Exploring mountain biking’s Boulder roots in Crested Butte


THE MOUNTAIN IS ICONIC. An unmistakable jagged peak, solitary, and thrust above the valley floor that it dominates by eons of geological evolution, a visual exclamation point of a place that could only exist in Colorado.

We catch our first sight of the peak after traversing the very passable and amazingly scenic Kebler Pass dirt road, the back door into Crested Butte. As we enter the historic Colorado mining town, it’s impossible not to look past the restored Victorians and the funky shacks to the jagged mountain that gave this town its name. Crested Butte, the mountain, stands alone above the valley, a single peak. It is an island that stands alone, compelling and beautiful. The legendary ski runs of the ski area that shares its name green and lush in the midsummer sun.

Those ski runs are justly famous. Crested Butte’s steeps have built global reputations. Seth Morrison, one of Colorado’s most famous extreme athletes, built his reputation here, exploding on film as a raw 18-year-old in ski movie parts with local action filmmakers Matchstick Productions. Crested Butte is also home to one of the most venerable and unique events in skiing, the Crested Butte Extremes, a big-mountain skiing event that takes place on some of the ski area’s most difficult terrain, with competitors dropping cliffs and straight-lining chutes. 

But we’re not here to chase winter dreams. Despite the rowdy reputation of the ski area and the hardcores who call the town home when snowdrifts curl off of the roofs, there’s another side to this part of Colorado. And that’s summer, when the sun shines, the wildflowers bloom and bikes dominate the roads, the trails and the sidewalks.

Crested Butte was born, as were so many of Colorado’s mountain towns, out of a lust for riches. Silver and gold were mined in the surrounding mountains and the town provided both supplies and, with its saloons and brothels, recreation for the miners. Coal deposits ensured that when the late 1800s precious metals boom busted, that Crested Butte would remain relevant — in 1902 the town was home to the third largest coal mine in the state, employing over 400 miners.

Coal collapsed in the mid 1900s, leaving the town intact and setting the stage for the transformation of the area into a tourism-based economy. The ski area opened in 1960, with a bottom-totop gondola being installed in 1963. The beauty of the area, along with its remoteness and the challenging terrain drew a different type of resident. Gone were the miners and in their place a motley crew of adventurers, ski bums and rebels made the town home.

Some of these individuals came for the skiing, but stayed for the summer. To navigate the rough roads of town after the snow melted they used “clunkers,” funky fat-tired one-speed bikes or modified 10-speeds. As the bikes evolved, so did the goals of those riding them and soon these primitive mountain bikes were being used to explore the maze of old mining roads, trails and passes surrounding Crested Butte, thus setting in motion the distinctly American cycling revolution that gave birth to mountain biking.

Crested Butte may not have an exclusive claim to being the birthplace of mountain biking; similar experimentation was also taking place in other locations in the early ’70s including Marin County, Calif., and to a lesser extent in other mountain towns where the local culture was open to new, odd ideas. One of these, of course, was Boulder, a place where in the ’70s the offbeat was embraced, and funky and experimental was a byline for the community.

Boulder, of course, never did develop into the mountain biking Mecca that the town had the potential to become. Politics got in way. But Boulder residents have still played a key role in the evolution of the sport. And that role is in advocacy.

For Boulder mountain biking enthusiasts, the impact that Boulder enjoys in the development of the sport may come as a surprise, given the dearth of local mountain biking trails. But the fact is that the city’s mountain biking community has, like that of Crested Butte, been extremely influential when it comes to the history of mountain biking.

A big reason for this is the fact that the International Mountain Biking Association (IMBA) is based in Boulder. IMBA staffers and volunteers have, like a rock thrown into a pond, sent ripples throughout mountain biking. Three of them, including Boulder resident Pete Webber, have been named to the Mountain Biking Hall of Fame.

The Hall of Fame got its start in Crested Butte, and Hall of Famers are a who’s who of the mountain biking universe. While the physical Hall pedaled on to a new home in California, drawn by the promise of a larger space, some of the Hall’s operations remain in Crested Butte, and the town’s museum still features some historical pieces from the ’Butte’s early days of biking.

This history is cool, and it’s fun to understand the larger picture that surrounds the sport and the town, as it is a history that’s still unfolding and Boulder remains a part of it. In this regard, it’s a good bet that at some point in the future the Hall will be welcoming another Boulder resident and activist, Jenn Dice (profiled by Boulder Weekly on June 2, 2011).

Dice and Webber are indicative of the role that IMBA and those associated with the organization have played — and continue to play — in the sport. A former racer who competed with the Trek and Team Gary Fisher and who has a fistful of top-flight results to his name including second at the National Championships in 1993, Webber’s groundbreaking tomes on trail construction, IMBA’s Guide to Building Sweet Singletrack (2004) and Managing Mountain Biking: IMBA’s Guide to Providing Great Riding (2007), are required reading for land managers and trail designers. These are the blueprints on how to make great trails, and have influenced trail builders globally.

We get to sample some of what makes a great trail on our first ride in Crested Butte. The 401 is justly known as one of the ’Butte’s best, a combination of high alpine single track. Scenic climbing on Gothic Road and an epic nine-mile downhill conspire to make this 14-mile loop a must-do for any mountain biker.

But as good as the 401 is, it’s only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to Crested Butte. Other gems include Teocalli Ridge loop, which features a tough climb with a rewarding downhill and the excellent trail system of the Crested Butte Ski Area itself, where singletrack and ski area access roads combine with uphill lift access for a wide variety of experiences for all riders — beginner to expert.

Crested Butte Resort also has lift access for bikers and hikers meaning that the area is a magnet for downhill riders who take advantage of the resort’s dedicated downhill-only trails for gravity-fed fun. If you’re new to the game, you can get full suspension bike rental at the base and start out small: There are three beginner downhills out of 11 downhill-only trail options.

Compared to home, there’s no doubt that we’re in mountain bike country here, and the access as well as the quality of trails is a revelation for those of us who spend most of our time riding Boulder’s Marshall Mesa. In that regard, we’re not alone. Our base camp above the town of Crested Butte proper in the resort’s mountain village is crowded with vehicles sporting bike racks and almost everyone is riding some sort of two-wheeled contraption, from townies to cross country mountain bikes to dedicated downhill monsters.

Down in old Crested Butte, the atmosphere is the same, with bikes outnumbering cars. Crested Butte may not outright own the undisputed title as the “birthplace” of mountain biking, and the Mountain Biking Hall of Fame, which includes IMBA activists Gary Sprung and Tim Blumenthal along with Webber may have relocated to California for the time being, but it doesn’t matter. Here we are riding on hallowed ground. And that, at least for today, is enough.

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