Teen turns talent into business

Accomplished cyclist Ethan Johnson creates Mountain Bike Tours

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— Ethan Johnson didn't want to contemplate spending the entirety of his 16th summer working behind a counter. So he began spinning his wheels.

Johnson conceived a plan to combine one of his two great passions in life with what he hopes will become a profit-making venture.

Johnson started his own business: Steamboat Mountain Bike Tours.

At 16, Johnson has gained regional and national prominence in two sports mountain-bike racing and nordic-combined skiing. He isn't certain if his future will always include athletics, or if he has a career in business ahead of him. It was last fall, while hanging out at Sore Saddle Cyclery, that an idea to make money from sports began to germinate in his mind.

"I spend a lot of time at Sore Saddle with my friend Nick (Crislip, whose parents own the shop)," Johnson said. "I'd hear all of these people saying, 'Where can we ride?' and 'Are tours available?'"

Johnson had to put his dream of operating a mountain-bike touring company on the rack during ski season. During the long Steamboat winter he devoted himself to academics at Whiteman School and the twin disciplines of cross-country skiing and ski jumping that make up nordic combined.

By late February, Ethan and his father, Larry Johnson, were beginning the work of writing a proposal for Ethan's business to the city of Steamboat Springs Department of Parks, Open Space and Recreational Services.

Ethan's plan was to conduct his mountain-bike tours on the trail system that begins at Howelsen Hill, a city park. He knows those trails like he knows the derailleur on his Moots mountain bike, and he was hoping to avoid the potential competition of another operator applying to run tours on the National Forest.

With his father's help, Johnson submitted the proposal, which offered details about how he intended to conduct his business. It was strong enough to win a hearing with the Parks and Recreation Commission, which gave him a thumbs up and sent him on to the Planning Commission. Ethan's plan was approved by the city with conditions. For example, the terms of his permit require him to work with all the bicycle shops in town when referring customers for bike rentals. And he has agreed to stay off the trails when muddy conditions could result in damage.

Johnson was notified by Chris Wilson, director of Parks, Open Space and Recreational Services, that he was cleared to begin conducting tours.

To date, Johnson has only led a handful of tours in fact, he's a little sheepish about mentioning just how few. He's had three tours referred from local bike shops, and one was booked through his Internet presence on the Chamber Resort Association's Web site.

"It's been starting slow, but I'm pretty confident," Johnson said. "Come the next few weeks, it will start picking up."

Part of Johnson's confidence is based on the diversity of trails on Emerald Mountain.

"Emerald's got so many trails and they can be hard to find," Johnson said. "I took one girl on a tour and she struggled at first, but once she got to Orton's Meadow, she was very happy."

He estimates he's invested about $1,600 in his business startup, including purchasing $2 million in liability insurance through membership in the Bicycle Ride Directors Association of America. He also had rack cards printed by Mountain Offset and pays to have them distributed by Steamboat Brochure Delivery.

Johnson is prepared for mishaps on the trail he took a full-day course in basic first aid at Colorado Mountain College and carries a basic first-aid kit along with a cell phone in case of anything serious.

"On Emerald Mountain, you're always close to that main road," Johnson said of safety precautions. "One of the things I like to do is ride at the back. I always make sure I'm behind the slowest rider.

It's one of the few times the average mountain biker will be able to ride ahead of Johnson he's ranked second in Colorado among competitive mountain bikers his age, and will jet off to his second national race of the season in Mount Snow, Vt., in August.

Johnson plans to give his two-tired business one more summer to take off before he moves on to other things. But he'd consider transferring the city permit to another operator.

"After high school," Johnson said, "I want to go other places and do other things."

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