If you like nurturing your independence, appreciate the outdoors and enjoy an adrenalin rush, then downhill mountain biking may be the sport for you.
Downhill mountain biking is exactly what the name implies. You get to the top of a mountain or ski hill, transfer to a specially constructed bike with four wheels, and proceed to careen down to the bottom.
Although not necessarily for the faint of heart or those who prefer more tranquil ways to communicate with nature, mountain biking has a special niche for extreme sport enthusiasts and can be enjoyed by almost every ability.
“If you are able to wheel your own chair and are cognitively aware, you can mountain bike,” said Sandy Olney, program director, Bretton Woods Adaptive Inc., Bretton Woods, N.H.
Downhill mountain bikes, sometimes referred to as fourcross, are four-wheelers, gravity driven, with hand-controlled disc brakes. They have bigger tires than road cycles, which help absorb the bumps encountered on unpaved terrain. The seating is similar to a mono-ski bucket.
Mountain bikers need to be prepared for the bumps, jars, and possible rollovers by equipping themselves with helmets, gloves, elbow pads, and body armor, sometimes called gladiator suits.
“The sport tends to get a younger crowd,” Olney notes. “When someone is interested in biking, we make an appointment and talk about the bike, how it works, what the ride is like. Then, we fit the user into the bike so it is comfortable and snug. And then, we show how the brakes work and the importance of keeping speed under control as you learn.”
Downhill mountain bikers get to their point of descent by using a ski lift or a four-wheel tow. At Bretton Woods Adaptive, located at the base of Mount Washington Resort, bikers use the ski lift to get to the top of the mountain; their bikes strapped to the chair preceding them. Once at the top, the lift operators disembark the bike and set it so the biker can directly transfer to it from the lift. Then, it’s just a matter of cruising downhill, which on Mount Washington can take eight to 10 minutes, Olney said.
“Downhill is for those who want the rush,” Olney said. “It’s high-speed and exhilarating.”
Olney said that Bretton Woods Adaptive frequently teams up with New England Disabled Sports and its Sports Director Geoff Krill, who lends his expertise and teaching abilities. Krill, a paraplegic, is a former professional downhill biker.
“Mountain biking is just like alpine skiing, with different levels of trails. You can have a nice downhill ride or go as fast as you want to go,” Krill said. “It’s open to lots of disabilities from amputees to quads. It’s a gravity sport so you don’t have to be in the best cardio shape. And it’s great for people with balance issues. Quads can mountain bike when adjustments are made to flip the brakes backward towards the driver. Quads can’t grab, but they can push. It’s also possible to tether mountain bikes together so a skilled biker can pilot another downhill.
“I never met a person who didn’t have a great time biking,” Krill said. “You can move through the forest like a deer. It’s a raw feeling; you don’t get that often in a chair.”
Krill advises first timers to get used to the bike by using the trails around the base of the mountain and learn how the bike reacts to different types of terrain. “Mountain biking is basically a way to hike down the mountain,” he said. “You can fly down the mountain or you can go slower.”
Krill began mountain biking in 1996, a year after he became disabled in a snowmobiling accident. “I was looking for a way to get back into the woods,” he said. “Once I got into it, I began racing.” He was a member of Team Phoenix, a group of off-road wheelchair racers who competed nationally and internationally.
Krill owns four downhill mountain bikes, which he loans to NE Disabled Sports. “The problem is there are not a lot of manufacturers who make mountain bikes,” he said. “Many of the mountain bikes around are either older models or customized.”
An alternative to downhill biking is cross-country biking, utilizing one-off bikes.
Like downhill bikes, they have large tires, but they are rear-wheel driven and have gears for a variety of uphill and downhill riding. They allow bikers to travel both paved road and rough terrain. Off-road handcycles have a single-wheeled drive train in the back, similar to a two-wheeled mountain bike, with two wheels in the front for stability.
“They are versatile and they can go downhill quite well,” said Chris Read, CTRS, program director for the Adaptive Sports Center (ASC), Crested Butte, Colo.
“One-offs are designed for people with mid-level disabilities,” he said. “They need to use chest and trunk muscles to steer while pedaling.”
ASC also has a mountain biking program with three downhill bikes.
“We decide with the biker what the best option is and what is the best fit,” he said of newcomers to the sport. “We go over the mechanics of the bike with them with braking the most important element. We try to customize the day for the participant. People’s comfort level varies and it is physically demanding. But people drawn to it have an adventurous spirit.”
Crested Butte also hosts an annual Off-Road Handcycling World Championship. This year’s event over Labor Day Weekend features athletes competing on specially-designed handcycles outfitted for off-road riding. In 2009, two new, non-competitive rides have been added to the schedule of events: a warm-up ride on Friday and a backcountry tour on Monday, both supported by the Adaptive Sports Center.
The documentary, “Crank it Up! Challenging the White Rim,” features three paraplegics, hand-peddling specialized adapted mountain bikes, the One-Off, on one of the most rugged and forbidding mountain bike trails in the world, the White Rim Trail in Canyonlands National Park, Utah. Although sharing a love of adventure and the outdoors, nothing but their commitment and determination to the ride was certain. Warren Miller’s cinema photographer Tom Day documented this six-day, 106-mile epic adventure. The film highlights the lives and events of each athlete; Steve Ackerman, who rode a handcycle around the world covering over 14,500 miles, Bob Vogel, former professional aerial skier and outdoor enthusiast, and Mark Wellman, first paraplegic to ascend El Capitan and Half Dome and to sit ski across the Sierra Nevada.
The documentary, narrated by John Hockenberry, of dateline NBC, culminates into a compelling story making history as the emotionally charged trio peddle up the relentless trail scattered with loose rock, steep ledges, continuing switchbacks in dense sand, to the completion of the famous White Rim Trail. For more information, call No Limits at (530) 582-1135 or visit www.nolimitsahoe.com.
Mountain Biking Resources
One-Off Handcycles – Manufacturer of a popular off-road handcycle. The company was started by Mike Augspurger, inventor, craftsman and specialist in custom titanium frame bicycles, including the first all-terrain handcycle for wheelchair athletes.
Handcycle Racing – Site for wheelchair resources including a link to cycling products from Invacare.
United States Handcycling Federation – Informative site on all aspects of handcycling including information on off-road handcycling events.
Mountain Biking Amputee – an informal organization of amputee mountain biking and cycling enthusiasts
There are some companies that continue to work on prototypes for downhill mountain bikes. These include mono-ski manufacturer Tessier Equipment and The Active Force Foundation. A mountain chair research project also is underway, spearheaded by Dr. Jeffrey Rosenbluth, University of Utah Hospital Rehabilitation Services.