Watch the Gate.
Beep… beep… beeeeeeep… bang!
The wheel gate drops and two mountain bike riders quickly accelerate out of the starting chute of what will begin a full speed, 30-45 second assault of the Dual Slalom course.
Unlike any other style of mountain bike racing, the dual slalom is the most intense, enjoyable, and spectator friendly event any mountain bike event can produce.
The details are simple: dual slalom consists of two racers battling it out next to each other on two almost identical single track courses.
In less than a minute, these riders must race against each other while navigating berm turns, tabletop jumps, drop in sections, and their own speed. Fastest to the bottom of hill wins.
Like I said… simple!
The mechanics of deciding the winner is also a simple process.
All riders in a category are randomly paired up by a simple playing card draw (Red paired with black, high paired with low).
Or you can use a form of matching by placing the even bib numbers in one column going down, with the odd bib numbers in the other going up.
Some even use a coin toss to decide who gets what track.
Regardless how you decide the pairing, the goal is to get both riders to race against each other and get a finish time at the bottom of the course.
Then they come back to the start and race another round on opposite courses.
Their combined times for both runs are added together and the slowest rider is eliminated.
The rider with the fastest times moves onto the next round until there are only two riders left racing in the final heat.
Granted, the faster riders have to ride more rounds, but with both riders riding both sides of the course, any advantage one track gives is countered by the disadvantage the other creates.
This provides a fair and balanced way of determining the winner.
But the creation of dual slalom course is anything but simple.
It’s not spectator-friendly if there are no spectators
How does a race promoter manage the engineering needed to design, excavate, and promote a gravity mountain bike event like dual slalom, and attract spectators too?
The answer to this question is directly related to why BOTH tracks of the course need to near identical to work.
You see, having identical dual slalom tracks is not required.
A dual slalom event can be created on just about any two trails that start and end at the same general location.
Even if one of the tracks varies greatly to the other, the finish times of each rider will be comparably accurate and fair by making them run both tracks.
Each riders time on that part of the course will be compared to with the other riders time on that course, and the differences can be overcome with some simple mathematics.
The actual race mechanics still work when both racers start at the same time, end at the same finish line, and switch courses during their second run.
So what’s the problem?
When your course is not identical a strange phenomenon occurs: spectators become confused.
Spectators are why dual slalom works in the first place, and when one track is out of sync with the other the one thing that makes dual slalom so fun to watch — drama — is ruined.
From spectator’s point of view, a course that makes it impossible to know who won until the scoring takes place is not a fun race to watch.
And dual slalom race without spectators is not worth much to a race promoter interested in creating excitement, good experiences, and potential vendor sales.
Fortunately, you can create a successful dual slalom course that makes both racers and spectators happy.
All you need to do is follow these seven (7) secrets used by the best dual slalom designers in the business:
Secret #1 — This is Art, Baby!
The techniques that go into building a dual slalom course is as much art as it is engineering.
To make a dual slalom look good to spectators, the course needs to flow no matter how fast the riders are going.
This requires that both tracks come to within a 1-2 tenth-of-a-second difference of each other.
And at no point can you have obstacles or turns causing riders to stutter, brake, or hesitate.
To accomplish this as an art form, one secret technique that has been used is the scale model prototype.
By constructing a model of the course using basic paper and cardboard you can plan out turns, jumps and flow long before you ever pick up a shovel.
Some have even gone as far as to design a model that a small ball can roll down.
If you discover an area where the ball gets stuck or stutters, then that area needs some more attention.
Secret #2 — Planning a Good Flow
You want the course to be fast and flowy, but you also want tricky sections that separate good riders from great ones.
Your design will span roughly a 1/4-mile course that will be completed in 30-45 seconds.
This makes understanding the amount of terrain you have to work vital in planning where your exact turns and drops.
Course designers need to visit the event location and get an intimate understanding of how the landscape flows.
Unexpected obstacles like 5-ton boulders, large trees, and cliffs always need to be taken into account.
To do this as you work, one secret technique is the use survey flags as you go.
This way you can easily layout potential course features as you walk out your course.
When you walk the course, you see first hand the obstacles that cannot be overcome and visually create new routes to accommodate the changes.
It is essential that good flow is both planned and observed by visualizing the course before it is built.
This way the construction process does not become stalled when obvious obstacles are encountered.
Secret #3 — Build Time
The time it takes to build a quality dual slalom course has a lot to do with how difficult the soil is to work with.
Turns and berms are formed best with wet dirt, while the sun and the wind are good for drying up finished features.
Often, large water trucks are needed to wet the landscape down before digging and course-shaping can begin.
While others designers will truck in topsoil and utilize brute force in the form of machines such as earth movers and excavators.
However, the best builders work with what land they have, using nothing but shovels, pickaxes, and brush picking crews to build features.
The secret to a course’s build time is determined by how easy it is to manipulate the dirt.
Digging teams are cheap, while excavators and water trucks are expensive.
Most national dual slalom courses take approximately two months of labor (with the experienced designers needing as little as 45 days) to finish a quality course.
Secret #4 — Mirror Everything
It is true that when only tenths of a second make the difference between 1st and last place, a poorly constructed dual slalom course will make knowing who won tough.
This is why dual slalom course designers use the secret of simultaneous construction to simplify the job of race timers.
Simultaneous construction is the belief that both dual slalom tracks need to be built at the same time.
They never build just one track, and then start the second track when the first is finished.
Instead, they build the tracks in pairs so that the features, shapes, and spacing are as similar as possible.
Since the land will sometimes allow and restrict the form features will take, building in pairs helps to better manage decisions regarding flow.
Meanwhile, building one separate from another will create an offset and look strange to those watching the race.
To make both tracks almost exact, you need to build your course tracks in parallel.
Secret #5 — Use the Land
Dual Slalom is best when it combines flowy trails with technical drops and corners.
Builders always express that using the natural curves and contours of the land is the best-kept secret to designing a high caliber course.
Where you can use a hill to work in a drop section, you should.
Where you can make a series of turns that extends the downhill flow, it should use as much of the hill as possible.
At all times should your mind be focusing on making the slalom as long and fun as possible.
A quarter of a mile is still a good distance when considering how many features you can put into your design.
The rule of thumb is to always use the natural terrain when deciding how your features fit into your course.
Secret #6 — Be Unique
No two dual slalom course designers are the same.
Although having two parallel courses is ideal, some builders incorporate a funnel into the finishing section straight away.
While others repurpose a cross-country trail section by creating its mirror, requiring them to only have to carve out one track instead of two.
Many like to mix it up by including flat turns that can be cornered at speed, 90-degree berm walls for tight corners (even though these are the toughest to create), BMX-style rollers that include multiple moguls, or drops that use the natural curve of a hill.
However, when money and time is an issue, designers have been known to steer away from larger berms in favor of flatter turns, or include wooden ramps on hay bails to simulate technical sections.
Regardless of your preference, all these methods are perfectly legitimate ways to develop a dual slalom course.
The secret here is to understand that your take on the design is never wrong as long as it looks good for your spectators!
Secret #7 — Return to Nature
All dual slalom builders agree that the hardest part of any course design is tearing it down after the event.
The secret here is to understand that returning the hillside back to the way you found it is the way to get invited back next year.
Few parks will allow berms and deep hillside cuts to remain, especially if it’s in a section of the property that everyone can see year round.
The destruction of your masterpiece usually takes 1-2 days.
This involves putting all the dirt back into the track, seeding it with grass, and returning the area back to nature.
With all the gate poles, hay bails, and fencing removed, the process of reclaiming the land should demand the same amount of care you used when you dug it up.
Land managers like to not only see the dirt all returned to the track, but the planting of seed helps solidify the soil and keep it from eroding.
The end result is a happy Land Manager, a good reputation, and a hillside that looks better than you left it.
And now you know.
See a Master at Work First Hand: If you’re interested in learning more about dual slalom course design from a master, check out Chad Ziemendorf’s Bike Magazine mini-documentary about Keith DeFiebre. Keith has designed and built the dual slalom course at the Sea Otter Classic for 20 years. He continually revises and improves on his designs so that riders get a fresh experience each year.