Kelly McGarry

Season of the Bike Park

Season of the Bike Park

A rider hits a wood feature on opening day at Snow Summit Bike Park in Big Bear Lake, California.

BIG BEAR LAKE, CA - Not long after Jack Bailey opened Chains Required bike shop in Big Bear resort, southern California's iconic alpine resort town, "downhill" became a dirty word and gravity mountain biking verboten. Starting in 2004, Snow Summit Resort strictly regulated cycling activity on it's slopes after a racer crashed and was paralyzed during a downhill race.

Fast forward to May 2013, opening weekend at Snow Summit Bike Park in Big Bear. Full face helmet-wearing, body armour-clad mountain bikers of all ages push big-travel bikes that were once banned from Snow Summit terrain up to the lift line and wait for a ride to the top. Hundreds of lift tickets were sold the first weekend to riders who made the pilgrimage to ride two new downhill trails built in partnership with the trail design gurus of Gravity Logic, based in Whistler, British Columbia. Snow Summit is just one of dozens of ski resorts that have cuit new trails and opened their lifts to bikes. There are currently around 70 lift-serviced bike parks in 24 U.S. states, and that number is steadily growing. Grand Targhee resort in Idaho, Whitefish Mountain Resort in Montana, Ski Apache Resort in Ruidoso, New Mexico, and Mt Bachelor in Bend, Oregon, have expanded or opened new bike trail networks this season.

And it isn't just a Western phenomenen. Gravity Logic recently buiilt 13 miles of trails in The Rock Bike Park outside of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and several ski resorts in the Northeast have also added new trails. Highland Bike Park in New Hampshire is the only resort in the world that ditched snow sports altogether and runs it's lifts only during the summer. Other resorts are in various stages of planning or implementing bike trails. While lift-accessed mountain biking is nothing new, the trend is gaining more momentum in the U.S., due in large part to legislation passed in 2011 that makes trail building on resort land - which is often leased from the U.S. Forest Service - much easier. The Ski Area Recreational Opportunity Enhancement Act allows year-round recreation on resort land, which translates as less red tape and faster permitting for resorts wanting to expand serbices into summer. The bill specifies mountain bike trails and terrain parks, along with zip lines, Frisbee golf courses and ropes courses as acceptable additions to a resort's activities. With more resorts diversifying year-round offerings, 2013 has been Gravity Logic's busiest year on record, keeping co-owner Rob Cocquyt and his two partners busy traveling the U.S. designing and building trails. In fact, demand for Gravity Logic's services and know-how has been so high in the lower 48 that the company recently formed Gravity Logic USA LLC to facilitate working stateside.

Colorado's Trestle Bike Park, the second most popular bike park in North America after Whistler Mountain Bike Park in British Columbia, continued to add to its trail inventory this summer.

Retailers reaping the benefits

Chains Required in Big Bear had always sold and rented cross-country and trail bikes, but there was never a gravity market to tap until now. "I've never sold downhill bikes or gear in my store because long-travel bikes were not allowed on the mountain," said shop owner Baily. "So it's been a learning experience to meet the sudden demand." And Bailey isn't alone. Other retailers in Southern California and across the country are noticing the shift in the market when resorts expand their biking trails. Bike shops that typically sell one or two downhill bikes per year are moving twice as many, plus all the gear. Spikes in repair service are also noticable, as downhill bikes can take a beating after a weekend of runs on the mountain. Even family bike shops in Southern California are reporting increased sales in the three months Snow Summit Bike Park has been open. "We sell a little of everything, but more attention has shifted to gravity," said Adrian Olson, retail buyer at Don's Bikes in Redlands, California. "I think the longer the mountain is open, the more business we're going to see." Other Southern California retailers report similar trends. "At least 40 percent of customers who walk in the door have ridden Snow Summit already or are talking about going soon," said Eric Searle of the Bike Company in Orange County, an exclusively off-road shop. "We're also seeing a younger crowd in the store, so it seems like it's helping to revive downhill mountain biking - which for us is a good thing."

Retailers in other parts of the country tell a similar tale of having to adapt to meet the demands of a nich they've rarely served. Last year, pads and body armor sat on the shelf all season at Glacier Cyclery in Whitefish, Montana. But this year, after Whitefish Mountain Resort expanded to include downhill trails, owner Ron Brunk had to reorder. Brunk has had strong sales in the all-mountain category for a few years, but since the bike park expanded he has seen an increase in brake pad, full-face helmet and downhill tire sales. "The bike park is a great thing here because it allows us to diversify," he said. "It will take a while for it to attract people to come here just to ride, but if the resort sees income from it and is willing to invest more money into the trails, it could get to that point.

Colorado's cluster effect

Trestle Bike Park, which opened in 2007 at Winter Park Resort in Colorado and was designed by Gravity Logic, is second only to Whistler Bike Park in annual rider volume in North America. With 43 miles of trails and counting, Trestle is approching Whistler in terms of amount of terrain. It's also the fastest growing bike park in the U.S. "Following in Whistler's footsteps, Trestle is on the way to becoming one of the World's best bike parks," said Steve Hurlbert, communications manager at Winter Park. The addition of the bike park has helped increase the resort's yearly visitation by 40 percent. Once Trestle opened, other resorts in the Colorado Rockies followed suit. Gravity Logic has worked on several projects in the region, and Cocquyt has said he expects more resorts to join the wave. "Trails have gone in at Steamboat Springs and Snowmass in Aspen, where we laid out 20 kilomoeters of new trail this year," he said.

The bike park trend has benefited Denver retailers. Once the lifts at Trestle and other bike parks in the region open in the Spring, business at Mojo Wheels doesn't slow down until the resorts close in the fall. "Our techs can service forks and shocks with their eyes closed," said Sam Padilla of Mojo Wheels. "And we don't just get the huckers in here. Places like Trestle are so accessible that they appeal to people who have never ridden downhill trails and want to learn."

Downhillers are stoked to check out Snow Summit Resort's new selection of trails designed by renowned trail builders Gravity Logic of Whistler, British Columbia.

Looking down the trail

Although bike parks have received much positive attention lately, some resorts are still hesitant to build trails. The lengthy permit process and sometimes daunting environmental assessments can be enough to stop resort managers dead in their tracks - even under less restrictive federal regulations. And some resort managers are still skeptical when it comes to the economics. "A lot of resorts don't see it as a legitimate form of business," said Cocquyt. "They still need to be convinced of additional revenue potential from rentals, food and other services." Then there's the public perception of mountain biking, which hasn't always been positive. Some projects, like the proposed park at Mt. Hood's Timberline Resort in Oregon, are met with resistance and lawsuits from environmentalists and some user groups, which has derailed the project a number of times since it's inception a few years ago.

But Cocquyt also points out that it isn't all doom and gloom, and that the sport has evolved. Building techniques have changed over the past few years, and trails are more about flow and ride-ability than hucking heroics, making them appropriate for all levels and increasing their appeal to consumers and resort managers. And that could help soften the negative perceptions of downhill mountain biking. "There is more of an understanding nowadays that mountain bikers are not all 14-year-old kids or 25-year-old dirtbags," said Cocquyt. "A lot of times the rider on the mountain is the same customer that brings his or her family to ski the resort in the winter. Resorts are starting to get that." As resorts wrap up the summer season and wait for snow, Cocquyt says it won't be long until his phone starts ringing again for next Spring, when resorts that have gotten the green light to build will be ready to start digging. "I don't have a crystal ball," he said, "but there are no signs that bike park construction is going to slow down anytime soon."

By Val Vanderpool.
Article originally published in Bicycle Retailer.

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