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By Phil Wheeler

It’s probably the most uttered question in all of downhill-dom, perhaps followed closely by “you know what’s good for shoulder pain?” When anyone talks about a race destination, they may mention how well the event is run, the setting, or the weather, but the track is always the first topic of discussion. We have some good tracks to race in the US right now, and none of the races on the major calendars strike me as abysmal, although I heard more post-finish line swearing at Crested Butte than is typical. Nonetheless, I still think everyone who still remembers has a little hole in their racing soul that used to be filled by the anticipation and fear associated with going to tracks like Durango, Schweitzer, Mammoth, and in my mind the best of them all, Mt. Snow.
[LINK TO IMAGE]The funny thing about the Mt. Snow track is there really wasn’t anything to it from a construction standpoint. They just mowed a track down one ski run or another, and for many years ran the same bits of singletrack through the woods down lower on the course. It didn’t require you to be especially great at cornering, and until the 2008 track, it wasn't too pedally, None of the tracks they ever ran had anything in the way of built features. The yard sale was the most popular spot for spectators, and unfortunately I think the appeal there was mostly about seeing the carnage that was bound to unfold.

I think everyone loved Mt. Snow because if someone did well there, we knew they stuck their neck out big time. We all respect bike handling skill, we all respect fitness, but when a rider comes down and you know that they took risks you simply weren’t willing to take, that seems to be the cause for the most awe among their peers. Tracks that really push riders to the next level in terms of speed and commitment are the tracks that people talk about and come back to race.
[LINK TO IMAGE] The track is at the absolute center of attention for every racer at an event, and it is also the stage upon which the riders get to entertain the spectators. Why then, If so much revolves around the track, does it so often seem to be an afterthought? Even some of the better tracks on the calendars these days are incredibly tired, some having been used in almost the same layout since I started racing downhill eight years ago; the Sea Otter track was probably the least popular I can think of. A few smelly, ugly dudes finally got their hands on it this year and showed what a difference a little investment and work can make. Believe me, at least in the pro ranks, the vibe at that race was significantly more positive than in any year I can remember. For downhillers, a good track covers a multitude of wrongs, and even if you manage to screw up every other part of the event and overcharge for the whole debacle, your riders will come back for an epic racecourse.
Kyle Strait on Sea Otter's revamped 2011 downhill course.In my humble opinion, a big part of the future of this sport hinges on track design. Why? Because that which stagnates dies. In just about every single competitive sport, people want to see progression. This goes for competitors as well as spectators. If downhill is to become something that people want to watch, and something in which sponsors want to invest money, we have to start building tracks that push the rider’s limits on a regular basis while providing an entertaining and exciting experience for the spectators. Downhill bikes are extremely capable machines, and only rarely do we get a course that really pushes the limits of what can be done on our equipment. Mt. Snow was a course that really tested what a DH bike could do.
If you build it, you must jump it. Matt Thompson putting his money where his feature design is. This jump on the 2009 US Nationals track at SolVista had most of the field thinking twice. In the end, everyone that tried it found out what good jump design was all about. 50 feet was the perfect size for the trail speed on this one. Awesome for spectators, great fun to ride.The obvious counterpoint for this is safety. People tend to pick out incidents where riders have been injured while riding larger or more challenging race features, and use those as examples of why course design should be centered around safety rather than progression. Once there is a strong community of trail builders that really understand good track design, the balance of safety and progression shouldn’t be that hard to find. There are a few trail crews that are already doing it the way it should be done, and it would behoove anyone trying to put on a successful downhill event to spend a good, long time deciding how they will ensure that the riders have the best possible track. If they don’t, all the other hard work that goes into putting on an event will be in vain. Until next month, see you at the races.

Chris Herndon is working on the 2011 US National Champs DH track and it's looking good.

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