Explained: Downhill Mountain Biking for dummies

Just learned of a new sport you never heard of, or looking to try something new? This is your quick and easy introduction to mountain bike downhill with everything you need to know.

Downhill is one of the fastest and most extreme forms of mountain biking. It’s ridden on purpose-built DH tracks, that are very technical and difficult to ride. There are dedicated downhill bikes with more suspension than regular mountain bikes and they are ridden standing up.

And as the name suggests, it’s all downhill with hardly any pedaling. Acceleration is entirely done by gravity (hence gravity MTB). All the uphills are done with the help of gondolas, chairlifts or shuttle services. In that respect, it’s very similar to alpine skiing.

The locations to ride downhill at are called “Bike Parks“. Those are typically skiing venues, that use their infrastructure during summer seasons. Lift access, steep hills, forests, accommodations and restaurants are all common there.

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Big roots, steep hills and naturally technical terrain is what Downhill is all about.

Downhill mountain biking vs mountain biking

That’s cool and all, but: What’s the difference between downhill MTB and regular MTB? Glad you asked.

While mountain biking is synonymous with adventure, group rides and endurance, downhill is reducing MTB to one aspect: the descents. And since DH is done on dedicated, taped-off tracks, high speeds, berm turns, big jumps and drops are completely common. Not something found on a regular MTB ride.

Downhill is simply a subgenre of general mountain biking. Just like cross country, which is basically the opposite, focusing on the uphills primarily. Or like Enduro riding, which is a mix of both climbing in order to descend on a fun trail – usually more mellow than a DH track.

Because they are designed to be as capable as possible on rough descents, downhill bikes cannot be pedaled uphill.

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Long suspension travel, huge brake rotors, wide tires, low saddle, and a tiny gear range. This is not your ordinary bike, but a purpose-built descending machine.

That degree of specialization also means different equipment for DH riders: more protection (as more risk is involved), heavier gear, more suspension, more braking power, high-speed gear ratio, low saddle height. In other words: forget riding uphill. Even pedaling on even ground gets exhausting since the bikes are heavy and you can’t sit on them very well.

It’s like trying to go uphill on your regular skis. It’s slow, exhausting and kind of defeats the point of having skis.

Safety gear is actually a vital topic. That’s why I wrote a full article on which protective gear to wear for downhill.

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Full face helmet.
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Sturdy knee pads.
POC Spine VPD 2.0 Jacket back view
At least a back protector or a full protector vest.

Why would you do something that dangerous?

While DH is dangerous with a high degree of consequence compared to other sports, it’s not as risky as you might assume. Let me explain.

We talked about bike parks before. They got that name because there is more than one track. And most likely, they are in varying difficulties. You as the rider choose which track you go down – the smooth beginner trail or the expert track with all those big rocks and massive jumps.

Trees aren’t going to jump out and get you.

It only gets dangerous when you’re not in control anymore – meaning: trying something far above your skill level. It’s your choice if you want to ride a section or not. If you are unsure, you can always stop, hop off and push down a sketchy section. There are two brakes on a bike, feel free to use them.

I’ll leave you with a quote from professional racer Dean Lucas, who distilled what DH is all about in a short but very fitting quote:

“From the outside it looks like the house is burning down.
But from the inside it’s pure bliss.”

Dean Lucas, former world cup DH racer
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Sailing through the air with a backdrop like that? Can’t beat it.

Downhill Racing Basics

The simple question of the racing side of the sport is: “Which rider can reach the bottom of the track in the fastest time?”

Usually, race runs are only three to five minutes long (on tracks that take amateurs about 5x as long). But it’s an intense few minutes as the riders have to uphold a high level of concentration and physical performance the entire way down.

Brook MacDonald
Brook MacDonald at the Downhill Race at Crankworx in Rotorua, NZ // Graeme Murray / Red Bull Content Pool

Again, if you know how downhill alpine skiing is done – you know the concept already.

  • One race track.
  • One rider at a time.
  • One race run.
  • Fastest time wins.

So everything depends on a single run. As you can imagine, racers are going all out and risking everything for that perfect run to win a race.

That’s why Downhill is so captivating to watch. It’s very easy to understand and easy to get excited about as a newcomer to the sport.

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Julian Mat is a former bike shop owner and editor of Suspension Traveler. He has been riding Downhill MTB and Enduro for over two decades.
Julian has poured all his accumulated knowledge, best-kept secrets, and proven guides into Suspension Traveler, to make it the go-to resource for gravity mountain bikers.

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