Search for biking bucks
May 12, 2013
Steamboat Springs — Chris Johns is enthusiastic, and why not?
Business at Wheels Bike Shop in downtown Steamboat Springs is booming. Shipments of parts and gear arrive at the shop daily, and Johns and his employees use their creative sides to find places for it in the already-tight display areas, glancing across the ceiling where bike tires already hang and up walls that might have room to squeeze in a little more product.
It's a far cry from the problems Johns and Wheels dealt with four years ago when the shop operated out of an industrial garage on the western edge of Steamboat. The store barely was visible from the highway and drew virtually no walk-in traffic. There was no need for racks of accessories like water bottles and cycling jerseys or energy bars and helmets because the riders who did come didn't come for that.
Relocating square in the heart of Yampa Street in downtown Steamboat has changed a few things, however.
One of the primary pedestrian bridges crosses the Yampa River within 100 feet of the shop's front door. The pristine singletrack of Emerald Mountain lies just beyond that bridge, and the Yampa River Core Trail, the bike path that serves as an artery for summer fun in Steamboat Springs, turns near the shop in a way that often confuses cyclists.
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"They don't realize they're supposed to go over the bridge and they'll ride out here and circle in front of the shop," said Darius Gallagher, who's worked at Wheels in stretches dating back 15 years. "They see we're a bike shop, then come in and ask for directions, and hey, maybe we have new customers."
Yes, it's been a good three years for Wheels, and those three years have aligned precisely with the existence of the Steamboat Springs Bike Town USA Initiative, a group of local business owners, cycling enthusiasts and government officials who gathered together for the first time nearly four years ago to unify their efforts in making Steamboat a bicycling vacation destination.
So has the initiative been responsible for some of the growth Johns has seen?
"Yeah," he said enthusiastically. "Definitely."
Then he paused, looked to that ceiling and considered the question a moment longer.
"Well, I can't actually say that," he continued.
He's not alone, not in his ongoing support of and belief in the Bike Town USA effort nor in his inability to show tangible results from it at this point.
Signs of success
The goal is straightforward: Find proof of positive economic trends resulting from the Bike Town USA Initiative.
The reasoning isn't too complicated, either. Cycling projects have been siphoning an increasingly large amount of money from the city, no amount more important than the recent recommendation by the lodging tax committee that an estimated $600,000 per year for 10 years be spent to upgrade area trails and biking amenities in and around Steamboat.
Those pitching that idea firmly believe a dedicated effort to raise Steamboat in the cycling world will create such a sales tax windfall that the improvements eventually will pay for themselves.
But the journey to find the first evidence of that is anything but straightforward, and the quest to answer the simplest of questions — what has a Bike Town focus delivered economically? — leads only to a winding tour of Steamboat.
The Bike Town USA group began meeting four years ago, and the time since has seen hundreds of ideas, dozens of small projects as well as a few big ones, and an organization with the financial and political power to make things happen.
"There's been such a buzz in the positive direction and very little pushback," Steamboat's Robin Craigen said in 2010 as the pieces were beginning to come together. "Maybe we can accelerate what might happen organically in the next 10 to 15 years into a three- to five-year plan."
Deciding if that's happened yet — pinning some actual numbers to the efforts — can be a maddeningly difficult exercise.
Downhill mountain bike trails at Steamboat Ski Area were seen at the time as essential to the town's cycling development, and the first trail segments began to come online two years ago. A downhill mountain bike park built by Steamboat Ski and Resort Corp. with two full trails opened last season and more trails are due to debut this summer.
Proponents of Steamboat cycling long have claimed more than 500 miles of singletrack in the county, and the simple fact that Steamboat isn't canyon-locked like some mountain town rivals, allowing good access to road rides, give it a natural first step toward being a summer cycling paradise. Still, lift-accessed, downhill-specific trails represent a major change in the industry, and Steamboat was slow to get on the bandwagon. It began to take those steps by enlisting renowned Canadian trail-building and design firm Gravity Logic, and as the first returns have come in, the effort has proven its worth.
"We saw an increase in terms of numbers of on-mountain bike users from the summer prior to last summer, and we expect that to continue," said Jim Schneider, the ski area's vice president of skier services and the Ski Corp. executive with perhaps the most visible role in promoting and building cycling enthusiasm. "We were very pleasantly surprised.
"We beat our initial expectations. We expected our numbers to go up, and we took some stabs at what we thought it would go to, and we beat those expectations fairly significantly."
He said the resort's entire fleet of downhill bikes frequently was rented out, and Ski Corp. officials are increasing orders in that area this year.
But some of the big questions weren't answered.
The ski area won't release specific numbers, including the amount ticket and rental sales increased and how many people and bikes rode the gondola.
At the same time, the resort simply doesn't have the data to answer other key questions, such as who those riders were — locals hanging close to home, tourists vacationing and giving mountain biking a try, or visiting riders who made a point to visit Steamboat and its new trails.
There are sets of Steamboat-specific data that do show economic growth during the summer throughout the past four years, though it's difficult to attribute any of it directly to cycling.
City sales tax revenue has climbed in the summer months — June, July and August — by an average of 3.99 percent since 2009.
Of course, that change also has mirrored the national climb out of a recession. The 2012 sales tax numbers still are short — by about 9 percent — of summer 2008, which was Steamboat's most successful summer in the past decade from a sales tax perspective.
A 2012 survey by Bike Town USA shows evidence of a serious cycling surge, though the group's Executive Director Doug Davis is quick to warn that the survey wasn't meant to show that sort of data, so the results fall short of "statistical proof" and more in line with "anecdotal data."
The survey captured 220 people who filled out Bike Town USA-branded questionnaires that were left in 10 area restaurants, seven hotels and lodging companies and seven local bicycle-related businesses.
More than 50 percent of those who responded indicated cycling was the primary reason for their visit, outpacing even an "other" category that lumped in everything from visiting friends to family vacation and soccer tournaments.
More than 80 percent said they'd spend at least some time cycling, and half said they'd spend more than half of their time on a bike. Nearly two-thirds of those cyclists said they were in town for cross-country mountain biking, 40 percent for road riding and almost 20 percent for downhill mountain biking, showing "a tendency for visitors to come to Steamboat with more than one type of riding planned for their vacation," a finding that fits very much with the broad-based appeal some say Steamboat offers to cyclists.
Among the best news for Steamboat's coffers: Those riders were well-off, mirroring one of the great built-in advantages of attracting often-affluent skiers and snowboarders to town.
Half claimed an income of greater than $100,000 per year, and 78 percent cited an annual income of more than $51,000.
Attracting major events also has been a focus of Bike Town USA, and those are frequently cited as economic drivers. The numbers bear that out, too. June 2011 saw two major bicycle tours swing through Steamboat Springs, leaving hundreds of riders with plenty of free hours to patronize restaurants and bars. June 2011's tax returns jumped 8.30 percent compared with June 2010, the second-highest year-over-year growth of any summer month in the past four years.
The single highest monthly year-over-year jump came in August 2011, which saw another major cycling event, the inaugural USA Pro Challenge, swing through town. Collections in that month were 8.46 percent better than August 2010.
July, by contrast, jumped 4.53 percent in 2011, about half the growth of June and August. The summer months also showed growth in 2012, when no major cycling events came to town, but they didn't see spikes in the range of what took place in 2011.
"That was the best day we've ever had," Steamboat Ski & Bike Kare owner Harry Martin said about the Pro Challenge stage stop, which finished near the front of his store.
He had a booth a few blocks down the road that did big business selling Steamboat T-shirts and similar gear. He upped his sponsorship ahead of this year's Pro Challenge stop and plans to add a booth near the starting line on the race's second day in Steamboat.
"I think it's important that they keep coming," he said.
It's questionable how sustainable that success is, however. Ride the Rockies didn’t return in 2012. Neither tour will hit Steamboat in 2013, and there is no shortage of towns in Colorado eager for their business.
Similarly, there are plenty of towns seeking to be stops on the Pro Challenge. The race will return this year, but the 2012 version skipped Steamboat.
No one can be sure how often Bike Town USA will make the cut going forward.
Reaping the benefits
There's plenty of other anecdotal evidence to back claims of a biking tourism wave, perhaps no company in town citing cycling as a new economic driver more than Ski & Bike Kare.
"As a bike shop, we have seen a really big increase in our summer business, to the point where last year, due to a poor snow season, we had a bigger summer business than winter for the first time," said manager Derek Hodsen. "We have seen specific destination cyclists coming from Utah and Salt Lake City, bypassing other areas and coming to Steamboat. They're coming from the Front Range."
Bike shops might be the tip of the cycling tourism iceberg, the first place many experienced riders will pull in looking for an accessory they forgot or a bit of advice on where and when to ride. Across Steamboat, those shops have begun to adjust to what they say they're starting to see, and what they hope is coming.
The bike shop approach to tourists only is slightly different than the bike shop approach to locals.
Some visitors shop for the big-ticket items — bikes themselves — taking advantage of the three high-end bike shops that sit within the confines of downtown and another they'll likely drive or ride by on the way to their rental condo.
Major grocery store chains can at times run out of 2 percent milk in Steamboat, but the town is difficult to rival when it comes to its selection of high-end bicycles.
Shops typically focus elsewhere to maximize their tourism dollars, however.
"Rentals, clothing and service is where it will really expand when that biking person comes in," Ski & Bike Kare's Martin said.
Logo gear — branded jerseys and accessories — are a fairly new revenue stream for Wheels. Sales of those soft goods already is big at Ski & Bike Kare.
The number of rental bikes in Steamboat, meanwhile, has skyrocketed in the past five years. Wheels didn't have any fleet at its old location but has grown its numbers quickly. As with other shops in town, weekend surges like last summer could clean out the supply. Ski & Bike Kare reported growing its fleet of mountain bikes, cruisers and road bikes as much as 30 percent in the past several years. The prospect of renting downhill bikes at Steamboat Ski Area is enticing enough that it factored into a decision by Martin to open a new location at the base area.
Martin said his initial guess is that summer could account for about one-third of the business there.
Cycling is strong enough in Steamboat that new businesses are entering the crowded market.
J.R. Thompson has been operating SpindleOne Tours out of Steamboat, though that bicycle-guiding company mostly has focused on road riding elsewhere in the state. He officially kicked off Jan. 1 with Blue Room Velo, a mobile repair operation.
"I have bikes coming out my ears right now," he recently said.
Blue Room Velo might not feel the full weight of a potential rush of tourists, but it certainly is feeling Steamboat's own obsession with cycling.
"Cycling is definitely an economic factor," Thompson said. "These people in Steamboat, these are nice bikes people are riding. People spend a lot of money on them and that adds up.
"Cycling, it's for real."
The business community is equally excited, but it's also unsure what it's seen and how to best court the potential growth of cycling tourism.
As with the bike shops, there seems to be a dozen ways to explain any surge in business.
Consider The Paramount, a sandwich shop that opened two years ago at the base of the ski area. It doubled its business from its first summer to its second, an increase that coincided with the opening of the downhill bike park.
The jump also coincided with the conclusion of construction of the base area promenade, and more simply, with the restaurant establishing a strong base of regular customers.
The increase in business has included cyclists, but the shop's owners were reluctant to assign credit.
"We really can't say that was due to the biking," owner Lee Demusis said. "We saw a lot more people last year than normal, but the ski area definitely still has some work to do to bring people in. I hope the work on the new trails will do that."
Local businesses have tried to capitalize on the cycling initiative.
Holiday Inn of Steamboat Springs, for instance, converted a little-used game room into a storage room for guests' skis in the winter and bicycles in the summer.
Owner Scott Marr said rags and cleaning supplies were added to allow guests to clean their bikes. The hotel also added outdoor bike racks, focusing them around the attached Rex's American Grill & Bar.
The amenities have proven popular.
"During the summertime, you go out into our parking lot or into the bike storage area and there are a ton of bikes there," Marr said. "A ton of people are coming to ride."
The changes haven't exactly driven business, however. Marr said the additions have proven to be satisfiers for his hotel clientele, not exactly motivators. He hopes that changes.
"Did it bring in additional people? At this point, probably not," he said "Still, we are doing things to let people know cyclists are welcome. We hope those things will bring people back."
Others have focused on a more direct appeal to cyclists. Freshies restaurant is a short jaunt from downtown, but only 100 yards off the Core Trail. If the debate is between whether to actively court cyclists or win their patronage by simply being a good business, count Freshies among the more aggressive businesses.
Already saddled with a reputation as a joint with plenty of healthy options, the restaurant plans to double down on that.
"We're not just doing more of the same," said Kristy Fox, who runs the hotspot with her husband, Scott. "We're going with a Freshies that has an even fresher feeling. We feel like that is what people who are coming to town to bike are looking for. Those people are looking for those farm-fresh foods, and we hope to offer more of that."
The Foxes also installed two bike racks outside and last summer began operating a smoothie bar on the patio. Finally, they hope to make their entrance more visible from the nearby bike path.
"You can't just keep doing what you're doing," she said. "You have to be reinventing yourself, just like the way Steamboat is with Bike Town USA. You have to keep on moving forward."
Adding it up
No doubt, Bike Town USA still is a work in progress.
"That's one thing that's been misrepresented at times," the ski area's Schneider said. "People keep saying, 'You can't call yourself Bike Town. You're not there.' But Bike Town is about the process of getting there. The journey in developing Bike Town is what will provide the benefit.
"We may never be at that endgame, and hopefully we're not. Hopefully, we're always improving."
There are plenty of questions that remain, questions that dig at local economist Scott Ford. He insists he's not opposed to cycling, just that he's skeptical of the size of the boost such an initiative can supply Steamboat.
He pointed to statistics, from the National Sporting Goods Association ending in 2011, that show cycling as a sport that's flat in terms of growth throughout the past decade.
Counting those who had participated at least two times in the previous year, the number of mountain bikers has hung between 6 million and 9 million riders since 1999, and road cycling has hung around 40 million participants. Walking for exercise, meanwhile, has grown by 17 million participants in that same time.
"I'm not dismissive of 8 million people. That's a lot of people," Ford said. "I'm not anti-biking. There is probably opportunity there, but what we need to be careful about is that it won't be the panacea that it's sometimes presented to be. It's just not that big."
Results from a survey contracted by the Steamboat Springs Chamber Resort Association asked the 200 respondents what "Steamboat Springs" and "summer" brought to mind. "Beautiful" ranked high. "Biking" ranked near the bottom.
Biking did, however, rank near the top of summer activities that came to mind, only a hair behind hiking, indicating that at least in one small sample, Steamboat certainly could be a place to visit and ride a bike, but isn't yet a place to visit to ride a bike.
Still, even a little can make a lot of difference when it comes to attracting tourists.
The most recent Chamber summer survey results, from 2010, suggest the average summer visitor spends about four days in Steamboat and spends about $73 per day.
Chamber analysis of summer 2011, meanwhile, claimed there were 275,971 tourists in Steamboat.
If cycling — or anything for that matter — did change any of those measurements, it could mean huge things for Steamboat.
Ford calculated the impact of about a 10 percent increase on what he cited as the summer tourism count, about 121,000.
With 12,500 new visitors, he estimated an increase in spending of $6.56 million. It would result in 56 new summer jobs and a sales tax increase of $654,488.
If biking could add to the typical length of stay — keeping visitors in town even an half day more — spending climbs by another $500,000, and it goes even higher if they stay longer and spend a little more while here.
"Can we got some visitors to come up? I hope so," he said.
Others see much more waiting just over the horizon thanks to Steamboat's turn toward bikes.
Citing a study of the Whistler Mountain Bike Park in British Columbia, Rich Lowe, vice president of Bike Town USA and one of the founding members of the organization, begged to differ with Ford's skepticism.
The numbers offer promise. Cyclists surveyed in the 2006 report claimed to have spent more than $121 per day, a major step up from the $73 Steamboat now is getting. That points to an affluent visitor, just what Steamboat businesses are hoping for.
"I would argue that is evidence that it will work," Lowe said. "We've already got the assets in place. We have the mountain, the roads, the ski lifts, the gondolas, the restaurants and hotels, and they're not being fully utilized in the summer."
Ford was quick to cite a legitimate hole with any argument involving Whistler or even Winter Park: Vancouver, British Columbia, and its nearly 2.5 million metropolitan population is about 90 minutes away. Denver is farther from Steamboat, and visitors would have to drive by or near several similar attractions in Winter Park or Summit County to reach Steamboat.
But just like Steamboat competes as a world-class resort in the winter despite geographic disadvantages, Lowe said he also sees it competing in the summer.
From bike shops to restaurants, from Ski Corp. to city hall, pinning any sort of economic windfall on a citywide bicycling focus is difficult. The game's players hope to change that in the coming years. The Chamber plans to include cycling related questions in a new summer survey, and Bike Town USA hopes to install equipment to monitor traffic on some trails.
Even with the most optimistic data, there's one flaw: It's not just Steamboat.
There's a thriving downhill mountain bike scene at Winter Park. Resorts like Snowmass and Breckenridge are scrambling to catch up, and that's just in Colorado.
Mountain towns across the region have made cycling a priority, and proponents of Bike Town USA argue it's essential for Steamboat's summer business to keep pace.
"We are competing for people who make decisions about where to go on vacation," Lowe said.
As much as anything, that might be where the $600,000 per year factors in and why Steamboat opted to double down on two wheels.
"Everything has been done in pieces over the years," said Aryeh Copa, a longtime cycling trails advocate in town and one of the main motivators behind the trails alliance that presented to the lodging tax committee.
"We need to fill in the gaps," he said. "We feel we can leapfrog ahead of all of those communities."
Coming next week
What are Steamboat's mountain-town rivals doing to draw their own cycling tourists, and what does Steamboat need to keep pace with those communities? Is Steamboat Springs prepared for what appears to be a bike town arms race?
Check back next week for the second installment of this two-part series as the focus turns from local economics to the race for tourism dollars across the western United States.
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