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Mecca in the Mountains

Sun Valley Leads a Resurgence in Mountain Biking

Starting line at River Run during the 2011 USA Mountain Bike National Championships.

Starting line at River Run during the 2011 USA Mountain Bike National Championships.

Photo: Team i4, Michele Schwartz

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On one level, professional endurance athlete Rebecca Rusch lives a life most people understand only in the most abstract of ways.

At any given time on any continent, she might be racing her mountain bike. She might be riding 100 miles through the Colorado Rockies at elevations between 10,000-12,500 feet. Alternatively, she might be in South America grinding through a 24-hour world championship race. To be clear, that’s 24 hours straight on a bike.

But those are only bullet points on a long résumé. Talk to Rusch, sometimes referred to as the “Queen of Pain,” and what immediately outshines those facts is something every child can relate to: pure, simple joy in riding a bike. Who can’t remember the first time they slipped the grips of gravity in a magical feat of balance?

Joe St. Onge out Croy Canyon in Hailey. Photo by Craig Wolfrom.

 

As a sponsored athlete who travels the world routinely, Rusch chose to park her bike in the Wood River Valley. “I spent six years traveling in my car—surfing and biking all over. But I came here one day, stopped in a coffee shop and, right away, I was invited on a bike ride. I was welcomed with open arms. Instantly, I felt the sense of community and how excited the locals were about this amazing pocket of mountain biking,” she says.

Enter the genré of mountain biking and Rusch’s unbridled enthusiasm for the world’s most efficient mode of transportation is the norm. In fact, talk to just about any mountain biker in the Wood River Valley and what is striking is how much passion they exude for the sport. Mountain biking here has evolved from a sport to a way of life.

Left: Rebecca Rusch on Citizen’s Trail in Adams Gulch. Photo by Todd Meier.
Right: Julian Tyo out Adams Gulch on the Forbidden Fruit Trail. Photo by Ray J. Gadd.

 

“Land of the single track, that’s how we used to be known in the late ’80s and ’90s,” says Don Wiseman, executive director of the Sun Valley Ski Education Foundation. Wiseman has been involved in the Wood River Valley mountain biking scene from the beginning. He came to the Valley in 1983 and for years owned the Sun Summit bike shop in Ketchum. As owner of a bike shop he often found himself taking visiting editors and writers on bike tours of the area. He was an early activist in establishing multi-use trails through Idaho’s spectacular backcountry.

“In the late ’80s, nationwide, people were shutting down mountain bike access to the backcountry. But we kept the access,” Wiseman explains. Butch Harper, former Ketchum District Forest Ranger, organized community gatherings with the trail user groups—mountain bikers, equestrians, hikers, motorcyclists. Where other communities ran into unresolved conflict over trail access, the user groups here had a “can-do, let’s-get-it-done spirit,” says Wiseman. The groups collaborated on trail rules and worked together to build and maintain trails. By 1990, Lane’s Trail—a very popular trail north of Ketchum in the Adams Gulch area—was put in with almost 40 volunteers, Wiseman recalls. In addition, volunteers modified trails in the Greenhorn Gulch drainage to make them usable by both mountain bikers and motorcyclists.

The natural terrain of the area helped, too. “There were old dirt roads and fire trails that could be used, there was a lot of backcountry with good pitch, fine granite and not a lot of rocks,” Wiseman explains. A network of single-track trails expanded out from the Ketchum and Sun Valley area. At that time, too, Scott USA began to make bikes in the Valley. “There was a lot of action, big use … We had this moment when we were ‘It,’” says Wiseman.

Left: Smoke from fires in Yellowstone impacted the action during the 1988 nationals. Undaunted riders race near Galena Lodge. Photo courtesy Steve Deffé. Right: Ripping through the “Rock Out Garden”  during the 2011 USA Mountain Bike Nationals on Bald Mountain. Photo by team i4, Nils Ribi.

 

To fully appreciate the expanse of mountain biking trails in the area, one need only look to the Blaine County Recreation District Web site (summertrailink.bcrd.org). Nearly 500 miles of trails fan out east and west from the State Highway 75 corridor, from Bellevue to Galena Summit, approximately 46 miles. These range in difficulty from the nearly flat and paved Wood River Trail running from Bellevue to Ketchum, to the Warm Springs Ridge Trail, a 12-mile, high-elevation climb, true backcountry ride.

Greg Martin, director of the Wood River Bike Coalition and Blaine County Recreation District (BCRD) trails coordinator, like Rusch, lives and breathes bike riding. He is proud of the fact that the Wood River Valley is one of only 33 communities nationwide to achieve silver status in the League of American Bicyclists’ Bike Friendly Community Program. This recognition program evaluates communities based on the “Five E’s”—engineering (of trails, bike lanes), education, encouragement, enforcement, and evaluation and planning. The application itself, submitted by the Bike Coalition, is exhaustive: 22 pages of questions exploring everything from bike parking availability, to detailing the number of police officers on bikes, to the community’s master bicycle plan. Only two other communities in Idaho, Ada County and Coeur d’Alene (both at the Bronze level), have been recognized.

As trails coordinator for the District, Martin works with the land agencies—Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service—to maintain and build the trails in the area. A 2009-2010 project included building 17 miles of “bike optimized” trails in the Croy Canyon drainage. These are, Martin says, “trails with good sight lines, not too steep, and accessible to bikers with varying skill levels.” “Punchline,” which opened last summer, was the area’s first “flow” trail. These are trails designed with banked turns, rolling topography to minimize braking and maximize the conservation of momentum, as well as features for jumping.

Graham Sours out Greenhorn Gulch. Photos by Ray J. Gadd.

 

Martin and the BCRD’s next project is currently before administrators for the Sawtooth National Recreation Area. The proposal calls for converting a number of logging and mining trails around the Galena Lodge area (19 miles north of Ketchum) into bike trails, as well as building some new connector trails. If approved, the plan would add 50 miles of mountain biking trails in what Martin calls a “stacked loop system.” Inner loops are designed for beginning riders; outer loops cater to advanced riders.

Despite his personal interest in mountain biking, Martin keeps a reasoned approach to his work. He points out that there are “bikers, equestrians, ATV users, motorcyclists and hikers using our public lands. There are many ideas out there for new trails. The key is to find pieces that make sense—for the land agencies, the users and the trail system as a whole. We want something for everyone.”

“Cycling on the lift is big now … We’re trying to fill a niche … one thing the community doesn’t have is lift-serviced, purposeful, downhill mountain biking.”  

Perhaps the last piece of the area’s mountain biking puzzle now falling into place is “lift-accessed” riding on Bald Mountain. Sun Valley Company, which operates the ski facilities there, took its first steps into biking in the late ‘90s, building its perimeter trails. These are top to bottom trails with spectacular vistas but, given their length and difficulty—9-11 miles each with an average gradient of 7%—they are not ideal for all bikers.

“Cycling on the lift is big now. That’s what really drives a bike park,” says Peter Stearns, Director of Mountain Operations for Sun Valley Resort. Stearns points out the expanse of single-track trails in the area, as well as the BCRD’s two pump tracks for skills development in Hailey and Ketchum. “We’re trying to fill a niche … one thing the community doesn’t have is lift-serviced, purposeful, downhill mountain biking,” he says. To that end, the company this January submitted to the Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management a proposal to build new trails on the River Run side of Bald Mountain. Julian Tyo, who is heading up the resort’s bike trail efforts, says the proposed trails would “hour-glass around the Roundhouse Restaurant, halfway up the mountain.” These would be machine-built, uni-directional “flow trails” which, Tyo says, if built right, would have a modest gradient—3%-5%—and with lots of gradient reversals that would not require a lot of braking or pedaling. “They might be classified as ‘green’ runs (beginner level) but an expert rider would have a great experience on them,” he adds.

Left: Julian Tyo on Croy Canyon’s Punchline Trail.
Right: Greg Martin on Fox Creek Loop. Photos by Ray J. Gadd.

 

Stearns points out that he does not anticipate the bike park as envisioned here to be on the scale of those at places like Whistler Blackcomb in British Columbia or Northstar in California. The demographics of the area and proximity to bigger airports does not support that large of a program. “Hopefully, this will drive some economic vibrancy for the area,” he says. “But we want to build a business that is appropriate for the community. You have to constantly ask, ‘How much is too much? How much is sustainable?’”

The resort’s plan is, of course, wholly dependent on Forest Service and BLM approval. Ideally, Stearns would like to have something new built before the Cross Country Mountain Bike National Championships, which are being held on Bald Mountain July 5-8 for the second year in a row. Kelli Lusk, national events director for USA Cycling, expects there to be 1,100 – 1,200 racers, with riders ranging from junior amateurs to pros and masters. Events will include cross country, cross country short track and super D. “The riders here loved it last year,” says Lusk. “And the demographic of the riders and spectators fits this community well.” USA Cycling has, in addition, awarded Sun Valley the rights to host the Marathon Cross Country National Championships in 2013 and 2014.

Left: A Team Specialized rider on one of the final banked turns coming into the finish line at river run lodge during 2011 USA Mountain Bike Nationals. Photo by Team i4, Tim Brown. Right: The starting line for a Snug Series race in Adams Gulch during the spring of 1988. Photo courtesy Steve Deffé.

 

This summer’s championships will be part of the nine-day “Ride Sun Valley Bike Festival.” The festival kicks off June 30 with the Whit Henry Memorial Galena Grinder, a marathon cross-country race held at Galena Lodge north of Ketchum. The 45-mile race is part of the USA Cycling’s Pro Mountain Bike Ultra Endurance Tour.  In addition, there will be the Third Annual Idaho Pump Track State Championships held at the Ketchum Bike Park, and the Fat Tire Criterium, a fast and wild race through the streets of Ketchum. Ride Sun Valley “Local Stoker Rides” will be offered all week. These are guided rides on some of the single-track trails in the area provided free to the public. Finally, there will be the annual Kids Race (ages 3-12) held on a special course at the Championships venue, a Consumer Expo highlighting all of the latest mountain bike equipment and the Sun Valley Shakedown music festival held on July 7.

Rusch describes last year’s Ride Sun Valley event as “one of the best weeks of my life.” Many of her pro-racing friends had often wondered why she lived and trained in Sun Valley, a place where snow forces Rusch indoors to train many months of the year. Last year, when they came here for the first time, she says, “they were blown away by the event and the riding we have here.” Musing over the broad embrace the community has shown for mountain biking, Rusch says with excitement, “We have some momentum. We have a future here.”

Now, she’s off to train. It is mid-winter, but when the snow retreats and the wildflowers splash across the reaches of the Rocky Mountains, she’ll be ready.

 

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