Paul Flanagan, Cathy Dixon and their 11-year-old son, Eamon, are dedicated Vancouver skiers who rip up Whistler, B.C., every winter weekend. The end of ski season, however, hardly means an end to resort outings. When the snow melts, they wheel out their mountain bikes and ride Whistler all summer, beating the crowds that flood the lifts by noon.
Flanagan, an athletic 45-year-old portfolio manager, tests his skills on the freeride trails, accelerating through the banked turns. Dixon, a road rider teased by her family for her caution, sticks to the groomed trails but occasionally attempts small jumps in Whistler's dirt park. Eamon—decked out in a red helmet, full body armor, baggy shorts and skateboard shoes—epitomizes new-school riding. He spends most of his day practicing stunts on the resort's wide array of terrain features. Mountain biking is a great family activity because it's flexible, says Dixon, 50. "It's like skiing because we can all do it together, but we also pursue our own goals at our own pace.
Ski resorts, having mastered the art of designing trails for skiers of all abilities, are now applying that same big-tent philosophy to mountain biking. Once the exclusive domain of hardcore riders, resort mountain biking centers are now building lift-served trails for beginners, intermediates and experts. "It's the dirt-based, warm-weather form of what we do in the winter, says Rob McSkimming, director of Whistler's mountain biking operations.
Resorts are using the same playbook to lure baby boomers and their families to bike centers that they employed to get them onto the slopes: sanding down some of the hard edges of the sport while still saving many of the thrills. For instance, resorts are now widening, grooming and banking bike trails to take some of the bruising, if not also the bang, out of a mountainside ride. And winter's "freeride movement—having altered the face of skiing in the past decade with the explosion of terrain parks—is forcing a makeover of the mountain biking world. Resorts are building bike parks with jumps and terrain features similar to those first developed on winter slopes.
With 75,000 rider visits last summer, Whistler is one of North America's leaders in resort mountain biking. Trails such as A-Line, with nonstop jumps and rolls, are the state of the art in trail design—mirroring the pace of a good mogul run. "Once you get the timing down, it's like butter, says Eric Doyne, a 29-year-old Los Angeles resident who visited Whistler last summer. Doyne, zipping through five-foot-high banked corners and grabbing air in double-jump sections, calls it "the closest thing to mountain bike heaven I've experienced.
Looking to expand its terrain beyond the needs of expert riders, Whistler recently built more "trails that you could take your mom down, says pro rider Andrew Shandro, who runs camps at the resort. This summer, Whistler will open intermediate runs from the top of Peak Chair, from which riders can descend 5,000 feet. Beginners will head to the Blackcomb Learning Center, while the X crowd can hurtle down Freight Train and its 150 "hits.
"The goal is to have something for everyone, says Philip Duncan, mountain bike park designer for West Virginia's Snowshoe Mountain. The resort sold nearly 9,000 lift tickets last summer, and expects to sell several hundred summer season passes this year. Snowshoe recently opened eight new freeride runs, plus an extreme downhill course with jumps every 20 to 30 yards. Developing mountain biking terrain is like building a golf course, Duncan says. "It gives people a reason to visit when there isn't skiing.
This summer, Idaho's new Tamarack Resort will open a lift to mountain bikers. An industry first, the resort designed its bike trail network before the ski runs were even built. Elsewhere, Keystone, Colo., has built freeride trails and expanded its cross-country network to satisfy everyone from "teenagers with body armor to moms aand dads who want to cruise, says senior executive Roger McCarthy. In New Jersey, Mountain Creek is establishing itself as a biking destination for the New York City region. California's Mammoth Mountain has become a biking hub, and boasts trailside phones to call for a free flat repair.
Mortgage broker Dave Levy, 34, rides Mammoth's bike park three to four days per week. Levy bikes to enjoy "rhythm and fluidity rather than pure speed. The advances in trail design and bicycle engineering have allowed Levy to "find my Zen.
As with skiing, technology is driving the revolution—and expansion—in mountain biking. Just as there are now powder skis, twin-tip skis and boards with an array of shapes, widths and sidecuts, mountain bikes have also evolved to enable riders to handle a wider range of terrain and—most significantly—improve faster. Suspension systems have become lighter and stronger, smoothing out teeth-chattering descents and opening up expert terrain to the previously intimidated. "Modern suspensions allow you to ride faster and safer, says Steve Westover, spokesman for the bike manufacturer Giant.
Mountain biking is booming. Roughly 51 million people 16 and older mountain biked in 2003, and the number of "enthusiasts—those who ride 20 or more times per year—has more than doubled since the late 1980s. About 200 North American ski resorts promote mountain biking, and roughly half operate lifts.
"I've skied all my life, but mountain biking is my new love, Dixon says. "It's a great gravity sport, like skiing. It's a great way to stay fit, like skiing. To top it off, "mountain biking is a balance sport, she notes, "so it makes you a better skier.