What do you think of when someone mentions downhill mountain biking? Probably steep slopes, muddy berms, dark forests and brutal rock gardens.
How about solid concrete, long staircases and narrow streets packed with thousands of screaming people? No? If you’re confused then you’ve obviously never heard of urban downhill, the craziest member of the mountain bike family.
Hair-raising GoPro videos of Kelly McGarry and Marcelo Guttierez tearing through the cobbled streets of Brazil, Chile and Mexico have been sweeping around the internet for a couple of years now and urban downhill’s popularity is growing.
There are many obvious reasons why. Close exciting races, massive crowds, convenient locations and mind-blowing courses all make it a totally unique mountain bike genre.
However, the sport is still more of a guilty pleasure for both riders and fans; just something different to do during World Cup downtime.
Like the mysterious friend your parents always thought was a bad influence, urban downhill is something sponsors, and the UCI, would probably prefer their riders avoid.
You are honestly shitting yourself when you walk the tracks
It’s understandable. For some people the rewards of the competition just don't outweigh the risks. Crashing at an urban downhill race can hurt.
“You are honestly shitting yourself when you walk the tracks,” admitted Guttierez. “You are risking a lot and a small mistake can result in a big injury.
“You’ll probably be done for the rest of the season. But somehow you like it and that’s why we keep doing it!”
Despite the dangers, Guttierez is a regular on the urban scene, and one of a few men who could be called a specialist in city downhill, despite struggling to force his way into the very top tier of the World Cup rankings.
He has landed countless urban downhill podiums in his career and won the legendary Valpariso race in Chile, which has been going for over a decade, and the Bratislava City Downhill in 2013.
British downhill’s Steve Peat is also a familiar name in street racing circles having won the sport’s original contest in Lisbon eight-straight times. Now, more and more World Cup stars are following the likes of Greg Minnaar, Steve Smith and Mick Hannah by signing up.
“It’s the coolest thing ever, I’d do one every week,” said British rider Bernard Kerr.
“It’s bringing downhill to a city, everyone can see it and everyone is watching and it’s awesome. I’ll try and do them all next year for sure.”
South African racer, and Guttierez’s Giant Factory teammate, Andrew Neethling has also dabbled in urban downhill.
“The crowds are always good at urban races,” he said. “It’s cool racing at speed down stairs, hitting triples, with walls everywhere.
“People are everywhere, putting their hands in the track and it’s kind of like riding through a tunnel.”
Many other leading riders are yet to give in to the craze even though urban downhill, born in Portugal in 1999, is not really a new idea. However, it still lacks the fanbase, structure and reputation of the UCI World Cup season. And, of course, there's more chance of picking up a season-ending injury.
Filip Polc, widely regarded as the world’s best urban racer is hoping to change that with the City Downhill World Tour.
The Tour aims to combine all the biggest races from around the world and hosted a successful pilot project in the Slovakian’s hometown of Bratislava this summer. Taxco, Mexico, where the course is famous for previously running through someone’s house, is the next stop this weekend.
Mexico is a crazy destination. If you let go of the brakes you'll go 60km/h
Polc hopes to have around seven different races under one umbrella for a 2015 tour and is confident that World Cup riders can be convinced to commit to a season on the streets.
“Going forward the series is looking really strong and next year we want to enter more continents and more cities and I hope it goes all the way up,” he said.
“Mexico is a crazy destination and I’m really pleased we are going to host the final round there. The hill is amazing. If you leave the brakes you will go 60km/h.
“After the season everyone is free and everyone wants to try something new and I think the riders have big interest to join our series.”
The 2014 trial tour may have one race remaining, but Polc has already sealed the title by winning the other three races in Valpariso, Santos, Brazil and Bratislava.
Guttierez, who finished second in Taxco last year behind Polc, is hoping to bring his rival back down to earth in Mexico before mounting a title challenge next year – whatever the structure of the tour, and whatever the risks.
“It will be cool to join all the races next year,” he added. “Seven races is risky but hopefully it will be alright.”
Healine photo by Fabio Piva/Red Bull Content Pool