As summer activities continue to prove their value to once winter-only resorts, mountain biking stands above the rest—and outdoor educators are taking note.
If the mountains could talk to the humans who’ve been carving swathes of forest into ski runs and putting up lift towers for almost a century, they might look at the recent explosion of summer activity at ski resorts and say, “What took you so long?”
The summer shadow of a skier may well be a mountain biker. What appeals to the winter gravity crew—lap after lap of flowing descent made possible by energy-restoring chairlift rides, food and drink options scattered around the mountain and in the beer-soaked village below, all set in a landscape that allows for pause to revel in the beauty—well, this is pretty much the same stuff riders want, too. Add in the option to pedal around the mountain on XC trails, and really, all the ski hill has to do is throw on a pair of shorts.
Jamie Storrs, Communications Director at Mount Snow Resort in Vermont, echoes the sentiment. “Why let the lifts sit idle if people can be out and enjoying themselves all year long?”
Mount Snow, which opened their lift-accessed purpose-built bike park in 1986, was one of the early adopters of this "smoke ‘em if you’ve got ‘em" ethos, and, 31 years later, the business can’t imagine running the winter operations without steady summer activity on its heels. Other ski areas have since followed suit, and they have learned powerful lessons through trial and error and experimentation; ie. if you let people bring their bikes on the chairlift, you better have sustainably built trails for them to bomb down. Otherwise, they will make their own (unsustainable) trails and/or clog your service roads. This approach played out at ski resorts in Colorado—like Snowmass and Vail—in the mid-90s, and it wasn’t until 1998 when Whistler Mountain Bike Park (WMBP) opened in British Columbia, that American resorts had somewhere to look up to.
Today, WMBP remains the gold standard for bike park operations and Tom "Pro" Prochazka—regarded as Whistler's unofficial mayor—has a lot to do with that success. Pro managed WMBP in the early 2000s before leaving to create Gravity Logic, the internationally-renowned trail design and build firm he’s a current partner in. On top of WMBP, Pro and the Gravity Logic team have crafted some of the finest bike parks in the world, including Colorado's Trestle Bike Park which has earned top honors in its region in all four of MTBparks.com's annual Riders' Choice Awards. While he may be biased, Pro has been around enough bike parks to know what works.
“Whistler followed the winter model,” he said, “from the progression of trails, bike school, rental and retail business, development and operations plan, and ongoing maintenance plan. This has paid off, and Whistler is the model bike park that everyone wants to copy.” While WMBP doesn't share its economic impact numbers directly, a 2015 Resort Municipality of Whitler report makes it clear that the park was smart to mimic the resort's winter operations. On average, summer visitors spend less than half of what winter visitors spend ($148 per day vs. $350 per day) but represent the lion share of total annual visits (60% vs. 40%). In short, summer tourism represents a larger pool of potential revenue for mountain towns like Whistler that is ripe for growth.
According to the most recent National Ski Areas Association (NSAA) End of Season Report, resorts in the Northeast, Midwest and Southeast have been experiencing flat or declining skier/snowboarder numbers for the past decade while the resorts of the Pacific West show extreme variability. Only the resorts of the Rocky Mountain Region have achieved a (mostly) steady growth curve. Depending on who you ask, the addition of summer activities at what were typically one-season resorts can seem desperate, benevolent or opportunistic—but it’s likely a combination of the three.
“We have a lot of second homeowners who have that second home because they downhill mountain bike,” said Storrs of Mount Snow. “We have a commitment to always be here, and keep season pass holders and visitors happy.”
"People can become lifelong mountain bikers resulting in growth of the sport. I doubt that people become lifelong zip line riders or mountain coaster riders."
Pro digs deeper into the nuances of mountain biking when explaining why bike parks are a good investment for ski areas. “Summer offers great opportunities with zip lines, mountain coasters, ATV tours, hiking, and sightseeing,” he said. “But mountain biking is the only activity that is a sport and can generate repeat visits, like skiing and snowboarding do. People can become lifelong mountain bikers resulting in growth of the sport. I doubt that people become lifelong zip line riders or mountain coaster riders, but I may be wrong.”
Recent PeopleforBikes survey research supports Pro's assertion. Between 2010 and 2015, while growth in cycling participation at large was a meager four percent (road cycling participation actually decreased by three percent over the same timeframe), mountain biking saw comparatively robust growth to the tune of 16 percent.
Mountain biking, unlike zip lining or mountain coastering, also creates culture—one that more and more people are spending a lot of time and money cultivating. From bike and accessory sales to breweries that cater to cyclists by sponsoring events and plastering bike graphics on the cans to the popularity (and power) of mountain bike-related websites, people who mountain bike tend to be interested in the whereabouts and activity of other riders. To that end, says Pro, “the marketing value of a bike park is often overlooked, if not underestimated.”
Also among the hidden economic indicators of the bike park is its contribution to a highly skilled, year-round workforce in an industry known for low wages and seasonality. In fact, bike parks make so much sense from a ski area operations perspective that Cooper Mallozzi, a professor of Outdoor Education at Colorado Mountain College’s (CMC) Timberline campus in Leadville, is advocating for summer operations, namely mountain biking, downhill bike parks and trail building, to round out the college’s Ski Area Operations (SAO) curriculum.
“It’s a natural extension of Slopes and Trails Maintenance winter-specific coursework that SAO students already engage in,” he said. “‘If I can move snow in the winter and dirt in the summer, I’d be thrilled,’ is what one student told me.”
In 2011, both houses of Congress backed the Ski Area Recreational Opportunity Enhancement Act, which amended the National Forest Ski Area Permit Act of 1986 (that limited recreation on USFS permits to Nordic and Alpine skiing) to include specific summer activities such as zip lines, mountain bike parks and trails, disc golf course and ropes courses. For CMC’s Ski Area Operations Advisory Board, the government’s decision to allow a year-round economy on land leased to ski areas led to their recommendation that the SAO program begin exploring summer operations programming. Mallozzi is hopeful that his SAO graduates will soon be able to market themselves as year-round ski area operators, who are just as comfortable operating vehicles that push dirt into jumps as they are ones that stack snow into half-pipes.
“We already offer courses in Mountain Biking, Mountain Bike Leadership and Trail Design and Construction (hand tools),” said Mallozzi, “and my dream would be to create a working laboratory for expanded programming in the form of a small bike park on or near campus.”
In such a scenario, students could build and maintain a bike park in the warmer months much like they already do for Nordic ski trails and the tubing hill in the winter. In addition, he said, “we could offer classes in bike patrol, bike mechanics, instruction/coaching and mechanized trail building (mini dozers/excavators).”
Neither Mount Snow’s longevity nor Whistler’s popularity would be possible without a firm commitment to high quality and sustainably built trails, which is just the assignment Mallozzi wants to give his students. Long gone are the days of riding up chairlifts and skidding down service roads; bike parks have become a destination in their own right, and they attract visitors who spend tourist dollars on rentals, retail and food and beverages. They also provide jobs and training, which make them poised to create livelihoods, an opportunity not often available to seasonal resort workers. When the U.S Forest Service finalized policy guidelines to promote year-round recreation on ski areas in 2014, they estimated at least 600 new jobs a year. When Mallozzi speaks to ski resort managers about his quest to add mountain bike programming to the CMC Ski Area Ops program, their ears perk up.
"Most appear quite interested in the idea since they are routinely battling the 'seasonal' challenge of finding good, skilled folks and retaining them," he said.
After spending a few weeks learning the ropes at Highland Bike Park in New Hampshire (a "bike only" resort with no skiing operations), Mallozzi left feeling confident that his students—already competent in winter operations—could provide resorts with a steady stream of capable summer operators, as well.
"Traditional ski areas will need to find the proper balance," he said, "but all seem hungry to 'scale' the industry and quickly bring up to speed the workforce with qualified individuals."