Downhill mountain biking hits the ski slopes

For Chris Del Bosco, who grew up ski racing in Vail, downhill mountain biking is a natural summer extension of that competitive need for speed.

"(The two sports) kind of go together," said Del Bosco, a pro rider for Lenz Sport cycles in Fort Lupton. "A lot of it is the speed and being able to pick lines at speed without really thinking about it."

Silverton Mountain ski area

For Aaron Brill, it always made sense to take the same approach with mountain biking. In just a few short years, his Silverton Mountain ski area has earned a reputation for offering the toughest lift-served ski terrain in the state.

"We cater to advanced and experts, just like the skiing," Brill said. "The goal is to offer the best lift-served downhill and free-riding in the U.S. I think we have done that, but we plan on continuing to build new trails and features every day."

Brill expanded from two trails to nine last summer and plans to continue adding trails this summer, although the huge snow year his area enjoyed last winter will delay his opening until July 22.

"It is slow going, but people are realizing Silverton is the spot," Brill said of his single-chair mountain between Durango and Ouray. "A busy day is 20 riders (with events such as the Freeride Gravity Fest drawing 40), but they are traveling from California, Utah, Texas, Arizona, New Mexico and Colorado. So the fact that people travel and camp in the lot for a weekend shows we are growing a core market."

Ski resorts slow to embrace sport

Del Bosco said he is starting to see a grudging acceptance of his sport from mainstream ski resorts, but he remains somewhat disappointed in the lack of action on the downhill mountain-biking front taken by his hometown of Vail.

A few years ago, Vail's ski patrol shut down a number of "rogue" trails gravity riders had carved into the mountain, citing environmental and safety concerns. But since then, Del Bosco said, a group called the Downhill Riders Advocacy Group, or DRAG, has formed for sanctioned and well-attended weekly "dig days" to work on trails, and the mountain now has a single top-to-bottom trail Del Bosco said is one of the best in the state.

"It's moving in a positive direction, but it's just slow," Del Bosco said of ski-area acceptance. "All the resorts are really trying to get into it, and it's pretty cool what's happening around the state."

For the layman, it's not hard to understand why some resorts initially put on the brakes. Unlike ski tracks, mountain bike trails leave permanent scars on mountains that, if improperly built and maintained, can lead to soil erosion. And groups of downhill riders in body armor on fully suspended motorcycle-like frames reaching speeds in excess of 50 mph can be a bit intimidating for tourists out for a peaceful summer hike.

But ski areas such as Keystone -- it's another Vail Resorts mountain that for several years has been a supporter of the gravity set -- see the natural progression of the sport. And Copper Mountain, whose parent company Intrawest also owns downhill cycling mecca Whistler Blackcomb in Whistler, British Columbia, is putting in a downhill park.

But Brill said mainstream ski areas will be somewhat limited in what they can offer for cycling.

"We hate the typical, washboard, dry, dusty, lame trails offered by most resorts," Brill said, "and since we love riding, we build what we want to ride every day."

The rise of downhill

In the mid-1990s, as the immense popularity of cross-country (or endurance) racing -- long, up-and-down loop races over a variety of terrain -- started to wane, downhill began to take off.

Downhill, a far shorter, more intense form of racing, is a single timed run of up to five minutes on courses with sustained pitches of up to 45 degrees, sometimes incorporating much steeper drops and rock-garden features. High-speed technical skills are at a premium.

The Mountain States Cup mountain bike race series, one of the most popular regional circuits in the country, was formed in the late 1990s specifically because the Colorado Off-Road Point Series wasn't quick to embrace the downhill scene.

"I became aware that there was a lack of quality gravity races out there in, like, 1998," said Mountain States Cup founder and promoter Eric Jean, of Arvada. "I got into the business thinking there was an opportunity to put on better gravity races, and then one thing led to another."

Jean takes an inclusive approach to the sport he admittedly promotes more for love than money.

"I think it's important to emphasize that we're all riding similar types of machines with two wheels. We encourage our athletes to be well-rounded," he said, pointing to the many disciplines his series incorporates.

Cup events runneth over: Upcoming Mountain States Cup schedule

For more information on the Mountain States Cup, go to www.racemsc.com. For a complete schedule of national downhill races offered by the National Off-Road Bicycle Association, go to www.usacycling.org. For more information about Silverton Mountain and its Freeride Gravity Festival (date to be announced), go to www.silvertonmountain.com.


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