The wind tears through their helmets and their eyes are watering, but the riders are too focused on the trail ahead to notice. On machines that look more like dirt bikes than bicycles, they scream downhill, massive tires biting into dirt as their heavy-duty suspensions absorb tooth-chattering bumps taken at speeds bordering on ridiculous.

The wind tears through their helmets and their eyes are watering, but the riders are too focused on the trail ahead to notice. On machines that look more like dirt bikes than bicycles, they scream downhill, massive tires biting into dirt as their heavy-duty suspensions absorb tooth-chattering bumps taken at speeds bordering on ridiculous.

These bikers are a rare breed, and their discipline is an all-out extreme pursuit. Downhillers are taking mountain biking into new territory, a realm of excitement, speed, technical proficiency and artful creation.

Downhill mountain biking, also known as freeriding, is a unique and innovative sport that is noteworthy not only for the equipment used — which includes body armor — but also for its approach to riding and the skills required to negotiate steep downhill tracks. Jumping, fast cornering and riding diverse terrain is at the heart of freeriding, taking on trails that used to be off limits to bikes because the bikes themselves were previously incapable of dealing with the terrain.

A whole language and style has risen up around the scene, as well. Colorful terms like roostin' (throwing dirt off corners), mobbin' (descending fast) and pinnin' (going full speed) pervade the riders' speech. The jargon not only identifies them as downhill riders, but it also hints at the tightness and sense of community these cyclists are forming around their new discipline.

When you first glance at a freerider's bike, you might not think you're looking at a bicycle at all. These 40- to 55-pound behemoths have enormous tires and sophisticated suspensions. Their frames are thick and strong and give the impression that someone forgot to install the motor. The odd form serves a purpose though, creating a bike capable of navigating some of the most formidable terrain a bicycle has ever had to face.

The result? When a bike like this touches the trail, it's nothing short of amazing.

"It's the feeling of being on a bike that's totally quiet, flying through the air"¦ it's the speed aspect, feeling like you're cheating the terrain, defying the rocks and bumps," says Nathan Riddle, local cyclist, racer and instructor at U.B.I., an Ashland-based bicycle repair and manufacturing school. His excitement about the sport is obvious as he talks about riding, as if downhill holds a special place in his heart.

Muuqi Maxwell, head mechanic and customer service professional at Medford Cycle Sport, shares a similar opinion of downhill, adding an element of camaraderie that increases his enjoyment. "It's the rush of it. You're out in the woods, kickin' it with your friends, laughing and having fun and pushing each other to go faster, higher and bigger," Maxwell says.

Freeriding is also a release, a sort of catharsis for a lot of riders. "When you're going downhill it gives you an outlet, something to focus on," says Cliff Miya, bike mechanic at Ashland Cycle Sport. "You're able to stop thinking about day-to-day things. It's meditative and relaxing."

The Rogue Valley, which is essentially the bottom of steep-sided bowl, provides the ideal terrain for downhilling, with literally hundreds of trails snaking down the mountainsides. Many of these drops are perfectly suited for downhilling, while others have been custom made for the purpose, and many of them bear creative monikers bestowed by riders.

Time Warp, for instance, which starts at the top of Mount Ashland and ends on Loop Road just above Ashland, is a favorite descent for local freeriders. The trail is extremely fast and features a variety of terrain, including open-meadow straight-aways, high-speed corners, jumps and steep descents.

Four Corners, just above Ashland, boasts a hub of trails, including Marty's and Katwok, which offer technical trail riding with kickers (jumps) and almost any imaginable type of terrain. Most of these trails also have the added benefit of ending near town. At Four Corners, shuttles run by local bikes shops and groups are available to drop riders off at the top, allowing cyclists to enjoy the drops without having to pedal their heavy machines up the inclines. Shuttle information, including times and routes, is available at local shops.

In the last few years a network of trails has also been developed on Wagner Butte, between Talent and Ashland. Wagner features some man-made jumps, called ladders, which are simply slatted wood planks designed to create massive launch platforms for downhill bikes.

Even ski resorts, including Mount Shasta Ski Park, have begun catering to freeriders, offering rides on ski lifts to bike-toting thrill seekers who get to descend over terrain normally covered in snow.

"The trails are a little rough and dusty," says Maxwell, but they give riders a lot of time on the trails without much hassle. In the course of a day, a freerider at a ski resort can get the maximum amount of time on the trails without wasting time either pedaling uphill or waiting for shuttles.

The downhill scene in Southern Oregon has become a year-round pursuit for many, and a community of riders is growing around the sport. "There's a great community of people who ride and maintain the trails," Maxwell says. These riders are not only serious about downhilling, but they also care enough for the area to respect and cherish our beautiful surroundings.

"We're not just a bunch of adrenaline junkies, tearing apart nature," says Maxwell.

Chad Snyder is a freelance writer living in Jacksonville. E-mail him at chadpacnor@yahoo.com.