Knowledge Level: Beginner
Manon Carpenter, former British, world cup and world champion downhiller, tells you how and why to give downhill and four cross a go.
Mountain bike downhill
I already mountain bike and am keen to try downhill racing, where do I start?
Once you reach a level where you are confident tackling most trails, you can think about giving downhill a go. There are a number of different regional events you can try. Mini downhills are great to start with as the courses don’t have anything too scary on them. Most of those events are push-ups so you can push your bike up and practice as many times as you like. Going on to bigger events such as regional series, the best place to look is on the or ask at your local bike shop. The courses will be up a level from the mini downhills but there are often alternative lines around difficult sections. There is always a friendly welcoming atmosphere so, just give it a go.
How does a typical downhill event work?
It depends of the type of event, its level and how busy it is. At a mini downhill, you can push up as much as you like and even session tricky parts of the course. At bigger tracks, depending on your fitness levels, you will get between six and nine practice runs. I wouldn’t recommend more than eight as you will just tire yourself out and affect your ability to race come the next day.
Saturday is often a practice day so I’d recommend walking the track on the Friday evening. If you can’t make it on the Friday, get there early on the Saturday to walk it. Walking it is really important so you know where you are going, what to expect and don’t waste your practice runs. On Sunday, you will get two or maybe three practice runs if you are up bright and early for the uplift. Depending on the race you will then get two race runs or a seeding run followed by your final run.
Do I need a specialist bike?
I would say no depending on the race series you are going to try. People do ride trail bikes and they are fine for getting into the sport but, if you want to be competitive, you will need a downhill bike. Don’t feel that you have to have a downhill bike to try a downhill race though.
Is there any compulsory kit such as full face helmet or pads?
Definitely a full face helmet, knee pads and gloves at the very least. Check the race or series rules but for some youth and junior events, a back protector is required. I always race with one as well as elbow and knee pads. Some riders will wear full body armour and shin pads for full protection. There are also a number of neck braces you can try. It is whatever you feel comfortable in and what the race rules require.
Is there any specific training I should do?
Skills are crucial and I have always worked on the basis of skills before speed. You need to be confident in the air, on a pump track and negotiating shape in the trail at speed. You need a base level of strength and fitness to handle the course but skills are more important. Get out and ride a variety of trails, including pump tracks, BMX and skate parks and just get confident on all the different sorts of terrain you could encounter on a race track.
Do I need a racing license?
It depends on the event. For most Regional events you won’t but, if you want to start accumulating National Ranking Points, you will need one.
Is it good for kids? How would they get into it?
It is great for kids. I know a lot of parents getting their kids into mountain biking, they just take them out short, easier trails and they pick it up really quickly. The mini downhills have a ripper category which is 10-12 years old. At regional and national events, 12-14 is juvenile. I got into it just from mixed riding. Do some cross country, do some uplift days, find a pump-track; just get out on your bike and ride. Get those basic skills, build your confidence and then go for it.
What about four cross, how does that work?
In four cross (4X) the bikes are slightly different. They are shorter travel and often hardtails. You race four riders at a time on a race track that’s kind of similar to BMX. There will be the same rollers and jumps as BMX but it will be rougher and include obstacles such as rock gardens. The races are typically 30-40 seconds long with a qualifying run and then head to head knockout quarter and semi-finals where the top two riders progress through and onto the finals.
Why should I try downhill or 4X?
If you like mountain biking, have a competitive spirit and want to see how you get on against your mates, try it. It is a real challenge, where you have to overcome obstacles and progress your skills. It’s a great feeling when you get to the bottom of a track you weren't sure you could make it down. It is also a fun and friendly atmosphere, you will chat with all your competitors over the weekend and have a great time. Obviously with plenty of adrenaline involved.