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Poor Snow Energizes Bike Park Expansion

Published February 1, 2008

BY MATT WIEBE

WHISTLER, British Columbia—Whistler Blackcomb’s winter season may be in full swing, but Rob McSkimming is already busy preparing for when the snow melts.

McSkimming, vice president of business development at Whistler Blackcomb, is investigating the price of earth-moving equipment and looking for machine operators.

McSkimming heads up the resort’s Gravity Logic division, which leverages its bike park expertise to help other resorts develop theirs.

And Gravity Logic is looking like it will have a very busy spring.

“There is going to be a huge push developing bike parks over the next few summers and we may be looking at buying earth-moving machines and hiring our own operators to help resorts get the trails in quickly,” McSkimming said.

“Normally, our staff helps out working with local people, but given the number of resorts hurrying to get trails in, I think there could be a shortage of machine operators,” he added.

One of those resorts is Angel Fire in New Mexico. While the resort has hosted World Cup downhill events and its popular Chili Challenge, it will make a big push this spring to build new trails.

“The machines will be moving dirt following the snow as it melts back. Now that we have made the commitment to develop a world-class bike park, we are going to get the work going,” said David Dekema, director of marketing at Angel Fire.

Angel Fire contracted with Gravity Logic in part to help it develop its terrain for beginning and intermediate riders. The resort’s downhill runs are world class, but there is no easy way down from the top, and that is stunting growth.

“Our lift operators are pretty good about looking at someone, either the way they are dressed or the bike they are riding, and making the call about whether they should head up the lift,” Dekema said.

“Our trails now are expert only, and the first trails we will be developing this spring will be easy ways down the mountain,” he added.

Stevens Pass, about an hour and a half outside of Seattle, also is planning an aggressive push this spring. It has plans for a major bike park it hopes to finish in the next five years.

Stevens Pass made the commitment to a bike park makeover a few years ago, but gaining permits from the Forest Service has drawn out the process.

“Our slow snow years were definitely a factor in our decision to invest in the bike park, but it was only one of the reasons. A bigger reason is that the Seattle bike market is ready for a park nearby,” said Joel Martinez, director of human resources at Stevens Pass.

“We are only an hour-and-a-half from downtown Seattle. That market is huge and we know there are plenty of people already driving to Whistler or Schweitzer to ride. We don’t see ourselves as competing with these other resorts as much as growing the bike park market,” he added.

Whistler Blackcomb owner Intrawest has plans for major bike park work this summer at many of its resorts. These include Mammoth Mountain in California, Snowshoe Mountain in West Virginia, Tremblant in Quebec City and Winter Park in Colorado.

The resort group owns 13 ski operations in North America.

Back in 1998 Whistler’s bike park celebrated breaking 10,000 rider days. Last year it broke 100,000 rider days.

“And that was during a very wet summer with at most three undisputedly sunny days,” McSkimming said.

Whistler’s winter success is beyond dispute. Now, the bike park has become a popular travel destination, with people flying over from Europe, especially the UK, to ride its trails.

“Given our success, I expected that by now bike parks would be at many resorts. But the process of developing a bike park took much longer than we first thought. Owners and management teams have to discuss plans and lengthy permitting processes with local counties and the Forest Service,” McSkimming said.

In resorts where permitting is slowing the process down, dry, snow-less winters are speeding up the process.

And although no resort claims warm winters are the main reason for developing bike parks, it remains one of the motivations.

“It’s really easy to predict a drought in the Southwest, getting it right is much harder. While we are moving ahead on our park for other reasons, if the snow dries up, we are going to look awfully smart to have made the investment,” Dekema said.

Compared to golf, shopping, sightseeing and hiking, which are traditional summer businesses for resorts, bike parks make a lot of sense.

Parks use resort resources to move people from lodging to lifts and then up the mountain to enjoy the mountain.

“In addition, we have a concession philosophy. After investigating letting others run the bike shop and rental business, we are going to do it ourselves. The risk side of that business is not overwhelming since we have the same issues in winter sports, and it really speeds the process of getting the park up and running,” Martinez said.

Gravity Logic is completely booked next year, but McSkimming expects to hear from even more resorts this spring.

“Once these new parks get going in the next two years, you are going to see an acceleration of interest from other resorts. I think finally we are going to see resort bike parks really take off,” McSkimming said.

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