AVALON, CA (BRAIN) Thursday May 17 2012 2:08 PM MT—The first mountain bike event ever held on Catalina Island off the Southern California coast was quickly deemed a success, and promoters are crossing their fingers for a return.
The Catalina Island Gran Fondo drew 604 riders from the mainland last weekend for a unique opportunity to traverse the 75 square mile, heavily protected island by mountain bike. Views from the saddle spanned for miles across the Pacific as riders grinded out 13, 35 or 55 miles on remote fire roads and singletrack deep in the island’s interior. While mountain biking is normally permitted on 31 miles of the island’s paved and gravel roads, the Catalina Island Conservancy opened about 10 miles of off-limits singletrack for the day.
And it was well appreciated with riders reporting bison sightings—Catalina is famously home to a herd of non-native bison that was imported in the 1920s for a Hollywood movie—and heart pumping pedaling across narrow, fog-shrouded ridgelines on the island’s backside. The day started at the island’s historic casino and ended at a sun-drenched beachfront bar.
“I haven’t been involved in an event with that much positive vibe in a while,” said Tom Spiegel, west operations manager for Kenda Cup, the fondo’s organizer. Spiegel is putting together an economic impact study on the event based on surveys of 400 riders. He estimates the fondo brought about 1,000 people to the island for the weekend including family and friends. The gran fondo culminated a year’s worth of work for Spiegel and his team, somewhat complicated by the fact that the bulk of the island is a protected nature preserve with strict recreation guidelines.
Eighty-eight percent of the island is owned by the Catalina Island Conservancy, a result of a deed created in 1972 by its longtime majority owner, the Wrigley family, of chewing gum and Chicago Cubs fame. Another 11 percent is owned by the for-profit Santa Catalina Island Company, and the last percent is privately owned.
The Conservancy is charged with balancing the needs of conservation, education and recreation on the bulk of the land, while making sure the island remains in its natural state in perpetuity.
“We’re not just talking about this year, or next year, or 10 to 20 years, it’s on and on,” said Leslie Baer, chief of communications, educational outreach and marketing for the Conservancy. “It’s a very big responsibility and we’re always balancing the needs of people today, the land and making sure future generations can come back for a gran fondo in 50 years and the land is still beautiful.”
At the same time, the island and its locals rely heavily on tourism so hosting events that bring in dollars is crucial to the survival of hotels and restaurants. About one million people jaunt to the island every year, often taking a one-hour ferry ride from Los Angeles or Orange County.
Catalina is already home to a marathon, triathlon, stand up paddleboard competitions and a grand prix motorcycle race on the streets through the main town of Avalon. The gran fondo is a bit different because it accessed trails typically only open for light impact activities like hiking. But, Baer said, her first impression of the event was very positive.
“Especially for a first year event, it was more successful than we could have imagined. This week our scientists and trail experts are going back to assess how it all went. We will make an informed decision based on that on what we might do in the future,” she said.
Whether that includes bringing the event next year, or perhaps even opening the singletrack to everyday mountain bikers, will ultimately be up to the Conservancy’s board of directors.
“[The singletrack] was just open for the event. Now we have to assess. We have to be cautious because we’re entrusted with a resource that’s in perpetuity so we have to go slow. Nobody wants something to go wrong on their watch,” Baer said.