Vail’s summer downhillers want runs
Vail, CO Colorado
VAIL, Colorado – There’s a new trend among some ski resorts that doesn’t involve snow that hasn’t yet hit Vail Mountain.
In the past few years, more Colorado ski resorts have spent increasing amounts of money and time on building up downhill mountain biking trails and features on their slopes to create a growing summer attraction – and it’s a trend that some local riders and businesses wish Vail Mountain would follow.
“In Vail here we don’t really cater to downhill mountain biking,” said Jay Lucas, owner of Ski Base in Lionshead Village.
Downhill rentals are a small fraction of his summer business, he said, but he points toward resorts like Whistler, which has one of the most well-known bike parks in North America, as well as Keystone and Winter Park, which have been cutting more trails, hosting more races and building more bike parks.
In comparison, he said, Vail has two open trails dedicated to downhilling.
Mountain spokeswoman Liz Biebl said that the resort has no plans at the moment to expand any of its downhill program.
“We will continue to improve and develop Vail’s mountain bike experience, but we do not have plans to develop a park or constructed experience like Whistler or Keystone,” she said.
She added that the return on that type of bike park and trail system do not warrant the investment on Vail Mountain, nor is it the direction Vail is looking to take right now.
However, Lucas disagrees.
“It’s been proven that (it can be successful),” he said. “A lot of other areas are starting to build this stuff. They’ve obviously seen the light.”
Some riders agreed that Vail has the potential to be as successful as the top biking resorts, if the trails are built.
Vail has better terrain and more space than some resorts, such as Sol Vista, which recently hosted the USA Cycling National Mountain Bike Championships, said Edwards downhill rider Jared Saul.
“The quality of Vail’s trails are good – the two that they do have,” he said. “It’s just that you ride there more than twice a summer and you get pretty bored pretty quickly.”
Even so, on many weekends, Vail’s gondola can be packed with riders decked in body armor riding beefy downhill machines.
Vail resident and downhill racer Brian Peters said that just shows Vail’s untapped potential.
“We’re the biggest single mountain,” he said. “It’s perfect for downhilling – it’s not crazy steep, but not super flat. And Vail is huge – one run all the way down is pretty long.”
The sport has money-making potential, too, he added. Downhill bikes cost thousands of dollars, and the equipment doesn’t come cheap either.
“It’s an affluent sport much like skiing,” he said.
Not that the sport is widely viewed in the same light as skiing – bike shop owners say they rent out far more cruiser bikes to families than full-suspension freeride bikes, and vacationers strolling through the village can still regard armored riders wearing full-face helmets with a bit of fear.
But Saul said he doesn’t think it has to be that way. Trails can be built for all levels, from singletrack boasting big drops and steep descents to easier, fun terrain, he said, citing Whistler as an example.
“When you go to Whistler, you really catch a glimpse of how big it can be,” he said. “You see how many people show up for races and events, and there are so many people just riding. It’s like a ski town, with bikes up and down everywhere, and multiple high-end bike shops selling all the latest downhill stuff.”
The key is creating trails that can be ridden by people on a hardtail and trails that will challenge a professional-level downhiller, he said.
“It makes downhilling very approachable, which in my eyes is accessible, even to kids and parents,” Saul said. “We understand that not everyone’s looking to ride the gnarliest stuff on the latest bikes.”
Peters said that the dangers of getting hurt and liability for the ski resort can be a deterrent. However, he argued that it’s no more dangerous than a winter terrain park.
“We live in the land of liability,” he said. “I’m sure that’s a concern, but the kind of trail downhillers need aren’t necessarily dangerous – they’re more manicured, inventive and entertaining.”
Gypsum resident Ed Martinez, a long time rider and trail builder, said he’s been discouraged to see Vail fall behind in the downhill world.
Vail hosted the 1994 and 2001 World Championships, but since then has closed many trails, he said.
“They tout this mountain as the best in the world,” he said. “We’ve shown in the past with the world championships what it can be. It’s frustrating.”
Peters said he remembers riding the 2001 championship course and scouting the mountain with England’s Steve Peat, a downhill pro rider. Peters said Peat was amazed by Vail’s potential and agreed that Vail was going to be on the edge of the budding sport.
There still is a stigma associated with downhill mountain bikers, he admits.
“But so did snowboarding,” he said. “In Vail in 1988, they hated us. Downhilling is a fringe sport, but it’s not going to be for long, and I think it’s been pretty obvious for a long time now.”
Lucas said sees the mountain taking steps backwards, referring to the closing of trails and the decision to shut down the Vista Bahn this summer.
“We have this wonderful asset right outside our door and we’re not using it,” he said. “Why not do a little more and see what happens?”
Staff Writer Melanie Wong can be reached at 970-748-2928 or email@example.com.