It’s insufficient to say that downhill mountain biking is extreme. Bombing down a mountainside on a 12-inch-wide trail at 20-40 miles per hour, hurtling through rock formations, launching off drops, and flying around corners above hundred-foot-tall cliffs is inherently dangerous. But if you ask if downhill mountain biking risks are worth it to any one of those who participate in it — the answer is always yes.
Making money during the summer months has become a lucrative practice for ski resorts. The popularity of taking a chair lift designed for skiers to the top of a mountain carrying a cyclist has spread to ski resorts worldwide. Mountain bikers provide renewable income to ski resorts, and in turn, ski resorts provide cyclists the opportunity to accept risk that no ordinary person would ever consider.
Accepting the Risk
All cyclists face risks. The typical roadie considers cars whizzing past at high speed an acceptable risk — and he or she has no control over what cars may do. Downhill mountain biking risks include control over trees, rocks, and with adequate brakes, keeps gravity at bay if desired. Ski resort operators and bikers both understand the risk. A waiver must be signed stating that any and all risk is assumed solely by the biker.
One study by the Whistler Mountain Bike Park reported 2,000 injuries to 900 riders in a single, five month cycling season. About 12 percent of the injuries were potentially threatening to life and/ or limb. Broken bones, concussions, internal bleeding, organ damage, and even a case of quadriplegia were some of the more serious injuries. Putting it into perspective with stats from skiing illustrates the risks: Downhill skiing has a ratio of about 1 injury per 1,000 skiers. Downhill cyclists suffer 1 injury per 10 cyclists.
Respect and Inexperience
Inexperience is the leading cause of downhill mountain biking accidents. It’s proven by a simple scale of men versus women. Women account for about 25 percent of downhill cyclists, while 86 percent of reported injuries are men. It’s likely because women take fewer risks but they also take lessons before they go out there. Breaking it down further, professionals have a 34 percent lower injury rate than experts. The stats reflect the greater skill level of the professional riders at avoiding injury.
Rider Error and Poor Trail Conditions
A study done by the Paracelsus Medical University in Salzburg, Austria, reports that two main causes of accidents were the common denominators — rider error at 72 percent, followed by bad trail conditions at 31 percent.
Fear is Your Friend
A healthy fear of the risks are part of the sport and can help to keep you safe. The stats seem to point out that downhill mountain biking risks are as high or low as you want it to be. Knowing your limits and skill level can help to keep you safe even under bad trail conditions. With that being said, there is no real reason to avoid downhilling and the thrill it offers. Knowing what to expect can help keep you safe on the mountain.
Technical Vs. Easy
Trails are plentiful. There is typically a multitude of them at every ski resort ranging from beginner to over-the-top expert. The trails are clearly marked at the top and at various intersections on the mountain. Maps are always provided grading trials from easy to difficult. It’s advisable to make the first run of the day on the easy trail. It helps to get you acclimated to the mountain and how you and your bike react to it. If and when you get the feel for it, you will likely become more relaxed. It is then appropriate to take more technical trails on consecutive trips down the mountain.
Gravity and Speed
Accepting too much risk is another reason why downhillers crash. Gravity is always urging you for more speed. The temptation to let up on the brakes is always there — don’t fall for it. Don’t ride above your skill level. You never know what is around the next corner and most often, you can’t see more than a few feet ahead of you.
Never let your guard down. Over-confidence causes crashes. This fact is often illustrated in experienced riders as crashing is common on easier sections of the trail near the lodge. The theory is that after completing the technical part, your instinctive natural guard is down and even a small patch of gravel takes you out.
Beginners jumping on full-on downhill bikes may notice that they feel bomb-proof. They’re cushy, and you feel like you’re invulnerable to a crash. The bubble of security is misleading, partly because downhill bikes feel like motorcycles, stable and safe. Sure, they are more stable but that same stability leads to a false sense of security that can get you in trouble. If you’ve never ridden a downhill bike before get used to it first. If you’re more comfortable on your cross-country mountain bike, it might be best to abandon the downhill bike and use a mountain bike that you’re familiar with. Most cross-country mountain bikes are capable of doing downhill to a certain extent.
Most resorts strongly recommend new riders lessons before climbing on the lift — and in fact most offer instruction for only a minor fee in addition to the lift ticket — but many riders inexplicably decline. Taking a lesson will give you a feel for the bike, the trails, and lower all of the downhill mountain biking risks as a whole.
The Importance of Gear
Downhill cyclists are always required to wear helmets. Full face shields and additional body armor are merely “strongly encouraged” by most resorts. Those who have suffered crashes in the past know that the simple addition of wrist, shoulder, elbow and knee guards can make a huge difference in lacerations and trail rash. Body armor is good, it aids in protection, but is likely not going to protect you 100 percent if you hit a tree at 30 mph.
Downhill Mountain Biking Risks
Risk is part of life. Cycling almost anywhere under any circumstance is inherently risky because of traffic and your own vulnerability on a bicycle. But what would life be without any risk whatsoever. Downhill mountain biking risks might seem extreme to some, but you only live once. Go for it but use the proper amount of caution.