For the first time since 2015, the biggest event in mountain bike racing is coming back to the United States. Next month, some 10,000 people will converge on Snowshoe Mountain Resort in West Virginia to witness the final round of the prestigious 10-part Mercedes-Benz Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI) Mountain Bike World Cup series. The event will be a deciding moment for both the racers and the venue.
For riders, it’s their last chance to battle for the downhill and cross-country World Cup champion titles. All eyes will be on longtime Snowshoe rider Neko Mulally and his fellow Team USA members, including five-time World Cup downhill champion Aaron Gwin and current cross-country world champion Kate Courtney, who currently sits at the top of the rankings and could very well secure another American win.
Although the first mountain bike World Cup Championships were held on American turf in Durango in 1990, Snowshoe is the only stop on this year’s World Cup tour that’s outside of Europe. Snowshoe has been priming itself for an event of this caliber for decades, hosting a number of elite races like the USA Cycling (USAC) mountain bike championships in 2017 and 2018. Still, the finals will provide a shot for the mountain resort to prove its place among legendary World Cup venues around the globe, like Val di Sole in Italy and Albstadt in Germany.
“It’s a marquee event,” says Mikey Valach, director of Snowshoe rentals, outdoor adventure and activities. “We’ll be hosting the most elite racers in the world. Not everywhere has hosted a World Cup, let alone the World Cup finals.”
At times rooty and rocky, in other places fast and loamy, the 300 miles of backcountry singletrack at Snowshoe and in the surrounding Monongahela National Forest have an old-school flavor, one that has come to define West Virginia mountain biking. That rowdy zest is expertly woven into the World Cup courses, which utilize a blend of new and old trails.
“It’s really going to take an all-around rider to be able to do well,” says Sean Leader, Snowshoe’s World Cup downhill track builder. “It has sections of jumps, old-school roots and rocks, steep spots, and flat spots that require riders to hold speed.”
For spectators, the World Cup is an opportunity to witness some of the fastest riders in the world tackle some of the best trails in the country—trails they, too, can ride for the cost of a lift ticket. Split between two of the resort’s three ski areas—the Basin and Western Territory—Snowshoe’s bike park has nearly 40 trails of varying difficulty and style. The bike park season runs from Memorial Day weekend until October 13th (though it will be closed September 3-12 to accommodate the World Cup). Adult day passes are $30 during the week, $45 on a weekend or holiday. Helmets are required for all bike park riders. Downhill-specific bikes and protective gear (think full-face helmets and body armor) are highly recommended and available for rent at the Mountain Adventure Center.
With help from two-time U.S. National downhill champion and World Cup rider Neko Mulally and some of Snowshoe’s regulars, we’ve broken down four of the resort’s most iconic trails for downhill and cross-country riders of every ability level.
Length: 2.9 miles
Best for: A fast flow trail bejeweled with 50 individual tabletops and a 100-foot-long wooden bridge
You don’t have to be a pro to catch air. Designed by Whistler’s Gravity Logic Inc., Skyline was created specifically with intermediate-level riders in mind. From top to bottom, the trail descends a flowy 1,500 vertical feet, stacked with one tabletop after another. “The trails on the Western Territory in general are a lot longer,” says Mulally, “which is not as typical in the Southeast. A lot of the other resorts don’t have as much vertical drop as Snowshoe.” Skyline is the perfect place to build confidence on descending and jumping with little consequence; big berms and long straights allow riders to keep their speed up as they wind through verdant hardwood forests.
Length: 1.1 miles
Best for: A cross-country trail on loamy dirt that will lead you to backcountry solitude
Weaving between thick stands of red spruce and moss-covered rocks, Enchanted Forest feels like The Chronicles of Narnia come to life. The trail traverses just below the Cheat Mountain ridgeline, which is home to the Shavers Fork headwaters (a major tributary of the Cheat River) and Thorny Flat, West Virginia’s second highest summit at 4,848 feet. Taking a snack break beneath the canopy is highly recommended—you just might catch a glimpse of the West Virginia northern flying squirrel or the Cheat Mountain salamander, two endangered species that call the resort’s high-elevation forests home. “The trail takes you to one of the prettiest places on the mountain,” says local rider Robin Bruns of that Cheat Mountain ridge. “The trail is a good progression for the technical riding that this area is famous for."
Length: 1.5 miles
Best for: A quintessential Snowshoe ride
One of the original cross-country trails created by early Snowshoe riders in the 1990s, the 6,000 Steps trail got its name from a local rider who supposedly counted his steps from the top of the Cheat Mountain ridge to the bottom of the Basin at Shavers Fork Lake. The trail is a testament to those early riders who hand-cut the resort’s first mountain bike trails on old deer paths and railroad beds. Party pace out to the Cheat Mountain fire tower for panoramic views of the boreal-like forests before ripping down to the bottom of the Basin. Because 6,000 Steps partly traces a former railroad grade, you’ll need to pedal to keep your speed through the chunky rock gardens and creek crossings. You’ll only lose about 500 feet of elevation, but those views of the Allegheny Mountains and the feeling of riding back in time make this trail well worth the effort. “There is something so magical about riding above 4,000 feet at the top of the Cheat watershed,” says retired World Cup cross-country rider and West Virginian Sue Haywood. “Just assume there is going to be mud!”
Difficulty: Double black
Length: 0.6 miles
Best for: A wild ride down narrow, technical lines, steep shoots, and boulder drops
“Lower Hare Ball is standalone the gnarliest trail on the mountain,” says Mark Poore, who managed Snowshoe’s first mountain bike shop and rental program from 1990 to 2003. Part of the course for both the USAC Collegiate and USAC Mountain Bike National Championships, Lower Hare Ball will also test this year’s World Cup downhill riders. The trail here is relentless: slippery off-camber roots as thick as forearms, handlebar-catching tree lines, seemingly impossible shoots amid a myriad of tombstone-sized rocks, made all the more treacherous by Snowshoe’s trademark mud. One wrong move could send riders flying into the ferns (or the crowd).