Downward bound on Vail Mountain
While more than 50 miles of bike trails trickle over Vail Mountain, a group of volunteers spent Wednesday creating a path specific for downhill biking.
More than 40 people took the day off work to flatten, move rocks and build jumps and turns on the Magic Forest Trail below the gondola building at Eagle’s Nest.
“We’re doing basic maintenance on the trail, rerouting it and changing it around a bit,” said Vail resident Jay Lucas, who owns Wheel Base in Lionshead.
The trail, high above Lionshead, showed some signs of neglect and had few features.
“We’re redeveloping the trail because it’s pretty beat up,” Lucas said. “It’s old, and there’s not a lot of features built into it. We’re going to smooth it out and create a better product.”
Jumps, bumps, burms, logs, ramps and rock gardens were on the list of features for the day-long effort by the Downhill Riders Advocacy Group, who helped organize the event along with Vail Resorts, Inc.
“The growth of downhill biking is just wild,” said Jen Brown, a spokeswoman for Vail Mountain. “There’s so many different features you can take, and so many different lines on the trails. It’s really a family sport, if you want it to be one.”
Among the volunteers was Eagle County resident Dick Patriacca, the elder statesman of the downhillers at age 58.
“There are some table tops but they’re fairly flat to jump off or over,” Patriacca said. “Some of the rocks, though, can be intimidating to ride on top if you’ve never done it. But the downhill bikes are built so that you can just roll right over the rocks.”
Downhill bikes are built for enormous endurance, Patriacca said, with wheels that are twice as wide as a mountain bike.
“They are very heavy bikes,” he said. “A mountain bike will weigh about 25 pounds. A downhill bike is pushing around 50 pounds.”
The bikes also are designed to be put on a chairlift, he said.
“You can’t ride one of these things up the mountain,” he said. “They are simply too heavy. They’re not geared to be ridden up the mountain.”
The bikes have up to a foot of brake suspensions in the front and the rear.
“The brakes don’t fade easily,” he said. “There’s a huge range of modulations that causes the bike to slow down without locking up on you.”
Pro skier and Vail resident Seth Morrison, who spent the day on the trail building the bumps and jumps, said he switched to downhill biking after getting tired of mountain biking.
“This is exciting to do in the summer, because it’s a different type of training,” he said. “And you don’t have to hit the jumps. It gives you an opportunity to learn and get better.”
Yet for the downhillers, it’s not just about the heaviness of the bike but the armor that must be worn for protection.
“You have the chest, back and body armor,” Patriacca said. “You have the full-faced helmet always to keep your chin and face protected.”
Other armor includes arm, elbow and rib protection. Some wear hip pads as well as chin, knee and ankle-bone protection, plus full-fingered gloves.
“You could never do these trails on a conventional mountain bike,” he said. “You’d kill yourself. You’d flip your bike and kill yourself.”
Wear and tear
Parts of the trail wind down and around the mountain, twisting and dropping into the trees and sometimes merging with a different trail or route.
“This is a new trail that was built this spring, but it’s showing a little wear,” said Eagle County resident Charlie Snyder. “We’re trying to keep it sustainable so that it will be here next year.”
Most of the volunteers building the trails said they are motivated by the idea that they get to build what they’re riding.
“We’re doing this so the bikers can use all the features,” said Tony Calabrese, who works at Wheel Base. “Some bikers need to keep their speed up, and the burms allow you to do it.”
“It’s a lot more fun,” Morrison agreed, “and there’s not a lot of effort to fix it. People have to start somewhere. The trail should be way better than last summer.”
Some sections of the trail have been moved, the volunteers said.
Distance and speed are important when it comes to the trails, Brown said. Most of the volunteers are downhillers and know where the rocks and other features need to be placed in order to make the trail more usable.
“There’s still work to be done to make it rideable for next year,” Brown said. “But these guys know what they’re doing, and they can modify it and perfect it.”
Bikers’ awareness of each other on the trails has increased, Brown said.
“The interaction between mountain bikers and downhill bikers is great,” she said. “However, safety is our biggest priority.”
The ski company plans to improve the signs along the trails to ensure hikers, as well as bikers, are aware of the difficulty of the routes.
“A number of years ago we had renegade trails,” Brown said. “A guy was hurt pretty severely on one of them, and we couldn’t reach him right away. It was one of the trails that wasn’t approved by the Forest Service, and we get a call saying that there’s a guy stranded on the hill somewhere. Well, where?”
New trails eventually were approved, but required others to build it.
“Yeah, they said we’ll get it approved but you guys can build it,” Morrison said.
Patriacca said there was some fear about downhill biking.
“There were some people who were reluctant to let us on the hill,” Patriacca said. “But if you put them on a downhill bike and let them experience it, maybe they would have a better idea of how it works, because it’s more of a technical sport. And it really does have potential to be a family sport.”
Christine Ina Casillas can be reached at 949-0555, ext. 607 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.