If someone asked you to describe a Super-D, what would you say? Would you say it’s a “gravity” style discipline? Yes, that would be true. Would you say it’s a blending of cross-country and downhill riding? Yes, that would be true too. Would you say that a Super-D course can include a single-track with an average of 300-feet elevation change? Mmmmm… now that might be a bone of contention. Why? Mostly because the purists define Super-D or “Super Downhill” as a course that combines the flat bits of cross-country mountain biking, with the technical descents of downhill riding. That means that Super-D is just downhill with some transitions in between the drops. With that being said, 300-feet between the top of the Super-D course and the bottom is not much of a downhill ride when most courses start at elevations above 1,500-feet.
Spectators, however, don’t really care how much the elevation change is. Who wants to climb to the top of a mountain just to watch a mountain bike rider start? Not to many. Most who do make the trek up the course will settle for that one turn or crazy drop where the likelihood of disaster is high. Does that make spectators sick? Maybe a little. But some of the excitement of the Super-D is the super dismounts — usually over the handlebars. Crashes are the nectar of the spectators, and if they can see a couple of unfortunate riders eat a tree, it is worth a 1.5-mile hike up a trail. Fortunately, the majority of spectator like to stay close to the car. This makes the bottom of any Super-D course the primary location for viewing the race. Not only do they get to see the finish of each rider — including the one they came to watch — but they get to see the finishing times of each ride, making some rides a little more exciting then others. So long as they can see a rider emerge from the treeline roughly 20-30 seconds before the finish, speculators should enjoy the last minute sprint to the end.
Now that we understand that spectators want a good place to see the finish, and (if they are feeling a little frisky) a place to see a horrible crash (neither one requiring a large amount of elevation), what else does a Super-D need? If you read all the magazines and websites that purport to understand the metrics of a Super-D competition course, you soon learn that it only requires a descending trail, a distance of under 2-miles, and a completion time of between 5 to 15 minutes. Elevation requirement? Depends. Depends on what? Depends on if its cool or not. So what is considered cool? It goes down. Down by how much? According to the powers-the-be, the answer is “as much as you want it to”. We found that the average West Cost Super-D course will have around 700-feet of descending trail mixed with about 100-200 feet of total ascending short climbs. However, the key word is “average” since no two races have the same design. Some have huge decents, while others had more cross country travel between drops. Regardless of what the industry was saying (or not saying), we where not satisfied with that answer.
So the hunt continued to to establish just how much elevation change was needed to create a decent Super-D course. Could a Super-D course legitimately have only 300-feet net loss elevation change from top to bottom? When in doubt, it is always good to check the sport’s national advocates: USA Cycling. We inspected USA Cycling rules for Mountain Biking (Chapter 5) from 2012 to 2014, to see if they had established any Super-D minimum elevation requirements. There where none. According to 2012 USA Cycling Rulebook, a Super-D event follows the same rules as a Downhill event. Guess what the elevation rules are for a Downhill event. You guessed it: there are none. The 2014 USA Cycling rulebook did not help either. This source doesn’t even list Super-D as an event anymore. Instead, the rules fold Super-D type events into either Endurance Events (within the Cross Country or Time Trial category), or a Gravity Events (within the Downhill or Enduro category). After some exhaustive research, we discovered a very interesting fact about Super-D course design: there is no elevation requirement. Any race director can call just about any time trial course a “Super-D”. As long as it is not a competition of “sustained climbing for which the finish line is located at a higher altitude than the start line” (which would be technically a Hill Climb event), anything that goes “down-ish” and “cross-country-ish” could be considered Super-D. That’s it. Case closed.
Unfortunately, the one factor that has yet to be discussed is that “cool” factor we mentioned before. If you have 2-miles of trail with only one 20-feet drop, it could technically be a Super-D course, but boy-howdy would it not be “cool”! Most Super-D enthusiasts agree that the elements that make Super-D “cool” is its lack the technical danger. Super-D is expected to have some downhills, but because it is also expected to have some significant pedaling, those downhills are not the same extreme drops and jumps featured in a pure downhill event. The general consensus is that Super-D is designed for that “All Mountain” kind of rider who is looking for a downhill-like experience using their existing mid-level (4-6 inch travel) mountain bike. This means that the mountain bike you already ride or race with is well suited for the type of terrain that could be featured in a Super-D event. Additionally, since the course design does not include the intense super-drops of a downhill course, it should be far less technical and eliminate the need to practice it over and over again. As long as you remember where the downhills are versus the cross country stretches and short climbs, you could come to love the breaks between decents Super-D can provide the average mountain biker.
In understanding Super-D completely, the final rock to flip over involves fitness. How fit do you need to be to race Super-D? Since Super-D is the combination of downhill and cross country, it stands to reason that you would need skills from both disciplines. So what kind skills would that be? We often think of downhill as Wile E. Coyote strapping an ACME rocket to his back and going balls-to-the-wall down the side of a mountain. Do you need to fit for that? Not really. It helps if you can hang on to the bike, but gravity and a strong batch of courage is a huge factor. Cross country races are much different. Out of the gate, most mountain bike riders can hold their own for about 1- to 2-miles. Then the fatigue and lack of endurance kicks in, the weak fade away while the fit lead the pack. However, when you approach Super-D’s need for fitness, you find that the weaving of raw nerves with endurance levels creates an interesting mix of all-purpose rider. A really fast XC rider does not always make a fast downhill rider. Conversely, a bat-guano-crazy downhiller is not necessarily the best pedal-grinder or climber. The end result is a course that favors those who can do both. Considering that the Super-D course is less than 15-minutes long, roughly half of the trail is downhill is some form or another, while the other half is not all that technically demanding, just about any level of rider should be able to ride it.
In the final analysis of Super-D understanding, the elements needed in building a successful Super-D course include spectator-friendly viewing locations, a course that is not too technical but includes a net loss of elevation of enough feet to be considered “cool”, and a group of riders willing to ride it with your run-of-the-mill mountain bikes. That’s it! With that as your definition for what Super-D truly is, a race director can create a Super-D event with just about any mountain bike course. The only limitations you have to Super-D course design is your imagination and nailing that cool factor in a way that will get Super-D enthusiasts to approve of your approach!