American Resorts (Finally) Chasing Whistler Bike Park

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Circa 2006, the state of mountain biking’s gravity-fueled cutting edge was Whistler and a few ski resorts nestled between the Swiss Alps and the French Alps. But the difference between what was happening in Europe and what was happening in Canada was pretty much maple syrup vs. high fructose. The latter, “bad stuff” was Europe, because they viewed gravity as a pro thing. Build it for the pros and let the masses hit it and see if they can survive.

Welcome to the land of no liability lawyers! The trouble wasn’t just people getting hurt — tThe gravity scene wasn’t growing, because the reputation was that it was all gnar and no fun.

Whistler had a totally different recipe: Build every jump, double, g-out, steep, wall ride, ladder bridge, and gap with A, B, and C bailout lines. If you couldn’t handle the pucker factor, there was always an easier way down. The idea was progression, as in progress, so that after a week at Whistler you were sending stuff that on day one freaked you. It made Whistler blow up, because the place is Disneyland for riders. There’s something there anyone can ride, even if you’ve never shuttled in your life.

Now, at long last, American mountain biking is edging toward Whistler-style parks. Now online are lift-served operations at Stevens Pass, Washington; Aspen and Snowmass; and in Park City, Utah. In the East there’s New Hampshire’s Highland Mountain Bike Park, a model for taking a defunct ski hill, forgetting the ski biz entirely, and just focusing on lift-served mountain biking.

What took so long?

Most American ski resorts are located on national forest land, which requires navigating years of environmental studies and miles of bureaucratic red tape to gain approval (it took seven years for Stevens Pass). Legislation that revises this process and cuts through the red tape only passed this last fall. Then there’s the business question: Will spending millions of dollars to build and maintain a network of feature-intensive mountain bike trails actually attract enough summer riders to warrant that size of investment in a country that isn’t Canada?

If any resort has a shot at claiming the title of “America’s Whistler,” it’s Trestle Bike Park in Winter Park, Colorado. In addition to being operated by Intrawest — originator of Whistler — it’s designed by Gravity Logic’s Dave Kelly, the mastermind behind many of Whistler’s most beloved trails. Since 2007 the resort has expanded trail offerings by more than 30 percent every year, making it the fastest0growing mountain bike park in the States. With the recent opening of its latest advanced flow line, Cruel and Unusual, Trestle now has more than 40 miles of pinnable trails with three lifts and hundreds of features designed for all skill levels including a top-to-bottom green run, aptly called Green World, and Rain Maker, a highly addictive jump/flow line with more than 80 dirt jumps punctuated by massive grin-inducing berms.

According to Bob Holme, Trestle’s director of operations, ticket sales have grown by more than 500 percent since the park began focused trail development five years ago. And in terms of seasonal rider volume, only Whistler surpasses it.

“It’s easy to forget that this is a relatively small market that needs help to grow. Attracting new riders means not designing trails that exclusively require expensive nine-inch travel bikes. We’re driving trail design around mid price-point bikes so that they’re accessible to more riders and still fun for everyone,” says Holme.

Manufacturers sing a similar tune when it comes to gravity. The key to growing the market is more infrastructure.

“Sales of 29er and other XC bikes still significantly outpace sales of our downhill rigs like the Gambler, but it’s a chicken and egg sort of thing,” says Scott USA’s marketing manager, Adrian Montgomery. “The more resorts build places to ride gravity-oriented bikes, the more consumer demand grows. We’ve been collaborating with Trestle and other parks around the country to help grow the sport through demo programs and other initiatives that are really just starting to pay off.”

The “build it and they will come” philosophy is also working at Angel Fire resort near Taos, New Mexico, which just uncorked a collection of fresh lines, bringing its total miles of trail to 41.

“When we started offering bike lift-service in 2010, we had 80 riders on opening weekend. This year there were over a thousand,” says Kalen Boland, bike shop manager at Angel Fire. “We’re definitely seeing a growing demand for the service.”

Likewise, Stevens Pass, near Seattle, saw hundreds of riders arrive July 7 when it unofficially opened for its first full season with only two Gravity Logic designed trails — a DH track called Slingshot Wookie and a flow line called Rock Crusher — both still under construction.

“We’ve already received approval for five trails and we’re hoping to have four of them built by the end of the summer. Over the long term, we have another 20-plus trails already in the pipeline waiting for approval from the NFS,” says Joel Martinez, Stevens Pass’ director of operations.

And the future? Hopefully it includes a lot more mini Whistlers cropping up nationwide. One thing’s for sure: A terrible snow year has a way of prompting even conservative business folks to look at what life might be like if their hills are brown rather than white for more and more of the calendar year.

Photo Winter Park Resort, Trestle Bike Park

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{ 5 comments…read them below or write one }

  • Dan Murphy

    Apparently, I’m an old fart because I have no interest in lift-serviced huck runs. Just give me a big place where I can ride all day, up and down.

  • Shidan Towfiq

    We’re also offering gravity-centric shuttles on existing trails in the Sequoia National Monument, based out of Camp Nelson, California and I’m headed to Whistler next week. Bring on more Whistler-style resorts in the US!!! I’ve been wanting that for years. Mammoth has done a lot to improve their mountain recently and Northstar is fun too, but Whistler is still my favorite lift-serviced mountain.

  • Trey Clay

    Great article! We’ve visited 12 bike parks in the US over the past couple of months on Bike Mag’s “2012 Heavy Pedal Tour”. America’s bike parks are definitely progressing, adding new trails, features, and flow. There’s no better way to gain downhill skillz in a short amount of time than at a bike park. It’s a great time to be a mountain biker in the States!

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