Mountain biking in Central Oregon and across the nation has progressed over the last several years from an endurance-minded, cross-country sport, to a more gravity-minded, free-ride activity.

Jumps, berms and flow are often preferred over 30-plus mile loops, and those once hard-to-find downhill freestyle trails, have increased in number in recent years to accommodate those desires.

Trails west of Bend like Whoops, Tyler’s Traverse, Funner and Tiddlywinks all incorporate technical terrain features on which riders can catch air or speed around corners. The chairlift-served Bachelor Bike Park, typically open by July, offers the biggest features in the area. Cline Buttes near Tumalo has three technical downhill trails that test the abilities of riders and their bikes.

“As the technology gets better and the bikes get better, we want terrain that suits it,” said Lev Stryker, owner of Cog Wild mountain bike tours in Bend and a longtime trail steward for the Central Oregon Trail Alliance. “One trend I definitely like is directional trails. You have a climbing route that’s straightforward and gets you to the top, and a downhill route where you’re not going to worry about folks coming up the trail as you’re riding down.”

As free-ride-flavored trails have increased in Central Oregon, the trail alliance and the Deschutes National Forest have labeled several trails west of Bend as one-way only. Whoops, Tyler’s Traverse and Funner all feature uphill-only and downhill-only routes to avoid conflict and collisions.

But mountain bikers should ride with extra caution on two-way trails, and be prepared to stop and step off the trail to yield to the uphill riders who have the right of way.

“I’m of the mentality that I never want to have a close call — I’d rather run into a tree avoiding someone,” Stryker said. “I always make a point to get out of the way.”

Technique when riding downhill trails may seem obvious, but riders need to know their limits and travel at the correct speed. For the most part on Central Oregon trails, mountain bikers can ride at slower speeds and roll over features rather than get airborne.

“It’s when you start going that middle speed, maybe you’re not ready to jump, but you’re going kind of fast, that can get you in trouble,” Stryker explained. “You’re maybe going too fast to roll it, but maybe not fast enough to hit the landing cleanly.”

He added that sometimes riders should scout the trail before they ride it, so they know what features to expect if they are riding it for the first time. They should have an athletic stance on the pedals and always be looking ahead to anticipate the terrain.

Mountain bikers can improve their downhill-riding technique simply by riding more, but Cog Wild (www.cogwild.com) offers skills clinics all summer long. The clinics, Stryker explains, teach the correct and safe technique on the myriad downhill trails in Central Oregon.

“They can start to visualize what they’re supposed to be doing and working on it, rather than having to deal with bad technique and just figuring it out over time,” Stryker said.

Classes and instructions are fairly new concepts to mountain biking in general, he added. While lessons have been paramount in sports such as skiing, in mountain biking, classes and clinics have become more widespread as riders seek to tackle more advanced, technical terrain.

Progression is also a concept that mountain biking has gleaned from skiing. Many trails west of Bend are now labeled much like ski runs — green circle for easy, blue square for more difficult, black diamond for very difficult, and double black diamond for extremely difficult.

As mountain biking continues to grow and evolve, purpose-built trails are becoming increasingly common.

“There’s definitely more ... we’re going to build a black-diamond jump trail or a blue-square trail that has just rollers,” Stryker said. “There’s quite a few places now that have a common up trail, with one route up. And that one climbing route might lead to three or four purpose-built trails: beginner, intermediate, and advanced, progressing up to drops and jumps and whatnot.”

To meet the demands of these trails, riders are buying bikes with more than 5 inches of suspension travel, disc brakes, a dropper post for the seat and meatier tires. Bike weight is not as much of a concern as it is for cross-country mountain bikers. With a dropper post, riders can keep their seat at normal height then drop it for the downhill section to adjust to a better downhill-riding position.

Stryker said that more and more mountain bikers are riding “29ers” (bikes with 29-inch wheels) and longer suspension. While mountain bikes traditionally had 26-inch wheels, bike shops now have mostly 29-inch or 27.5-inch wheels.

The 27.5-inch wheels, Stryker said, are designed more for dirt jumps or slalom tracks that feature tighter takeoffs and landings.

“Most of the people I ride with have a 29er, even if they are riding full technical, jumpy trails,” Stryker says. “They make 29ers that are capable of that.”

Jody Jacobson, a sales employee at Pine Mountain Sports in Bend, said for areas like the Wanoga trail system southwest of Bend, bikes with 130 to 150 millimeters of travel (about 5 to 6 inches) are sufficient. For trails with bigger jumps and drops, like the Bachelor Bike Park, bikes such as the Santa Cruz Nomad (170 mm of travel) are better.

“It’s more like a free-ride bike,” Jacobson said. “A little more travel and a little more beefed up so it can take the abuse of downhill runs time after time. Arguably, I can go to Bachelor and ride a 150 mm, short travel to mid-travel bike, but generally, for a bike park something like the Nomad would be a great bike.”

Body armor is another option for mountain bikers who take on more rugged, downhill, free-ride trails. Jacobson said she always wears kneepads no matter what trail she’s riding, but when she ventures to areas like Bachelor Bike Park or Prineville Bike Park, she wears hard-shell knee and leg armor.

A variety of kneepads accommodate different styles of riding. Some soft-shell pads protect riders from bumps and scrapes, and hard-shell ones are designed for higher-speed impacts.

“There are some kneepads that you can pedal quite easily on; they feel more like leg warmers than they do protection,” Jacobson said. “For downhill parks, I wear a full hard-shell for my knees.”

She adds that elbow pads are also a good idea in areas with bigger technical features.

“One set of elbow pads can be $90, and two stitches at the hospital cost you $300,” Jacobson said. “You probably will fall at some point, and if you can avoid just a scrape on the elbow, it’s worth it.”

Stryker said he wears a full-face helmet and full-body armor when he rides areas like the Bachelor Bike Park.

“When I’m wearing full-body armor, I’ve had crashes where I tumble through rocks, and then stand up, get back on my bike and go,” he said. “If I wasn’t wearing those pads then I’d be bleeding and broken.” •

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