What Is Downhill Mountain Biking? Everything You Need To Know

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With enormous jumps, steep drops, and head-to-toe body armor, downhill mountain biking is one of the most exciting and dangerous disciplines in the sport of cycling.

Expect to witness high speeds and narrow passages, with riders carving down mountains or through tightly packed urban cities.

There are many different disciplines involved in the sport of mountain biking, so it can be hard to differentiate what’s what.

There are 5 distinct categories that dominate the space: downhill, cross-country (XC), trail, enduro, and freeride. Today, we will be focusing on downhill mountain biking.

You have probably seen a clip of someone speeding through a rock garden in a dense pine forest; it is this image of downhill that attracts a lot of people to downhill mountain biking.

In this introduction to downhill mountain biking, we’ll be covering:

  • What Is Downhill Mountain Biking?
  • Downhill Mountain Biking: The Bike
  • Protective Gear And Clothing
  • Downhill MTB Racing
  • Types of Trails
  • Skills Required For Downhill Mountain Biking

Let’s pad up and drop into it!

Downhill Mountain Biking: Title Image

What is downhill mountain biking?

As the name suggests, downhill mountain biking is quite simple; you ride downhill.

Sounds easy, right? If only there weren’t a litany of dangerous obstacles in the way.

Typically, you will travel to the starting point via a ski lift or vehicle since the weight of the bike makes any climbing seriously difficult.

Downhill mountain biking is usually done on man-made courses that are specifically designed for the sport. These courses can range from professionally-built tracks at lift-served bike parks to local trails.

Downhill trails are built to be extremely challenging and fast, with steep drops, jumps, berms, banked turns, technical corners, and plenty of rocks and roots.

The rider must possess a unique combination of total body strength, aerobic and anaerobic fitness, and an acceptance of a relatively high risk of serious injury.

Due to the high difficulty and risk involved in downhill mountain biking, it is often considered a sport for experienced riders.

Nevertheless, most trails are graded and will offer something for all levels of experience. With proper training and equipment, anyone can try their hand at this thrilling and exciting form of mountain biking.

Just be sure to start on easier trails and progress gradually to more challenging terrain.

When precautions are taken, going to a local bike park with mates can be some of the best fun there is to be had!

Urban downhill Mountain Biking

Recent years have given way to the rise of urban downhill mountain biking.

Urban downhill mountain biking is an adrenaline-fueled sport that combines the excitement of traditional mountain biking with the challenges of navigating an urban environment.

It’s not for the faint of heart – riders hurtle down steep cement staircases and around tight corners at breakneck speeds. Riders must possess exceptional bike handling skills to navigate the obstacles and hazards that come with the urban terrain.

The course is littered with staircases, alleyways, and rooftops.

Watching an urban downhill mountain biking competition is a thrilling experience. The energy in the air is palpable, and the excitement is contagious.

Every rider that sets off from the starting line is putting everything on the line. Battling a rush of adrenaline and a roar of the crowd.

But with the thrill comes danger. The risks involved in urban downhill mountain biking are not to be taken lightly.

Downhill Mountain biking: The Bike

A downhill mountain biker rides a dirt trail on a red bike.

In order to withstand the punishing conditions of downhill racing, downhill bikes are designed to take a beating.

If you’re in the market for a new mountain bike, you’ll generally only want to buy a downhill bike if you’re specifically looking to do downhill riding. You’ll have a tough time using it for anything else.

You don’t need all the best gadgets either; a full-suspension mountain bike with traditional geometry is usually versatile enough for almost all conditions. I’ve enjoyed many long days at bike parks with a setup like that.

Here are the key differences between a downhill mountain bike and a conventional mountain bike:

#1: Weight

Downhill bike frames are constructed from heavy-duty materials such as steel, titanium, and carbon fiber, ensuring they can handle stress.

Each component is heavy duty, as it is built to absorb impact, not to perform well over a 50 km backcountry ride.

Weight is less of a concern for downhill bikes since the tracks are generally all downhill, with minimal uphill sections.

#2: Geometry

In addition to the sturdy construction, the frames are designed with a slacker geometry, which shifts the rider’s weight further back, improving stability when descending steep terrain.

The slack head tube angle also creates a longer wheelbase, which provides a more stable platform and better balance.

The term “slack” refers to the angle between the bike’s head tube and the ground, which is typically between 62 and 65 degrees on a downhill bike, as opposed to 70-75 degrees on a standard mountain bike.

A cyclist flies through the air while downhill mountain biking in a forest.

#3: Suspension

A downhill mountain bike requires a specialized suspension system with plenty of travel and heavy-duty components to handle the demands of high-speed downhill riding.

Most downhill bikes are full suspension, with both front and rear suspension.

The front suspension is usually provided by a set of large forks, which can provide between 170 mm and 200 mm of travel. The forks on a downhill bike often boast a double crown, adding extra stiffness and strength to the top of the fork.

The rear suspension on a downhill bike is typically provided by a coil shock absorber, which is mounted to the frame and connected to the rear wheel by a linkage system. The rear suspension often provides between 170 mm and 200 mm of travel.

#4: Wheels

Traditionally, a downhill bike would have featured a 26-inch wheel, although nowadays, riders tend to opt for 27.5-inch or 29-inch wheels, with some riders opting for a “mullet” setup with 29 up front and 27.5 at the back.

27.5-inch wheels, also known as 650b, are typically lighter and more nimble than 29-inch wheels. They are often preferred by riders who prioritize agility and maneuverability on technical terrain, as the smaller size makes it easier to navigate tight turns and switchbacks.

29-inch wheels (29ers) are typically heavier and provide more momentum and stability than 27.5-inch wheels. They are often preferred by riders who prioritize speed and stability on faster, less technical terrain, as the larger size helps to maintain momentum and absorb impacts.

Riders will tend to run low tire pressure in order to maintain traction on loose surfaces.

A typical spoke count for a downhill wheelset is around 32 to 36 spokes, as a higher spoke count provides additional strength and stability to the wheel.

Two downhill mountain bikers descend a rocky hill face.

Protective gear and Clothing

Wearing the appropriate protective gear is crucial crashes are common, so give yourself the best odds!

The following are some of the key protective gear items that downhill mountain bikers should consider:

  1. Full-face helmet: A full-face helmet provides the most comprehensive protection for the head and face, with a chin guard that helps to protect the lower face and jaw in the event of a crash.
  2. Body armor: Body armor can include chest and back protectors, shoulder pads, elbow pads, and knee pads. These help to protect the upper body from large impacts.
  3. Gloves: Gloves help to protect the hands and provide grip on the handlebars, which can be especially important for maintaining control on technical terrain. It’s better to rip a pair of gloves than the skin on your hands.
  4. Goggles: Goggles provide eye protection from dust, debris, and other hazards on the trail and can also help to reduce glare and improve visibility in low-light conditions.
  5. Riding jersey and trousers: Long-sleeved jerseys and trousers made from durable materials such as nylon or polyester can help to protect the skin from abrasions.
  6. Proper footwear: Sturdy, closed-toe shoes with good traction are important for maintaining control on the pedals.

Downhill MTB Racing

Downhill mountain biking is intrinsically related to racing.

The most elite races are held at the UCI Downhill World Cup, which has been held annually since 1993.

The UCI Downhill World Cup attracts many of the top professional downhill mountain bikers from around the world, who compete for both individual races wins and overall series titles.

The concept is simple: the fastest person down the hill is the winner. 

Some of the most iconic tracks on the World Cup circuit include Fort William in Scotland, Mont-Sainte-Anne in Canada, Val di Sole in Italy, Les Gets in France, and Leogang in Austria.

types of trails

Downhill trails are designed with an emphasis on steepness, difficulty, and speed.

Riders can expect to encounter a variety of challenging features, such as jumps, drops, technical corners, and natural obstacles like rocks and roots.

One of the most popular venues for downhill riding is ski resorts, which provide the infrastructure for riders to access the top of the hill via chairlift.

These bike parks offer trails suited for all skill levels, making them an ideal place for riders of any level to improve their skills.

The most renowned bike park, located in Whistler, British Columbia, Canada, is often credited with pioneering the ski-resort bike park concept, which has since been adopted across the globe.

You don’t need to go to big bike parks to get the best trails either; see if there is a local trail-building group near you!

A cyclist descends through a forest at night while downhill mountain biking.

skills required For Downhill Mountain Biking

When it comes to downhill mountain biking, the stakes are high. Here are a few key skills you want to hone before you head out on the trails:

  • Look ahead: Maintaining a forward-looking gaze is paramount in mountain biking as it will help you to anticipate the trail and react quickly.
  • Level Pedals: Keep the pedals at 3 and 9 o’clock; this will mean they’re less likely to catch something and provide an optimal stance for transferring weight through the pedals, a technique known as “pumping” the bike.
  • One-finger braking: During braking, the hands should form a fist around the grips to maintain a firm grip on the handlebar; braking with one finger allows you to keep better control of the bike. Ensure the brake lever is correctly positioned for comfort and ease of use.
  • Turning: Off-camber turns are often the most technical. Be sure to keep your weight over the bottom bracket throughout the turn. This requires leaning the bike in, pushing the outside foot down, and moving hips outward to the side of the saddle while the outside elbow raises away from the body. Look towards the exit of the turn. A great way to practice this is in a car park with some cones!
  • Physical Strength: Be sure to get some work in at the gym! Having the strength to maintain control of the bike while absorbing the impact of jumps and drops is key. It will also improve your ability to handle the bike’s weight, maintain your balance, and keep the correct posture on challenging terrain.

Enjoyed this introduction to downhill mountain biking? Check out more from the BikeTips experts below!

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Ben is an avid cyclist and runner, evenly splitting his time between road and mountain bike. He is a particular fan of XC ultra-endurance, but nothing beats bikepacking with mates. He has toured extensively through the UK and is currently spending a summer in the Alps and Pyrenees trying to cycle up as many mountains as possible. Ben has worked for the last eight years as a Personal Trainer and Sports Massage Therapist.

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