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May

30

2014

Breaking Away

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The Warm Springs trail winds through wildfire burn on Sun Valley’s Bald Mountain.

Mountain towns capitalize on the cycle tourism boom. 

By Graham Averill | Photographs  by Scott Markewitz

At Hotel Domestique in the foothills of the Southern Appalachians, a valet parks your road bike, cleans it, and readies it for the next ride—a guided tour of one of retired Tour de France star George Hincapie’s favorite climbs; guided by one George Hincapie. “It’s like a high-end ski resort for cyclists,” says Rich Hincapie, who co-owns Domestique with his brother.

That high-end experience is just part of the rapidly changing face of North American cycle tourism. Whereas cyclists once traveled only for specific events—say a glimpse of the Giro d’Italia, a supported century ride, or a 24-hour race in Moab, Utah—now they’re seeking out bike-friendly destinations for the riding and the beer. Nowhere is that more true than in mountain towns, which in summer are seeing waves of cyclists escaping the heat and zombie apocalypses of coastal and southern cities.

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Editor Marc Peruzzi (above, left) dives into field research on Sun Valley singletrack.

In the past 10 years, Montana’s bike tourism has doubled. Oregon now welcomes 1.5 million cyclists annually. Twenty percent of Bend, Oregon’s visitors hale from California. They come to ride singletrack and then cruise the town sampling craft beers. Even a remote cycling destination like Cheyenne, Wyoming’s Curt Gowdy State Park—with 35 miles of purpose-built singletrack—sees 135,000 visitors a year; up from around 20,000 visitors before the trail network went in.

Part of the surge has to do with better information. You don’t need a guide for every trip. Websites like MTBProject map backcountry singletrack, Strava leads the masses to car-free back roads, and digital guidebooks abound. But the trend is bigger than that. Consider Western Spirit in Moab, which launched supported fat tire tours in 1989 and now leads rides in 11 states. “We’re adding trips to meet demand,” says Anne Erickson, Western Spirit’s sales director. “Our clients have less time than ever before. They don’t want to waste time looking for good trails, taking turns driving a shuttle car, or stocking a cooler.”

In Europe, travelers with bikes spend 44 billion euros annually. The North American pie isn’t quite that big, but it’s growing. Events like Colorado’s USA Pro Challenge help. Since its inception, John Humphries of Lizard Head Cycling Guides has led amateurs that shadow the race. “This style of guiding is offered in Europe, so I threw it out there to see if anyone was interested,” says Humphries. “Now we’re fully booked.”

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Kicking back at the Imperial Gulch campsite in Sun Valley.

Cycling hot spots like Whistler, British Columbia, and East Burke, Vermont are well known, but more recently, traditional ski towns like Park City, Utah (a Gold Level Ride Center according to the International Mountain Biking Association) and Steamboat Springs, Colorado are rebranding themselves as summertime bike destinations. The same is true for Sun Valley, Idaho. “We didn’t have to go and build a Ferris wheel,” says former pro mountain biker Greg Randolph of Visit Sun Valley. “There are 400 miles of killer trail riding right here in the valley. The nights are cool and the days are warm and sunny. Mountain towns have a certain buzz in the summer, which is really fun. People are out at the bars or cafes, and there’s hardly ever a zombie sighting. We just had to tell people about it.”

From the Early Summer 2014 issue.

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