Biking Series Part 2: How Fruita did it
Western Colorado town embraces and grows its cycling tourism
May 19, 2013
When the ski season winds down, high-country cyclists get the itch to head west in search of dry trails and warm weather.
And when they head west, they often end up in Fruita, a place filled each spring with familiar Steamboat Springs faces.
On a recent weekend afternoon in April, everyone from families to professional cyclists geared up in the parking lot in the North Fruita Desert, otherwise known as 18 Road. Newcomers kept cool in the shade under a hut and planned their rides by looking at a trail map. Smoke billowed in the valley from agricultural burns, and the blowing snow and frigid temperatures in the nearby mountains seemed a world away.
It takes about 3 1/2 hours to drive to Fruita, consistently ranked as one of the top mountain biking destinations in the world. It takes another 90 minutes to drive to Moab, Utah, another renowned and more established cycling destination to the southwest.
While Steamboat Springs ups its efforts — potentially with the help of millions of dollars in lodging tax revenues — to become a renowned cycling destination in its own right, Mesa County, home to Fruita, already enjoys the prestige. Cyclists visiting Mesa County say Colorado communities like Steamboat could learn from Fruita's success.
In the past 20 years, mountain biking has exploded in Mesa County, and not by accident. Officials say it has created an economic engine, and the success is due in part to partnerships with local governments and the Bureau of Land Management. The Colorado Plateau Mountain Bike Trail Association also plays a crucial role. The group's first project was to work with the BLM to build the 142-mile Kokopelli Trail between Fruita and Moab. It was dedicated in 1989. There have been many volunteer trail-building days held since.
"We never realized it was going to be this big," said Bill Harris, a co-founder of the Trail Association.
With growing visitor numbers, the BLM has improved facilities and works closely with governments — especially the Trail Association — to expand the trail systems.
"Over the years, that partnership has really been the cornerstone of the mountain bike trail system in the valley," BLM outdoor recreation planner Chris Pipkin said.
Grass-roots efforts played a significant role in the success, exemplified by the work of Troy Rarick, who grew up in Fruita.
"At the time, Moab was the cycling destination," said Rarick, who about 19 years ago gambled on people wanting to come to his hometown to mountain bike.
"That whole area was economically depressed in a big way," Rarick said. "Fruita had been literally bankrupt a couple years before."
Rarick was ready to move and work in Moab, where he had accepted a job at Poison Spider Bicycles, but it was several months before he was set to start. It gave him time to second-guess his decision, and he pondered the cycling potential of Fruita.
"It was like, 'Why would anyone want to come ride here?'" Rarick said. "The answer was no one ever said, 'Come ride here.'"
Shortly before he was supposed to start working in Moab, Rarick declined the job and decided to open Over the Edge Sports in downtown Fruita.
The problem was there were no cyclists in Fruita to whom he could sell bikes.
During winter 1994-95, Rarick worked during the day to turn a dilapidated building into a bike shop. In the afternoons, he and a core group of about 10 people drove to the North Fruita Desert and built trails on land owned by the BLM. Rarick said the area lacked a management plan, and junked appliances littered the landscape. Prime Cuts was the first trail to be built. Like many of the trails, much of Prime Cuts followed the paths created by grazing cattle, and no permission was sought from the BLM.
Illegal, fly-by-night or renegade trail building. Call it what you will.
"They went ahead and built it and asked permission later," said Harris, who sat on the Trail Association board through 2012.
Regardless of legalities, Rarick said they took care in building the North Fruita Desert trails that since have become "world famous."
A year after opening the bike shop, Rarick put on the first Fruita Fat Tire Festival.
"We were trying to get more people to come ride here," Rarick said. "We took all the money we had and ran an ad in Bike magazine."
Rarick said about 350 people came to the inaugural event, and word began to spread that Fruita had trails to ride. The next year, 600 people came to the festival. The 18th annual event this past April attracted more than 2,000 people from at least 24 states and two countries.
Rarick said the community in Fruita has embraced the cycling culture.
Today, downtown Fruita has two bike shops, two breweries, several hotels, a new recreation center and other businesses like the Hot Tomato Cafe that markets itself to visiting cyclists.
Along Interstate 70 next to the railroad tracks is a large grain elevator that overlooks the town. Affixed to a silo is large banner with the word "Fruita" and a picture of a mountain biker.
"They promote it all over the place," Aspen resident Adam Smith said while holding a Fruita bumper sticker. "I'll put it on my car, and people will see Fruita wherever I go."
Smith was on a two-day, early-season mountain biking trip to Mesa County with his uncle Greg Smith and friend Zane McKinney.
None had ridden in Steamboat, even McKinney, who is well aware of Steamboat's cycling-oriented companies like SmartWool and Moots Cycles.
"I have three Moots and still have not been up there to ride," McKinney said.
Communities like Steamboat could learn a lot from what Fruita and the nearby city of Grand Junction have done, McKinney said. Camping options, cheap hotel rooms and lodging like those available around Fruita are important.
"It seems like the key for a town to be a good bike town is accepting kind of the dirt ball lifestyle," McKinney said.
The group also said it's important that the trail systems are well-signed and that there are maps available at the trailheads as well as online so people can plan their trips.
"Do you do a mountain bike festival?" Adam Smith asked. "That would be awesome. Have a weekend of mountain biking and do some races, some guided rides and everything that goes along with a festival."
Officials in Mesa County say they have yet to put hard numbers on what impact visiting cyclists have on their communities.
"I get asked that question two or three times a year," Fruita City Manager Clint Kinney said.
Even without hard numbers, Kinney said residents feel the impact of cycling is significant and positive, so the city spends tax dollars to foster its growth.
"For us, it's been a great return," Kinney said. "What we've gotten is that authentic, organic growth."
One tool to help gauge the impact is visitation numbers tracked by the BLM at Mesa County's three primary trail systems. The BLM uses electronic traffic counters at parking areas and trailheads to estimate the number of visits.
At the North Fruita Desert, visits nearly have doubled in the past 10 years to 85,000 in 2012. At the Kokopelli Trail system near Fruita, visits went from 22,000 in 2003 to 70,000 in 2012.
At the Tabeguache Trailhead, also known as the Lunch Loops trail system in Grand Junction, visits have more than quadrupled in the past 10 years to 116,000 in 2012.
"That's a lot of people," said Mistalynn Meyeraan, marketing and public relations coordinator with the Grand Junction Visitor and Convention Bureau.
She said Grand Junction's brand is Colorado's Wine Country, but the community realizes cycling tourism is crucial. That is evident by impacts to restaurants and businesses from events such as the Tour of the Moon road biking ride over Colorado National Monument.
With 1,830 registered riders in 2012, the event created nearly $850,000 in economic impact for the city, according to research collected by the Visitor and Convention Bureau.
"Unbelievable economic impact for one weekend," Meyeraan said.
An economic impact study looking at cycling tourism as a whole has not been completed because of the cost, Meyeraan said.