Already famous for the “Greatest Snow On Earth,” Utah resorts are now becoming known for something else: the greatest lift-served mountain biking on Earth. No grueling climbs required: Friendly lifties will load your bike at the base and unload it at the top. All you have to do is hop on the saddle and go. Riding down a resort mountain is more for intermediate or advanced bikers than beginners, but every Wasatch resort has easy (and free) areas near the base where less-experienced riders can hone their skills. You can even rent the newest-model bikes at most resorts, with the right tire pressure, seat adjustment and perfect brakes.
Deer Valley has long been known as a great place for mountain biking, but now there’s a new champion: Canyons Resort, also in Park City. Canyons is almost like a locals’ secret, not yet famous for its innovative and markedly different mountain-bike operation, but the word is spreading fast.
Aside from regular trails, Canyons has an action-packed bike park, with well-built trails for various levels of riders. The bike-park trails are like BMX tracks, with berms, bumps, jumps and features. A new, and easy, beginners trail will open later this summer.
Navigating the bike park is easier than it sounds, and pushing the envelope of your daring will immediately improve your confidence—an important factor in becoming a better mountain biker.
No matter what your ability level, it’s worth paying $99 for a two-hour lesson from Canyons’ experienced and encouraging instructors. Just one tip from instructor Christie Johnson—to stand on the pedals and move the bike under my body rather than using the handlebars to turn the bike—was a breakthrough, lifting the level of my riding ability.
Tips really help. When it comes down to it, mountain biking is an exquisite ballet between the forces of gravity and the immediate response of the rider. The rider dances by shifting weight and gears, steering the bike, pedaling and braking.
One of the most important tips is to learn which brake does what. Most mountain bikes are set up so that the left brake controls the front wheel, while the right brake controls the rear. Don’t just memorize this; make it an automatic reaction, ingrained in your muscle memory. That’s much faster than thinking left/right—having the thought go to your brain, then back down to your fingers.
Never forcefully squeeze the brake lever. Start with a gradually increasing pressure, pumping or “feathering” the brakes to get the traction you need. Use both brakes rather than putting too much pressure on only one wheel. Stopping just your front wheel quickly will usually cause your bike to flip over—and you with it.
Remember the old saying “When in doubt, ride it out.” If there’s a sudden obstacle ahead and you don’t have time to stop or shift gears, pedal hard and fast. If you hit a patch of gravel, sand, loose or soft dirt, shift to a lighter gear and keep pedaling. Steady as she goes will usually get you through almost anything.
Another thing to put into your muscle memory: Pedaling is a circle, not a hard shove downward. If you don’t use clip-in pedals, toe clips are an inexpensive option that doesn’t require special shoes. Spend time practicing the “pull up” part of the pedal stroke so that it becomes instinctive.
When going uphill, shift your weight forward to give more traction to your front wheel. If you start sliding backward and can’t pedal through it, brake hard to hold the bike steady so you can easily get off, rather than falling over and leaving skin on the dirt. On a downhill, shift your weight back. Stand on your pedals, slightly up out of the saddle, with your butt to the back of the seat.
Many riders fail to get better because they ignore the basic rule of biking: Look ahead. Never put your line of sight down to your front wheel. Looking ahead informs you of what’s coming and gives you time to react. Stay relaxed; stiff arms or a stiff neck and back will prevent quick reactions. Stay loose.
Above all, put in the miles. If you can’t get to the mountains, ride on asphalt. Learn your bike; learn how to dance with gravity on hills and flats. The practice will help make you a perfect rider.