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Is Urban Downhill the New Thrill You’ve Been Looking For?

By Martin Atanasov

While mountains around the world can undoubtedly provide enough excitement to last you a lifetime, they are not always as close as they seem. On this note, you can’t just grab your bike and go for a quick ride. That’s where Urban Downhill comes into your life and sweeps you off your feet. It offers you everything DH does, but without the needless complication of wondering how to get to the mountains and when you’ll have enough time to take this half-a-day trip.

Urban Downhill (UDH) can be done in just an hour or so, even on your way home from work. But before we get to how UDH is the thrill you’ve been looking for, let’s start from the top.

What is urban downhill?

Urban downhill is a term that was introduced by Red Bull in the early 2000s when they started organising downhill events in cities around the world. This form of DH spread rapidly after one truly inspiring competition in Lisbon, which saw professional riders flash down tight alleyways in the Portuguese capital. Since then, UDH has become much more widespread, and while the races are still predominantly hosted by Red Bull, many riders enjoy free rides in their cities. Naturally, there are no jump platforms or regulations when there is no race, making the sport a bit more adrenalin infused. Still, with hills all across Europe transformed into parks, having a downhill trace just a few minutes away with your bike is already a reality for most bike riders across the continent.

Where can you do urban downhill?

As you can guess, urban downhill is predominantly practised in cities where there is a high elevation. Cities like Lisbon, Bern, Barcelona, and Athens can offer steep descents through stairs, alleys and paths, giving you the same excitement as if you were riding in the mountains. There will also be cars, streetlamps, and houses, along with trees and bushes. In many coastal cities, especially in Greece and Italy, the pathways between houses are incredibly narrow.

The whole experience is way different from what you are used to with traditional down hill. The thrill of speeding downstairs on a one-metre-wide path, while practically impossible to stop, is a feeling that can’t be explained. It must be felt. So, if you think you are ready, all you need to do is find the highest spot in your town and just start riding. More often than not, you won’t be the first to have tried it.

Valparaiso Abajo
Czech rider Tomas Slavík at 18th edition of Red Bull Valparaíso Cerro Abajo where the world’s best urban downhill mountain bikers tackled the fearsome streets of Valparaíso, Chile.

What gear do you need for urban downhill?

Typically, UDH rides are highly technical, and you need the appropriate gear. Keep in mind that along with the high-speed downhill sections, you will also have climbs and a lot of pedalling. So stiff knee guards won’t be the best option for your protection. Having a full helmet is a must, and some body armour is also a good idea.

Regarding the bike, you will need a high-class DH bike. You can also go with XC or Enduro bikes, but the ride won’t be as pleasurable as with a full-suspension bike. We recommend a fork with 200mm suspension travel, strong wheels, preferably tubeless, and big disc brakes for an outstanding ride. Remember that you will be going at breakneck speed down stairs and on some pretty slippery terrain, so the ability to stop is crucial. Depending on the specifics of your city, riding with narrower handlebars might be a good idea. For example, in Lisbon, Porto and Barcelona this is not as mandatory as it is in Athens, Naples and other Mediterranean cities.

Is your city suitable for urban downhill?

Well, if you are not living in some Central European flatland like the Netherlands or Belgium, your city probably is suitable for urban downhill. Of course, if you have some rugged terrain, it can be better. For example, predominantly flat cities like Berlin can offer limited downhill experiences if you find the right spots. Still, the closer you are to a mountain or the sea, the more likely it is that your city has some outstanding stand-alone heights. Even better if there is a way to get to the top via a lift or another mode of public transport. But you should know that UDH is not all fun. You need to be extra careful when doing it.

What should you look for when you’re riding urban downhill?

First, remember that people don’t expect flying bikes in the middle of the city, so they won’t anticipate you. This means you need to protect pedestrians and protect yourself from traffic. In the best-case scenario, you will ride with a friend and take turns alerting people about your ride. This way, you won’t need to slow down if there is a road crossing.

Moreover, you should know that pedestrians predominantly use the places where you will be riding, and you should make sure there are none on your way down.

Finally, you should make sure there are no specific bans in your city for such activities. As UDH is a new fad, this is highly unlikely, but still, there are some places in different cities where biking is forbidden, so you should stay away from them.

If all of this sounds great, it’s time to pick up your gear and try it out. Bonus points if there is still snow outside. Trust me, this makes the whole experience that much more fun.