Sixteen years ago, a neighbor and I loaded up our bikes in Santa Fe and drove down for a day of riding at Sandia Peak ski area outside Albuquerque, N.M. Sandia was one of the earliest ski facilities to experiment with the idea of hauling mountain bikers up so that they could ride down, and we were intrigued enough to check it out.
They kept it simple in those days. No modified terrain or stunts, just metal hooks on chairs to haul your bike, and singletrack all the way to the bottom. It wasn’t bad, I guess, but it was unsatisfying. My two most vivid memories of the day are the strange guilt of unearned descents, and locking up my brakes after rounding a turn to find five beginners in gym shorts and tennis shoes standing with their bikes in the middle of the trail, where they had stopped to chat.
Nowadays, downhill ski areas love the idea of sucking summertime dollars from mountain bikers’ wallets by luring them to “bike parks” where they can purchase lift tickets and ride long-travel DH rigs over gap jumps and all sorts of wooden contrivances that the "parks" pass off as trails.
Just south of Anchorage, our very own Alyeska Resort is dipping its toes into those waters with two new trails that are probably the start of something bigger. For now, you still have to ride uphill (for free) to access the goods, but lift tickets probably aren’t far behind.
Last Saturday, I met Jules (who shot the pic with this post) and the BikeMonkee for a ride out of Girdwood, and we warmed up my making a run down Blueberry Pancake. It’s tame enough to ride on XC bikes, but full of tight, technical switchbacks and covered with wooden ramps and bridges that roll up and down, twist from side to side, and lead into banked turns. Where steep grades and wet wood combine, the lumber is covered with chickenwire to provide a grippy braking surface. So much for nature.
Just like Sandia back in ’92, it was an interesting experiment. But, for me, our ride didn’t really start until we were outside town riding over rocks and churning through mudholes. That’s what brought me to mountain biking in the first place: gettin’ out into the boonies, and exploring new trails with friends and the freedom to choose our own lines on the map.
I’m glad there are more people than ever interested in building trails for mountain bikers, and it’s good that folks with an aversion to climbing have someplace to go with their body armor and 40-pound beast bikes. But I’ll skip the lumberyard rides and lift lines, thanks. Besides, I already get my fill of being herded like a sheep every time I go to the airport.
I’ll stick with the backcountry, where I get to suffer up a mountain before riding down it, and the only crowd consists of my smart-ass friends with their scratched-up, non-armored shins. If I want to ride on wood, I’ll just look for some exposed roots.