Big Sky biking gets an upgrade.
Steep, rocky, technical: these are just some of the adjectives folks use to describe downhill biking at Big Sky. When I tell them I’m about to ride there for the first time, a sympathetic smile spreads across their faces. “Hold on tight,” they seem to say. With that unsettling thought in mind, I drive up the canyon to see what all the fuss is about.
“Where have you ridden downhill before?” our guide Adam asks, as he passes out body armor and full-face helmets. “Vermont,” I reply sheepishly, “but I used my cross-country bike.” “That wouldn’t work here,” he says, politely holding back laughter.
A cursory glance at Big Sky’s summer trail map suggests that unless you were born on a bike, and have ridden every day of your life, you’d have no business on the mountain. Being that the majority of the map’s squiggly lines are black and anchored by twin diamonds, it's only natural to view the terrain as experts-only riding.
But all that is changing. “With resorts, variety is key, and Big Sky will have that,” says trail-building connoisseur Pete Costain. Pete was recently hired by the resort to implement a mountain-biking trail plan that could change the way people experience summer on Lone Mountain. Founder of Terraflow Trail Systems, Pete and his crew have been busy the past several years revitalizing trails across the Northern Rockies, and he believes Big Sky has the most upside. “Big Sky could be top dog,” Pete says, obviously excited about the mountain’s potential.
That potential is on display this summer with the rollout of new trails, several of which service beginner and intermediate riders. From the top of the Explorer chairlift, visitors can now take Easy Rider, currently the lone green run on the mountain, and wind their way along gentle grades and bermed corners. After a few warm up laps there, riders can move on to the brand new flow trail—still unnamed. Most riders, myself included, would be happy lapping the manmade step-ups and table-tops all day, the trail’s design making both brakes and pedaling obsolete and allowing riders to simply “flow” along.
Mountain biking, like all sports, is constantly evolving, and flow trails are currently driving the sport’s development, especially at resorts. “Resorts are where flow trails belong,” says Pete. “We aren’t talking about remote backcountry experiences. We want the trails to service all needs, from beginners to experts.”
That all-inclusive mindset is being applied beyond the resort's base area. Long-term plans include trails that will link the Madison area on the Moonlight side all the way down to the Meadow Village. Guests can already ride connector trails uphill or down from Moonlight to Big Sky, which immediately expands the scope of rideable terrain because there are many existing cross-country trails at Moonlight. “Moonlight is a key component in all this,” explains Pete, “and so is Spanish Peaks, which now has connector trails linking it to Mountain Village.” By next summer, connector trails will link Moonlight to Big Sky to Spanish Peaks to the meadow.
Listening to Pete describe Big Sky’s mountain-biking potential, I began to imagine what a day might be like in summer 2016. I would grab a coffee at the base area, then hop on Explorer and warm up with a lap on the yet-to-be-named flow trail. I would loosen my legs with the gentle climb up the Big Sky-Moonlight connector and spend the morning riding cross-country. Feeling adequately broken in, it would be high time to let the chairlifts and shuttle buses do the hard work for me, so I’d cruise back down the connector to Swift Current and scare myself with some downhill, grabbing a beer afterward to calm my nerves. Then I would pick my way along manicured trails down to the meadow for lunch, or possibly “linner,” depending on how long I’d dawdled along the XC trails at Moonlight. Thoroughly exhausted, I'd hop on the Skyline to return the the parking lot.
“The idea is to create connectivity a la Europe, and to develop more sustainable systems using the disjointed series of trails that exist now, including everything from the Moonlight side, Big Sky’s downhill trails, and even forest service trailheads,” says Pete, whose contagious excitement has me googling "downhill bikes" looking for deals. "The future is bright here at Big Sky.”