cyclist catching air, upside down
cyclist catching air, upside down
(Photo: skynesher/Getty)

To Air Is Human

Despite overwhelming concern for his physical well-being, writer and longtime road cyclist Tom Vanderbilt wanted to see what it felt like to take to the air

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A few years ago, after a decades-long, 60,000-mile-plus love affair with road cycling, I started dabbling in mountain biking. I did this largely because I’d moved from New York City, where the discipline was essentially alien, to New Jersey, where the off-road riding was not only close by, but surprisingly good and abundant. I initially pictured the transition to be merely a shift in terrain. A bike is a bike, after all. But I was vastly mistaken. Like anything in the world of cycling, mountain biking comes with its own inscrutable rules and mores, its own fiercely inhabited subcultures, and its own baffling array of clothing and equipment choices. Did I need a trail bike? A cross-country bike? A “downcountry” bike? How much travel did I need in my suspension? Did I need 27.5-inch wheels, or the 29-inch variety? Never had I seen 1.5 inches loom so large in people’s worldview.

But soon enough I was out on my local trails. Like beginner drivers, my motions were twitchy and hesitant, my focus almost entirely on what was directly in front of me—every fearsome root and rock flooding my brain with data. In road cycling, the asphalt you’re riding on, barring a pothole or two, is an afterthought. But in mountain biking the surface was a moving puzzle, requiring careful attention, planning, and decision-making.

I plodded along, my improvement hindered by the inconvenient fact that, for me, mountain biking requires driving to a trailhead versus riding straight out of my garage. So I usually default to road riding, keeping my mountain-biking mediocrity safely intact.

Thus was the state of affairs when, one weekend last summer, I was invited to ride in Vermont with a group of friends. There would be some gravel riding—more equipment choices, more rules, more subcultures—and some mountain biking, including a visit to Killington Bike Park. I had been dimly aware of the movement by ski resorts to try and generate summer dollars by ferrying cyclists on lifts up to their snowless summits, but I’d never stepped foot in such a place. Which was quite obvious to me when I arrived at the so-called Beast of the East wearing shorts, a T-shirt, and a traditional bike helmet, and found myself amid what looked like a casting call for Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome; it was packed with dusty men and women, with thousand-yard stares, wearing body armor, neck braces, and full-face helmets. A sign, no doubt crafted at the behest of a lawyer somewhere, warned: “Injuries are a common and expected part of mountain biking.”

A friend glanced at my bike and advised me to lower the seatpost: “You’re not going to be pedaling much.” That’s when I realized I’d never bothered to set up the dropper post on my Canyon Neuron. Coming from road riding, where a precise saddle height is sacred and Never to Be Changed, I figured it’d be superfluous. (And, full confession, I couldn’t figure out the install instructions that synced up the little switch on the handlebars to the seatpost.) I hastened to the repair room, where the park’s mechanics quite graciously set up my post in a matter of minutes, making no comment about this forehead-slapping moment in noob history.

We hoisted our bikes onto the lift, rode to the top of Snowshed, home to the beginner terrain, took in the verdant, panoramic view, and then headed down Easy Street, one of the park’s few green runs (bike parks, I learned, retain the green-blue-black rating system utilized by ski areas everywhere). I rode it, tentatively and with excessive amounts of braking, entering the precisely sculpted banked berms low and exiting high, exactly counter to how it should be done. For my efforts I was rewarded with a more technical blue trail, known as Step It Up. According to Strava, I was among the slowest riders to ever descend that route—I ranked 5,077 out of 5,459—but it still felt like I was flying. And then, a minute or so into the ride, I encountered a sloped earthen structure looking like one of the mounds at Cahokia. This was a “tabletop.” It is meant to be jumped. But it was also, as they say, rollable, meaning it could simply be ridden over. Which I kept doing: barreling toward the upward slope before suddenly freaking out and jamming on the brakes, trying to maintain control as my body pitched forward.

That afternoon was a revelation. Normally, in my cycling life, I’ve suffered on the climb and been rewarded on the descent. Killington flipped that idea on its head. Here I suffered on the descents—my heart was in my throat, my hands, back, and knees were on fire, I crashed more than once—and was rewarded with a tranquil, breezy lift ride to the top. (And whatever you may think about the lack of pedaling, at least one study has found that the majority of a downhill ride results in a heart rate in “a zone at or above an intensity level associated with improvements in health-related fitness.”)

But I was left with the nagging feeling that I’d left something on the table—or the tabletop, more precisely. I wanted to know what it would feel like to leave the ground on my bike. I wanted to catch air.

The author, in red, and his daughter get in some laps at Killington Bike Park.
The author, in red, and his daughter get in some laps at Killington Bike Park. (Zach Godwin)
(Zach Godwin)

Spend any time watching mountain-bike videos on the great internet university that is YouTube, and you’ll quickly see that “How to jump” tutorials are everywhere. The videos beckon like Las Vegas neon: “Learn to Jump in Five Minutes.” “Why YOU Are Jumping Wrong.” “Why You Suck at Jumps.” In a ten-part “How to Bike” segment produced by the website Pinkbike [editor’s note: Pinkbike is owned by Outside’s parent company, Outside Inc.] and hosted by Ben Cathro, a popular Scottish mountain-bike racer and coach, the final episode—the very pinnacle of achievement—is dedicated to jumping. “There is no skill more widely desired in the mountain-bike skill set,” Cathro says, “than the ability to casually float a jump perfectly from takeoff to landing.”

But, as he adds, “the risk involved can be high and the consequences severe.” One need look no further than Pinkbike’s infamous “Friday Fails” compilations, which usually seem to involve a rider speeding toward a mound of dirt, a camera-holding onlooker shouting, “You got it!”—followed shortly by an “Oh shit!” as that same rider comes up short and gets bucked over the bars, or nosedives (with the same consequences), or somehow lands the jump but rails their crotch into the top tube, hits a tree, or cracks their frame. You get the idea.

None of these seemed good for a person with a 55-year-old body and a well-seasoned frontal cortex, someone for whom “full send” sounds more like a FedEx shipping option than a recreational choice. I’m hardly alone in this; chat rooms are filled with comments like: “I have life insurance and I’d rather my wife not have to make a claim.” I heard a similar tune when I brought up the subject of jumping with some of the more experienced mountain bikers in my road group. They’d been riding for decades but had largely come of age before the wider popularity of purpose-built bike parks, with their sculptural perfection and imposing geometry—the kind you rarely encounter on natural trails. “I don’t like to leave the ground,” one told me. “It’s just the fear factor,” another admitted.

I should be clear: I wasn’t thinking about big gap jumps. I was simply hoping to achieve some kind of liftoff over the smallest features. But there was still the injury risk, the increased chance of a broken collarbone or wrist. If my friends weren’t up for the task, why should I, with my underdeveloped suite of core mountain-biking skills, even think about it?

Well for one thing, I couldn’t stop thinking of a line that the writer Steven Kotler had quoted in his book Gnar Country: Growing Old, Staying Rad: “Older persons who pursue [challenging] activities in which they experience a sense of control and mastery are healthier both physically and mentally than those who do not.”

But I’d also had a prod from an unexpected source: my 13-year-old daughter. For years I’d been trying to get her to accompany me on rides, but she often blanched at the techy trails, with their steep pitches and spidery, bone-shaking roots. So she mostly stayed off the bike. But one day, I heard about a small set of flow trails with an adjoining pump track that had been built in High Bridge, New Jersey. I talked her into going, and something in her unlocked—this was pure fun. Sure, you had to ride uphill, but you were then treated to a kind of forest-bathing roller coaster. She was hooked. A few months later, we were in Wales on a family trip and she fairly dragged me to a succession of bike parks. “You feel so alive,” she gushed at Antur Stiniog. “It’s like it engages all of your senses, and you have to pay full attention.”

But there was still the question of those little—and not so little—humps on the course. At Bike Park Wales, I hired a coach with the idea that here, finally, would be someone who could teach us to launch skyward. After eyeballing our first go-round on the skills course, however, I could read the concern in his face. There were far too many aspects of downhill riding we’d need to tackle before leaving the earth. Elementary things, like using one finger to brake, rather than a multi-fingered death grip; lowering our heels; improving our clumsy execution of turns in berms (we were lacking that magical, but often elusive, technique of “looking where you want to go”). Yet that day in Wales was a turning point.

And so, upon returning home, I plotted my return to Killington, this time with my daughter in tow. Which is how, on a perfect August morning in Vermont, as a speaker somewhere pumped out Billy Joel’s “The River of Dreams,” we found ourselves at a tent marked “Coaching,” joined by John Collins, the team leader of Killington’s coaches, and Cole Matusik, a graduate of the Killington Mountain School (the country’s oldest ski academy) who was in town for the summer and teaching mountain-bike skills. After doing a few basic body-positioning drills, we headed to Killington’s “progression park”—a small cleared area at the bottom of the Easy Street green trail filled with little wood kickoff ramps and bridges, as well as three small tabletops positioned in a row. Matusik did a demo roll through the jumps: His stance was low and loose, his elbows slightly bent. As the bike’s suspension compressed at the bottom of each takeoff, he let his body follow. Then, as he hit the lip, his body extended, floating across the tabletop and gently landing in the same ready position from which he started. Like skiing, it was a bit counterintuitive: the things you wanted to do, like leaning back, actually hurt your jumps.

The author's daughter going over a jump
For years, the author tried unsuccessfully to get his daughter interested in biking. It wasn't until they got on a purpose built flow trail that she was hooked. (Zach Godwin)

While my daughter achieved liftoff on her first try, I suffered a few false starts: I compressed too early, or too late, lifting only a single wheel. We reviewed footage on an iPhone. Finally, I left the ground. It felt high, a touch scary. But there’s an unofficial law while starting out in any action sport: the size of whatever you are experiencing, be it riding an ocean wave or jumping off a cliff, feels roughly three times bigger than it actually is. Curiously, when it comes to overcoming fear, size may not matter much.

Before we commit any voluntary muscle movement—pressing a button, for example—there is measurable activity in our brain’s motor cortex. Neurologists call this Bereitschaftspotential (“readiness potential”), or BP. A 2018 study in Nature that examined BP in novice bungee jumpers showed that the signal was the same whether the jump was one meter or 192, which means our brains, at least in this regard, don’t really make distinctions between mundane actions and potentially life-threatening ones.

Perhaps that’s why, as small as my jumps were, they felt like magic. It reminded me of being a ten-year-old on Peter Pan’s Flight at Disney World in the 1970s, when the roller-coaster-like track you’re riding in your pirate ship comes to a visible end and then you somehow soar into the air.

We ascended via the lift for a run down Blue Magic, an intermediate trail that, over its two-mile length and more than 1,000-foot elevation drop, features 66 jumps. These tabletops were bigger than the ones in the progression park, and I balked. After a sharp descent, I would rocket toward the lip of the upcoming jump but then panic and brake, scrubbing speed and rolling it. Soon, though, I loosened my death grip on the brakes and started trying to pop. I was catching some air but would land on the tabletop. This is a sort of intervening step. “I come out with my dad,” Matusik later told me, “and he loves to get air, but he can’t really clear all the landings on Blue Magic. It does slow you down a bit, but it’s a great way to get into it.” Given that I could easily have been older than his father, I took this as a kind of victory.

On the friskier jumps, an unsettling thing would happen: my feet would come off the pedals, luckily reattaching on the landing. Thom Routt, another Killington coach, told me, “I’ve got something for that.” He had me hold my handlebars, stand to the left of my bike, and push the left pedal backwards with my right foot. With enough force, the bike elevated, and I could feel both the position and pressure I needed to keep my feet locked in. The next morning, as we were sitting on the lift, Routt, who has been riding mountain bikes for decades (and also rappels out of Forest Service firefighting helicopters) admitted to me, “At the beginning of last year, I was really scared to jump.” On Blue Magic, he says, “I would feel like I was almost always about to crash.” He recognized my desire to brake as I approached every jump. “That’s a fear thing, and you’ll eventually get past that,” he said. “You’ll eventually say, OK, I’m going to go faster this time, I’m going to let off the brake. And you’ll hit it, your bike will feel light during the transition, and you’ll ride away with the biggest smile on your face that you’ve had all day.”

The author going off of a jump
The author's jump won't win Red Bull Rampage, but both tires are clearly off the ground. Sometimes, that's all you need. (Zach Godwin)

Later that week, I was still thinking about Blue Magic, traversing its tabletops in my mind. I called Dave Kelly, the director at Gravity Logic, the trail-building company based in Vancouver, British Columbia, that designed it. Kelly is a seminal figure in downhill mountain biking; at the turn of the last century he helped design and build Whistler’s A-Line, widely considered the world’s preeminent jump trail. Whistler, like many ski resorts to experiment early with mountain biking, had, he says, “really steep, really gnarly trails.” Kelly and a pair of friends thought that by constructing a wider, faster, less obstacle-strewn trail, they could help turn non-mountain bikers into mountain bikers, boosting their “likelihood to return,” a key industry metric. There would, of course, be jumps. “The three of us were all involved in motocross, snowboarding, BMX,” he says. “The thrill for us was catching air.”

He describes my fear of jumping as “100 percent valid.” Many injuries that happen on the trail are a combination of speed and air. “When your wheels leave the ground, the likelihood of wiping out and getting injured just increase dramatically,” he says. In the early days, “we built the trails at a certain difficulty level, and you had to learn by taking your lumps.” The focus today, he says, has shifted to the “levels of progression” approach: moving from a green trail with no jumps, to what he dubs “light blue”—berms and rollers but no jumps—to blues with jumps. Sometimes the progressions are a shade too steep, which is why he’s been working on a new trail at Killington that is a grade below Blue Magic. “It will have a roller and then a jump that’s easier,” all done at a frequency that “will allow people to back their heart rate and blood pressure off a bit.” Trail building, he says, is a mixture of art and science—the science bit being that “if our guys go onto a blue trail and build a three-foot drop into a landing, and ten feet later there’s a jump, well, we just know that mathematically it’s going to cause problems.”

Having survived the days at Killington and eager to see whether what we’d learned had stuck, my daughter and I traveled to Mountain Creek, a bike park close to our home in New Jersey that has a bit of a reputation—its green trails feel blue, its blue trails can verge on black. And indeed, right there on a green trail was a fairly large tabletop. It took a minute to wrap our heads around this, but green or blue, one thing was clear: what had once loomed as a mysterious, foreboding obstacle now seemed like a beguiling invitation to catch air. That the elevations were small was of no import, it was the thing itself that mattered. “The moment you doubt whether you can fly,” J.M. Barrie wrote in Peter Pan, “you cease forever to be able to do it.”

Lead Photo: skynesher/Getty