Extreme Gravity: Downhill Biking with Mika Muukkonen

Mika Muukkonen picked up mountain biking a decade ago in his native Finland, but “little by little got sort of too old and too fat to ride cross country so decided to go to the gravity side of the sport where the weight actually helps.” He took up downhill biking, and, after moving to Chengdu three years ago to run the China operations of a Swedish software-consultancy and outsourcing company carried on with the sport, taking part in races in Hong Kong.

So, downhill biking: You push a bike up a hill and then ride it down?

Well I prefer if you have a truck or a ski lift, but here it’s usually a bit more manual. Downhill mountain biking started in the early ’70s in the U.S.—the bikes were like beach cruisers, but a couple more eccentric individuals thought it might be good idea to find the biggest hill they could and try and ride down and not die.

Nowadays it’s not an Olympic sport, but the downhill-biking world cup is attended regularly by approximately 200 riders around the world, and the sport is recognized by the International Cycling Union. Worldwide, there’s probably between 50,000 and 200,000 riders, most in the U.S., Canada, Europe.

In races, you do a timed run from the top from the top to the bottom, and the fastest guy wins. The courses include steep terrain, rock gardens, jumps, drops of different sizes, angles, and landings.

Is there much of a downhill scene in China?

The problem in China is that nobody wants to take responsibility if somebody gets hurt. So most of the race courses tend to be flat. They’re called downhill races but they are like pedaling competitions more or less. The best courses are actually in Sichuan and in Kunming and in Beijing. There are a few guys in Chengdu who know what they’re doing, and I ride with them.

What kind of physical fitness does it require?

Downhill is mostly body control. To get down fast you need to be loose, really relaxed loose, moving shoulders, and moving elbows, and moving hips and knees. You have to pedal to maneuver the bike, especially at high speeds, and balance, turn the bike and lean it over to the corners. A typical downhill race run takes anything from 2 to 6 minutes, and after that, your legs are shaking and pulse 180.

So how many bones have you broken?

I haven’t broken any bones.

No way.

I’ve had a fairly seriously sprained shoulder twice, once I was off the bike for two months due to that. Currently I have a partially sprained right shoulder due to a crash a week ago. I’ve hit my knees more times than I can count. But no bones broken. No hospitalization. I’ve been sort of lucky.

I wear knee and shin pads, elbow pads, chest and back armor, a full-face helmet and a neck brace. The neck brace has been around a couple of years, but I think personally that’s one of the biggest improvements in the sport’s safety. It prevents hyper-extension, hyper-flexion and compression injuries if you land on your head.

Do you commute by bike?

Yes. It’s actually quite relaxing to commute with a bike—my theory about Chengdu and people driving cars is that they are pedestrians but they just happen to have a car. So the mentality is they can go anywhere at any time, and once you accept this, then you start looking at traffic in a different way. During these three years, I have been commuting more or less every day, and have never collided with any other vehicle, e-bike, car, or pedestrian.

I don’t ride a straight line from A to B when I go to work. I choose a line where I can practice some drops and some bar stuff when I go to the office. It makes it less boring. If there’s a staircase, I can jump down the staircase or something. When I get to traffic lights, I stop there and balance the bike until it’s green. In general I don’t need to step off the pedals on my way to work.

How many bikes do you have, and how much does one cost?

I don’t have that many bikes—two downhill bikes, one all-purpose mountain bike, and then one dirt-jump or cross-race bike. The bikes I have with me today, one would be like USD8,000, and the other one 7,000 roughly. I don’t like to order full bikes—I’ve been doing this long enough to buy the parts and throw them together. It takes a bit of money, though, building up a full bike from scratch.


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