Ski Areas Spend Big Money on Possible Next Big Thing

As trails grew more difficult, bike manufacturers responded with more advanced shocks and brakes.

Winter Park's Crankworx Colorado had all the flair and air of a pro-circuit snowboard throw-down. Speakers throbbed with hip-hop beats as throngs of spectators watched riders in baggy pants stick unbelievable flips and spins for big prizes. Glossy magazine photographers staked out the landing zones. Team trailers created a logo-covered village in the parking lot. It was only missing one thing most other big ski resort productions have: snow.

But that's the idea.

With the growth of downhill mountain biking, resorts think the knobby-tire set will eventually be as large and profitable as winter crowds. To get a jump on the market, two Colorado resorts, Winter Park and Keystone, are increasingly investing in what has long been seen as a minor, off-season sideshow. They're hiring more bike staff, cutting more singletrack trails, and spending big money on bike-friendly terrain parks.

"I've seen the energy half-pipes and terrain parks generate in the winter, and we were looking for that parallel," said Bob Holme, Winter Park's youth sports and marketing director. He helped organize Crankworx Colorado, the resort's first four-day mountain bike competition featuring downhill races and slopestyle stunt competitions, which, he said, attracted about 4,000 spectators on the final day in early July.

To prepare, Winter Park brought in experts from Canada to build cutting edge trails and spent untold thousands to replace half the chairs on the lift with custom bike racks.

"It wasn't cheap, I can tell you that. But it lets people know we're serious about biking," Holme said.

Mountain biking at ski resorts is by no means new, but resorts spending significant money on it is. People have been riding the lift up and coasting down for at least 20 years. But the numbers were small. It is like cross-country skiing compared to downhill skiing; only so many people are willing to sweat on the way up for a downhill ride. Take away the uphill, and you have a lot more potential customers.

But it takes time.

"Early on, summertime was strictly focused on getting ready for the wintertime. We did things like fix snow guns," said Craig Simson, director of Keystone's summer trail crew. In the 16 years he's been working at Keystone, he's seen biking slowly change from a strictly local workout, to tame tours rolling down dirt service roads, to a fat-tire destination where thousands of armor-clad riders, often traveling from out of state, pay $30 a day to ride fast steeps and big drops. Keystone now vies with Winter Park as the top lift-served biking destination in the state.

"It really was pushed by the employees," said Simson. "The folks who managed the mountain said, 'Well, if you can scavenge material and pull it off on a shoestring, you can develop it, but you need to get your other work done too.'"

So they did, and word spread as trails slowly grew. Meanwhile, a biking revolution 1,200 miles away really got resort-style mountain biking rolling.

Whistler Blackcomb Resort in British Columbia, Canada, is the leader in downhill mountain biking. It was the first to build dirt jumps and berms for riders. It was the first to add wood ramps and elevated bridges through the forest. Almost 100,000 bikers visit a year, said Winter Park's Holme. Winter Park and Whistler are both managed by Intrawest.

As trails grew steeper and jumps grew bigger, bike manufacturers responded with more advanced shocks and brakes. The better bikes allowed designers to create even more difficult trails. Winter Park's Crankworx course started with a steep, narrow ramp to a mandatory 20-foot air.

"Now, even bikes that aren't for downhill have downhill features like dual suspension and disc brakes. Resorts have definitely changed the industry," said Dave Whittingham, who works for Maverick, a bike company in Boulder, Colorado. In the last few years, as bike technology advanced, riders, particularly young ones who had seen photos of Whistler's insane terrain, started looking for tougher trails.

Resorts responded.

Bike crews from Keystone and Winter Park went on pilgrimages to Whistler to learn the tricks of the trade. In 2005, Keystone added a series of wood ramps to its already tough trails, including a 14-foot plunge called Jaws. This year it unveiled six new trails, including one with 22 tabletop jumps that resembles a motocross track, and another that has what trail builders describe as a full 18-foot corkscrew and a huge wooden drop at the end.

"It was a bit of a battle trying to convince the big dogs that if you build it, they would come," said Greg Rood, who designed Keystone's bike trails. Now he has a trained trail crew of four and the cash to build. And biker numbers have increased 40 percent in the last two years.

But Keystone has competition. Winter Park added a trail crew of eight recently. It built a wild, stunt-filled downhill course for Crankworx this year. And now the crew is seeking U.S. Forest Service approval to build 20 downhill trails in the next five years, including a half-mile-long elevated catwalk winding through the trees.

Right now, Simson said, downhill biking primarily appeals to young men. But, like snowboarding, the potential for growth is huge.

"It's going to energize our summer scene and dramatically change the feel of the mountain," Simson said. "In five years, you won't even be able to recognize the place."

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