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Mammoth Mountin Ski Resort

Bob Goligoski

Four California Ski Resorts Offer - Summer Downhill Biking Thrills

TRUCKEE, CA – Summer mountain biking at ski resorts in America is a growing vacation trend as bikers ride up mountains on chairlifts and gondolas with their bikes  -- lifts that were previously used only to haul up skiers and snowboarders in the winter.

No where is this trend stronger than in California where four major ski resorts – Mammoth Mountain, Squaw Valley, Northstar and Kirkwood – now lure thousands of thrill seekers on bikes to their slopes each summer. Noting the growing popularity of the sport, Squaw Valley re-opened its bike park this year after shutting it down eight years ago.

The thrill in this expanding endeavor is coasting or hurtling down narrow mountain trails and broad ski runs on hardy mountain bikes.

Many bikers call it “the ultimate adrenaline rush.”

Northstar, where I sampled the trails recently on a rented 18-gear, $4,000 bike, is at the epicenter of this booming mountain sport. The four-season resort, just outside Truckee, lures 350 to 400 bikers to the peak on weekend days.

The resort, which cut the ribbon on a new Bike Academy earlier this summer and also just opened a large new beginner learning area near the new slope-side Ritz-Carlton Highlands Hotel, has more than 100 miles of bike trails and has the most extensive lift accessed  bike trail network in the Western U.S.

Mike Hafer, bike academy supervisor, said that the “downhill part of mountain biking is where the activity is rapidly growing. It is all about gravity and the adrenaline rush.”

He explained that outdoor enthusiasts are able to take more advantage of summer ski slopes largely because bike technology has improved so much in recent years that the bikes, with muscular suspension systems and advanced braking and shifting, enable people to tackle almost any uphill or downhill slope. Bikers ride up on chairlifts, trams and gondolas and their bikes ride right up with them.

Rod Jaeger, a 48-year-old Florida businessman, is one of the many mountain biking addicts.  “This is such a rush,” he said. “This can be as dangerous or mellow as you want to make it, depending on where you go on the mountain.”

Hopping nimbly off a Northstar chairlift, Jaeger noted that he used to really be into speed and time himself top to bottom until he fell on one high-speed run in Colorado four years ago and broke his shoulder. “Now, I don’t time my runs any more. I just enjoy them.”

For travelers who just want to experience easy-going, relatively flat bike mountain runs, that terrain typically is also available at the resorts. I found that the Tomkins Memorial Trail at Northstar, which meanders around the base of the peaks for about 10 miles, was just right for my adventure level.

Some of the California ski resort bike parks have been around for years – Mammoth’s started in 1985 and Northstar’s opened in 1992. The relative low-level of activity in the parks has changed dramatically in the last couple years with a surge of new interest propelled by improvements and additions in bike trails and the emergence of advanced mountain biking technology.

Amelia Richmond, a spokeswoman for Squaw Valley, said “The resort decided it was time to bring mountain biking back to Squaw because mountain biking is on the rise across the country and technology improvements allow bikers to tackle more difficult terrain.”

Squaw Valley, which has a four-mile long top to bottom run and 15 miles of downhill and cross country trails, plans to further develop the bike park including the addition of beginner trails.

Kirkwood added two new bike trails this summer including an “advanced climb and technical descent” dubbed Sentinals Trail and the low intermediate cross country Robey Wolfe trail.

Mammoth Mountain, with more than 70 miles of bike trails, stages the Kamikaze Downhill Race annually which drops 3,100 vertical feet from the summit to the main lodge.

As a lure to entice a broad range of summer vacationers, the four California resorts boast a plethora of activities besides biking which include hiking, river rafting, wine tastings, beer fests, interpretive nature walks, star-gazing tours, music concerts and art shows. For a look at the summer schedules, which often go deep into October, visit the resort web sites at www.squaw.com, www.northstarattahoe.com, www.kirkwood.com and www.mammothmountain.com.

But the emphasis this summer is on the mountain biking parks and attracting more people to the slopes with new instructional programs, better bikes and a chance to peddle through spectacular scenery while scaring up an occasional bear, fox or coyote. All of the parks also run a schedule of bike races each summer which can be found on their web sites.

Mike Hafer at Northstar stressed that “a major reason that we have the Bike Academy is to educate people about downhill biking and make them feel more comfortable when they go out. Downhill biking is very technical and can be difficult unless you are properly trained as to what to do.”

Northstar has engineered a number of features into its trails including “big air” berms and table top jumps, wooden platform ramps and a reportedly first-of-its-kind irrigated bike trail. The trail is lightly watered down twice a day to keep it smooth and “tacky” and give bikers a firmer grip on the trail.

Northstar’s growing reputation as a mountain biking center is attracting a number of out-of-state and Southern California visitors.

Chris Harrell, a photographer from Big Bear, CA, who was visiting with his teenage son and daughter, said his family usually bikes at nearby Mammoth but gave Northstar a try this summer.

“There is a lot more here than I thought,” he said. “We are trying all the trails and really enjoying it. This does require some technical skill but we are handling it.”

Fellow biker Rod Jaeger noted that downhill biking is “really a full body workout” because bikers use their arms, legs, shoulders and back as they twist and turn down the trails.

As he talked, he eyed the new slope side Ritz Carlton hotel which features an extensive spa (open to non-guests) where people drop in after biking for massages and jet-infused hot tubs.

During the summer, Northstar is set up pretty much like a winter resort. Guests use a trail map where the runs are marked easy, intermediate or advanced. New this summer is the Bends and Bumps clinic where low-level riders go to learn to corner and ride bumps and jumps on the new Big Easy teaching terrain. Private lessons also are available.

Besides renting bikes, all four resorts also rent body armor which includes helmets and shin guards, elbow and knee pads along with chest protectors. When fully garbed, the bikers resemble warriors from the latest action-adventure flick. Guests can, of course, bring their own bikes and other equipment.

The resorts do not run all of their winter lifts during the summer. Riding rates vary. Squaw Valley, for example, charges adults $39 for a full-day lift ticket while kids 12 and under pay $22. Lift tickets at Northstar are $42 for adults and $27 for children 9 through 12.

The various resorts have varying operating schedules so check their schedules. Some of the die-hard bikers will be on the peaks until late October when the first dustings of winter snow typically start to drift across the Sierra.

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Bob Goligoski, a ski and travel writer based in Sunnyvale, CA, has visited more than 90 ski resorts around the world and has written stories for numerous publications including Ski Magazine, Ambassador, California Journal, San Francisco Chronicle and the San Jose Mercury News. He formerly worked as a ski columnist and reporter for the Mercury News and the St. Paul Dispatch for 18 years. bgoligoski@sandisk.com. (More about the writer.)

 

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