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‘Brown powder’ – The joys of biking a Colorado ski resort

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PURGATORY RESORT – I stepped off the chairlift, grabbed my bike from the liftie and took a deep breath.

I had skied this very run, off Lift 1, many times over the years, but as I started to roll down the intermediate trail, it began to look much steeper than it had from the lift. My God, the base village looked far away. My stomach dropped. A sense of dread gripped me. Was I squeezing the brakes way too hard?

Purgatory is one of a handful of Colorado Ski Country resorts that reopen for lift-served mountain biking after the snow melts and the mud dries. For $40 or less (depending on the time of year), riders can get carried 1,500 feet up the mountain, a 9-minute ride that saves you from hours of arduous uphill riding.

With the development of downhill-specific bikes, bouncy tanks on wheels that absorb the shock of rocks and bumps with aplomb, lift-served biking is booming in popularity. Many resorts have miles of cut biking trails, with bridges, jumps, walls and other features, as they twist and turn down the mountain.

Like many people, I’d been riding bikes for as long as I could remember. But downhill mountain-biking is an entirely different animal.

“Think of it as brown powder,” one of my skiing friends told me once, trying to encourage me to delve more deeply into a sport I had only dabbled in. My experiences had been mixed. The uphill struggle can be so grueling I’ve nearly thrown up. The downhill can be so frightening I’ve thought I was going to die.

Well, I was all-in now. And the only way out of this mess was down.

A world apart from winter

“Watch out for cows.”

They weren’t kidding at the rental shop. I saw several of these bovine behemoths from the lift, and my tires would roll through several of their patties throughout the day.

That’s one of many differences between winter and summer up here. The first thing you notice is the ground – covered with rocks, tree roots, bushes and, as of my visit, a blanket of lovely wildflowers.

And there’s the weather. I was perfectly comfortable in shorts and a t-shirt, an odd feeling on a chairlift.

Gravity, though, that never changes. As I started to roll downhill, I was acutely aware of this gravity, pushing me faster than I wanted to go. Not to mention the gravity that was sure to hurl me over the handlebars if I made a mistake. On skis, I’m at least in contact with the ground. On a bike, the ground seems a long ways down.

Snow is soft and forgiving. These rocks and dirt are neither.

Fortunately, I had Tina Ooley with me. An instructor and guide at Purgatory, she rode up to show me the ropes and, hopefully, the easiest way down.

(As luck would have it, the only green, or beginner, trail, was not slated to open until later this summer.)

Like in skiing, Ooley said, the key is finding the right balance of speed and control.

“When we work on coming down nice and slow and in control, when we’re in control of our brakes and feel 100 percent in control of our bikes, it takes you to the next level with the downhill experience,” she said. “Because if you can do it slow and in control then you know you can start to add a little more speed and have more fun with it.”

And like skiing, that control is a full-body effort.

A different way to ride

The bike seat, I learned, it mostly for show when it comes to downhill riding.

Proper form is knees bent and posterior in the air, so your arms and legs can work with the bike in absorbing the shock of the trail. For someone new to the sport, it can feel awkward and exhausting, and I caught myself sitting to rest several times when I thought Ooley wasn’t looking.

But a funny thing happened as we rolled through a sea of wildflowers and into a verdant pine forest, the jagged peaks of the San Juan Mountains dominating the view. My trepidation turned to exhilaration as I gained confidence. My teeth weren’t clenched in a grimace. I was smiling, even laughing.

And this monster bike, this beast, handled all the trail threw at it.

It was the nearest sensation to skiing I had ever found. The adrenaline rush of speeding downhill, the challenge of maximizing speed while staying in control – I was hooked.

We reached the bottom and I thanked Ooley. Then I went up again. And again. And again.

Downhill isn’t the only way to enjoy resort biking. You can hop off the lift for a cross-country adventure rolling up and down. You can venture out of the boundaries into the surrounding national forest (just be sure you know where you’re going.)

The lift is the key, getting up above the valley floor with fresh legs and a shirt not soaked with sweat.

Said Ooley, “You can get to the smiling sections of downhill quickly, without much effort. You can continue to focus on the same skill set instead of jockeying back and forth between climbing and cross-country and downhill.”

“The lift provides access for people who maybe don’t have the fitness to ascend several thousand feet on a bike. The joy of lift-accessed mountain-biking is just that, that access it gives to all different types of riders.”

Click here for more details on mountain-biking at Purgatory: 

Buy the ticket, take the ride

Here are the other Colorado Ski Country USA resorts offering lift-served mountain-biking this summer. Adult, full-day tickets are purchased at the ticket window. Many offer cheaper single-ride ticket options as well as discounts for ski pass holders and advance purchases. 

Aspen Snowmass

Winding from the top of the Elk Camp Chairlift all the way to Snowmass Base Village, the Snowmass Bike Park offers something for every level of downhill mountain bike rider, with nearly 3,000 vertical feet through meadows and forests and access to 50 miles of cross-country trails.

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Granby Ranch

The expertly planned course features a downhill bike park and a network of multi-use trails. At Granby Ranch you can find the trails that are perfect for you and your skill level. From rocky,  single track and bike paths to dirt roads, the mountain offers everything. The downhill course is suited for experienced mountain bikers while our cross-country trails are best for beginners.

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The Powderhorn Bike Park was built to complement the natural terrain of the mountain and create an exhilarating experience for all. Powderhorn’s bike park offers multiple trails that can challenge the most experienced rider and provide easy terrain for those looking to improve their skills.

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Steamboat (Closed Summer 2020-22)

The Steamboat Bike Park offers an expansive 50 mile trail network that includes a wide array of lift assisted downhill only flow and tech trails, numerous multi-directional trails for those fitness focused riders, a professionally certified instructor group, and a premium rental and retail program. Truly the one stop shop to get you setup and on your way to the ultimate day upon two wheels in Steamboat.

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Accessed from the San Sophia mid-station of the free Telluride Mountain Village Gondola, the Mountain Village Bike Park features intermediate and expert downhill mountain bike trails with berms, jumps, drops, rock gardens, table tops and fall lines. The trail network traverses through glades and forest on the Telluride Ski Resort into the town of Mountain Village.

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Winter Park

In summer, Winter Park offers some of the most spectacular riding in the western U.S. Whether you’re a novice or an expert downhiller, there are plenty of trails for you to experience. Known as the Trestle Bike Park, the resort offers 40 miles of downhill and cross-country trails.

More information: