The mountain bike trails at Aspen Snowmass, in the Colorado mountains, have it all – jumpy flow trails, technical singletrack and big drops. I travelled there for some coaching in the art of riding Bike Park, from local expert, Tyler Lindsay who also volunteered to be the riding model for my photos! Here’s how you can apply the lesson at any Bike Park…
In the winter, Snowmass is a haven for snowsports, but in the summer it transforms into a mountain biking masterpiece, with flow trails, downhill runs and lots of jumps! The trails start easy and go up from there, so learning how to ride Snowmass Bike Park can dial in your skills whether you’re new to this, or a proper shredder.
The gondola runs all season, allowing you to ride hard down the hill, then hand your bike to the lift attendant to load onto the back of the gondola as you ride to the top of Elk Camp.
There, you have a choice of bike park trails to suit your MTB level and inclination, which drop for 3,000ft of vertical elevation to the village below. So, what MTB lessons did I learn from Lindsay, that you can apply to your own riding, whether you’re a novice, or a more experienced rider? Well, we started with the basics…
As we roll up to the first trail of the day, the green rated Verde, Lindsay takes it back to basics: ‘A is for attack position.
It’s the same athletic stance that you have used in just about every sport you have ever played: feet about shoulder-width apart, knees moderately bent, chest and head up looking out in front of you, hands out in front on the bars. And really seeking to maintain that athletic, attacking body position throughout.’
Aspen Snowmass has a fully stacked bike hire centre and I’ve been kitted out with body armour, full face helmet and a beautiful Ibis Mojo HD4 enduro model with long travel suspension. The big discs of its hydraulic brakes are powerful, but it pays to use them with finesse.
“We talk a lot about the importance of relying on both of the brakes evenly – if you use only the rear brake, what happens is that your weight shifts forwards a bit, it removes your weight from that rear brake and you just end up skidding everywhere,” says Lindsay.
But, the harder you brake the more your weight moves forwards, so you need to anticipate, and counter, with your body position. “If you get on something steeper, or you really needed to slow down quickly then you shift your weight further back.”
The flow trails at Snowmass really encourage you to swoop from one high-bermed corner to another, feeling your tyres bite hard into the compacted earth and hardly losing any speed. One section of Snowmass trail looks like a rattlesnake coiling its way down the hillside – it’s a ludicrous amount of fun to ride, but there’s a technique to it, that has little to do with turning your handlebars.
“You tip the bike over underneath you, you maintain an upright body position and you put the weight on the outside edge of the tyres, so that you can carve around those corners – it’s very similar to a giant slalom turn on skis,” says Lindsay.
Pining it down the rattlesnake, going high up one berm, then dropping down to line up the next is incredibly satisfying, but you need to know how to link them – the key is control. “In the straightaway, reduce your speed to where you can feel you can make the upcoming turn without braking.”
Then, use the radius of the turn to your advantage: “You come in straight at the centre of the trail and as you enter the turn you want to sling the bike up into that high pocket, but then maintain position inside of that high pocket, where the grip is best, all the way though.”
“Act as though there is a flashlight where your belt buckle would be and rotate your hips to the inside so that you are shining that ‘flashlight’ to the exit point of that corner.”
Personally, I ride a road bike clipped into the pedals, but then a mountain bike with flat pedals and no clips. This is partly how I learned, but also because I prefer to be able to get my feet away and bail from the bike, if I have to. Lindsay approves, and has some tips for foot placement:
“The preference in the bike park is to shift your feet forwards a bit so that the spindle of the pedals is right near the arch of your foot.”
“That takes a bit of pressure off your calf muscles and applies the force directly up your tib fib bones, rather than relying on muscle power, to give you a stable platform. And then push your heels down a little bit, like being in the stirrups, to help with grip on the bike.” Check out the photo gallery below for reasons why you don’t want to ‘lose a stirrup’, either as a Bike Park rider or at the Snowmass Rodeo!
There are enough rocks and roots for me to be glad I’m rocking my Five Ten Freerider MTB shoes, which have super-grippy rubber soles and are stiffer than normal outdoor trainers.
If there’s one skill that will make you feel like a gravity biking pro, it’s jumping. By my second run I’ve clocked the best spots and I’m soon popping off lips and clearing small table tops – the combination of flow and adrenaline is ridiculously fun.
All of the trails at Snowmass are graded from Green to Black, and on the easier trails it’s not compulsory to jump anything, but you’ll have a lot of fun if you do. To unlock this achievement, the trick is to start small, learn the basics and work your way up. But, you’re going to have to get your bike’s suspension on your side.
“As you approach that first transition at the base of the take off face, what you want to do is push your heels and your hands down, at the same time to compress all of this suspension together. I think about pushing my pelvis down through my feet. Like, if you were standing on the ground, you compress down before you stand up to jump,” says Lindsay.
“Then, as you come up the face of the jump, you want to be slowly extending your legs back to your normal moderate knee bend stance you have been riding with. As the front and rear suspension unload together, that’s going to throw the bike up towards your body.”
“Go ahead and allow it to, and then you can extend your arms and legs back down into the landing to set it down gently. As you land, ideally you want to have the angle of your bike match up with the angle of the terrain.”
“Compress in, allow the bike to suck up towards your body, gently extend it down into your landing. That’s the basics and you can spend a lifetime refining it!”
One of the most intimidating bike park features can be the wall ride – a slab of planks put at a very unnatural angle, which you ride into like a berm, while heeled over, then often do a little hop off of, to return back to the trail.
They may look scary, but in actual fact they are quite straightforward to ride (at least on a dry day) so long as you carry enough speed into them to hold your tyres on the wall, and keep things calm and neutral on the wall.
Approach it like a berm, let your wheels track around the wall, while keeping your eyes looking ahead to the exit of the wall, and then hop down off the wall when you feel your momentum slowing.
Everyone loves hucking a bike off something big – at least I do! Fortunately, Snowmass Bike Park is happy to oblige – the harder trails have some committing drop-offs where you ride off a ledge in the trail, into thin air. Going weightless for a moment before plummeting down to the trail is an awesome feeling, but you really don’t want to get it wrong…
“The biggest mistake that people make on drops is that they go too slow. You want to have enough speed so that you have a little bit of the ‘Wile E Coyote’ effect, where your front wheel doesn’t ‘realise’ that it has gone off the drop before your rear wheel has also come off the drop, so that it can drop at a relatively even keel,” says Lindsay.
“You approach it in your very neutral stance, and as your front wheel crosses that drop barrier, lunge the bike out in front of you by extending your arms and pushing your heels forward, so that shortens the distance between the front and back wheel.
“Even if you are going a little bit slower your back wheel will still get off the edge before the front wheel starts to descend.”
I’m soon putting all of this advice into good use on Snowmass’s Viking, Vapor and Valhalla trails. I find you can ride hard all day and really dial in your skills.
At the end of one very productive session, I find myself launching off the huge tabletops of Snowmass’s prime freeride trail, called Valhalla.
Time seems to slow down while I’m in the air, flying between two towering flanks of silver birch as a golden sun bathes the mountains through the trees, before it winds back up to charging speed as my tyres kiss the fine dust of the landing. It’s the kind of moment that makes you want to get back on to the chairlift and do it all over again!
I flew with Norwegian to Denver and then connected to Aspen Airport. We stayed in Snowmass Village, at the base of the runs, where a new hotel has opened – the Limelight Hotel with 99 rooms, a new restaurant and a five-storey climbing wall, open to the public. The hotel is right next to the Snowmass Elk Camp Gondola for easy access to the bike park.
Photos © Matt Ray, all rights reserved. Shot with Sony A7RIII
(A version of this article appeared on RSNG.com)
Want more adventure on two wheels? Then read what happened when I set out to ride the 1,619m-high Tour de France climb, the Col de la Ramaz in the French Alps, here.