WHITEFISH — It’s a testament to Nathan Hafferman’s teaching skills that he could take a rookie downhill mountain bike rider — who had crashed on flat pavement only two days before — and turn her into a reasonably polished trail cyclist in one lesson.
“I like to arm everyone with the necessary skills — how to stand on the bike and how to stop the bike — because these brakes are a little more powerful than other bikes,” said the Whitefish Mountain Resort biking instructor. “I don’t want anyone taking a quick digger.”
Hafferman’s skills as a teacher are now complemented by three new trails on the lower mountain that cater to less-experienced riders.
Breaking in beginners has become a bigger focus for Whitefish Mountain this summer after it added the new trails in what it’s calling the Bad Rock Zone. The other riding areas are the Summit Zone, which features four top-to-bottom trails dropping more than 2,200 feet, and the Overflow Zone, which has nearly eight miles of technical trails accessed from the Kashmir or Summit trails.
“It’s a big jump to go from 2,000 feet of vertical on your first go,” said Riley Polumbus, Whitefish Mountain public relations manager. “The old trail is fun, but it was a lot for beginners.”
The recent investment seems to be paying off.
“We’ve ordered more kids bikes this year because we’ve had a lot of interest in the trails,” Polumbus said.
Polumbus even signed up for a lesson, something she’s hesitated to do because her small stature made finding a petite-sized bike difficult. For the recent lesson she rode one of the new kids' bikes.
“I can’t wait to do this,” she said before the lesson. “I’m really excited. It’s just a whole new world.”
In 1997 Whitefish Mountain had only one cross-country biking trail, the still popular Summit route. It wasn’t until 2008 when the first downhill trail was constructed — the scarily named Runaway Train, which opened to the public in 2009. All told the Whitefish Bike Park now boasts more than 30 miles of trails, including 22 downhill trails serviced by two chairlifts. The park is open daily through Labor Day and Friday-Sunday in September with lift-access from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.
“We built these new trails wider, less steep and with recovery zones before and after features so riders can practice and perfect their downhill technique while having fun,” said Josh Knight, events and recreation manager at Whitefish Mountain Resort, in a press release.
“It seems like the word is getting out,” Polumbus said. “This may be our best summer with the new trails and new lifts giving us more to work with.”
Hafferman acknowledged that some of the older trails were too difficult for riders just starting out. Adding the new routes has changed the mountain’s dynamic.
“We’re seeing a lot of beginners, lots of family lessons — dad or mom with 10- to 12-year-old folks,” Hafferman said. “And lots of diversity in terms of age ranges.”
Out of an estimated 36 million cyclists — based on a 2015 National Sporting Goods Association survey of those who rode at least six times a year — mountain biking claims about one-quarter of the total interest, or roughly 9 million riders. As trail construction and bikes have become better for entry-level riders — and less high risk — Hafferman said the industry could be poised on the cusp of even greater participation.
“Ten years ago everything was almost out of reach,” he said, with trails featuring obstacles like roots and rocks conducive to crashing.
Mellower routes are a toned-down version of the originals that still provide a good adrenaline flow.
The attraction to the sport is easy to see — gliding through the cool shade of vanilla-scented pine trees and waist-high grass, arcing around banked corners, over bridges and through streams. It’s a childlike thrill similar to downhill skiing in its graceful yet bracing nature.
“It’s just very free and focusing for me,” Hafferman said. “I do a little bit of road biking. I do a little bit of everything — hiking, hunting, fishing — but when I’m downhill biking I’m all engaged in the trail. Everything is new and different.”