugly within the face opening in the helmet.
Gloves. These should be full-fingered, and preferably have rubber type “armor” on the fingers.
Chest protector. I prefer the actual mountain bike version as opposed to the hard plastic motocross types, which leave your sides and flanks exposed. I use one which has hard plastic inserts inside a mesh covering for the spine and chest areas, with a “bellyband” for kidney and abdominal protection. Make sure the back of your chest protector does not interfere with your helmet when you raise your head – you want to be able to look up and see where you are going without hitting the back of your helmet on your spine protector!
Elbow guards. I generally do not use these, as my chest protector has integrated arm guards attached to it. These ideally should have hard plastic or foam type inserts going along the elbow joint and possibly even the forearm as well. Mine also has a hard plastic shoulder cap protector.
Shin and knee guards. These should fasten on the calf area as well as above or at the knee. Otherwise, the knee flap will tend to fall forward if you crash, leaving your knee joint exposed. They should also have hard plastic or foam type inserts at both the knee joint and running along the shin. The calf area may be fully covered, or just have elastic Velcro attachment bands. If you use flat pedals with “teeth”, you may want to consider full calf coverage in case your pedals swing around and hit you from behind; alternatively you can wear long pants to cover your calves.
Pants or shorts and tops. If you use flat “toothed” pedals and have no calf protection with your shin guards, you may want to consider long pants, just in case your pedals swing around to hit you from behind. I use motocross style pants and shorts which are generally a nylon and Kevlar combination. These usually come with replaceable hip pads which Velcro in, but I only use those pads on the really sketchy courses. However, that’s just my vanity since the pads add an extra width to my hips that I prefer not to have! I wear regular padded bike shorts underneath. Pretty much any jersey or top that fits over your body armor is fine! Motocross style jerseys are designed to go over body armor, so work well for this.
Now that you’re outfitted and your bike is ready to go, let’s head up to the start house! Obviously you can ride most downhill courses without having to attend a race, and the above preparations will serve you for that. In fact, many people enjoy riding downhill without ever racing at all. However, should you decide that you want to try your hand at an actual timed event, keep in mind that most downhill races will require you to practice at least one run on the course prior to your race run, and usually you will have multiple opportunities. At the bigger races, you will generally have an actual covered area with an electronic beeper (just like the one at the Tour de France Time Trials); with a timekeeper there to let you know how many beeps they will give you before you start. Usually five beeps and you go on the sixth, but it may vary. Go ahead and get in a big enough gear for the steepness of the start, and take a few long deep breaths to loosen up. Whether or not you have an actual “start house” and electronic timer, you will have a human timer; this person will normally count down your 15 or 10 seconds to start and then tell you when you can go.
Once you’re on course, try not to worry about the rider starting behind you (normally 30-60 second intervals). Trust me, you will hear them if they catch you and need to pass! Take the course as it comes, and try to maintain your speed. Most downhill course obstacles are designed to be easier taken with a little speed, and if you happen to have a longer travel bike, it will handle a lot more than you might think. Keep your weight centered back and your breathing steady – don’t forget to exhale! Should you catch the rider ahead of you, give her warning that you are approaching and let her know on which side you wish to pass. Ideally, try to find a section that is less treacherous for passing, for the safety of both of you. Should someone catch you, try to move as far to the side as possible when it is safe for you to do so and let them by. Don’t forget to pedal as hard as you can on any flat sections rather than coasting – after all, it is a race! Use your brakes as sparingly as you feel comfortable, although you can “squeeze and release” to actually gain some speed on the descents. Remember that pedaling will generally require you to stand in order to get maximum power since your seat is low. Use any berms available for cornering as this will allow you to maintain your speed better, and if you get offline, just go with it rather than panicking. For the really steep and treacherous stuff, you can get way off the back of the bike, and almost “walk” or “scooter” it down, still holding the handlebars, of course. If you happen to crash, gather yourself and your bike, look behind you to make sure the coast is clear, and then jump back onto your bike and get going! The easiest and safest way to do this is the way Shaums March taught me – that is, stand on the side of your bike, holding the bars in riding position, then gently let off the brakes and jump onto the bike, letting your thigh contact the saddle first. Once you cross the finish line, make sure you’re out of the way of other riders coming down behind you before you lay your bike down, and then be prepared for the other women who went ahead of you to swarm you with congratulations and smiles and cheers!