The Making of Bike Park Heaven
5 Aug 2014
It’s hard to know where to start exactly – we just weren’t really prepared for this. So many riders we’d met on the ECRT up to this point had asked… “When are you going to Highland...?”, so we knew something special was going on. But even so, the attention to detail, the comprehensive thought and analysis that has so clearly gone in to developing the facilities here, facilities that cater to a riders every possible need, including the ones you never knew you had… well it just took us a bit by surprise. You really have to see it to believe it.
The route from Attitash to Highland.
It was a couple of hours drive south from Attitash, and we rocked up on Thursday evening, just as the day was winding down. But this is the sort of place that you can find yourself in a conversation with a recognized freeride pro within 5 minutes of arriving. So after an impromptu jump session with cameras on the Upper Sherwood dirt jumps, we grabbed a beer with Evil Bikes sponsored rider Dave Smutok, who also happens to be Highland’s VP of Business Development, and got the top level overview of the bike park. It was quickly apparent that we were going to have our hands full, as there is just so much to cover, so many aspects of the bike park that warrant promotion. So really, the best place to start has got to be at the beginning, and explain just how a bike park heaven like Highland came to exist.
Dave Smutok in dirt Jump heaven - the Upper Sherwood area of the bike park.
Highland Mountain is the only chairlift operating mountain bike park facility in the World that is dedicated to the mountain bike season. It does not operate as a ski resort in the winter, and squeezes every ounce out of a bike season from April to October when there’s no snow on the ground. The man you need to credit, and put at the top of your Christmas card list, is Mark Hayes, an East Coast entrepreneur with a major passion for mountain biking and the business experience to make big things happen. Mark started biking in the 1990’s, and recalls a visit to Whistler for a summer ski trip on the glacier around ‘99/2000, when he got his first taste of a bike park. And not just any bike park – this was Whistler, so of course it just fueled Mark’s fire for riding bikes. And it planted a seed…
One of the first ever features - the Reef drop way back in 2007.
Mark had been running the successful family business in the fiber optics world for a number of years. They sold the business in 2002, at which point Mark took a ‘year off’ to reflect and work out what to do next. Of course the mountain bike passion had grown year on year, so knowing that there was some cash to invest in a new project, the bike park idea started to take shape and he began to look around at the old ski resorts of the eastern States for a suitable location. Temple Mountain in New Hampshire was an option at one point, but the $1.8 million price tag was just not viable. After a number of months on the look out, it was actually a real estate friend that suggested Highland to Mark, and after a quick inspection he bought the mountain in 2003 for $350,000.
Highland Mountain lodge in it's skiing hay-day.
It’s easy to see the ‘potential’ from this end, after the event, but that’s no small sum of money, and this was the moment where the true belief in the long-term vision was needed. The chairlift was barely functional, and the buildings were in horrible condition - all dilapidated with squatters living in some of them. And it was hangout for local kids who used to come up to ‘party’! So Mark, joined by Dennis Bettencourt, Director of Operations and right hand man since the beginning, and blessed with every known construction renovation skill under the sun, just started by cleaning the place up – getting rid of the squatters and all the old crap – filling multiple dumpsters with junk.
The clean up begins - and Dennis launches the bonfire jump!
The main lodge as it looked in 2004. It's come a long way!
And this process took them through the whole of 2004! The target was to open in summer 2005 but as it came closer there was just too much to do, too much repair work on critical buildings, and crucially, re-certifying the chairlift for public use. So they took a deep breath and made the decision to delay, to do it right for summer 2006. Opening day was June 30th and it all started with just 3 trails… Maiden Voyage, the very first trail developed at the mountain, NE Style (a very different incarnation to the current trail), and Eastern Hemlock. All 3 were black diamond trails; this was an advanced bike park, with the intent to attract the experienced riders first and help build the reputation.
Another of the original drop features - Chain Drop has since been retired.
It was all a big risk – a leap in to the unknown. After all, this was the first dedicated bike park in the world! Opening day didn’t start very smoothly either. Heavy storms overnight meant that they could not open one of the trails in the morning due to standing water. And believe it or not some local drunk had got in to the parking lot the night before and firmly embedded his car in the base of another trail. So they actually opened on the 30th with just the one trail available, and Mark remembers an uncomfortable moment of doubt – an “uh-oh” moment, overhearing one rider complaining during the first few hours of opening! But by lunchtime the other 2 trails were open - the water drained, and the car wreck rescued from the trail.
There was no stopping it now… by the end of 2006 after an awesome rider response and first year rider numbers of 1600, the trail count was up to 5 with the addition of Fancy Feast and Meadows End. And this was doubled to 3400 riders for season 2. It began with simply a lift pass and trails access – there were none of the facilities that exist now, like the café, bike shop and Ayr Academy etc. But each year, the team invested in a new aspect, an extra service, or refurbished building, and in 2013, rider numbers were around 25,000, and they’re on track to hit 30,000 in 2014. And they’re not stopping there…
Tom's toys... constant development of the trail options.
Highland’s top-level strategic plan is defined as ‘Training and Trails’, a philosophy that means doing everything possible to help every standard of rider to reach the next level, and providing the best quality trails on which that progression can be achieved. To this end, their new company Highland Trails will be focused on developing trail networks and bike parks at other locations around the country to grow the sport further. Tom Lepesqueur is the head Trail Builder at Highland and will be taking on much of the new contract work. He’s been on the crew since 2008 and has some serious skills with an excavator - we watched him at work, carving out a big berm on the new kids area and it was impressive to watch. He heads a total crew of 5 guys for build and maintenance at Highland, and these will form the core of the Highland Trails team as their other projects grow. And in the mean time, Highland continues to expand, with a total commitment to establishing bike park utopia. It’s all here. We have reached the top!
The main lodge and everything else as it looks today.
The future of the sport - the Highland kids checking out the new kids zone.
Dirt jump builder Rob tending to his work of art!
Inside the main lodge in 2005. At least the bar was in good condition!
Digging out the foundations for the top station of the chairlift.
The chairlift top station platform under construction in 2005.
The Claymore Course under construction in 2008.