FEATURE: Evolutionary Cycle

By on July 15, 2015

How the Tetons are emerging as a choice place for the pedal-crazed

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It’s early on a Thursday morning and Fitzgerald’s Bicycles in Victor, Idaho, is busily humming along. The phone rings, and rings and rings again on a second line while a few people glide into the downtown bike shop that has served both sides of the Tetons for more than 10 years.

Mechanics are cranking on chains in the back while floor men are serving customers in helmets with shoes fit for pedals. Fitzgerald’s is just one vein pumping through Jackson and Teton Valley feeding a new class and community driven by two wheels and a single track.

“I came out here to gain more experience in the shop and to ride the trails,” said Nate Simpson, a New England transplant and bike mechanic at the shop. “I’ve been a lifelong mountain biker and I’m here for personal reasons — I want to be a part of the mountain biking community.”

Mountain biking in particular has shifted a big gear in recent years keeping pace with growing national recreational trends that match the steady up-tick of bike sales. What was once a renegade’s recreational pursuit is being trumpeted as one of the most important economic drivers for the Greater Yellowstone region, according to a 2012 multi-agency study.

“We’re the local point of the national wave,” said Lynne Wolfe, a founding member of the International Mountain Biking Association Chapter in the Tetons. “People are realizing that bikes just aren’t for kids and once you buy an actual mountain bike, you find that it’s cheap, healthy transportation …  and it’s fun.”

From rouge to resorts

Mid June marked opening days for many of Wyoming’s ski resorts rolling out their red carpets to summer. Nick Dunn, 13, had first chair of the season at Grand Targhee Resort. With his 26-inch mountain bike strapped to the chair lift, he was set to rock one of five new single tracks at the resort just up the hill from Alta.

“Three years ago (Targhee) had an easy and a hard trail,” said the middle school student. “Now they have seven and half trails and have really put a lot of work into them.”

Dunn and his older sister Ellie waited for practice to start for the newly formed high school mountain biking club on a warm Tuesday evening. As they waited, others rode into the Victor City Bike Park. There were a lot of volunteer coaches, too, to teach the next generations of riders.

Ellie, a sophomore at the Jackson Hole Community School, started riding four years ago with her family before moving from Idaho Falls to Driggs. It was Horseshoe Canyon that got her hooked and now she sets her sights on the first Idaho sanctioned mountain biking race this September, hosted through the National Interscholastic Biking Association at Grand Targhee.

“We’ll see how the first year goes,” she said of racing. “But [biking] is something I can do for the rest of my life. I have a few friends who are mountain biking now. The mountain biking community is just great. There are so many wonderful people and it’s such a diverse sport.”

The brother and sister volunteer their Saturdays in the summer with Teton Valley Trails and Pathways, cleaning up and maintaining local single tracks. The community of mountain bikers fosters this kind of trail stewardship and community participation – so much so that these local trails have earned national recognition and ranking. The website Singletracks.com recently ranked Teton Pass on of the top 10 mountain biking destination in the country rivaling such worthy competitors as Moab, Utah and Oakridge, Ore.

The Dunns are that next generation of mountain bikers that may only hear the stories of days gone by when tensions ran high, user groups clashed and the general idea of mountain biking felt like an uphill battle against public land managers.

The mountain biking community is organized and presents a unified front that mountain bike pioneers championed, laying the foundational community support that would be the ground swell for the future of biking in the Tetons.

“This region is exactly why Mountain Bike the Tetons exists,” said Amanda Carey, executive director for the nonprofit.

Mountain Bike the Tetons is the International Mountain Bicycling Association Chapter that serves Teton Valley and Jackson Hole. A former professional mountain bike racer, she came to the Tetons more than 10 years ago to drop out and ski bum around. Long story short, she earned her master’s degree, worked for a variety of established nonprofits including Friends of Pathways and directed the Wyodaho Mountain Bike Festival in between earning national recognition as a mountain biking pro.

“We’re getting close,” said Carey, about the Tetons as a premier destination for mountain biking. “That’s why this  is so energizing.”

Jackson has matured faster as a mountain biking community over the years while Teton Valley has made bigger strides recently. The City of Victor will realize $1.7 million of grant, public and matching funds invested into trail development and maintenance over the next few years as leaders acknowledge the inherent value of tourism dollars cycled in from riders – including the development of trails designed specifically for beginners.

“More and more this is one of the reasons people are moving to the Yellowstone Ecosystem – it’s for this recreational amenity,” said Zach Smith, mayor of Victor and a Jackson Hole High School graduate. “There are a lot of people who decide this is where they want to retire. Investing in low angle trails attracts people to our valley.

“One piece of a major driving force behind mountain biking and why there is more of a buzz about it is that it is now a year-round sport,” said Smith, referring to fat bikes that have oversized tires to trample the snow. “Not only is it accessible at ski resorts, all you need is a sled groomer and permission and that is sufficient. We’ll see more and more of that throughout the Rockies. It adds a facet to this place that keeps people from just getting bored with one sport.”

Carey agrees. “I have ridden all over North America and visited places that it never occurred to me I could ride my bike,” she said. “I see what these places have done and [biking] has had nothing but good impacts on the community. Bikers are on par with golfers when it comes to spending money in a local community. And mountain biking makes people really happy and they are more involved and they care a lot about the trails.”

Local resorts have taken notice of this, too, riding that wave of passion by developing their own trail system and parks.

Jackson Hole Mountain Resort was the first to take that ambitious step toward summer programming, hiring the same company that helped build Whistler Mountain’s bike park.

“We are one piece of this valley-wide puzzle and we feel really lucky to have a community focused on building good trails,” said Anna Cole, director of JHMR communications. “We’re really lucky as trail users to have a great trail system and that this whole community has been involved.”

Just on the other side of the mountain, Grand Targhee Resort hired groundbreaking mountain biker Harlan Hottenstein, who is a founding member of the Teton Freedom Riders and legend in his own right among the biking community, to develop trails.

“Mountain biking across the states of Idaho and Wyoming and across the world is growing,” said Ken Rider, director of marketing and sales at Targhee. “As a resort, we look at opportunities that will be viable year-round and it continued to make sense for us focus on growing this [sport] out.”

Folks at both Targhee and the JHMR recognize climate change as a potential impact on winter seasons, but both say that their mountain biking offerings are in response to community and guest enthusiasm for the sport. Sun Valley and Whistler are among the top examples of resorts using community relationships to link bikers and visitors from resort trails to public lands trails, thus creating a unique destination for tourists and a sense of community pride for residents.

“There is a whole symbiotic relationship with the resorts,” Rider said. “This is what makes this entire region, the Teton area, a great place to mountain bike.

“The infrastructure is here for mountain biking and the resorts looking at summer opportunities have been going on for a long time. Resorts can sit idle in the summer or are not used as much. Mountain biking serves as protector of that.”

Resort style mountain biking opens the sport up to more people with lift access to the hill thus creating more opportunities for everyone and anyone to give the trails a try, he said.

“Mountain biking is a great way to help bring more people into the area for longer stays,” Rider said. “It’s good for everybody. You go into Victor and Driggs and there are a lot more bike racks and families sticking around for a lot more nights. It used to be that people were heading to the parks as they passed through. We, as a resort area, need to look for those opportunities where families can spend more nights. That’s a big part of it, looking for that authentic experience.”

The dirt

There is a long and winding history of mountain biking in the Tetons. Trails carved by horsemen served as the first stages for single track pursuits led by popular names that include the Teton Freedom Riders, now a nonprofit organization focused on building the bridge between user groups and government agencies in an effort to produce harmonious working relationships.

“We’ve been responding to mountain bikers and we’ve seen the sport grow nationally,’ said Linda Merigliano with the Bridger-Teton National Forest Service.  “My involvement started in 1996 and ’97. We were starting to see trespassing in wilderness – in the Gros Ventre in particular – and started working with the mountain biking community to build better trails outside of the wilderness.”

This formative relationship would lay the foundation for years to come as the forest service started working with other organizations including Friend of Pathways, a nonprofit – unveiling Jackson’s first road bikeshare experiment this week – that would eventually formulate a master plan for the region. With more trails cutting through wilderness areas and the growing desire for recreationalists to have better access to nature closer to town, these early days would set the stage for the preeminent ground swell of riders we see today.

“Before us, there was definitely mountain biking over here and there was this push and pull with illegal trail building,” Wolfe said. “No matter how hard we want it, there is no getting around government, and government moves slowly. You have to have a combination of infinite patience and persistence.”

Teton Pass was essentially ground zero for the mountain biking community. Today, because of partnerships with public land managers, one of the first designated “bikers only” trails, Lithium, is located on Mount Ellie on Teton Pass. This trail, once deemed illegal by the Bridger-Teton serves a parade of helmeted riders on any given day and stands as a tangible manifestation of user groups and stakeholders working together.

Andrew Whiteford gets intimate with the gondola at Jackson Hole Mountain Resort. (Photo: Patrick Nelson/jhmr)

Andrew Whiteford gets intimate with the gondola at Jackson Hole Mountain Resort.
(Photo: Patrick Nelson/jhmr)

The next cycle

There are still many miles to go before sleep if the Greater Yellowstone Region is to realize its full potential as a mountain biking destination.

An increasing number of programs and events continue to bring stakeholders together to raise awareness and further the sport in the Tetons. The SHIFT festival, hosted in Jackson this fall, strives to be that bridge along with the Wyodaho Mountain Biking Festival in Teton Valley, offering first time bikers an opportunity to taste the thrill.

“The thing I worry about is growth without manners,” Wolfe said.  “People that don’t understand the rules of the trails – bikes yield to horses and hikers, downhill yields to uphill riders – this feeds into the larger conflict between conservationists and recreationalists. Sure you can have far left-wing conservationists and then have far right-wing recreationalists, but realistically most of us fall in the middle. We appreciate being out there and being out there brings us a closer connection to nature. Where we can fix some of the tensions is through education. We can teach kids the rules and regulations from the inside. We don’t want to be the mountain biker assholes.”

Carey is hopeful, too.

“To be fair, it’s not so much pushback against mountain biking that we are experiencing,” she said. “We’d like to see more motivation from land managers on this side of the valley and we’d like to see new trails [be approved] more quickly. But we need to contribute more money and more volunteer hours toward trail maintenance, and we are doing that this summer. I think the community is behind us.”

She also advocates for enduring partnerships between Jackson and Teton Valley stakeholders.

“I would encourage Jackson riders to go to Targhee and Teton Valley riders to go Jackson,” Carey said. “There is such an amazing trail network to explore here. You are never going to be invested in something you don’t know anything about.” 


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