July 2019

All Downhill From Here

Mountain biking's second wave continues to build as resorts develop and refine trail systems and skills parks.

Written by Jennifer Rowan | 104 Views | 0 comment
Clockwise startiGroup ride at Big Sky, Mont.; kids rule at Silver Mountain, Idaho; downhill at Killington, Vt.; podium at a women's enduro race at Silver. Clockwise startiGroup ride at Big Sky, Mont.; kids rule at Silver Mountain, Idaho; downhill at Killington, Vt.; podium at a women’s enduro race at Silver.

Mountain biking and skiing are hardly strange bedfellows. In fact, they’re fairly close cousins in a growing family of mountain sports, where downhill mountain biking now has a regular seat at the table.

“My numbers show that there are now 120 downhill bike parks in the U.S. and Canada,” says Michelle Good, founder and CEO of MTBParks.com, a website dedicated to mountain bike parks. “Five new parks opened last year and five more are coming online this year, and there are more in the works.”

And, according to Good, while there are still some growing pains and improvements to be made, on the whole, resorts are steadily upping their downhill bike park game. Some notable trends are emerging at mountain-resort bike parks across North America—trends similar to those learned in terrain parks.

HOMEGROWN VS. PROFESSIONALLY BUILT

While working to grow their bike parks, many resorts encounter the same conundrum—seeking professional help with building trails versus letting local riders loose with a few hand tools.

“Our trails were built by core riders for core riders,” says Rick Schmitz, co-owner of Schmitz Brothers Resorts, which includes Little Switzerland, Wis. “But our most important park is our beginner park ... and we have been working hard with the build crew to develop more beginner terrain and a skills park.”

Rather than cutting out the local riders, Schmitz found a way to work with them. “They have a ton of great ideas and endless passion. By working together with them so that they understand the business and risk management aspects, we’ve been able to build something successful,” he says.

It’s a similar situation at Big Sky Resort, Mont., says mountain sports manager Christine Baker. “We have a long history of downhill mountain biking at Big Sky and, in the early days, many of our trails were rider-built,” she says. “Now we are focusing on getting all of our trails to our new standard, whether that be tech or freeride, as well as finding gaps in our trail progression.”

While some resorts are reworking their trails to cater to a broader range of guests, those who were lucky enough to get it right from the start are reaping the rewards. “There’s no better example of building from scratch than Thunder Mountain Bike Park [at Berkshire East in Massachusetts],” says Good. “They tapped Gravity Logic from the beginning and have the perfect mix of green, blue, and black trails.”

Timberline Lodge, Ore., also turned to Gravity Logic, and the resort is opening (softly) this summer. “Our goal is to start with a strong green, a blue flow line, and a black single track,” says director of operations Steve Kruse. “This park has been a long time in the making, so we want to get it right from the start.” Eight miles of trails are being put into service this summer—four for the beginner trail alone—and will continue to build out to 18.5 miles.

BEGINNERS AND PROGRESSION

Catering to beginners and families has become a top priority for resorts. “The number of families we are seeing out biking together has been on the rise,” says Brandy Ream, executive director of Spirit Mountain Recreation Area, Minn. “We start kids at the age of two through our Strider Camps, and we have progression-based camps up to the intermediate downhill biker. Our goal is to teach the proper riding technique at all levels, ages, and abilities.”

At Angel Fire, N.M, Patrick West, bike park manager, and Collin Wheeler, digital marketing specialist, report the same trends. “We are seeing more beginner and less experienced riders wanting to ride the bike park. Our response has been to focus on developing trails to boost confidence and riding ability.”

Angel Fire is also giving newbies a taste of competition with its new “Intro to DH” category recently added to the existing Fire 5 Race Series. “This is a non-intimidating way for riders who have never raced to test the waters,” says West and Wheeler.

At Silver Mountain, Idaho, marketing associate Siobhan Engle says the resort is redoubling its efforts to serve beginners. “The increase in beginner riders is prompting us to make changes to our operations. We put a lot of resources into our easiest beginner trail to fully rebuild it, focusing on corners and widening the trail overall,” says Engle.

At Whiteface Mountain in New York, which boasts 2,500 feet of vertical, the downhill bike operation has been privately run by two downhillers for the past 15 years. Despite the gnarly terrain and old-school trails, owner Mike Scheur takes a more personal approach to welcoming beginners. “We run a shuttle partway up the trails, and we take the time to talk to our guests, providing them with tips, including hands-on training when we drop them off,” says Scheur.

FAMILIES, KIDS, AND WOMEN

With a steady increase in families and beginners, Grand Targhee, Wyo., devoted its Shoshone lift to these groups last summer. The lift accesses beginner flow trails and two of the resort’s lower freeride trails.

“It was amazing to see the usage—on any given day you could find families, little ripping riders, and even advanced riders on these trails,” says Jenni White, director of marketing. “Opening the Shoshone lift has given us a tool of entry that allows us to introduce our guests to the sport without sending them to the top of our Dreamcatcher lift, which accesses more intimidating intermediate and advanced trails.”

Killington in Vermont is also ramping up its efforts to welcome beginners. “We know it can be difficult to take the first step, so we’ve worked hard to develop novice-level bike trails and flow tracks,” says communications manager Courtney DiFiore. To make newbies feel more comfortable, Killington offers a wide range of programs, camps, and lessons, as well as its successful Divas of Dirt program, a twice-monthly event that invites women of all ability levels to ride together—for free.

Snow Summit Resort in SoCal also reports a surge in beginners and families wanting to ride at the resort. Snow Summit already records a whopping 42,000 to 46,000 visits to its downhill bike park each year, but the uptick in families and beginners is prompting the resort to rethink a few things.

“Every summer we have to rebuild much of our downhill bike park, because we don’t have enough snow in the winter to cover up the features,” says director of operations Jake Huxman. “While labor intensive, this gives us the opportunity to add things like a pump track and skills park around the base area to better cater to beginners.”

KEEPING IT FRESH

As with terrain parks, many mountain resorts emphasize the need to annually freshen things up, giving riders something new to tackle. A fine example of this is Sugarloaf Provincial Park in New Brunswick, Canada. “It’s amazing to see a small resort get 5-10 times the votes as larger areas,” says Good about Sugarloaf’s popularity in MTBParks.com’s annual Riders’ Choice Awards, survey.

And there are many keys to this success. “The best move we ever made was having our park professionally designed and built [by Gravity Logic],” says Sugarloaf manager Greg Dion. But the province-owned resort doesn’t stop there. “We make sure that we have something new to offer each year—and it doesn’t have to be something big,” he says. “For example, this year we rebuilt the lower half of our black diamond trail so when our guests ask, ‘What’s new?’ we’ve always got something.”

CROSSING OVER

Bike technology and well-built trails are luring an increasing number of XC riders to try downhill. At Snow Summit, the resort is actively trying to promote the crossover. “We have a great peak trail that goes from the top of Snow Summit over to Big Bear,” says Suzie Jacques, executive assistant to the president. “Cross-country bikers can take a lift to the top of Snow Summit and enjoy a fantastic ride with plenty of views over to our sister resort. And then they can hit our downhill bike park on their way back down.”

Taking the crossover a step further, enduro races—which combine XC and downhill—have become popular at resorts like Grand Targhee, Angel Fire, and Silver Mountain.

THE PROOF IS IN THE NUMBERS

Resorts are incredibly bullish about the future of downhill mountain biking. Killington’s MTB visits jumped from 16,000 in 2016 to 30,000 in 2018. Big Sky reports that its bike program has been the fastest growing segment in its summer lineup for the last three years. Spirit Mountain’s day ticket and season pass sales have both increased each year of operation. And Angel Fire had already reached 70 percent of its total 2018 bike pass sales by mid-May 2019.

Clearly, it’s only a matter of time before downhill bike parks make it to the adult’s table at mountain resorts by becoming a significant contributor to overall operations.

TIPS TO CONSIDER

Michelle Good of MTBParks.com offers some suggestions for ideas resorts should consider to improve their bike parks:

• Add more hydration stations throughout the parks.
• Create more pull-outs on the trails.
• Expand the open space at on-mountain junction areas.
• Offer very clear and obvious signage.
• Ensure that frontline personnel are enthusiastic about biking.
• Host an employee orientation day in the bike park for all staff—managers, presidents, and CEOs, too!

“The vibe is incredibly important,” Good says. “We want to feel embraced, not unwelcomed, and that starts with management and staff.”