words by Marc Peruzzi | photographs by Scott Markewitz
The Alpine Slide, in which unwitting vacationers fold themselves onto a wheeled sled and hurtle down ski areas on shallow bobsled tracks built of joined concrete forms, was once held up as the salvation of the ski resort business. Finally, an off-season revenue generator, mountain managers thought. Except for the unsightly friction burns, it might have worked. As anyone who lived in a resort town with an Alpine Slide can tell you, at speed, the mere brush of an exposed forearm, thigh, nose, or cheek with concrete tends to flay the flesh from the bone. The walking wounded were everywhere. And they didn’t go back for a second run.
Enter the mountain biking boom of the late 1980s and early ’90s. Again mountain managers—who didn’t yet mountain bike—saw summer revenues. Let’s open the lifts and let everyone bomb down on fully rigid bikes with their cantilever brakes, flat handlebars, and ‘fat’ tires. We’ll send them right down the ski runs and work roads. It’ll be great. Listen for the sound of collarbones cracking like kindling. Riding down an unimproved ski area is the equivalent of paddling a boogie board into Jaws. If the scree of the work-road didn’t send you flying into the Boulder Field of Splenectomies, the foot-deep water bar hidden in the grassy ski run surely would.
With a few exceptions (Whistler, British Columbia; Mount Snow, Vermont; a few others) ski resorts turned their backs on mountain biking. Mountain biking didn’t languish, though, it evolved and diversified. Today’s mountain bikers might be endurance-minded cross-country types who run three to four inches of suspension travel and wear spandex. Or they’re all-mountain riders who run five to six-inch travel bikes and favor baggy shorts, big descents, and technical climbs. Or they’re highly skilled freeriders adept at all manner of drops and specialized trials like teeter-totters and wall rides.
That’s the backstory, but we’ll need to scrap everything we know about resort mountain biking thanks to something called “Flow.”
Flow is not new. For most of its brief history, mountain bikers road existing hiking trails and dirt roads, grunting up for as long as endurance allowed before descending. The unlucky dropped down eroded fall lines full of wet roots. For the lucky, the trail naturally wove around obstacles and contoured the slope from switchback to switchback. And for the extremely lucky, the soil naturally formed bermed turns. The turns and the berms and the contouring let you arc the bike into corners without grabbing a fistful of brake and skidding. No longer excessively braking or pedaling, descending becomes effortless. That’s flow.
But outside of a few select areas—Burke, VT; Fruita, CO—where mountain bike trails were purpose-built, flow is hard to come by. Each region has a couple of naturally flowing trails that draw devotees, but until recently the Forest Service was none too keen on letting mountain bikers build trails. And resorts largely remained unresponsive. The flow was a trickle.
The lift-serviced scene at Whistler in the late 1990s evolved from downhill mountain bike racing. Trails followed the fall line over technical sections and included big drops, but the long travel DH bikes and fully padded pro-level riders could handle it. It was a niche component of a niche sport, until happenstance interrupted the status quo. The forces of expert line selection, bike handling, and speed allowed Whistler’s elite riders to hammer flow into the tracks. It was a phenomenon that Judd de Vall, a former IMBA Trail Solutions coordinator noticed firsthand while racing on the World Cup. “I wasn’t a contender,” says de Vall. “My top finish was an 11th. But with guys of that caliber, the course would berm in so well that every corner would shoot you out perfectly. Beginners blow those lines out, but pros naturally ride with flow.”
At Whistler, those well-ridden flowing DH lines became evermore popular. “But it’s hard on the body to ride that super gnarly all day long unless you’re really fit,” says Whistler Bike Park manager, Brian Finestone. The Whistler trail crew kept rebuilding berms and trying to inject more flow into a handful of the old DH trails. And then, about eight years ago, they decided to reinvent a singletrack trail called A-Line that they’d etched in a few years earlier. Bringing in a mini excavator and capping soil harvested from an old alluvial floodplain up the road, they essentially built a trail on top of the old extruded track, complete with oversized berms and tabletop jumps. The new A-Line quickly became the busiest trail in mountain biking. Today, more than a thousand tires an hour roll down it on a busy day.
A-Line turned Whistler into the biggest mountain bike destination in the world. In the 12 years that the Whistler Bike Park has been in operation, they’ve added a few miles of trail each season. They now offer more than 60 miles of gravity-fed riding. Some of those trails are of the super gnarly variety, but most are machine-built flow trails that have wider appeal. “The beauty of our flow trails is that you can maintain and improve them with a mini excavator,” says Finestone. “A-Line has evolved—as bikes and riders get better, we tweak it. The jumps get bigger. And we, learn that ‘Oh, the beginner is intimidated by that big berm, so lets send them into it blind and keep them from braking for no reason.”
As A-Line got bigger and faster, Whistler Bike Park responded with a range of easier flow options. The Whistler flow experience is now their number one attraction, chiefly because it’s possible to ride flow trails on any mountain bike. Last summer, the bike park saw 124,000 rider days. Fifty percent of those riders are renting armor and bikes and spend $230 a day on average (compared to $130 for skiers). The park employs 120 to 140 people, including bike patrollers, trail crews, instructors, and retail and rental help. It’s a far cry from the two million skier visits Whistler Blackcomb sees, but it’s a legitimate summer revenue generator.
Whistler Bike Park is the model for resort riding. So much so that a team from the trail design and maintenance crew formed their own division (Gravity Logic), and left the parent company, Intrawest, to form their own enterprise under the same name. Gravity Logic employs four full-timers and as many as 12 contractors. Currently working on 10 projects internationally, they’re actively building at five resorts including Whistler/Blackcomb, Winter Park, Colorado, and Järvsö, Sweden. And they’re in the design stage with projects at Stevens Pass, Washington, Timberline Resort on Mount Hood, Oregon, Snowmass, Colorado, Jackson Hole, Wyoming, and more. “The resorts need to treat bike parks as a legitimate operation and invest accordingly,” says Gravity Logic’s Dave Kelly. “And not just open their lifts and hope for the best. Designers and builders hired by the resorts need to understand that their paychecks are a direct result of rider visits and not just build their own personal playgrounds. And riders need to show the resorts that they appreciate the work by opening their wallets and inviting their friends.”
It’s easy to look at Whistler’s bike park success and come to the conclusion that if a resort builds a few flow trails, cyclists will come and spend money. But Whistler is a cycling anomaly. It’s common for BC riders to own a quiver of bikes (XC race, slopestyle, DH) and they’ve been long accustomed to looking to the resort for well maintained trails in an area know for heavy precipitation. They have a loyal base that includes locals and Vancouverites. A base that’s supported by their international guests—many from Europe.
The base is everything. When skiing boomed in the 60s, 70s, and 80s, the U.S. was riddled with mom-and-pop ski areas that grew skiers at staggering rates. Still today, it’s the smaller ski areas back East and in the Midwest that feed the destination resorts. And what’s the mountain biking equivalent? Until recently, none. Trained to look to the Forest Service trailhead for their recreation, the bulk of the U.S. market skews toward the all-mountain rider who typically heads out for two- to four-hour rides on largely unimproved, hiking trails they’ve been riding for 25 years. Add in a few small pockets of gravity riding like you’ll find in Seven Springs, Pennsylvania or Winter Park, Colorado (both resorts) and you get a pretty good feel for the market. The small community of U.S. freeriders building illegal trails on public lands and frequently running car shuttles to avoid climbing rounds it out. Summing up the U.S. mountain biking base, the word, “fractured” comes to mind.
Getting that disjointed and independent market excited about lift-serviced flow would seem a tall order, if not for the second big trend to revolutionize mountain biking in recent years: the rise of urban and suburban pump tracks. A cross between a BMX course and a dirt jump lot that goes heavy on the berms and rollers, a pump track is mountain biking’s equivalent of a skateboard park. Locked into a manageable piece of property—you can build a decent one on a quarter acre—pump tracks develop cornering skills and teach you how to accelerate out of turns and over rollers. Like gravity flow, it’s another way to ride a bike without tapping into huge endurance reservoirs. You simply pump the bike and lay off the brakes. It’s not gravity-fed flow, but it is flow.
“In the Whistler Valley on Crown Land [our version of Forest Service land] there are no less than five pump tracks built by neighborhoods,” says Whistler Bike Park’s Finestone. “The endurance and skills you learn on a pump track are directly attributable to a gravity park.” It’s such a good skill builder in fact, that while they’re loved by kids messing around on BMX bikes, many a World Cup downhiller trains on a pump track. Communities like Boulder, Colorado and Ketchum, Idaho that are looking to offer recreation that doesn’t involve yet another expensive pool or lonely tennis court are turning to pump tracks. To date, 50 urban bike parks (most with pump tracks) have been built by communities and clubs in North America (See: Mountain Advocate, last page). Skiing would kill for that type of grassroots base building.
“All of these feeder parks are going to drive a huge demand for lift-accessed projects,” says Judd de Vall, the former downhiller who left IMBA to start Alpine Bike Parks, a bike park design and installation firm that builds parks for municipalities and resorts. The type of high-end pump tracks that Alpine Bike Park’s team of professional rider/shapers creates is nothing like the backyard experience. “It really is all about flow. Creating that experience, like in winter skiing powder or pillow lines. The goal is to recreate the feeling of carving beautiful turns.”