Beginnings of a bike town
Steamboat Springs leaders say Ski Town USA has all the right ingredients to become a cycling draw
March 24, 2010
The great Olympians of Steamboat Springs spent the month of February doing everything they could to further their hometown's stranglehold on the moniker "Ski Town USA," hauling home an unprecedented collection of medals and accomplishments from the 2010 Winter Olympic Games.
Meanwhile, 1,400 miles away from those Vancouver, British Columbia, battlegrounds, some of this city's biggest dreamers toiled away, hoping to define Steamboat Springs as more than the home of Winter Olympians.
Facing a lengthy economic recession and lingering questions about the sustainability of summer tourism, and sitting atop what they swear are some of the nation's best natural resources — summer or winter — leaders in Steamboat are seeking to add a second nickname: Bike Town USA.
"It's not like we'd have to go out there and build some mountains and some trails," said Robin Craigen, president of Routt County Riders, the area's hard-working bicycle club. "We need to start identifying the assets we already have."
The quest for the label Bike Town USA is multi-pronged and seeks to pull together Steamboat's already considerable resources in terms of biking while also adding a wealth of new ones.
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The goal is nothing short of making Steamboat Springs one of the nation's top biking destinations.
A happy home
The plans are extensive. They call for new trails, new terrain and, in turn, new events.
Still, the wildest of dreams are possible only because of what Steamboat Springs already is, cycling proponents insist. What they think really helps the town stand out is the outlets for all different types of biking — everything a traveling rider might want for a weekend.
An extensive collection of cross-country mountain bike trails already exists in Steamboat. A complete network of routes crisscross Emerald Mountain, the long but stubby peak that rises right out of downtown.
Mount Werner, home to Steamboat Ski Area, also transforms into a network of cross-country mountain biking trails once the weather warms. When the snow melts, the mountain offers 17 routes.
"We've got some great, smooth singletrack trails up there and a good amount of vertical," veteran local cyclist Barkley Robinson said. "It's a pretty neat experience. You are riding on the soil through the aspens as opposed to rocky terrain through pines as you would see in a lot of other Colorado high-country trails.
"And another neat thing about riding Mount Werner, the views are incredible. They are tremendous because the surrounding mountains are lower and the valley is flatter, so you get great expansive views."
That valley, relatively flat with rolling hills, also offers the chance for long road rides that many other mountain towns, hemmed in by their geography, simply can't offer.
Steamboat is already a town that loves its bicycles. Routt County Riders, for example, has plans to grow to 500 members this year. The city, with just about 10,000 residents, features no fewer than four bike shops.
Nearly 1,000 people attended a bike-in movie last summer at Howelsen Hill, and hundreds show up each Wednesday during the summer for the friendly but competitive Town Challenge mountain bike race series.
Combine all that with the town's tourist-centric focus — plenty of available condos, hotels and restaurants — and many think the infrastructure is there for a much greater cycling focus.
"We see mountain biking as no different than skiing, just 40 years behind," said Aryeh Copa, a longtime local cyclist. "Mountain biking is a huge revenue source for other resorts that have embraced it and put in many different styles and types of trails for varying ability levels. People come out, just like skiing."
Steamboat may be a town ready to host a new wave of visitors, but there are things that must change if the town is to out-duel other Colorado mountain resorts also in search of summer dollars.
Top on the to-do list, most acknowledge, is adding downhill or freeride mountain biking trails.
Downhill mountain biking races are of the "first-to-the-bottom" style, though most courses cut around on the slope of the mountain rather than point straight down the fall line.
Freeride trails, meanwhile, incorporate features into the trail that riders use for tricks. Some of those features are natural, like rocks and tree stumps. Others are manmade, like wood-plank bridges and ramps.
Steamboat doesn't have any official downhill or freeride trails. The ski area runs its gondola throughout the summer, and many cyclists ride up with their bikes, but the only trails available for them to descend on are two-way avenues.
"I enjoy the freeride aspect because it's just a lot of fun," said Cory Prager, a local enthusiast who has become a key representative for the freeriding community.
Prager also is the coach of the Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club's gravity team, a squad that focuses on downhill and freeride races and events.
"Freeriding is great. The guys that are doing it are just having a good time, having a blast on their bikes. It's about jumping off things and challenging yourself instead of challenging others," Prager said.
Specific downhill and freeride trails would alleviate the obvious danger of having cyclists charging down a trail a family might be hiking up.
Ideally, many of those new trails would incorporate freeride elements, catering to a growing audience of cyclists.
"We've been trying to get them to build these trails since 2003," said Copa, who leads Routt County Riders' new freeride committee. "If you have lift-served terrain and some jump lines, maybe 30 or 40 jumps in one run, it's just so much fun."
It's not an element that's been entirely absent from Steamboat's cycling scene, much to the chagrin of the U.S. Forest Service. As many as two dozen trails of various engineering complexity already are carved into the woods around Steamboat. Their existence was enough to prompt U.S. Forest Service recreation specialist Kent Foster into action.
He has begun to work with area freeriders to develop venues that don't include such "renegade" trails, some of which cut through environmentally fragile areas.
"Either we choose to pick the fight and eliminate those trails or we work with the people to bring them on board," Foster said. "We are trying to figure out a way that is a win-win for everyone, a way that reduces the illegal trail-building that goes on and provides the opportunity for groups that will step up to help care for the trails."
The ski area also appears eager to get on board with the downhill and freeride movement.
"We are looking at certain areas on the mountain where we could develop freeride trails," said Jim Schneider, vice president of skier services at Steamboat Ski Area. "We are asking, 'Can we make this work both physically, No. 1, and No. 2, financially does it make sense to do this?'"
Organization at the often unorganized grass-roots levels of the cycling fringe has helped that process, and now all involved parties are engaged in an unexpected partnership.
The Forest Service has tentatively stepped toward incorporating a few of the already existing freeride trails into its vast network of forest trails. That would require an agreement from volunteer organizations with regard to upkeep and also would hinge on rerouting sections of those trails around fragile areas.
The ski area has commissioned studies into the feasibility of adding freeride trails to the ski mountain's network of gondola-serviced summer terrain.
The first fruits of the effort could be seen as early as this summer with downhill trails potentially opening not long after the mountain's regular summer trails are made available.
Such improvements are seen as key to Steamboat becoming the everything-for-everyone biking destination many envision.
Winter Park, SolVista and Keystone already have a significant head start on Steamboat in Colorado, with popular freeride venues built and open every summer.
Whistler, British Columbia, meanwhile, stands as the example everyone is first to cite as "the way things could be." The Whistler-Blackcomb ski area has an extensive collection of cross-country and freeride trails and works to attract thousands of riders every summer day.
"We see this as a huge economic driver for the valley," Schneider said. "What we've seen in Whistler, one or two folks might be freeriders and the whole family comes up. All the other things — lodging, food and beverages, retail and rentals — that all goes with it when the whole family comes and recreates in the valley."
That vision of Whistler — booked hotel rooms, packed restaurants and lines of people waiting to ride up the lift — is the goal.
It's in addition to that steady stream of visitors that planners see major cycling events fitting in. Such events already have begun to define Steamboat among its mountain town brethren.
The lack of suitable downhill trails has kept the town from hosting any races on the Mountain States Cup circuit or competing with other areas in the region for events such as the U.S. Mountain Biking National Championships, which SolVista hosted last summer and will again this summer.
But Steamboat is a regular stop on large road biking rides. It's on the route of the Tour Divide continental divide trail race, and this summer, it will welcome three large cycling events.
The first, on July 17, is the annual Tour de Steamboat. The ride sends road cyclists up Rabbit Ears Pass on U.S. Highway 40 and around, down through the Gore Range and back up Colorado Highway 131. It's a 110-mile noncompetitive loop that's proven extremely popular.
Katie Lindquist, who along with former Routt County Riders president Brad Cusenbary has directed the event for each of its five years, said 2010 should be another strong edition.
The ride again should hit its limit of 500 riders, well more than the 300 it enlisted last year. All proceeds will go to the Sunshine Kids program, which offers activities to children with cancer.
"That's just really grown," Lindquist said. "It's not a race, and we pull people from the Front Range and other states. People really like the noncompetitive yet endurance-style riding.
"There are big changes in temperature and altitude, but it's fully supported. People know there's a safety net out there, and they know they can ride it with their friends. People interested in that kind of event is a demographic that's getting bigger. We get all ages, not just racing ages."
The Steamboat Springs Bicycle Stage Race figures to make it two summers in a row in Steamboat.
That four-day race filled a void in the region last year when it became Colorado's only stage race. It attracted a crowd of more than 300 riders, a deep field that included Olympians and many of the state's best.
New this summer will be the Ride4yellow mountain bike event, which will raise money for cancer research through the Lance Armstrong Foundation. Like the Tour de Steamboat, the early-August event won't be competitive, but it will attract a large crowd, it will have star power and it will showcase Steamboat's potential to host major cycling events.
There will be three rides associated with the event. The signature ride will be a 25-mile cruise in the mountains above Steamboat along the Continental Divide trail. That will be open to 200 riders, all of whom will be required to raise at least $500 for the Lance Armstrong Foundation and local cancer efforts.
Two other rides, one a cross-country style event and the other a downhill ride, will take place at the ski area.
Linda Armstrong Kelly, Lance Armstrong's mother, will be on hand for the event, as will Gov. Bill Ritter and potentially Lance Armstrong himself.
Those events could be the starting point for Steamboat's establishment as a cycling event hot spot. Lindquist and Cusenbary ran an endurance cycling event in Steamboat for several years, first a 24-hour race, then a 12-hour competition. Construction at the base area and Cusenbary's cancer diagnosis put that on ice, but they haven't ruled out its return in the near future.
"There is room here for more events," Lindquist said. "The demographics on all our events right now are different. If we keep it like that, it will all grow. If events come in to town that are directly the same, we don't have enough summer days, but hopefully our local planners are brighter than that."
If it all comes to be — the trails and the crowds, the events and athletes — the implications for Steamboat are obvious and significant.
Cycling could be a summer savior for a town that never truly accepted its last "off season" tourism engine — consistently shrinking baseball and softball tournaments.
"Sounds corny to say synergy, or perfect storm, but it is the perfect storm," said Craigen, director of Routt County Riders. "If you didn't have each of these groups doing the things together, we wouldn't be where we are now. There's been such a buzz in the positive direction and very little pushback. Maybe we can accelerate what might happen organically in the next 10 to 15 years into a three- to five-year plan."
Many of those pushing to land Steamboat on the cycling map insist those are noble goals, reason to excite the town's various interests and the disciples of the sport's various disciplines.
Many also admit the reason they dream so big isn't just so restaurants can sell more hamburgers and hotels more beds.
"Many of my friends leave Steamboat every weekend for the entire weekend to go to SolVista or Winter Park or Keystone," Copa said. "Mainly I'm doing this because this is where I live and I don't want to have to travel to play."