The Rush and Reward of Downhill
By Emily Maxwell
Straddling a downhill mountain bike at the top of Cheechako at Alyeska Resort’s bike park, I take a deep breath. Above me: bluebird skies. Below me: unknown territory. Downhill mountain biking is something I’ve always wanted to try, and with Alaska’s only lift-access downhill bike park conveniently located in Girdwood, the time had arrived.
Phil Hawkins, an easygoing instructor, and I start off with a ride down Gummy Worm, an open trail full of flat switchbacks. Next, we drop down Christmas in July, with similar turns as Gummy Worm but with higher banks, making it a little easier to power into the turns. Hawkins is nothing but supportive and points out everything I’m doing right like staying out of the saddle even in moments of doubt, making turns by shifting my weight rather than steering with the handlebars and picking up speed on the turns in order to keep my momentum up.
My form, apparently, is good-hips back, chest forward, elbows slightly bent allowing for better shock absorbency in the upper body. After our second ride down Christmas, Hawkins tells me, “You’re doing great, your face looked a lot more relaxed that time.”
As I become more relaxed on the bike, I begin to pay more attention to my form, engaging my core for balance and steering. After three runs down Christmas, with each run getting a little easier and my confidence a little higher, Hawkins suggests we try Cheechako which, he tells me, is similar to Christmas but the initial section of the trail is a little steeper and weaves through the trees, making for a narrower and slightly more challenging trail.
I have to remind myself that I’ve dropped down the infamous and challenging Dalzell Gorge on the Iditarod Trail twice with no less than 12 dogs in front of me each time and come out just fine, albeit a little keyed up. I feign confidence, excitement even, for a new trail but on the first turn, I psych myself out, putting on the brakes and proceeding to waddle the bike through the turn. Hawkins is waiting for me up ahead, just beyond the opening in the trees. “All good?” he asks. “Totally!” I reply. The rest of Cheechako is easier and carving out the turns with a little more speed is super fun.
Ben Napolitano, Director of Marketing at Alyeska Resort, has been downhill mountain biking for about eight years and points out what I found to be true in my first experience with downhill.
“I think building confidence can be the biggest hurdle. Once people start doing it and progress it’s amazing, but it’s taking those first few rides that can be challenging.”
Alyeska first opened the bike park nine years ago and the park has seen many improvements in that time, including updated bike lifts and evolved trail conditions.
“The trail crew works really hard to have our trails buffed out and riding prime,” says Napolitano.
The Alyeska Bike Park is open Friday-Sunday, 12-6 p.m. and on Labor Day through mid-September. Lessons with certified instructors are available for every skill level, from beginner to expert. Keep an eye out for upcoming events like the Women’s Skills Clinic on Sept. 1 for ladies wanting to improve their downhill techniques and the 7th annual Mountain Bike Festival on September 6-8 with three days of live music, demos and workshops.
While downhill is a great way to enjoy the mountain through the summer months, if you’re looking for a little less of an adrenaline rush, the resort also offers e-bike and cross country bike rentals and tours through the Daylodge Fri. through Sun.
Biking is a great way to get outside and enjoy the beauty of Girdwood’s surroundings this summer!