Adventure June 28, 2016

Flowing Down the Mountain

A New Era in Mountain Biking

Until the early 1980s, the term, “mountain bike” simply didn’t exist. A few intrepid road bikers attempted to ride the rugged mining and motorcycle trails throughout the Wood River Valley on their 10-speeds fashioned with “knobbies” for tires, but this system was poorly suited for the task and resulted in a lot of skinned knees and elbows.

It was with the advent of purpose-built bikes from major manufacturers such as Specialized and Fuji in the early ‘80s that the mountain bike came to be. Suspension forks became widely available in the early 1990s and a decade later suspension brakes entered the scene.

Fast forward to 2016 and the world of mountain biking has reached a stunning level of evolution and specialization. Concurrently, the thirst for newer, bigger and better trail systems on which to apply the mature technology now inherent in a wide variety of bikes has skyrocketed. As a result, the recent development of directional flow style trails—one-way, downhill trails that are built specifically to minimize the rider’s braking and pedaling while giving bikers the sense of flowing down the mountain—has become the new rage.

Julian Tyo, summer trails coordinator for the Sun Valley Company, spoke to the varied 450 miles of bike trails—both single track and flow—that extend like a web throughout the Wood River Valley south of Galena Summit. “There is an incredible organic trail network here unlike any in North America,” said the articulate and passionate Tyo, his mop of brown hair sticking out from under his ski cap in a new-school fashion emblematic of so many up-and-coming mountain athletes. “This remarkable trail system was created over 100 plus years due to mining, horse travel, hiking and motorcycle use and has resulted in a dynamic trail system unlike anywhere else.”

Over the past few years, several new flow trails have been built throughout the Wood River Valley. In 2011, Punchline Trail was built west of Hailey in Croy Canyon. This was the first directional flow trail constructed locally and is administered by the Blaine County Recreation District. North of Ketchum in the Adams Gulch drainage is the Forbidden Fruit flow trail that was built and is overseen by the U.S. Forest Service. Farther north in the forests and mountains surrounding Galena Lodge is the new Galena Trail System, which has been constructed over the past two years and features trails with flow-style concepts. And finally, there are the Saddle Up and Lupine flow trails on Bald Mountain that are overseen by Tyo and his trail crew.

An exciting aspect of the Bald Mountain trail system is the availability of ski lifts to access the summit of the mountain, eliminating the need for bikers to pedal up before descending. In fact, lift-access mountain biking is catching fire across North America and the four-season resort industry.

British Colombia’s Whistler Resort features North America’s largest mountain bike park, employing a full-time staff of 25 that focuses on trail building and trail maintenance with an additional 24 bike patrollers. Impressively, Whistler intends to invest a reported $345 million in “Weather Independent Recreation” such as mountain coasters, treetop ropes courses, zip lines and night skiing facilities. It also plans to double the size of its already industry-leading bike park.

Locally, the Sun Valley Company has a new seven-mile flow trail in the works. When completed, the trail will connect the current four miles of flow trails that wind from the top of the mountain to the Roundhouse Restaurant to the base area in River Run. This will give riders the ability to descend continuously from top to bottom without the need to download on the gondola. The uninterrupted descent will total approximately 3,400 vertical feet, and, at more than 11 miles in length, will be the longest single flow trail in the United States.

And what does the future of the mountain bike industry hold? Tyo summed it up: “Lift-access mountain biking has the unique opportunity to look at the lessons learned by the ski industry over the past 80 years and apply them to flow trails. What are the best practices with regard to grooming and trail maintenance? What should be the structure of bike trail patrol and medical response? How can we construct trails that are open and available to the widest array of users? These are practices that are being developed and analyzed right now throughout the industry.”

In fact, the National Ski Areas Association held its first NSAA Mountain Bike Summit in 2015 to address the many issues surrounding the topic. Its overriding conclusion was that the future of lift-access mountain biking is in the creation of quality intermediate flow trails—good news for those who have come more recently to the sport or for beginners looking to develop their skills.

“Sun Valley has been offering lift-access mountain biking to our guests for the better part of 20 years,” Tyo related with a tone of pride in his voice. “But the fact is, as far as the evolution of mountain biking and the development of trail systems here in Sun Valley, we are just getting started.”

This article appears in the Issue of Sun Valley Magazine.