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Downhill all the way

Adrenaline at the top, iodine at the bottom, and in between a crash course in biking for the bruised

Email|Print| Text size + By Herb Kavet
Globe Correspondent / October 23, 2005

KILLINGTON, Vt. -- About 15 years ago, one of my sons came home one day excited about a thrilling new sport he had discovered at the Mount Snow ski area.

''They carry your bike up the chairlift and then you ride down the ski trails and it's awesome and more exciting and thrilling than skiing and you hardly have to peddle and, and . . . you know, Dad, I didn't see anyone who came down who wasn't bleeding."

With that, I relegated the ''new sport" to fools under 25.

Basically, I'm a roadie. I enjoy cycling on paved surfaces, exuberant in the smooth riding efficiency of my custom-made Seven titanium bicycle. But I wound up giving this new sport a try, and no longer sneer at downhill mountain biking, having come to appreciate the thrill it engenders. I ski at Killington in winter, and take advantage of the lifts to carry my bike to the top in summer and fall. This biking provides daylong adrenaline rushes and rewards quick and precise handling while it scares the devil out of you. And a bonus is that some of these handling skills come in handy on the road should a dog run into your path or a car door suddenly open.

As for the ''bleeding," I have learned to wear a full suit of armor to protect my skin and bones. Knee, arm, and elbow pads, full face helmet, heavy pants with hip and rear pads, and a plastic shoulder-chest-back contraption that makes me look a little goofy but definitely puts enough space between my body and the rocks. While my sons contend with their bruises and cuts and punctured lungs and broken collarbones, I bike a little bulky but generally remain unscathed.

Killington is three hours from Boston. An off-season daily lift ticket costs $32, a lot cheaper than in winter. I'm over 65, so it only costs 20 bucks. Bike rentals run $25-$45, and it's not a bad investment considering the destructive nature of the activity. Weekends of downhill biking often involve hundreds of dollars of repairs on Monday. The ski trails and service roads used for the descents range from frightening to terrifying. The single tracks are narrow with brush almost touching your sides as you twist and drop down root- and rock-covered trails that are also usually damp and slippery.

The double tracks are wider, like narrow roads, and covered with loose gravel, the kind that grinds your skin off if you fall. Unless it's been dry for days, mud abounds. Most young mountain bikers take tremendous pride in covering themselves and their bikes with this mud. Fortunately, at the end of your day there are hoses for washing it all off so that you will be allowed into fast-food restaurants and even hospital emergency rooms on the way home.

Wearing all my protective gear, I'm usually a bit warm as I board the gondola, but it's always cooler at the 4,200-foot peak. The views are spectacular going up, especially in fall, and the excitement starts as soon as you are handed your bike and ride away from the lift.

You see three kinds of people as you leave the gondola. Tourists ride up to look at the views and then ride back down. A few who are a touch more adventurous walk down. As a bike rider, I glance at these people with a condescending air, and they in turn view me, I imagine, as a heroic adventurer or, more probably, an old goat of a fool who should know better.

Then there are the really serious bikers with battered equipment and mud-smeared pads, looking cocky and confident. While I'm sure they feel themselves worthy of unabashed admiration, I view them as irresponsible idiots good only for providing body parts to the more civilized members of society. There is definitely a pecking order at the top of this mountain.

The rocky trail falls away quickly and you are faced with immediate choices. Most of the bikers stay on the beginner or intermediate trails marked, as in ski season, with green circles and blue squares. If you crave solitude, take the black diamond expert trails. You might have them to yourself, but if you're injured, you also might have to wait until the ski patrol returns next winter.

The ride gives a feeling of flying through pristine woods using your skills to balance and turn as you cross rocks and roots and weave around trees en route to the bottom. The descent is scary but effortless; the gondola, after all, has done the uphill work. When crossing ski trails, the views across Vermont's mountains explode out of the trees. Occasionally, you startle a deer and hear the animal crashing away through the underbrush. There is little pedaling in downhill biking, but lots of clutching at the brakes. Sometimes, I'm clutching so hard and for so long that I worry my rims will catch fire and melt.

One son always says, ''Your wheels are larger than the rock. If you leave off the brakes, they will roll over the obstacles." I always hope he's right. Leave off your brakes for a few seconds and you seem to approach a speed sufficient to launch you into orbit.

Unlike winter, there is rarely a line at the gondola and after a 10-minute descent you are ready for another ride. The terror diminishes with each run, and as the day goes on you realize how much fun you are having. You can fill your veins to bursting with adrenaline and, if the bleeding has stopped, still be able to enjoy a night out on the town.

Contact Herb Kavet, a freelance writer in Wayland, at hkavet@comcast.net.

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