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The Downhill Dilemma

Published in Mountain Life Magazine

I couldn’t see any reason why I wouldn’t like downhill biking. First off, I love mountain biking; riding singletrack through forest, thinking fast and staying focused. Secondly, I’m a big fan of downhill skiing for its speed and edginess. The synergy of the two sports seemed like a feisty hybrid worth checking out. I subscribe to exhilaration; it’s a beautiful thing. Besides, when your boyfriend is crazy about the sport, it makes perfect sense to embrace it.

What I wasn’t anticipating, however, was the fear factor. I’m at Blue Mountain, taking a lesson when one participant says, “It’s difficult to figure out the mindset.”

Perhaps unfortunately, I know exactly what he’s talking about. I’m feeling okay on the beginner runs of Embryo and the Ridge, but as we move on to more challenging runs with steeper slopes, I find myself heavy with hesitation. Downhill biking I realize, isn’t just a matter of acquiring and applying a new skill set, it’s about being able to park your brain so it’ll stop yelling ABORT!

Of course, not everyone faces this dilemma. In fact, I’d be willing to bet that the vast majority of downhill enthusiasts are naturals. That is, they found the sport instantly appealing. They gravitated to it with more gusto than caution; with more abandonment than concern. It was easy for them; no sweat. For the rest of us, the undertaking of downhilling was proving to be a form of self-inflicted psychological warfare.

“Ah, you think too much,” said my boyfriend. “You can’t think; just do.”

“Shuddup,” I replied.

From the base of Blue there’s no good place to actually see what the sport is about. You can’t watch from the top either, for that matter. The action is in the trees, hidden and obscured from view. It’s on 18 different singletrack trails that cascade down the face of the Niagara Escarpment. The earth-worn trails barrel over roots, rocks and loose skree, nipping between trees with tenuous angles, squirrelly turns, steep pitches and outright drop-offs. In addition, some trails include boardwalks, bridges and skinnies.

The whole thing involves holding on tight and even for dear life to your handlebars, looking ahead, trying to relax and to believe that speed is your friend. It’s about trusting your bike and asserting utmost confidence in your unknown ability. Of course, a helmet is mandatory and a full suit of armour is a very good idea.

“We get many people, families, that come thinking it’s going to be a bit like Disneyland,” said instructor Tom Kulakowsky. “They don’t realize downhilling is a tough sport, and that mountain biking experience is required.”

By all accounts, downhill biking is an extreme sport made user- friendly at Blue with lift access, lessons and rental equipment. Kulakowsky said first timers can be sorted into three camps: those who don’t like it, those who love it – and immediately drop $5,000- plus on equipment – and those, like me, who wrestle to reserve judgment for another day.

I admit, I do like the feel of the bike. The front end is raked out like a chopper, and the full suspension absorbs the bumps to a large degree. Handlebars are wide and the seat is low, low enough that you can touch the ground full on. In turn, however, you’re a bit of circus clown pedaling on the flats, knees to ears. The ride itself – at least on the easy runs – is super sweet, rollercoaster-like with swoopy undulations and embankments.

Kieran O’Halloran, another bike instructor said, “I treat my cross- country bike like a glider, but my downhill bike like a tank; it’s designed to go through things.” Reflecting further, he adds, “Cross- country biking to downhill is the difference between skiing to racing. Yet it’s not even really about going fast. It’s a mindset.”

There’s that word again – mindset. We’re arguing now, my boyfriend and I. He wants to lead me down a black diamond. I say no, I’m not ready; I want to work my way up to the tougher trails. He says there is no real progression, not past the Ridge. “In this sport you can’t slowly inch your way, you have to plunge.”

The premise here seems to be that you and your bike are capable of doing virtually anything, including the impossible, improbable, insane and plain stupid. The only catch is, in order to do it, you have to whole-heartedly believe that you can do it.

Is there no easier way to face fear, I wonder? Is my only true obstacle my own attitude? I’m glad I’m not alone. On the gondola going up, the talk is about speed when one girl admits, “I like my brakes too much.”

Looking around it’s not hard to notice that the vast majority of participants are male. Indeed, for any single woman, the base of Blue presents an extremely yummy buffet. These guys are decked in hard, beefy armour, and all seem to have the alpha strut.

Are guys better wired for dares I wonder? Perhaps they’re quicker to throw caution into the wind, more apt to derive joy from thrill, and to thrive in the adrenalin of intensity. Then again, maybe women are just smarter.

While cruising the Ridge to my own speed I hear a clatter of fast- moving bikes coming up from behind. Pulling off to the side in just a nick of time, three guys careen by, while a fourth pedals furiously trying to catch up. Ahead there’s an S-turn with a quick left-right that the straggler does not successfully negotiate. KUGH, he whacks into the V of two trees, taking the brunt with both shoulders and luckily not hitting his head. Proving his resilience, he simply backs up and carries on, pedaling furiously.

Next I’m proudly venturing upon a new trail. My quad muscles are sore, my comfort zone has been breached, and dare I say I’m actually starting to enjoy myself? What I’m realizing is that if you’re not overcoming something, you’re not having a good ride. The essence of downhilling seems to be a state of conquering. It’s a bit of addiction that way, like a thrill junkie constantly seeking the next challenge.

At day’s end my boyfriend seems to think I’ve around, that I’m in, that I’ve switched teams, and am now one of them. “So, can you see why I love this sport so much?” he asked.

“What does it do for you?” I counter.

Taking a moment to reflect, he finally says, “It lets me feel superhuman.”

There you have it. Not only do you have to act superhuman to get downhill, you get to feel superhuman at day’s end. That’s the reward you reap for your faith. Now, if only I could figure out is how to put logic and sensibility on short-term sabbatical….