Downhilling, Dio and Holy Diver with the Keystone Bike Academy
July 2, 2016
Try as I might, I just couldn't get Dio out of my head as I pedaled into nothing but blue sky.
"Holy Diver, you've been down too long in the midnight sea…"
It was a crystal-clear day at the Keystone Bike Park when Adam Jones, an instructor with the Keystone Bike Academy, suggested we get off the fun (but mellow) green and blue trails to try one of the newest black trails at the park: Holy Diver.
The name alone was enough to get the classic metal anthem stuck on repeat in my head, and the trail itself deserves every crashing, crushing guitar lick. Found near the top of the River Run Gondola on Dercum Mountain, Holy Diver is a short-and-sweet ride on the old Upper TNT trail with one major addition: a towering wooden platform, with a three-foot step-up gap to get on, followed by a five-foot step-down gap to get off. Once you're on the platform, you're committed to one thing and one thing only — landing wheels first on the other side.
Jones went first, showing me the speed and line I needed to do the one thing Holy Diver requires. He popped onto the platform, pedaled two or three times to line up the drop, and then disappeared on the other side. Earlier that morning, when he and I were running through the basics of braking, body position and a neutral stance on flat ground in River Run Village, I didn't expect to ride anything more intense than a few berms and maybe a short boulder field or two. I'm no stranger to the bike park — I started downhilling about two years ago and have hardly looked back since — but I assumed the Academy program was made for beginners. That meant I also assumed we'd spend the morning with a small group, rolling slowly through trails like Girls Scouts and Eye of the Tiger to pick apart technique. On a normal day, those are my warm-up laps.
But no. It was just me and Jones, and he was ready to show me something new. A few seconds after the drop, he called back to say the landing was clear. I took my cue and followed, popping up, pedaling once, twice … and then dove.
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Academy, new and improved
The Keystone Bike Academy is hardly a new program. It's been around for several years, but this season marks the debut of a revamped program based on curriculum from the International Mountain Bicycling Association. During the winter and off-season, Jones and a small crew of six fellow instructors earned IMBA certifications and now bring their know-how to students.
It only helps that most of the Academy instructors are also ski school instructors in the winter. Jones has been at Keystone for 11 years, where he started with youth snowboard lessons before moving into his current role as a trainer.
"I coach the coaches," Jones says — and it shows. Our lesson began around 10 a.m. with a crash course on basics in the Hunki Dori parking lot, the dirt lot found steps from the gondola base.
"I realized that biking truly is the next best thing to winter sports for me," said Jones, who spent three years flitting from Colorado to New Zealand for endless winter before rediscovering his love of bikes. "At peak season, they're almost even for me. You have the same dynamics, the same theories, the same tactics, and you find that what you're doing in the summer translates to winter."
The new Academy program features three levels — Bike 101 for true beginners, Bike 201 for intermediate and advanced riders and private lessons for just about anyone — and each one begins with a review of the basics.
This might feel like a waste of time and cash for a veteran downhiller, but it serves a dual purpose: students get a refresher, while instructors get to assess a rider's ability and skills.
Take something like "the claw." It's the biking term for pressing down and back into your pedals — think of it as a calf raise on your bike — and it helps anyone of any level control the rear wheel for drops, boulders and jumps. When paired with an athletic stance on the bike — elbows out, chest up, eyes forward, strong legs — it means the difference between controlling the bike and letting it control you.
"Even if it's not said out loud, we're setting people up to have the fundamentals they need for waterfalls and rocks and staircases and anything else," Jones said. "When you have the separation of arms and legs, you can direct the bike more effectively. It's just better form."
To the skills park
After flat-land basics in the parking lot, Jones led me to the summer skills park at the gondola base. It's a marvel of dirt and wood, built from scratch every June before the park opens and leveled to flat ground every September before ski season. There are jumps, wood drops, logs, rollers and more — everything someone will encounter on the trails some 2,000 vertical feet above.
"The skills park is huge for us," said Cody Stake, the resort's summer activities manager. "It gets better and better each year, and you'll see on each of the lines that instead of BMX-style jumps, these are mimicking what they'll see on the mountain."
Another Academy group took turns riding through the rollers, where they practiced using soft hands, arms and elbows to dampen the impact.
"We're really focused on the progression," Stake said. "Keystone has historically been a rugged downhill park — something that isn't machined. Now, with our emphasis on the progression, we're mixing in machine-made trails and the skills park to give beginners a way to safely navigate terrain."
After leaving the park, Jones and I took Summit Express Lift to the top for a progression run. We started on Girl Scouts, a fun and flowy green run with sweeping berms and brief rocky sections. Then, we merged onto Mosquito Coast, a blue run with sharper berms and several small tabletop jumps, where we practiced preloading the suspension. Then it was onto Wild Thing, the park's original black run. It's steep, tight and packed with boulders — a perfect end to a long and satisfying run.
"With the right skills you can do anything, and it doesn't have to be insane," Jones said. "You put a full-face (helmet) on someone and they assume it's going to be crazy, but really it's what you make it, and we help get there."
Dive off Holy Diver
"Holy Diver, you're the star of the masquerade…"
And that's when I hit the ground — not on my bike, not on my hands, but on my feet just long enough to catch and roll safely down the ramp. I got up, brushed off and looked back to where my bike was lying upside down on the lip of the ramp. Close call, but man, what an unexpected rush.
What happened? While Dio was running through my head, I stopped pedaling and — worst of all — forgot to preload before the drop. We'd been over this in the parking lot and on the trails, but Holy Diver (the song and the feature) got in my head just enough to make me forget the fundamentals. I doubt if I would have recognized this without Jones, who watched my form constantly during the day.
"So many of us have a background in instruction, and when we can continue breaking these things down — when we can understand the why — we can give that to someone else and watch that light bulb turn on," Jones said. And so we talked about what went wrong on the drop, donned our helmets and continued down the trail.
"Holy Diver, no need to look so afraid…"
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