Get Out There
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Cranking It Up!
Billy Olson Helps Build a Mountain Bike Community
BY ALEC BARFIELD
When asked about the bicycling community in Sun Valley, Billy Olson wants to talk about Dutch cycling infrastructure. The owner of Hailey’s Power House Pub and Bike Fit Studio, squinted at a flat-screen TV mounted inside of “mission control,” his cottage-like bike shop that sits behind the pub. Olson’s excitement was palpable as he played a YouTube clip about the creation of Holland’s pedal-friendly communities. A biker of all types, a bike fitter for all types, a bar owner and a race organizer, Olson’s passion for bicycles and the culture they breed is as strong as Power House’s numerous Belgian Tripels.
Without a doubt, Billy Olson is a humdinger whose contributions to Sun Valley’s biking community have been numerous and unmistakable. His choice to plant roots in Hailey can be found in his first trip here. “I visited for a weekend in 1991,” explained Olson, who had been cycling competitively in Europe and living in the Netherlands. “I went on a ride and was blown away by the quality of the trails and the experience.”
Besides finding heroic backcountry singletrack, Olson also visited the merry deck of Grumpy’s, where he found even more reasons to stay. “They were young people having fun. People that I liked,” he said. “It had nothing to do with skiing or biking. As far as those guys go, it was more about just having fun.” Understandably, it was a combination of the two that turned a weekend visit into a lifetime stay.
When Olson landed in Idaho, Sun Valley was already home to a respectable share of fat tire converts. “It was cool, super cool,” he recalled. The technology, however, was minimal. “I look at those bikes now and can’t believe that we were so brave. The trails were radical.”
Yet, charging on fully-rigid “pigs,” as he called those original mountain bikes, they braved everything from the Galena Grinder to Dollar Mountain time trials. As he explained with a laugh, “If you came out alive, it was like, ‘Hell yeah, let’s do it again!’” The clincher, Olson added, is that “when we started, there was nobody.”
Fast-forward 20 years, mountain biking is now mainstream, global and growing. Sun Valley has evolved, too, hosting bigger races, such as USA Cycling’s National Championships (2012 and 2013), and being designated as a Silver-level Ride Center by the International Mountain Bike Association. Yet some things also never change—riding in the Wood River Valley remains primarily a private affair, a lonely wilderness experience of the highest quality.
“It’s the isolation, dude. It’s total isolation,” Olson affirmed. “The best thing is that even though we’re isolated, it’s still advanced. Based on where we’re at, I think it’s pretty rare to get this kind of experience.” Olson likes to strike out towards Croy Canyon, just west of Hailey. “Thirty minutes from my house and I’m in the middle of nowhere,” he said. “Odds are I’m not going to see anybody, even on a Saturday, and that’s unique.”
“Unique” is an apt descriptor for both Olson and his chosen environment. The isolation of Sun Valley supports more than wonderfully empty trails. Isolation has helped curb overdevelopment and population growth. What one finds at Power House—and at Sun Valley’s trailheads—is a bike community that has grown organically, without the pressure of too many interests. Olson and his many compatriots had the opportunity to help grow a culture in a bubble here; a Shangri-la of sorts for those in search of good people, good rides and minimal commercial hogwash.
At a recent municipal focus group, Olson supported measures for traffic reduction and safer bike lanes in Hailey. For him, mountain biking in Sun Valley will take care of itself. The future, in his mind, boils down to constructing a truly bike-friendly community.
Like the Netherlands, where bike commuting is routine, Sun Valley has shown an ability to adapt naturally to a changing world. Passionate locals, devoted to their lonely rides, help supervise the course. “This is our place,” Olson affirmed with a smile. “We can do it.”