The thrill of riding downhill

The thrill of riding downhill

Home » Mountain Bike (MTB)

Our brains are pretty amazing – and downhill mountain biking feels like a great showcase for the speed they work at and capacity they have to multi-task.

Combine eye-watering dropping speed with technical features, changing conditions, line choices, knowing how much to brake, judging a gap and reacting to changing light conditions – all while in the red mist of racing and against the backdrop of a tunnel of crowd noise. It’s a lot!

We asked some big names in gravity (four-cross (4X) and downhill) to see if they could put into words what goes on inside their heads during a run.

Matt Walker racing a downhill event

Matt Walker - Madison Saracen Factory Team Rider, 2020 Overall World Cup Champion and 1x World Cup winner

I find it pretty difficult to describe the feelings I have when I’m racing my bike, because when it’s going good and I’m on a fast run, I don’t actually feel a lot. It’s just coming easy, almost like you’re on auto-pilot. Time feels like it slows down, I’m hitting all my lines without thinking. You can hear the crowd but it’s just white noise. When I cross the line at the finish I struggle to remember all of my run, it comes back to me over the next few hours. It’s not a state of mind I ever find myself in, in normal daily life.

Racing always throws up challenges, crashes and mistakes are all part of the game, whether it’s in the race or in practice. Sometimes it’s difficult to relax and let it come to you, and to find the flow again. I’ve worked hard in the last few years on visualisation and how I approach these situations mentally. For me, accepting that mistakes are going to happen helps me get less emotional about them in the first place. So the easier it is to put them to one side and move on.

Josie McFall racing a 4X event

Josie McFall - Riding 4X for Kona Pro Development Team

Rolling onto the start gate you hear the cheers of the crowd, the commentator announcing your name - and then silence. After a pause the start announcement echoes around you: ‘Okay riders, random start. Riders ready, watch the gate. Beep beep beep beeeeeeep'.

Riders react differently on the gate, with some reacting to the lights and others watching the gate drop. I zone into the lights, waiting for the red. Being so focused and holding my breath I don't hear a word after 'Okay riders'.

Once that gate drops you have 30-50 seconds to make it count. It’s a sigh of relief if you exit the first corner in front and you can try to block anyone coming past, but you know you are getting hunted by three other riders. Listening to their tires on the dirt, the buzz of their hub spinning, even sometimes how heavy they are breathing! It’s crazy what sounds you hear when you are trying to visualise where they are behind you, while trying to hold position and tackling whatever jumps, corners and drops are coming up.

And if you haven't come out in front, you get a rush of adrenaline to fix the situation. You’re looking at every opportunity you can use to get around them, remembering how you saw them ride in practice. But you have milliseconds to make the decisions because the lap is almost over.

Once you cross that finish line and can finally breath, it’s crazy to think how much has happened in the last 30-50 seconds! Racing is such an incredible rush of adrenaline; that's just the best way to describe it.

Gravity rider Billy Pugh mid-air at an event

Billy Pugh - Riding multiple gravity-driven disciplines for the YT MOB and TLD

The feeling I get when riding my downhill bike is the best thing ever. It’s a sense of freedom and excitement - and it’s what I live for. Everything else in the world seems to disappear and it’s just me, the bike and the track. My focus is on every root and rock.

During a run features can come at you very fast, meaning reaction time is important. My reactions have developed as I have gotten faster over the years, but If I ever feel not quite in the zone I can get distracted and not have my full focus on the track, leading to mistakes like not getting onto my lines or losing the flow. Sometimes that means ending up in a thornbush or with some skin missing somewhere!

Downhill is my passion and it’s the discipline I love most. The feeling of adrenaline pumping through you whilst going flat out down a track or sending a huge jump is indescribable and I love it! And most importantly, just send it!