Taking a leap of faith
Breckenridge resident Dan Baney recalls racing mountain bikes downhill 15 years ago, in the high-speed sport’s primitive era. Times were different then. Safety precautions hadn’t reached the point they are now ” which might have had something to do with Baney’s life-changing crash.
Traveling at what he estimates to be 50 miles per hour, Baney slammed to the ground with such an impact that he broke his jaw, severed a finger and shredded his knee, requiring 172 stitches in the knee alone. He took an entire year off to recuperate.
Fast-forward to last summer. Baney pushed aside his fear enough to try the new Drop Zone at Keystone, a collection of downhill trails and man-made free-falls that many say have put the ski area in elite company when it comes to resort mountain biking.
“It’s phenomenal how extreme it’s gotten,” Baney said, recalling his first trip through the Drop Zone. “When I did that course for the first time I was blown away, like, ‘I don’t even know if I’ll make it down this alive.’ I found that Keystone is way ahead of everybody. … I’m telling you, they’re rivaling (British Columbia), Canada.”
Baney isn’t alone in his assessment of the new terrain. Whereas Summit County ski-resort mountain biking used to cater to visitors seeking a taste of lift-served fat-tire freedom, now hardcore riders statewide drive to Keystone to get what they can’t in their hometowns.
They are joined on the trails by a growing group of hardy locals, who have become more and more inclined to forego their natural-terrain secret spots for a day spent testing their technical limits on Keystone’s steep, rocky, rutted downhill venues. The best part of all? The crowds. As in, lack thereof.
“It’s cool because everyone’s cruising down at a decent pace,” said Jeff Tarczon, age 31 and a 10-year Summit local who isn’t one to hide his disdain when he finds too many people recreating in the same place. “It’s not like you’re running into people all day. You only see ’em at the top or at the bottom.”
Neither the locals nor the visitors, however, flock for the trails alone. Increasingly they are coming to get air and to ride over the sandpapered wooden bridges that teeter according to weight distribution. In short, they come to make their hearts beat faster.
With freefalls as large as 14 feet sending bikers into landing zones burrowed between tight stands of trees, where big rocks seemingly outnumber the grains of dirt, the Drop Zone should be treated the way a double-black diamond ski run would.
“It’s too big for a lot of people and definitely enough to scare you, for sure,” said
Tarczon. Speaking of the zone’s 14-foot king, he added, “By the time you land, it feels more like 30.”
The key to handling such drops, said Summit local Zach Westlake, who rides a $5,000 custom freeride bike at Keystone, is “just make sure you’re not hitting your brakes. Keep your speed, and don’t be a pussy. That’s pretty much it.”
Tarczon said a half-dozen laps is “about all your hands can handle,” although he noted riders with better bikes (and body armor) might be able to do more. And don’t even think about tackling the big stuff without at least 6 inches of front-suspension “travel.”
Keystone offers discounted lift tickets in the summer if you present your season ski pass from the winter prior, and the resort plans to debut six new downhill trails this season ” a far cry from when it opened in 1991 with one beginner singletrack trail and a 6-mile service road. Now, the resort offers 39 trails ” many of them still aimed toward beginner and intermediate riders ” and 59 miles of singletrack serviced by a high-speed quad chairlift.
Although Breckenridge and Copper Mountain don’t offer comparable downhill terrain to Keystone, not everyone is ready for such thrills anyway. Breck and Copper operate at least one high-speed chairlift during the summer to shuttle visiting mountain bikers to the top and allow them to explore the sport’s tamer side without rupturing a lung.
You’ll find plenty of switchbacked singletrack riding and a wide variety of trails to occupy you for hours. If you’re looking for an uphill component at either resort, there’s still plenty of mountain to climb. In fact, the local fat-tire race series holds two of its seven competitions at the resorts, July 18 at Copper and Aug. 15 at Breck. ≈
If you are not into hitting up the Drop Zone and would prefer single track or even a leisurely ride on the many recreation paths around Summit County, pick up the free Bike Guide at the Summit Daily News, 40 W. Main St., Frisco, or at many local businesses throughout the county.
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