As a trail rider I enjoy 140mm of suspension, sometimes on a hardtail, sometimes with full-sus, sometimes I even go as a big as 150mm with a slack head angle on the 650b Specialized Stumpjumper FSR. Downhill was something I didn’t have too much experience with, maybe I wasn’t cool enough, I mean sometimes I even don lycra, and smash out 100 milers on my road bike.
Whilst on a trip to New Zealand, I made the pilgrimage down to Queenstown, I did loads of trail riding, some of it on natural trails with dreamy scenery. I enjoyed it, but it was hard to ignore the Skyline Gondola uplift, and legendary Queenstown Bike Park just 10 minutes walk from the centre of the busy town. I spoke to a few locals about the trails, and they said that a Specialized 160mm Enduro or Trek Remedy would be fine, if I took it easy and didn’t tackle the likes of the double black diamond World Cup Downhill track. Something in me made me want to take out a 200mm travel full-on downhill bike though, so I did, and I’m glad I did.
Having little experience of downhill bikes, I was worried that I was going to be over-biked and under-skilled, that the bike would feel heavy and unwieldy, and that the DH track would be too committing. The thing which changed my mind was that someone said that a downhill bike would be more forgiving for people used to a more trail orientated course. I wasn’t sure whether to believe them, but I did, and they were right.
The long, low, slack nature of the downhill bike made all the trails very manageable, there was never a worry about going over the bars, despite some serious roll-ins even when combined with roots and rocks. I’m sure that I would have been more worried, and less committed if I was on a 140mm or even 160mm machine.
Sure, I did find that the rare, flatter and more pedaly bits of the course dragged a bit from having such a big bike, but it was worth it. And with practice I was able to carry more speed through these sections, in fact, I started putting pedal strokes in on sections which I had previously been hesitant to go too fast through. Next I was wall riding and railing the berms as high as the trail allowed, and dropping down optional rocky sections, and even avoiding the chicken runs. Of course the point came where I did push it too far. I was getting cocky and inching closer to what (at least) felt like Aaron Gwin speeds, when I hit up an optional rocky wall ride, at which point I met the limit of my DH skills; my front wheel washed out and the bike and I un-stylishly slipped sideways down the wall ride, cutting my knee and arms. Bike unharmed, and still with a post-crash adrenaline-fueled energy surge, I jumped back on the bike and rode down to the gondola.By taking it slowly, and riding (mostly) just within my limits I was soon able to ride some single diamond black trails, and clear some tabletops. Having such a large amount of travel on the rear made me feel slightly less connected with the trail, so I didn’t receive the feedback I’m used to, especially as I’m known to ride a 140mm hardtail a lot of the time. But I was told that this was something I’d get used to, and that I’d learn to trust the rear end a bit more. One thing that caught me out a bit, but didn’t matter on the actual trails, was that the double crown found on downhill forks means that the turning circle of the bike is huge! As I say not enough to be any sort of limitation on the course, but manoeuvring around the gondola station and in the queue took some getting used to.
As a conclusion, I’d say to those of you who think that downhill is beyond them, or just for the big boys: give it a go. Take it easy by all means, in fact I’d recommend taking it easy, but the beginner trails are on the whole all rollable, with nothing too committing, and nothing unavoidable. At the end of your session you’ll be able to take some skills back to the smaller trails, and you may even end up with a new cycling discipline as a hobby.