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A mountain biking mecca next door?

Kim Marquis
Summit County Correspondent
Special to the Daily/Brad OdekirkKim Marquis, left, cooks dinner on a hillside just above the Colorado River with friends Megan Watkins and Jim Mauch just north of the Colorado National Monument.
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MOAB, Utah ” On a blustery April afternoon, two dozen vehicles line up on the blacktopped hill leading to Moab’s Slick Rock trail system and campground.

Some tow trailers stuffed with dirt bikes and ATVs; others tote mountain bikes on roof racks.

They stop quickly to hand fistfuls of dollars to two Bureau of Land Management clerks manning the fee station. The stream of traffic is nonstop, and Jason Turner says that it’s not a busy day. Turner says an estimated 200,000 people visit Slick Rock every year.

In the parking area, mostly 30-something men donned in bright Lycra fit front wheels into forks and test brakes while the wind whips through the 100-car lot. The whine of two-stroke engines can be heard in every direction.

This is Moab in the spring ” a place where hundreds of High Country residents make pilgrimages to get some peddling exercise and a bit of sun after a long winter.

In about six weeks, the place will be too hot for most bikers. Meanwhile, Summit County’s trails will be dry by mid-June and the mountain biking season will open in the High Country.

But the hundreds of thousands that visit Moab from all over the nation and world don’t know about Summit’s summertime riding, where backcountry trails are mostly enjoyed only by locals.

There are certainly some who like it that way, but Breckenridge and the Breckenridge Resort Chamber aim to market Summit County as a mountain biking mecca.

With the Golden Horseshoe a possible new organized playground with trail systems that could be used to attract the denizens, questions lie ahead: Can Summit market itself as a mountain biking destination? If so, how?

The Moab model

Moab’s Slick Rock is part of the nearly 8,000-acre Sand Flats Recreation Area, with 40 miles of trails that were built and designed for motorcycles in 1969.

Frisco resident Lynn Donovan said her annual trip to the area has never been affected by the motorcycles, ATVs and Jeeps ” she likes the place for its unusual scenery.

But Mike Bassett, a 10-year Moab resident who works for the local government in his job at the fee station, said the difference between motors and bicycle chains borders on war.

“(Motorized users) see it as a bunch of rock and sand, that it’s their God-given right to drive their rig wherever they want,” he said.

Constant management is required to prevent the ecosystem from falling apart, Bassett said.

Turner, his work companion, found the popularity of the place perplexing but pinned it mostly on marketing: “It looks good on TV,” he said. “You buy the gear and stuff and then have to go use it … I really can’t explain it.”

Both men support aggressive efforts to manage the land.

The Grand County Sheriff’s Office presides over Slick Rock in a multi-agency agreement that is set up not unlike the one under consideration for Breckenridge’s Golden Horseshoe. The federal agency, local government and nonprofit groups work together to maintain some land purity, despite the number of visitors.

“Most locals appreciate people who come here and treat the place with respect, but they’re not so desperate for people that they’ll take the ones who will do just anything,” Bassett said, adding that more than 100 tickets were written for motor vehicle infractions during a recent Jeep festival.

Moab native Sarah Ballard proved that visitors are welcomed by some locals. She works for Action Shots, a commercial photography company that sells its photos to tourists doing ” among other recreational activities ” the Slick Rock trail.

She said her hometown’s popularity creates changes, but said the activity is needed.

“It has created growth for sure ” there’s stuff going up every day. It’s overcrowded but this is what gets us through the winter. It’s good for the economy,” Ballard said.

The Fruita story

If there’s a case study for what a sport’s popularity can do for an economy, it’s Fruita just west of Grand Junction.

The rural town had emerged from bankruptcy two years before Denver businessman Troy Rarick rolled in and bought a main street storefront for $26,000, intent on opening up a bike shop.

The surrounding real estate was filled with piles of rubble, but Rarick and a few friends worked on it every morning, then hit the old mining roads and backcountry on federal land with polaskis and strong backs to build miles of singletrack.

Before biking, Fruita had (and still does) some agriculture and a defunct oil refinery. The place was (and still is) a true slice of the rural West.

“There’s public land for 100 miles in every direction here that was regarded as just wasteland,” Rarick said.

He didn’t think Fruita would become an international mountain biking destination. “That came later,” he said.

Instead, the Grand Junction population and drive-by Front Range riders heading to Moab were his target. The marketing plan involved a $5,000 gift from a local businessman and one ad in Bike Magazine that announced the first annual Fruita Fat Tire Festival.

Three hundred and fifty people showed up and tried out the trails that were mapped on a photo-copied booklet that Rarick wrote. That was the first year. Rarick stopped advertising the festival six years ago and this week, he expects 2,000 people for the 10th annual event.

Ask him what he thinks made the place and his answer is, “The trails,” but Rarick is a bit biased: He and his colleagues built them all.

The mountain biking community had its fight with the Bureau of Land Management in Fruita over motor vehicles use, but unlike Moab, where engines came first, Rarick was able to maintain exclusive use of the trails he built.

He credits the town for recognizing and supporting the economy that mountain biking brought. People in Fruita are happy with what they’ve got ” hence the passive festival-marketing plan ” and don’t want to advertise themselves out of a lifestyle, he said.

“You can shoot too wide, like Moab, where a neon strip is downtown and they want to be the tourist town for everyone,” he said. “We want to make it better for people who live here, not drive them out.”

The Bureau of Land Management estimates the sport attracts about $1.5 million to the local economy. While Fruita’s downtown still looks much the same as it did 10 years ago, there are new sidewalks and planters in the business district, plus talk of a rec center and skateboard park.

Rarick’s philosophy involves maintaining the status quo in Fruita, rather than pumping it up.

“There’s a certain cycle to a destination,” he said. “Once everyone’s been there, it’s not cool anymore so by not trying to get everyone in the world to come here in 2005, there are more to come in 2006. It preserves the experience for the people that are here today.”

Fruita has not yet reached its “tipping point,” he said, where locals still openly welcome the tourists instead of shun them in places like Moab, or perhaps, Summit County.

Summit County potential?

Breckenridge met several years ago with its chamber to discuss marketing Summit County to the mountain biking crowd.

Much work has been done to preserve trails in and around Breckenridge, but there are miles to go before the area is ready to be a national mountain biking destination, said Heidi Anderson, open space and trails manager for the town.

Some challenges include camping and fees. Bunking down in the dirt is still free in Fruita, although the Bureau of Land Management is beginning to tighten up choices by closing areas and designating sites.

In Moab, a night in a tent will cost $5 to $8, but free backcountry camping is still widely available to those in the know. Some of the most popular spots are now blocked because federal officials saw too much degradation.

While there are about 300,000 acres of National Forest land in Summit County that are open for short camping stints, locations are not generally known by the visiting public. Campgrounds run about $12 to $14 per night around Dillon Reservoir, and reservations are usually needed for summer weekends.

The lodging situation may be one factor that plays into Summit’s popularity as only a one-day destination for Front Range residents, Anderson said.

Another challenge is knowing the trails. While the town passes out thousands of maps each year at more than a half-dozen trailhead kiosks around town, Anderson said first-time visitors could be overwhelmed by the trails system ” especially in the Golden Horseshoe.

When and if local governments secure another 1,840 acres that’s now defunct mining land, Anderson said her department will be ready to map trails and start a public discussion on use designations. The process includes the National Forest Service because mining lands border federal lands and trails criss-cross all over the place.

The process is likely to be heated, and a decision will have to be made as to whether the Golden Horseshoe will be managed like Moab’s Slick Rock with motor vehicles sharing space with mountain bikes.

Anderson said a ban on motor vehicles in the Golden Horseshoe is not likely, but she hopes to see separated designations to preserve certain experiences.

This summer, an endurance race dubbed The Breckenridge 100 will kick off in town on July 16, but marketing it among the more than 1,000 other events that will take place between Memorial Day and Labor Day might also prove to be a challenge.

The new race will add to the Firecracker 50 event, said Kristen Petit, communications coordinator for the Breckenridge Resort Chamber, and help put the town on the map with fat tire fanatics.

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