A mountain biker, silhouetted against one of Steamboat's famous sunsets, makes his way up Buffalo Pass during a Steamboat Town Challenge Mountain Bike series.

Photo by John F. Russell

A mountain biker, silhouetted against one of Steamboat's famous sunsets, makes his way up Buffalo Pass during a Steamboat Town Challenge Mountain Bike series.

Biking Series Part 2: Battling to be the bike town


They mentioned it in meetings, and they emailed media outlets. They called their friends, linked to it on Twitter and posted and posted and posted about it on Facebook.

When it came down to the final days, Doug Davis stopped every person who passed him at the base of Steamboat Ski Area, directing them to a collection of eight Apple computers set up in a trailer near the entrance to the gondola.

Bell Helmets offered to give $100,000 to fund three cycling construction projects, and the envisioned advanced course at Steamboat’s Bear River Bike Park was selected as one of four finalists in one of three categories.

The public voted to determine the winning projects, but Steamboat trailed from the get-go, falling behind an effort from Maple Grove, Minn.

All those calls to friends and the constant Facebook reminders helped, but Steamboat trailed by one percentage point through much of the final week, and the gap grew to two points as the deadline neared.

Still, the desperate efforts in front of the gondola netted 240 votes on the final day, and that made all the difference.

When it was all over, somehow, some way, Steamboat Springs won, the town of 10,000 edging out the Minneapolis suburb by a mere 30 votes.

Chalk up a win for Bike Town USA, and say hello to warfare in the bike town battles.

Riding rivals

It doesn’t take a marketing slogan to convince someone that Steamboat Springs is riding high on bicycles. Any trip across town on a spring or summer afternoon will reveal as much, and the Steamboat Springs Bike Town USA Initiative hopes to ride that momentum into the cycling stratosphere. The goal of the group, made up almost exclusively of volunteers, is to lift Steamboat to the tip-top of the cycling globe, making it a world-renowned biking destination.

But simply liking bikes might not be enough, and the group’s lofty goals might hang in the balance as towns from across the state and region scramble to ensure they don’t get left behind.

When it comes to attracting mountain biking tourists, Steamboat is up to its handlebars in competition.

A dozen Colorado towns already have active summer cycling tourism efforts, and even more envision such a push.

There is much each effort has in common. They all dream of being the next Fruita, a town that shed its depressed economy to become a mountain bike mecca.

Fruita, meanwhile, still is arming itself with trails of its own, trying to rival Moab, an outdoor sports paradise in the Utah desert.

At hotspots new, old and envisioned, hope is another consistency.

Hope coursed through a Wednesday night meeting in Bailey, a unincorporated town 45 miles southwest of Denver.

“A lot of people have been energized by the Bailey trails conversation,” said Shane Kinkennon, one of the early driving forces behind an effort to turn that wide spot in the road into a Front Range Fruita.

“We can be a destination for outdoors enthusiasts. We are accessible to a very big population, and we are surrounded on all sides by world-class recreational trail systems,” he said. “The hope is to put Bailey on the map for recreational trail sports enthusiasts in Colorado and all around the country.”

Add trails and become a destination for cyclists from around the country? That pitch — discussed Wednesday night with town residents and the local chamber of commerce — might sound familiar to many Colorado towns and cities.

Bailey has some natural advantages. Some of its trails are rideable year-round, and there’s no denying the blessing of location.

There also are some disadvantages. All the trails that connect those nearby systems to the town currently exist only on paper. There’s also little existing business infrastructure, from bike shops to hotels to restaurants — at least compared with ski resort towns where hosting crowds of visitors is a way of life.

“Hopefully, it would create construction and maintenance jobs, and one thing that Bailey lacks: a grocery store,” Kinkennon said.

Some towns are equally early in the process. Despite hosting one of the world’s premier mountain bike races, Leadville is desperately short on trails near town. But it’s building them, hoping to transform 15 miles into 150.

Not every town will gets its wishes, at least not soon.

Jerry Spiegel said he knows cycling can work in Idaho Springs. The sport has kept his Mountain and Road Bicycles shop open for 26 years.

“When people ask me where our trails are, I just tell them to pick a direction,” he said. “They’ll find something great.”

The town is “flat challenged,” Spiegel explained, and in desperate need of beginner and intermediate mountain bike terrain. There doesn’t appear to be any help in sight. He said any efforts to focus on trails are being stifled by several newly elected county commissioners.

“They don’t see that it’s a benefit,” he said. “I do.”

Most towns, however, are plowing ahead with the basic amenities Bailey lacks and the political will Idaho Springs lost.

New trail networks are in the works at resort towns across the state. Gravity-fed trails — the ski-lift accessed, downhill-only trails that are a major component of Steamboat’s own makeover — are at the heart of many of those efforts.

Keystone already has a popular downhill mountain bike park. Durango, Crested Butte and Telluride long have been fanatical about mountain biking, and gravity projects in Vail and Snowmass are getting off the ground and gaining steam.

“Just getting a handle on everything in Colorado is easier said than done,” said Mark Eller, communications director for the Boulder-based International Mountain Biking Association. “Colorado is the most active state where we see this kind of activity, from trail development to bike park planning.”

One town that has built a substantial lead in the gravity games is Winter Park.

Something to aim for

Winter Park’s existence as a top-tier downhill mountain biking hotspot is a problem for Steamboat, at least in some eyes.

Steamboat’s Bike Town USA marketing effort is built on the promise of cyclists streaming into town, and one of the primary draws for those riders is supposed to be the downhill trails — those that exist and those that are planned — at Steamboat Ski Area. Any of those cyclists coming from the Front Range will have to drive past a much closer option in Winter Park.

“Look where they’re located,” local economist Scott Ford said about Winter Park and its proximity to Denver. “Does our remoteness work to our advantage or our disadvantage? For certain things we do, it is a disadvantage, and mountain biking may be one of those things.”

Still, some see Winter Park as proof, not as a problem. That includes those from Winter Park.

That ski resort kicked off the construction of its Trestle Bike Park in 2005. Eight years later, the park is just finishing the first phase of construction, which included 40 miles of trails.

“Within the next couple of summers, we’ll start on round two,” said Bob Holme, the bike park manager who helped envision it all.

Even though crews were finishing five- and six-trail sections per summer at the height of construction, Holme said the process has been slow. That’s proven more of a saving grace than a frustration.

A deliberate pace allowed trail designers to learn from mistakes and come to understand the terrain on which they were building. Slow made it better.

The park started with one lift its first summer. Now, three run on peak weekends.

Phase two will involve expanding terrain even further, back deeper into the resort where cyclists can go to escape the growing crowds at the base.

Winter Park is a summer success, but building that success has imparted plenty of lessons.

“What you’ll see around the state is that it’s not as easy as just building trails,” Holme said. “We’ve taken our time to manage our resources and the forest in a really responsible way. There will be people who don’t do it the right way, and they won’t see the economic success we’ve had.

“There may be a lot of different resorts with bike parks popping up, but they won’t all be successful.”

Maybe that sounds like a dire warning for Steamboat and other towns hoping to get into the gravity market, but there’s also opportunity in his words.

Holme said the key at Winter Park has been learning to mesh trails with the environment. That can mean changing plans when the soil isn’t suitable, or it can mean taking advantage of terrain for great features.

When a whole state is considered, all the different kind of terrain at all the ski areas, that means no two bike parks should be alike. Any possible differentiation is good news for Steamboat.

“It’s just like with ski resorts,” Holme said. “If a ski resort tries to be something it’s not, it doesn’t work. We didn’t set out to try to create Winter Park to be like Whistler Bike Park. We don’t have the same dirt, the same rock features or the same terrain.

“That was the nice thing about going through this process slow. We didn’t start filling downhill trails in just to get them open. If we had, we would have had a worse product. We had time to see what was working and what wasn’t.”

That made a better, more unique product, and a similarly sober approach could bless Steamboat in the same way.

Building up

When it comes to building downhill mountain bike trails, Steamboat has “slow” nailed. The deliberate pace at which Steamboat Ski and Resort Corp. moved to begin building trails frustrated many in town, but once the first signs of progress came online last season, the reviews were good and indicated Steamboat has emphasized quality.

The early returns were strong enough to surprise even Ski Corp. officials’ optimistic outlook for last summer.

“It’s all been positive,” said Jim Schneider, vice president of skier services.

The consensus has been that a lack of gravity trails at the ski area was holding Steamboat back as a cycling town, but now that it has several trails, the resort isn’t keen on stopping. The ski area is forging ahead with new trails, expanding on the toehold with which it began. To compete with other towns, many don’t think the threshold for success is simply having a few downhill trails.

Rather, the plan is to build an expansive collection featuring at least one of every type.

Steamboat has opened sections of beginner, intermediate and expert downhill trails in addition to an expert jump line.

“We have a green trail and a black trail that are about halfway done, so we hope to get those done early in the summer and pick up another jump trail,” Schneider said.

Eventually, he hopes to have something for everyone — green, blue and black jump trails, a slope-style trail, longer downhill trails of every difficulty — giving new riders the chance to build their nerve and grow into the sport.

There still are plenty of questions to be answered. Schneider said Steamboat’s geography can offer some of the longest downhill trails on the continent. That screams for a billboard on Interstate 70. Or maybe not.

“Is that the right message? We’re not sure,” he said. “Back in the day, for example, when we built the Mavericks Super-pipe, we billed it as the longest half-pipe in North America. Well, that’s not what people wanted. I can’t sit here and say that a long trail with 2,000 feet of vertical is what people will want. Maybe they’ll want less vertical and the ability to do more laps.

“We could start spinning Christie Peak Express and do trails down from there that would be 1,000 vertical feet, and that might prove more popular than off the gondola. We just don’t know.”

The good news for local riders is that Steamboat is intent on finding out. Schneider said there are no current plans to open additional lifts for the summer, but Christie Peak Express would be the first option. The park is unlikely to ever extend to Storm Peak Express.

It sounds promising, said Winter Park’s Holme, who cited a wide-berthed approach to trail building as essential if the many new parks are to survive.

“If we all build responsibly, we can bring a lot of new people into the sport,” he said. “We can grow this pie for years. If too many people just focus on expert and advanced trails and we don’t provide access for first-timers and don’t allow for that progression, people won’t come back, and we’ll be fighting over a small market. We need to be able to convert a cross-country rider into a gravity fanatic. That’s what everyone’s goal should be.”

Keeping pace

Steamboat needs all the victories it can garner if it’s even to hold steady in the cycling world.

Local enthusiasts hope another recent win can help the initiative push Steamboat beyond holding steady, however. A committee that sorted through dozens of proposals is recommending that an estimated $600,000 per year for 10 years — revenue from a 1 percent city lodging tax — be put toward trail work.

Hope is rampant in the bike town battles, and the hope in Steamboat is that the money can be a springboard to fly past rival towns.

There’s plenty on the wish list to make that happen, some of the shiny projects that cause cyclists to drool and other more mundane tasks that might prove just as important.

Much of the construction proposed in the lodging tax debate will take care of rudimentary infrastructure issues, from modest extensions of the Yampa River Core Trail to small additions to the in-town bike path network to facilitate access from various hotels and parks.

Patching those and other small holes, such as more and better trail signage, could make for a big improvement.

“There’s a lot of potential to make it a better opportunity for people to be able to find trails in town that lead to trails out of town,” said International Mountain Biking Association’s Eller, who is familiar with Steamboat’s cycling offerings. “It all needs to connect well and be signed well. Steamboat has awesome riding, but it’s a place where I’ve always felt you get a much better day riding with a local than you do sniffing it out on your own.”

The Biking Association assigns grades to mountain bike towns, or “ride centers” as they’re dubbed, and Steamboat is in the process of applying to have its facilities examined and rated.

The gold standard is a place like Park City, the nation’s only IMBA gold-level ride center.

Eller said well-connected trail systems and seamless integration between private land, resort land and public land help the Utah destination stand out.

“You never know when you’re leaving one area and entering another. You’re just focused on the ride experience,” he said. “That’s the kind of thing Steamboat can emulate to get to another level.”

He ticked off a short list of areas in which Steamboat currently falls short. Many of those issues are addressed in the lodging tax trails proposal.

Eller said non-resort downhill trails are important, as well, and Steamboat’s project includes several. There are plans for a Spring Creek directional trail running roughly parallel to the current trail, and two directional trails and a dual slalom course on Emerald Mountain.

Other proposed trails do more to connect the front side of Emerald Mountain with the back side and popular new paths like the Rotary Trail, which itself could be expanded. Planners hope to further connect Rabbit Ears Pass with Mount Werner via trails and bring unauthorized routes near Mad Creek and Buffalo Pass into the official U.S. Forest Service fold.

“The main thing that will put Steamboat ahead is this huge master plan,” said Aryeh Copa, a longtime local trails enthusiast and builder.

Copa teamed with resident Eric Meyer and others to help develop the lodging tax plan.

“It’s always been one trail over here, then another gets approved over there, and a lot of those things aren’t connected,” he said. “It was never a whole trails system designed and developed for the valley. In order to reach our vision, we want to make it all seamless.”

Another priority is development of a “signature Steamboat trail.”

“Look at the famous rides in the state,” said Essam Welch, a longtime employee at Steamboat’s Orange Peel Bicycle Service. “People make pilgrimages to ride trails like that, and we need that here.”

Certainly, the 25-mile Emerald Mountain loop used in the Steamboat Stinger race can qualify, and Steamboat is close on several other trails, as well.

The Continental Divide Trail that runs between Rabbit Ears Pass and Steamboat Ski Area, for instance, could qualify. At 26 miles, it’s certainly long enough. Its climbs are more gradual than lung-busting, and it features plenty of downhill once riders get to Mount Werner. Plus, there’s even a cold beverage waiting in Gondola Square at any of the base-area restaurants and bars.

Of course, riding the Continental Divide Trail requires shuttling of vehicles, something that commercial operators aren’t legally allowed to do. Another obstacle is the snow and resulting mud that can persist into July and sometimes August.

Fighting the good fight

So Steamboat is held back by late starts to the cycling season, and it needs more varied downhill trails, better trail wayfinding, improved trail system connections and maybe a little publicity behind some of its most epic rides if it’s to stay in the ring with its mountain-town rivals.

And what happens if Steamboat does fall from the pack? That depends on whom you ask.

“We’re competing with other resorts, and it’s not just Colorado,” Bike Town USA’s Rich Lowe said. “It’s Sun Valley, Jackson Hole and so on. The slower we go, the further we fall behind.”

Ford, meanwhile, sees little change in Steamboat’s summers.

He cited a recent Steamboat Springs Chamber Resort Association-sponsored survey that listed cycling as low on the list of things that come to people’s minds when they connect “Steamboat” and “summer.”

“It’s almost off the charts. If it’s off the charts, we wouldn’t miss it,” he said, speaking strictly about the economic impact.

The survey did reveal that Steamboat resonates well as a family vacation spot in the summer just as it does during the winter, and that, Ford said, likely will remain the key to Steamboat summers.

Cycling can be a part of that, but one of many parts.

“People say that we’re a family-friendly town, a real town with great people,” Ford said. “From Grandpa to a 2-year-old, everyone can have fun here. We’ve even got an amusement ride, the Yampa River.

“What we do best, who we are, is family friendly. Would we lose out if we don’t expand? No.”

Nevertheless, enthusiasm for growing cycling is present here.

Steamboat enters the fray armed with hundreds of miles of singletrack. It has a ski mountain that plays host to a developing downhill bike park that many rivals can’t match, and of those that can, few boast the road-riding options Steamboat offers in the expansive Yampa Valley. As important as any of that, though, are the passionate supporters, those intent on bettering the town’s position in the world’s cycling ranks, the soldiers fighting the battle one meeting, one Facebook post, one day corralling voters in front of the gondola at a time.

Steamboat doesn’t appear poised to blink in the bike town wars.


Scott Wedel 4 years ago

Sure, bike trails are nice and popular.

The issue gets more complicated when working on bike trails is promised to increase summer tourism.

The business world is typically a data driven world. A corporation such a retail chain or motel looks at data to determine the size of the market and the number of competing businesses in the area.

Based upon the numbers, there is little reason to believe that a major investment in local trails will increase summer tourism. Doesn't matter how much local enthusiasts say that better biking trails will increase tourism, they don't have facts on their side. Thus, anyone expecting that spending accommodations tax revenues on bike trails will increase summer tourism is likely to be proven wrong.

Bike trails can be expected to be an appreciated local amenity so the money will not be wasted. But the odds are greatly against reality becoming a 10 year bike trail building program than results in noticeable improvements to summer tourism. Thus, if that is approved then how long will money be spent on trail building before it is expected to show results.


John St Pierre 4 years ago

The article is all about Mountain, Dirt riding and open road riding...It mentions the visitor lack of awareness being "off the charts". WHY???... I would submit that the real money is the tourism from famillies and the casual rider... the pro rider, the dedicated Moutain rider know where here.....But what was missing in the article is mention of Summit County's 55+ miles (& growing) of paved dedicated bike paths... and that does not include the mileage up and over Vail pass to Vail itself from Copper Mtn... all dedicated, seperate and paved..... The Summit system also connects all the towns.... Keystone, Dillon, Silverthone, Frisco, Breck and Copper..... add to that its proximity to Denver... and you have a family experince of 200 ft or 55 miles.... The Ski area itself has redirected its moutain experience to be more of a "family" resort.... thats where the cash is ...a family experince...


Karen Schulman 4 years ago

I have been a full-time resident of Routt County and Steamboat for 22 years. When my husband and I moved here in 1991, I rode my mountain bike on the Creekside Trail, and others on the ski mountain, as well as on the Continental Divide Trail, often with a backpack loaded with photo gear, and the Silver Creek Trail from Buffalo Park down to the Stagecoach area. It doesn't take a mathematician to figure out that I am no longer riding these challenging mountain bike routes. But I do love to ride. I can ride my mountain bike on gentle forest roads, or on the many other roads in the county and on the Core Trail. I can ride with my husband on any of the over 700 miles of county roads here in Routt County anytime. But what I feel we are lacking are more trails, like the Core Trail, but longer and more multi-directional, as in Summit County, or the Rio Grande Trail from Glenwood Springs to Aspen or even the Mickelson Trail in South Dakota. Is it important to have many mountain biking trail opportunities for the generation of cyclists who enjoy these types of trails? YES, My husband is one of them. But I and many of my friends, who spend lots of $$$$ living here and enjoying our lifestyle deserve a break too...how about a wider shoulder on CR 129, or a paved trail out to Stagecoach Reservoir, or maybe even a way to get from Steamboat, home to where I live in The Silver Spur subdivision without competing with 18 wheelers on U.S. Highway 40? Not everyone who lives here in the Yampa Valley or visits in the Summertime needs a gravity trail to have a good time. Lets hear from others like me...also those who have children who would like a safe way to ride their bikes from the outskirts of town into downtown Steamboat!!


Robert Dippold 4 years ago

Just a thought. I love to bike and one of the things I will miss when I move to Steamboat is the ability to bike all year round. Yes, I put on studded tires and bike along the Core Trail when I'm in town, but the routes are certainly limited. With the progression of snow biking with the fat tires, I see an opportunity to create snow trails for bikers in the winter and make it a 12 month a year sport (except the mud months). Like cross country skiing, snow bikes would require trails. For the few that are doing it on Emerald right now, you can see them walking up with snow shoes to pack the snow and try to make a trail. I could see how a snowmobile could be used to make trails for snow bikes in the winter. There are certainly a lot of people that are coming to town in the winter that could be exposed to biking in Steamboat in the winter. It could get them to think about coming back to Steamboat in the summer. Personally, as much as I like to bike, for Steamboat to be a serious bike town it needs to have year round bike options.


mark hartless 4 years ago

Yep... Marketing... That's what Steamboat needs more of...


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