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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About Jeannette Boner

4 Comments

  1. Mike Vandeman

    July 15, 2015 at 9:46 pm

    Bicycles should not be allowed in any natural area. They are inanimate objects and have no rights. There is also no right to mountain bike. That was settled in federal court in 1996: http://mjvande.nfshost.com/mtb10.htm . It’s dishonest of mountain bikers to say that they don’t have access to trails closed to bikes. They have EXACTLY the same access as everyone else — ON FOOT! Why isn’t that good enough for mountain bikers? They are all capable of walking….

    A favorite myth of mountain bikers is that mountain biking is no more harmful to wildlife, people, and the environment than hiking, and that science supports that view. Of course, it’s not true. To settle the matter once and for all, I read all of the research they cited, and wrote a review of the research on mountain biking impacts (see http://mjvande.nfshost.com/scb7.htm ). I found that of the seven studies they cited, (1) all were written by mountain bikers, and (2) in every case, the authors misinterpreted their own data, in order to come to the conclusion that they favored. They also studiously avoided mentioning another scientific study (Wisdom et al) which did not favor mountain biking, and came to the opposite conclusions.

    Those were all experimental studies. Two other studies (by White et al and by Jeff Marion) used a survey design, which is inherently incapable of answering that question (comparing hiking with mountain biking). I only mention them because mountain bikers often cite them, but scientifically, they are worthless.

    Mountain biking accelerates erosion, creates V-shaped ruts, kills small animals and plants on and next to the trail, drives wildlife and other trail users out of the area, and, worst of all, teaches kids that the rough treatment of nature is okay (it’s NOT!). What’s good about THAT?

    To see exactly what harm mountain biking does to the land, watch this 5-minute video: http://vimeo.com/48784297.

    In addition to all of this, it is extremely dangerous: http://mjvande.nfshost.com/mtb_dangerous.htm .

    For more information: http://mjvande.nfshost.com/mtbfaq.htm .

    The common thread among those who want more recreation in our parks is total ignorance about and disinterest in the wildlife whose homes these parks are. Yes, if humans are the only beings that matter, it is simply a conflict among humans (but even then, allowing bikes on trails harms the MAJORITY of park users — hikers and equestrians — who can no longer safely and peacefully enjoy their parks).

    The parks aren’t gymnasiums or racetracks or even human playgrounds. They are WILDLIFE HABITAT, which is precisely why they are attractive to humans. Activities such as mountain biking, that destroy habitat, violate the charter of the parks.

    Even kayaking and rafting, which give humans access to the entirety of a water body, prevent the wildlife that live there from making full use of their habitat, and should not be allowed. Of course those who think that only humans matter won’t understand what I am talking about — an indication of the sad state of our culture and educational system.

  2. 22

    July 17, 2015 at 11:18 am

    Mike, shoes are inanimate objects too, you should go barefoot. I can’t walk far, and a bike is my only means of transport. Horses cause lots of damage to trails, do you rant on about them? The cache area sees hundreds of bikers a day and yet I still see animals along the trail. The trails in cache are in remarkablely good shape (better shape then most hiking trails) despite the forest service confining cycling to tiny little area because of the illegal ban on bicyclists in the wilderness. A big part of preserving wild places is too allow non-motorists access so the views can be enjoyed.

  3. Freedomrider04

    July 17, 2015 at 4:10 pm

    Don’t feed the troll. This kook has been convicted of assault on bikers out in the bay area. Complete psycho nutjob. Mind your own business Cali weirdo. We can play nice and get along here in Wydaho!

  4. 22

    July 17, 2015 at 8:10 pm

    Actually many people feel this way here in town. It is still cool to hate on cyclists and recreationalists. Wildlife is a common core of their argument. If skyline gets built the mule deer will have nowhere to go. I rode by a mule deer on putt putt today. I could have reached out and touched it, the deer couldn’t have cared less. The hypocrisy of their argument is that many of these people have stories of killing animals with their cars which they share like it’s a cool right of passage into the sexy world of automobiles. If a bicyclist or runner displaces an animal by making them run a little bit, then satan himself will return to the earth. If a motorist displaces an animal by removing them from existance, no big deal.

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