By Bill Plock
You know how sometimes something like a smell, a taste, a texture or even an experience, will remind you of an event, a time, or a place for the rest of your life? For me it was ferns smacking me and light bouncing off Aspen trees that will always remind me of Steamboat Springs and meeting a ton of great cycling enthusiast.
I was invited by Amy Stern of BikeTown USA a non-profit entity
created to promote cycling and tourism, to check out some new mountain bike trails and learn about all the wonderful things happening with Steamboat’s cycling world. Little did I know that I would meet and ride with industry icon
s, grass roots advocates, world class cyclists and government leaders who all work wonderfully together to create a thriving cycling culture.
ed a premium property with views of the mountains I would ride.
The first thing you must know about me is that I am not a mountain biker. Oh sure I have one like most people in Colorado. And it’s a 26er—I know, outdated, but please read on. Frankly that’s all I rode for 20 years, but about a decade ago I began to be drawn to long flat trails and bike paths and quickly gave up fighting the fact that I’m a roadie or even worse perhaps a triathlete. There I said it. Yes sitting in aero bars half asleep for 112 miles seems more appealing than traversing through Aspen trees beaming sunlight at every angle as I get whacked in the arms and legs with the most amazing ferns tunneling the trails like I was riding in Jurassic Park. Really? I mean why would a choose hot roads with cars driven by distracted drivers? Good question. For another story.
As I write this I grin in memory of that feeling on single track on Emerald Mountain just a few minutes from downtown. Sure, I wasn’t super thrilled with the tight u-turns and table top features daring me to catch some air, but damn I was hav
ing a good time. The ferns just reached out to high-five me it seemed. The Aspens reflected light like I was in a fun house. The vistas stunned me. But I sucked. I almost fell. Many times. I unclipped more than Trump tweets, but dammit it was fun. One of the hosts, Amy Charity, a former pro road cyclists who now runs a local cycling camp, Grintacamps, had to come find me when I took a wrong turn on one of the many trails that traverse this mountain. Her camp helps cyclist work on bike handling skills and training techniques and they even have camp
s specific for women groups. She was a lot of fun to ride with as we compared scarred elbows from road crashes and talked about her races in Europe and she admitted, “I don’t miss those road pile ups and crashes and how can you not love these trails”. No doubt but she encouraged me to come back sometime to show me some amazing road riding loops with little traffic and great views.
But then it gets better. I went to Strawberry Hot Springs, and oh-my-god, what time capsule did I slide into? I mean wow. Totally chill, some clothing optional moments after dusk, stars like I’d forgotten and not a light to see by. I could
hear hundreds of voices in all the pools but could barely make my way out without tripping on a rock or something. They clearly have avoided modernizing, but what a great way to end my first day.
The next day another wonderful group of “Steamboatians”took me to the top of Buffalo Peak. I think this might be their pride and joy. Not sure. But part of the goal of this trip was to introduce us journalist to a new trail named Panorama. And it was spectacular. The 360 degree views were awesome. After a shuttle, we rode downhill, which with my horrible bike handling skills made me nervous. But here is yet another memory, along with the ferns, that will be imprinted in my roadie mind. We all know skills in mountain biking are paramount. Most of us hate to look or feel silly right? So this group was forewarned of my “lacking confidence” on the downhill. I love how they softened that. In the locker room they would’ve said, “hey we have this guy from Denver who really sucks at mountain biking, who wants to keep an eye on him?”
Well Sara kept her eye on me—thankfully! She told me she would “help me.” At first, I just wanted some instructions with a “I’ll see you at the bottom” so I could fall on my own, scrape my legs and not feel watched. But Sara didn’t let me off the hook that easy and guided me through every turn and obstacle. She works for Steamboat Mountain and is a certified IMBA instructor. I had never had a bike lesson and I must say I learned a lot and by the time we finished descending I found myself looking forward to the next technical challenge. It was this instruction and her enthusiasm that sticks in my mind. The willingness and encouragement that permeated not only through her but with the everyone I met that weekend. It was the connection I made and witnessed with all the people in Steamboat that probably left me with the strongest memories.
Steamboat’s cycling community is vast and not dominated by one aspect of cycling. From the challenging mountain bike trails to the hundreds of miles of great road riding which include some very casual cement trails along the Yampa river for families. Steamboat has something for everyone. Most ski resorts rely on mountain biking as a counter seasonal activity, but in Steamboat you will see equal numbers of road and mountain bikes.
But its more than just riding, its a culture. Moots and Eriksen bicycles, both high end titanium frame makers manufacture there. Honey Stinger and Smartwool there as well. The people, the collaboration between town officials, government agencies like the Forest Service, business leaders and the staff of Bike Town USA led by Amy Stern work well together. With tight budgets there is a lot of collaboration, particularly with trail building and maintenance and use of varied land own by different entities.
Says Amy Stern, “We all love to ride our bikes and we want everyone to have a positive experience and come back and try our trails and roads and stay for a few days.” She has created a team of volunteer ambassadors much like you see on ski slopes who ride all over to simply help riders and make them feel welcome. After spending time on a bike, having a beer, and attending their silent auction to help raise money for trail building, it’s obvious all the good vibes felt on my bike were no accident. These folks really work together and are just fun to be with.
When Kent Eriksen came to town in the early 70’s with a few dollars and an idea to work in the only bike shop that was open half the year, he soon became instrumental in incubating a small year round industry and creating a foothold for manufacturing. He began building bikes, something he always wanted to do. He found his niche crafting frames from titanium and feeling inspired by a childhood pencil eraser shaped like a cow, he named his new company Moots. Now along with Brad Bingham, he still builds bikes under his own name, one at a time, made to order (insert video). Moots manufacturers nearby and I had a chance to ride with CEO Butch Boucher on my second ride so I feel so fortunate to have met two leaders of some iconic brands of bikes. (insert Kent video here)
Now, there are many bike shops in Steamboat and it seems cycling here is every bit as healthy as the ski industry. I’m not sure what I would rather do in Steamboat or what would cause me to move there more. Biking or skiing. I’ve skied and biked all over Colorado and it’s hard for me find a more comparable destination that offers both to such a wide spectrum of enthusiasts in such a small area, all accessible without a car. Summit county might be most comparable but with the lower elevation and sweeping valleys south and west of Steamboat, the road riding is practically year round and mountain biking begins and ends sooner and later.
Yes I suppose Steamboat with it’s legendary champagne powder covering the trails is still probably known globally as a ski town first and foremost, but someday I think it will be known as simply “Playtown USA”, “bring any gear you’ve got and do it here”. Luckily I can visit any weekend. For those who can only make a trip or two a year, you can’t go wrong, come have fun!
Footnote, these photos were shot by local photographer David Epperson. He has shot for Sports Illustrated, Bicycling and Triathlete magazine covering the Tour De France and Ironman.