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Ski resorts can advance mountain bicycling opportunities

Hills, trails, and open space make ski resorts ideal for adding to our biking resource.

By Tim Blumenthal
International Mountain Bicycling Association, January 1997

"I think we all can look forward to years of wonderful, varied trail riding at ski areas around the world."

If you wanted to create the perfect mountain biking resort, here's what might appear on your shopping list:

-- a large parcel of land that includes woods, meadows and hills;

-- a relatively flat, central base area for lodging, restaurants, and bike rental/repair facilities;

-- trail building machinery and trail maintenance tools;

-- an outdoors-minded staff skilled in marketing, hospitality, trail construction, emergency medical care and search & rescue procedures;

-- a scenic location within easy driving distance of a major city.

Most of North America's 400-plus ski resorts already boast every one of these attributes. While nearly all were designed for winter sports, many are practically perfect for mountain biking. As off-road cycling has boomed, more than 150 of them have initiated mountain biking programs and most have found the fat-tire business to be the ideal warm-weather complement to skiing.

Ten years ago, no U.S. ski resort was actively promoting recreational mountain biking. A few, such as Mammoth Mountain in California's Sierra, were hosting races, but these were generally severe downhill plunges from summit to base.

I was lucky to be involved in the creation of one of the first ski area mountain bike programs: Mount Snow, Vermont, opened to mountain bikers in '88. Initially, Mount Snow's program was simply an instructional program-- a project modeled after their already successful golf school. The idea was that all new mountain bikers (even those who were experienced road cyclists) would have more fun off road if they learned a few basic skills.

While Mount Snow's weekend school was immediately successful, not too many people enrolled in the five-day course. The reason? Once they learned the basics, most attendees just wanted to explore on their own. So Mount Snow curtailed the midweek school, but continued building a multi-faceted mountain bike program that now features lift-serviced downhill riding, guided and unaccompanied cross-country riding on more than 120 miles of trails and dirt roads, instruction, bike rentals, and prestigious World Cup racing.

What powers Mount Snow's (and every other ski area's) off-road cycling program is mountain biking's continued growth. Nearly five million mountain bikes are sold to U.S. adults each year and the number of off-road cycling enthusiasts has climbed from 200,000 in '83 to more than 10 million today.

Other ski areas have followed the Vermont model by creating varied options for mountain bikers. Vail, Colorado, for example, initially offered only downhill riding on a network of work roads. Today, its system includes a terrain garden where new riders can practice technical skills and a huge variety of singletrack trails-- some of them designed specifically for inexperienced mountain bikers, and some that venture far beyond the ski area's U.S. Forest Service permit boundary.

Earlier, I said that ski areas are practically perfect for mountain biking. Why the qualifier? Nearly all ski areas are fairly steep, with anywhere from 150 to 5,000 feet of sharp elevation relief between base and summit. In the West, many ski resorts are situated high in the mountains with base elevations a mile or more above sea level. Mix steeps with high altitude and the result is often tough cycling.

Ski areas answer this concern in three ways. First, they offer lift-serviced mountain biking that allows you to skip the heavy-breathing uphills and move directly to the thrills of gravity-assisted downhill riding. (Mountain biking purists may cringe, but this is how thousands of people first experience our sport.) Second, resorts create new trails that meander through the base area, creating easy loops with minimal elevation gain. Third, new trails are built that climb the mountain, but do so gradually thanks to the use of gentle switchbacks that take some of the sting out of the ascent.

Nearly all ski areas charge a fee for mountain biking on their land. This is true whether you use their lifts or not. You're paying for regular maintenance, accurate signage, a reliable map, and often the work of a bike patrol. This fee is usually reasonable and appropriate.

As IMBA's executive director, I represent a broad-based group that is committed to improving mountain biking opportunities everywhere it makes sense-- city, county and state parks, state and national forests and parks, Bureau of Land Management (BLM) territory, and ski resorts. While we are enthusiastic about ski area cycling offerings, we don't want fee-paying mountain biking to be the only option for off-road cyclists. We are especially committed to preserving and improving trail access for cyclists closer to home.

Don't misunderstand me. Mountain biking at ski areas has added so much to our sport and seems certain to only improve. After all, people are always looking for new scenic, exciting, and varied places to ride: ski area trails provide this and the creature comforts at the base are usually superb. What we don't want is for land managers and other trail user groups to point to ski areas and say to mountain bikers, "Go ride there. It's perfect. Pay your money, then ride as fast as you'd like and without worries about hikers and horseback riders on the trail."

It's true that ski areas can and do provide mountain bikers precisely this type of opportunity and it's one that is much appreciated by riders all over our continent. But for convenience and most important, for variety of experience, mountain biking access must continue on narrow riverside trails, on desert loops lined by cacti, in city parks beneath the shadows of old hardwood, and on the rolling trails of grassy watersheds.

IMBA is also committed to a shared-trails philosophy that is not always the case at ski resorts. We want mountain bikers, hikers, and horseback riders to share trails wherever possible. This strategy disperses use and impact, improves communication among different trail user groups, and unifies the groups of people who are committed to trails and open space preservation.

Ski areas can unquestionably help teach new mountain bikers IMBA's Rules of the Trail. After all, they've been teaching the Skier's Responsibility Code successfully for years. Ski areas are also terrific at catering to their customers: If they're not providing the types of trail experiences that people want, they will create them.

I think we all can look forward to years of wonderful, varied trail riding at ski areas around the world. Ski area mountain bikers can expect clean air, beautiful woods, well-designed, well marked trails, and more than a little climbing. Yes, what goes up must come down. As long as this adage doesn't apply to the availability of riding opportunities on public land close to home, we can all be happy.

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