Towns, ski areas eye cyclists as business boosters

2014-07-13T00:00:00Z 2014-07-28T12:13:04Z Towns, ski areas eye cyclists as business boostersBy BRETT FRENCH french@billingsgazette.com The Billings Gazette

One of Discovery Basin Ski Area’s chair lifts is running this summer, but instead of hauling skiers and snowboarders up the hillside, it is carrying helmeted downhill mountain bikers.

Ski area president Ciche Pitcher has dusted off his normally dormant lift to carry cyclists uphill for a screaming good ride downhill on almost five miles of bermed, boarded and rolling trails. And if the first couple of weeks are any indication, he may have hit on a new summer business.

“It’s been surprising,” he said. “Our strongest market so far has been Bozeman. It seems like Bozeman has the biggest downhill biking community.”

Opening forests

Pitcher’s creation of a mountain biking destination comes in the wake of the Forest Service’s decision this spring to open up federal lands used by ski areas to summer recreation.

Although Discovery Basin is operating on private land, Pitcher said the directives could allow expansion of his summer business in the future if warranted. The Forest Service estimates its new policy could lead to an additional 600,000 summer visits to national forests. The agency said of the 122 ski areas now operating on 180,000 acres of federal land, the change could add 600 full- or part-time jobs and mean a $40 million infusion for mountain communities.

So far, though, neither Red Lodge Mountain nor Bridger Bowl Ski Areas in southwestern Montana have indicated an interest in exploring lift-served mountain biking like Pitcher. Big Sky Resort and Whitefish Mountain Resort, the state’s two largest ski resorts, have long had summer activities that range from biking to ziplining and ropes courses. But big Sky also operates on privately owned land without the red tape of federal regulations.

Flat or steady?

Pitcher’s venture also arrives when sales of bicycles and participation in the sport has been flat. A 2013 survey by the National Sporting Goods Association found that 35.6 million Americans age 7 and older were estimated to have ridden a bicycle six times or more in 2013. That puts cycling seventh among the top 10 recreational activities in the U.S., trailing behind other sports like swimming, camping and fishing.

Yet some communities are betting that catering to cyclists and walkers in a variety of ways can boost or even create business, promote less automobile traffic and save gas, as well as encourage people to be healthier by exercising more.

Take Montana’s state capital, Helena, as an example. The city now boasts a single track (a trail as opposed to a road) at the end of every street. The International Mountain Biking Association was so impressed with the capital city’s offerings that it awarded the Helena its Bronze Level Ride Center designation in 2013. Ride centers are not just about biking, but also accommodations and restaurants that welcome cyclists to have a more well-rounded vacation.

Helena's cyclists can even enjoy a free summer bus shuttle to surrounding mountain trails. The BikeHelena.com website boasts 70 miles of single track mountain bike trails outside of town.

"This is something that Helena does well," said Pat Doyle, community outreach director for Helena Tourism Alliance/TBID. "Every town cannot be everything to everybody," but he said Helena's tourism board saw its biking opportunities as a way to stand apart, an already-in-place infrastructure that was being underutilized.

Likewise, Bozeman can brag of its network of 67 miles of Main Street to the Mountains trail system. Beginning this summer, work will start on a new 2-mile route to link Story Mill Road to the “M” and Drinking Horse Mountain trails. The new trail will run parallel to Highway 86, finally connecting Main Street to the mountains.

Billings’ battle

Montana’s largest community, Billings, seems to be lagging behind the biking and walking trail boosterism of its brethren, despite hard work by some individuals.

“Part of it is just a lack of understanding by the people in power,” said Darlene Tussing, the now-retired Alternate Modes Coordinator for Billings. “Politicians don’t see the big vision.

“I think the land trust are an asset, and it’s too bad we don’t have one,” she added.

Billings has just more than 35 miles of trails in town, not counting routes through Riverfront, Two Moon parks and Four Dances Natural Area along the Yellowstone River and Zimmerman Park atop the Rimrocks.

Despite the difficulties, Kristi Drake, executive director of BikeNet, a nonprofit Billings trail group, remains upbeat.

“I think it’s rising,” she said of bicycle use. “I see more cyclists on the road now, and I think it’s because there are more designated bike lanes now.”

Yet she said there’s still a lot of community education required. She told a story about one driver who pulled up next to her and told her to get out of the road. She politely responded that cyclists have just as much right to the road as motorists, and that riding on sidewalks is illegal. She admitted, though, that many cyclists are afraid to ride in the streets.

For dirt riders and walkers, she pointed to the Back 9 trail system on the West End, as well as routes that feed from Zimmerman Park across the Rimrocks and the recent commitment from the Bureau of Land Management to build a mountain biking area near Acton as examples of local cyclists building respectful relations that have resulted in access.

She said future trail projects in town will be tougher, though, since the process for federal grant money has changed, making it more competitive within each state. But Charlie Sturgis said that doesn’t have to be the case.

The Park City example

Sturgis is the executive director of the Mountain Trails Foundation in the Utah ski town of Park City, 35 miles east of Salt Lake City. Although it only has a population of about 8,000 year-round residents, the old mining town can accommodate 21,500 guests at its lodging facilities that were expanded for the 2002 Winter Olympics.

Among its claims to fame, Park City was the first and remains the only International Mountain Biking Association Gold Level Ride Center in the United States, boasting 400 miles of trails ranging from play parks for cyclists to single track, paved and even downhill lift-served routes at three adjoining ski areas – Deer Valley, Park City Mountain and Canyons resorts.

Sturgis said although Park City may seem like an anomaly, its route to success is transferable to other towns. The proof of that is just down the road in Wasatch County – a rural agricultural region that he said “could care less about nonmotorized recreation.” Last year, the community helped create more than 20 miles of trail.

Sturgis said the first move is to have organized trail groups lobby the city and county governments. Instead of grant funding, he said about 350 memberships, the sale of trail maps, events and donations have enabled the Park City group to grow from a small core of cyclists sneakily pioneering 14 miles of backwoods trails, to a trail system he estimates generates at least $50 million a year in revenue to the town’s businesses.

“All in all it can be done,” he said. “It started with nickels and dimes.”

And he noted it’s an investment in the health of the community, and not just in the summer. The town also grooms 70 kilometers of its trails in the winter for Nordic skiing.

“You can make this happen in your town,” said Scott House, communications, events and social media director for White Pine Touring, a bike shop that Sturgis used to own. “We want to export this idea.”

Copyright 2014 The Billings Gazette. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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