These ski lifts are a game changer for mountain biking

NORTHSTAR, Calif. — We look like contestants from the 1990s reality show “American Gladiators,” wearing all-black protective gear — full-face helmets, shin-to-knee pads and fully padded jackets.

Instead of being dressed for combat, we’re suited up for the hazardous sport of downhill mountain biking. Riding off-road is always risky, and doing it down ski runs builds more speed than traditional mountain biking, increasing the danger.

I was eager to try mountain biking at Northstar California because it uses ski lifts to carry bikes and bikers. The lifts promise to upend a maxim about mountain biking — any fun you have on the trail is in direct proportion to the misery you suffer pedaling uphill. In other words, the lifts will make mountain biking all about fun.

That was my experience biking Northstar for two days last month. A Sacramento Bee photographer and I each had one spill with no significant injuries during our first attempt down. We were helped by Drew Roy, an instructor at Northstar’s new Specialized Academy.

I resumed mountain biking last year, after a three-decade hiatus, and consider myself a beginning or intermediate biker. Roy made me feel comfortable at Northstar within a few hours. I returned the following day and biked for several hours by myself and had a blast.

Lift-accessed mountain biking is just one development that has made the sport more accessible and fun, he said. Bike technology has improved, with lighter frames and shock absorbers on the front and back wheels minimizing strain for the rider. The manufacturer Specialized Bicycle Components has provided new bikes and increased educational requirements for the school’s instructors, Roy said.

Both Northstar and Kirkwood offer lift-assisted mountain biking in Northern California, along with four other ski resorts in the eastern Sierra and Southern California, according to the website Ski resorts have increasingly turned to mountain biking to attract visitors in the summer.

Some mountain biking purists object to the cost; Northstar charges $54 for a lift ticket. But riders at the resort said the ticket is a worthwhile splurge, even if it is not part of their regular biking routine. I agree: The cost is one reason I would not do it regularly, along with the crowds and resort buildings, which distract from the sense of backcountry exploration that convinced me to return to mountain biking.

Still, for pure biking enjoyment, it’s hard to beat the ski resorts. The lifts really are a game changer.

“That’s the whole reason you come here,” said Carlos Salas of San Jose, who brings his three children to Northstar a couple of times each summer.

“There are days when I don’t even pedal,” said Roy, explaining that the lifts and the slope of the mountain do all the work.

Other benefits of biking at ski resorts include groomed trails, which means less dust and obstacles such as big rocks, and man-made features you can ride, such as embankments and jumps.

Northstar operates a gondola to get riders from the parking lot to the heart of the mountain. The gondola cars alternate with platforms for the bikes, which is the same way the two ski lifts serving the bike trails run.

Once at the top of the mountain, the broad expanse of Martis Valley and mountains fill the view. A couple of trails feature views of Lake Tahoe, which sits behind Northstar.

The trails cover most of the front mountain, but biking is limited to two runs on the resort’s backside locations. The trails are wide fire roads and narrower single track and have difficulty ratings just like ski runs, with green and blue runs being easier and black diamond and double diamond offering harder rides. Some trails are for bikers only, some for bikers and hikers, and some for hikers only. I saw few hikers there. The toughest, steepest ski runs are closed to bikers.

Roy’s class lasted about four hours. He mostly explained the basics and observed how we rode. The key points were to keep our feet on the pedals just above the arch, for maximum power.

Stand most of the time, he said, with your body in a slightly crouched “ready” position like the ones used in tennis and skiing. And keep your index fingers on the brakes, only depressing them halfway when needed, so you don’t send yourself flying off the bike.

My one fall was the result of forgetting the last lesson. When I started to skid in some rubble, I hit only the rear brake all the way, increasing my slide until the bike came out from under me. I brushed off the dirt with a smile.

The next day I returned to Northstar to ride alone, which is a lot more fun than getting a lesson. My comfort, however, was the result of Roy’s instruction.

I rode trails at every difficulty level except for black double diamond, which are narrow and winding and contain wooden jumps that aren’t easily avoided. I could take the jumps on the single black diamond runs more slowly or go around them. Riders on the double diamond runs go much faster than those on the easier runs.

For those new to downhill biking, I recommend two black diamond trails, Woods and Coaster. Woods winds through forest, with some jumps and banked curves, but nothing too intense. I felt the sense of exploration there that I look for in mountain biking.

Coaster is classic single track, with plenty of curves, some with wood embankments and jumps. The trail has enough thrills to race the pulse but breaks them up enough to make a crash less likely.

Ski lifts don’t eliminate the physical fatigue of mountain biking. My legs were sore from standing so much. But I also got in a lot more thrills, without the strain of the grueling ride uphill. All fun and no pump — biking might never be the same again.