Tips provided by FS Patrol Funn: Harry Molloy (England, right), Veronika Widmann (Italy, centre) and Bryn Dickerson (NZ, left). Veronika is an ex Italian National champion with an IXS series title. Bryn is the 2016 Oceania Champ and IXS Cup winner. Harry is a seasoned World Cup rider and manager of the team.
Downhill MTB is one of today’s fastest-growing sports. Among non-riders, it’s attracted a global fan base as it’s easy to understand the sport (simply put, the fastest rider down the hill wins), and consequently, exciting to watch.
For amateur riders, it’s fun to do. It’s all about short bursts of explosive power, and while it requires a high level of skill to excel, any reasonably good mountain bike (MTB) rider could start to get into it. The skill set is largely the same as MTB in general, except with a lot more emphasis on cornering tight switchbacks, confidently riding skinnies (eg. man-made wooden features), successfully navigating over steep drop-offs without losing pace or crashing.
Apart from the adrenaline and added speed, there’s basically none of the tedious, long uphills to pedal – it’s all about maintaining control as you careen downhill at the maximum, controllable speed.
Unsurprisingly, crashes are common. Among beginner/intermediate riders, the most common injuries tend to be broken collarbones and wrists – from bad falls with most avid riders probably having broken something at least once. For pro riders, making it to the World Cup isn’t easy – in addition to skills, you will also be looking at at least S$20–40k to fund yourself around the World Cup circuit.
Picking the right bike for the race isn’t always a simple decision. With the rapid development of Enduro bikes in the last few years, it has been a common choice amongst gravity lovers to race these capable bikes that can put the power down like beasts, however, when the going gets rough, the DH bike is still the weapon of choice for the job. With more travel, a slacker head angle, lower bottom bracket and a longer wheel base, these bikes allow us to almost break the laws of physics and race to our full potential.
Setting up your bike for speed is commonly thought to make it as comfortable as possible for the rider. Racers are increasingly using a harder set-up when it comes to suspension to ‘glide’ across the top of the rough terrain. Without enough speed or just a fraction off line, you’ll be bucked around as if the bike has come alive. This setup is not just for the lovers of speed, but the racers that will sacrifice all for just a fraction of a second.
Today, bikes come equipped with many adjustments to fine tune and tailor geometry. Speed generally comes easier with a slacker and longer ride, but with the tight and twisty demands of so many tracks, the optimal setting can change at every event. From beginners to pros, finding the sweet spot can be hard and even with the computers and engineers, set-up is also based on a rider’s individual preferences.
For professionals, downhill is highly- competitive and lucrative across UCI’s annual MTB World Cup series. While mastering downhill riding’s core skill set can take years, it’s not all just about technique. Gravity obviously helps, but even amateur riders need to train for very specific types of explosive power in their legs and core.
If we have a closer look at Downhill racing, what are the important abilities involved? Probably the skill to ride a bike is the fundamental thing to be a good racer. But there’s more… the mental strength to put together the fastest run with the least mistakes, and at the same time, the physical ability to do it. To not only hold on for these 5 minutes, but to squeeze everything from your body, reach your limit and still concentrate well enough to achieve the run of your life. It means you have to be more than fit.
But what does the training programme of a professional downhill athlete look like? What’s the difference between a normal hobby rider and how are you able to put the training for bike skills, mental strength, and physical conditioning together in one programme?
For the majority of hobby-racers, keeping fit by general exercise and enjoying sports sets you in good stead. However, for professional athletes this has become an art, especially during the off season winter preparation in the gym. This is the way that the body begins its transformation to be fit for a downhill racer.
The optimal body composition is a fine balance. You don’t want to grow muscles like Arnold Schwarzenegger and at the same time, there’s no need for the ability to pedal hours up the side of a mountain like a road rider. What you need is explosive strength in your race but before that, you need the right conditioning.
Core strength – the body parts literally connecting your lungs and torso – are fundamental for every exercise and doubles up as protection from injuries when you crash. Core strength is the most basic goal in a strong, intense and varied training programme.
To start, you need to build your strength with different but specific exercises for 6 to 8 weeks. For example, bench press and squats both closely relate to cycling and engage large muscle groups.
After this intense but basic training it’s necessary to build up your explosive strength which is one of the most important abilities of a Downhill racer. Achieve this with sprints from 10 to 30 seconds or doing the same exercises as before with less weight but an explosive movement.
From here you can progress the exercise even further and combine it in a circuit with balance or reaction aspects. These are very important abilities in racing a bike. For example, a weekly training regimes at the pro level between races, would be 10 hours of riding, 4x 1-hour gym sessions, and possibly topping up with cardio as needed.
General fitness and skill training can be combined. Whether it is short interval sprints on a BMX track or a long cross country/Enduro ride, your skillset will be broadened. Learning how to ride a BMX-bike, where your position on the bike is crucial and your technique precise, teaches you how to make the most of every simple jump or pump. Apply these skills to the downhill bike and you’ll be faster with more confidence.