As world-class cyclist Lance Armstrong asserts, “It’s not about the bike.” It’s about the view from the saddle, the wind on your back, the sun in your face. Whether riding fat tires or thin, it’s about the hills, the streams, the meadows, and all the stones, beetles, flowers, and blue sky in between. It’s about white pine, lodgepole pine, and sub-alpine fir. It’s about explorers’ gentian, elephant head, and sickletop lousewort. It’s about the Idaho Batholith, Challis volcanics, and Pleistocene glaciers. Mountain biking isn’t about aluminum, titanium, lithium, or chrome molybdenum.
The bikes themselves are amazing, though, and without them the thrill of shifting up, getting light over a root in the trail, and feeling the whack of sagebrush against your shins just isn’t possible. Neither is shifting down, dropping back on the saddle, and powering it out until the wheel spins or the bike tips over. Of course, when you flat out for the second time and the glue in the patch kit has vaporized, it is about aluminum, titanium, lithium, and chrome molybdenum. But it’s more about the mountains.
And what better mountains could there be for enthusiasts than those in the vicinity of Sun Valley, Idaho? No fewer than five major ranges—the Boulders, Smokies, Pioneers, White Clouds, and Sawtooths—surround the Wood River Valley. Add an exhaustive network of single-track trails with park-and-play access, and what do you get? Some would say, a well-kept secret.
The cat is already out of the bag, though. Feature-length articles have appeared in most of the major mountain biking rags, and the International Mountain Biking Association gave Idaho the only “A” in its February 2002 “report card” of mountain biking in the fifty states. Not surprisingly, Sun Valley is fast becoming a destination mountain bike resort.
What’s making the national mountain biking community stand up and take notice? A serendipitous combination of great riding terrain and spectacular scenery, effortless access to a vast system of well-maintained trails, and a community of user groups that, relatively speaking, all get along. In short, it’s the mountains, the trails, and the people.
To get a handle on how the local topography lends itself to great riding, it helps to look at a map or imagine an aerial view. Now consider two major drainages, say Baker Creek and Warm Springs. Via the major thoroughfares that access them (Highway 75 and Warm Springs Road), these locations seem in remote proximity to each other—but the heads of these drainages are immediately adjacent, and a handful of trails weave up the side canyons and seamlessly connect them. Close study reveals dozens of such possibilities—Parker to Bear, Greenhorn to Deer Creek, Johnstone to Corral, to name just a few.
Another example is a ride that longtime local Chip Deffe did last summer. Deffe and his wife, Susan, owners of Sun Summit South, a Hailey bike and ski shop, have largely built their lives around mountain biking. Last year, after a cruise on the much-hyped Fisher Creek loop, Chip was unsatisfied; so, on the way home, Susan dropped him off at Baker Creek. He rode up the East Fork drainage and then connected a series of top-secret trails at the top of Warm Springs ridge. Descending into Warm Springs, he climbed back out via Red Warrior. From the top of Red Warrior he traversed the high ridge above Greenhorn and descended Howard’s Trail into the North Fork of Deer Creek. From there he shifted into the big ring and cruised all the way to his front door, near Deer Creek Road and Highway 75. “All in all, it was 58 miles,” Deffe remembers, “and most of it on single-track.”
Deffe linked some trails between Baker Creek and Warm Springs that most people would get lost trying to find. “It’s up to you to get out of the woods,” he says. “Using navigation skills, picking out landmarks, and using common sense so you can get back to the car are all part of the sport.”
One of the reasons Deffe knows the local trails so well is that he has spent so much time on them, and he admits that some of those hours were on not a mountain bike, but a motorcycle. In many recreation circles, motorcyclists and other motorized users are seen as a scourge to the backcountry. In this area, though, it’s a different story.
“We owe a lot of great trails to the motorcyclists,” explains Troy Quesnel, a local mountain bike racer and mountain biking coach. “They’re out there in the spring with their chainsaws, cleaning up the trails and making them ridable for everyone.”
One of the rare and remarkable traits of the Wood River Valley community of trail users is the relative lack of conflict between groups. “The trail stewardship is phenomenal here,” agrees Sean McLaughlin, a die-hard rider who works at Galena Lodge. “I used to live in Park City, and people there are at each other’s throats.”
“I think there’s less user conflict around here because there are so many opportunities for mountain bikers,” says Chuck Lovely, a Recreation Specialist for the Ketchum Ranger District. Lovely, a relative newcomer to the area but no stranger to the strife among trail users in other parts of the country, has noticed that equestrians, hikers, and mountain bikers are more fundamentally accustomed to playing around each other here than in other regions.
Something that has helped promote a local spirit of cooperation and sharing is the Adopt-a-Trail Program, which is managed by the Forest Service but run in conjunction with area businesses and user group organizations. Adopted trails are marked as such with signs near the trailheads, and once or twice a year, the adopting group joins a representative from the Forest Service to conduct basic maintenance such as re-contouring switchbacks and cleaning up water bars. “The Adopt-a-Trail Program creates a sense of involvement and cooperation that can’t be replaced,” says Chris Leman of Big Wood Backcountry Trails, an eclectic user group that conducts and raises funds for trail maintenance.
It’s not all love and roses, however, and conflict does exist, especially on popular trails such as Fox Creek or those out Adams Gulch. As is usually the case, a few bad mountain biker apples give the whole batch a bad name by skidding their tires and sending up clouds of dust, by not yielding to other users, especially on the downhills, or by simply riding out of control.
In some cases, visiting users—unfamiliar with the local spirit of cooperation—cause the trouble. Hikers from places like Boulder, Colorado, or Santa Barbara, California, accustomed to trails closed to mountain bikes, are easily perturbed by the slightest fat-tire annoyance. Mountain bikers from the same areas, who have fostered animosity towards hikers and equestrians believed to be responsible for the trail closures, bring their bitterness with them. “It comes down to the bike shops,” says Deffe. “At some time or other they’re all going to come in to buy a tube or whatever, and it’s our job to educate them regarding local ethics.”
Hikers, equestrians, and mountain bikers all seem to agree that the ease of access to an abundance of trails makes this area unique. “Wherever you pull over, or even from your front door, you can ride on a dirt trail for as long as your legs will let you,” says Quesnel.
The Sun Valley area is prime training ground for Quesnel and the handful of other local riders who compete in promoter Ron Dillon’s Wild Rockies Cross Country Mountain Bike Racing Series. The six to eight events that take place each year in Idaho and Nevada are all within driving distance, which makes it possible for people with real jobs and no sponsors to travel and race. Wild Rockies races attract about two hundred competitors, from tykes on tricycles to hardcore semi-pro riders like Quesnel.
Another racing option that’s closer to home is the short-track series put on by Billy Olson of Sun Valley Road and Dirt Camps. Sanctioned by NORBA (National Off-Road Biking Association), these races take place Wednesdays in June behind the Rotarun BMX track west of Hailey. To train for the races or to get a great introduction to mountain biking, kids ages nine and up can register for one of Olson’s monthly or weekly mountain bike camps, which run throughout the summer. Olson started Sun Valley Road and Dirt Camps to instill a love for cycling in kids.
Olson, who grew up partly in Florida, appreciates the backcountry aspect of mountain biking in the Sun Valley area. As he says, “It’s amazing where you can get around here.” From the desert hills out Croy Canyon to the alpine meadows under Castle Peak, riders can get into some spectacular country.
The mountains always loom large in this sport. As easy as it might be to get distracted by advanced technological machinery, skill and speed, for many riders, the lure of mountain biking is the experience of being on a trail surrounded by trees and rocks and lakes. Whether it’s an exotic ride in the Pioneers, a Sunday epic from Baker Creek to Deer Creek, an Adam’s-Chocolate-Fox after-work-linkup, or a cardio crusher up the Bald Mountain Trail, the common thread is traveling in mountainous terrain. No offense to all you roadies out there, but otherwise it’s just a sore butt and a white line.
Mountain Biking Trail Ethics
Keep trails open by practicing environmentally sound and socially responsible off-road cycling. First among local ethics is common courtesy. “I say ‘hi’ to every person I ride by,” says Chip Deffe of Sun Summit South. The hard-and-fast rules, as recommended by the International Mountain Biking Association, include the following:
1. Ride on Open Trails Only.
Respect trail and road closures (ask if uncertain); avoid trespassing on private land; obtain any required permits or other authorization. The way you ride will influence trail management decisions and policies.
2. Leave No Trace.
Be sensitive to the dirt beneath you. Practice low-impact cycling. Wet and muddy trails are more vulnerable to damage. When the trail is soft, consider other riding options. Don’t cut switchbacks. Be sure to pack out at least as much as you pack in.
3. Control Your Bicycle!
4. Always Yield Trail.
Let your fellow trail users know you’re coming. Show your respect when passing and be prepared to stop if necessary. Anticipate other trail users around corners or in blind spots.
5. Never Scare Animals.
All animals are startled by an unannounced approach, a sudden movement, or a loud noise. When passing horses, use special care and follow directions from the horseback riders (ask if uncertain). Running cattle and disturbing wildlife is a serious offense. Leave gates as you found them, or as marked.
6. Plan Ahead.
Know your equipment, your ability, and the area in which you are riding—and prepare accordingly. Carry necessary supplies for changes in weather or other conditions. Always wear a helmet and appropriate safety gear.
Erik Leidecker saved up for his first mountain bike when he was eight years old. He's still riding without rear suspension but suspects he won't be able to keep up with his soft-tail pals for much longer!