Mountain Bike Paradises
By Chad Cheeney
The legendary SloMo Track in Durango, Colo., during a weeknight short track race.
For me, mountain biking began as a way to get out of the house and push the limits of freedom. From our home, the dangerous Johnson Road crossing led to the other side of the neighborhood, which led to dirt roads. The “woods” were awesome on a mountain bike as a young boy. It was a place to throw a stone, to build a fort and to climb to the top of every rocky outcropping to see what was out there. A jump or a trail was built here and there, but back then it was about exploring further and further.
A short year into my mountain bike fascination, our family took a spring break trip to Moab, Utah, for a family bonding/cycling adventure. My dad was an observant man and probably noticed me in my prime teenage angst, drooling over a worn Mountain Bike Action or other bike magazines of the day. It was the early 1990s, so every rag back then had at least 5 to 10% of Moab propaganda filling the pages. And I most likely let him know that this was my dream ride destination. Ned Overend and Juli Furtado rode there, and they had a shop named Poison Spider. The Slick Rock Trail sounded like skateboarding, but for bikes. I definitely was attracted to this red rock permanent sunset-looking town.
Moab did not disappoint, as we had several amazing days of riding super burly, unique trails and even catching a bike race filled with the top pros of the day, thereby stoking my fire even more. Upon returning to Bend, I remember feeling a tad bit more accomplished. I had been somewhere else, ridden foreign trails that where heralded in the rags as “mecca’ and “world class.” It was a trip that led to a good five years of me listing Porcupine Rim as the best trail I’d ever ridden within cycling buddy circles, and Moab as my mountain bike mecca. We all have a place that we swear to be the best mountain bike destination ever — back then, Moab was mine.
To get to the point, nowadays it’s not so easy for me to claim a favorite. First off, there are amazing meccas in every state. There are trails in every town that are mountain bike worthy, and there is no way to really taste them all unless you have cash money out the wahoo or you are one of the lucky bike industry trail dawgs of the current singletrack gold rush and just make it happen. Then there are all the different types of bikes we ride and the social circles we ride in, so yeah, it’s not an easy designation to make for me or any of us trail junkies. But I will throw out my list to you as of now, May 2015.
The following is a list, in no particular order, of what I consider to be the best mountain bike destinations. So as a disclaimer, I am going to go ahead and let you know that I have not ridden in Europe, Whistler, Minnesota, Pisgah, Bellingham, Maine, British Columbia, or most of Texas. I am not a world traveler and for the most part, my riding priorities start with tackling what my community can offer first before I spend time and money wandering far away. Using racing and collegiate/junior development programs as a path to travel has led me to believe these five towns/areas are the best mountain bike attractions around. My list goes as follows: South Island, New Zealand; Durango, Colo.; Sedona, Ariz.; Bend, Ore.; and Moab, Utah.
Greg Herbold, an actual world traveler and former World Champion, now SRAM honcho, will tell you that Moab still ranks as the top five best places to ride worldwide, even after all these years. It’s largely due to the new wave of trail riders and builders like Tyson Swasey, who have claimed a stake in their dirt and built some really amazing, actual singletrack trails. Back in the day it was like, “Wait, there’s no singletrack trails.” Not anymore, because every four months or so there is a new “best” trail and there are even rides from and around town that will blow your mind with their beauty. The place is a bit overrun with Jeepers, but with the new singletrack now available, it’s not a big deal. Moab has Milts, where you can eat shakes and drink burgers, a rad hostel, it is home to the fun guide company Western Spirit, has some radical thrift stores and even a few OK breweries. Bike events come and go, but they always have soul.
Bend doesn’t really have that much soul; it’s too big and bursting at the seems, but gosh darn does it have singletrack and open space — loads of it — and more fun loving bikers of all ages that I have ever, ever seen in a city of its size. 100,000 people in the area and I’d bet 33,000 of them are avid weekly cyclists, or it sure seems like it. The mountain bike game in Bend is strong and there are so many smiling, friendly shredders to make instant bike buddies with. There are more than 14 bike shops and close to 20 breweries, and the owners and employees ride bikes too. There aren’t any good rental housing options for the bike bum locals, but for the traveling riders, there are more amazing vacation rentals than you can shake a stick at. It’s such a great place to go to, rent a place and throw down all day and night by bike with your friends and loved ones. There are great camping options next to trails as well. The local non-profit Central Oregon Trail Alliance (COTA) is amazing and they somehow build trails with permission like you’d think they do in heaven. You want a jump there? No problem, let them know and show up for a work event and it’s not a big deal at all. Mt. Bachelor has a lift service bike park that’s in its second season — below that, machine-built gravity trails lead to cross-country options that lead to several pump tracks. For being known as a tame singletrack town, there is plenty of ruff and tuff if you just ask for it.
Sedona on the other hand, is the land of secret trails. However, they are trying to clean up their act; they have a funny rule down there — you can ride off trail wherever you want, but to take tools and make or cut a trail is forbidden. It’s my guess that this freedom and tundra munching rule led to the sweetness that Sedona is today, with its miles of ruggedly buff red singletrack shooting out of every corner of town. The place is divided into three zones: Upper Sedona with its touristy feel, West Sedona with its working class strip, and then Oak Creek, a southern offshoot town filled with retirees. Sedonians are not riders per se, and you will not see many of them. A typical trail ride usually begins with a mile of passing friendly worldly travelers, and then no-one for three hours. The bike shops do mad work renting bikes to tourists, and are for the most part more than willing to let you know what and where the riding is the best at the moment. It is not a summer spot as it’s too darn hot, so Thanksgiving through spring break is the golden zone. Make time for a sunset ride every day, and you’ll be listing it as your mecca for life.
Team Devo’s Sweet Elite drops in at Moab’s Slickrock Trail: a must-do ride.
Durango is my mecca, and it’s probably due to the fact that I schooled there, fell in love and was deeply involved with the cycling community magic. It is also home to my baby, the Durango Devo, a junior development program for riders ages 1.5 to 19 years old that boasts over 800 kids annually — and that’s out of a +/- 25,000 person population. So take these next sentences with a grain of salt, but make sure to find out what I mean someday. It has it all: high desert, real desert, high country, cowboy country, rocks on rocks, shale, loam, river trails, ridgeline trails, shuttled downhill trails, winter fat biking and more in-town — from your doorstep there’s more singletrack than you can imagine. Not many trails are “green” skill level and most are ass kicking to start, but the racing legends and ATB pioneers from back in the early days knew what they where doing and laid down some excellent advanced trail groundwork. The local trail group, Trails 2000, keeps track of all of it and adds to it regularly. It is one of those places where you keep finding new routes and trails to try out. Durango is definitely isolated and this adds to its beauty, as it is never really feels overpopulated.
Talking about isolation, New Zealand is my last mention. It’s out there and hard to get to, but so worth it. My wife and I spent our two-week honeymoon there and brought our bikes, rented a car and traveled from Christchurch and back in a clockwise direction, hitting all the trailheads we could. Christchurch, Akaroa, Timaru, Naseby,
Alexandra, Queenstown, Wanaka, Hokitika, Arthur’s Pass … unfortunately we ran out of time and didn’t hit the hot bed of South Island’s Nelson trails. The riding terrain is all so different from region to region, and the locals are more than willing to let you in on their treasures. There are jumps everywhere, dual slalom tracks on cross-country trails, unique trail features that bring on a grin, and there are smiling helpful local shredders around every bend.
I feel very blessed that my family led me to the bike and that my hometown of Bend made finding my love for cycling that much easier. My mecca will always be where my heart is and I guess that is what it’s all about. You have to dive into somewhere, something, expose yourself, take some risks and choose your adventure. When you make it back home, you can put that place on the list almost every time.
Chad Cheeney is a Bend native who moved back after spending the past 16 years in Durango, Colorado. A wearer of numerous baseball caps, Chad is what you could call a top secret cycling pastor, spreading the good word wherever he goes. Riding, racing, loving and laughing is what he knows and his wake is shredderville. He also believes that John Elway just might be the best quarterback in the world.