Specialized Academy instructor Drew Ray shows how to jump, drop and rip turns on a mountain bike. Benjamin Spillman/RGJ
For people with a healthy sense of self-preservation the internet can be hazardous to your downhill mountain biking plans.
Among the adjectives on the first page of Google results?
Extreme. Aggressive. Incredible. Hardcore.
And that’s before you watch any of the videos.
The perception of the sport as the domain of trail-shredding bros bombing downhill with no regard for personal safety or other trail users is enough to discourage people from pushing themselves on their bikes.
Which is why spending some time with Drew Roy or one of his colleagues at the Specialized Bike Academy at Northstar California Resort can be so refreshing.
Roy, 27, is a downhill racer and in his ninth season as a mountain bike instructor. But he’s not there to intimidate you with credentials or stunts.
To the contrary, Roy’s job is to show people that with a little help nearly anyone with the ability to ride a bike can safely learn to go faster, navigate obstacles and dramatically increase the amount of fun they have on two wheels.
“If you can stand on a bike we can give you the technique to have a good time,” Roy said. “A lot of people are hesitant because they look at it as being extreme. Really, you have brakes. You can go at your own speed, you can make it whatever you want.”
Northstar recently invited me to join Roy for the morning to show off how instructors at the Specialized Bike Academy, which is in its first season at the resort, can help people improve their skills.
In addition to a few hours on the trail getting some instruction, it included use of a bike, a Specialized Enduro Expert Evo, and safety gear.
We covered some of the fundamentals in the Free Ride 101 lesson before touching on some of the material covered in a more advanced lesson.
After taking the lift to the top of the mountain, the freeride lesson started with the basics such as proper braking, foot position and body position.
Then we moved into making turns, with Roy breaking it down to a three-step process of getting low, leaning in and looking out of the curve.
After turns we worked on navigating obstacles with a focus on how to properly ride over small drops.
I’m not going to get into all the specifics here, we’ll leave that to the professional instructors, but I will explain how the instruction helped me as a rider.
Just a few days after the lesson I took a day trip to Forest City, Calif., a remote mountain town near the mountain biking Mecca of Downieville.
Within minutes of hitting the trail I could sense some improvement based on tips from the lesson.
Improved body position helped me go noticeably faster while maintaining a sense of control, especially around curves. It also helped me make a couple of minor crossings of rocky, dry creek beds that on previous rides I couldn’t clear. I even found myself making small jumps on some of the rollers, which is a big step for me.
After a few hours of riding my wrists and hands also felt great, which was a nice change of pace from the soreness I used to deal with.
It improvement came from following Roy’s advice to ease up on my handlebar grip and to keep my wrists in line with my arms. The lighter grip was possible because Roy showed me how I should use only my index fingers to brake, which leaves my forefingers and thumbs free to provide a firm, but relaxed, grip on the bars.
The combined result didn’t turn me into a downhill racer, by any stretch. But it definitely made me a better rider and helped me have more fun on the trails.
If you go: Specialized Academy
Where: Northstar California Resort
Cost: Small group lesson, $179 weekdays, $239 weekends (higher for individual lessons)
What you get: 2016 model Specialized downhill bike, pads and helmet, four-hour day session with coach.
Another option: Freeride 101 basics lesson, $129 weekdays and $164 weekends, includes lift ticket. Lesson lasts two hours, add $49 if you want to keep the bike and ride through the end of the day. Also, Northstar offers a two-hour Bumps & Bends lesson for more advanced riders. Cost is $95 with a lift ticket.