You took the plunge and bought a bike. Now what?
“Start slow but be consistent,” local road, mountain and gravel enthusiast Erik Dorf said when asked what his advice would be for someone who is just getting started.
“The most important thing you can do is ride your bike. Even if it’s just 45 minutes to an hour, try to do some sort of ride on more days than you don’t.”
As with any activity, community can hold newbies accountable, and the valley has numerous group ride and race options suitable for beginners to pros. Even if you’d rather go solo, it’s important to know the rules of the road or trail — and which ones to ride.
Mind your manners
For Marshall Troutner, head mechanic at Mountain Pedaler, cycling etiquette boils down to one simple idea.
Nicole Asselin, development and engagement manager for Vail Valley Mountain Trails Alliance (VVMTA), had a similar message.
“I think the rule of thumb is just ‘be nice, say hi,’” she said. “Whether you bike, hike, horseback ride — if we could all just respect each other, watch out for each other and give each other space, that really makes a big difference.”
“Control your speed on descents so you can slow down and stop on the side to let an uphill rider pass. Don’t expect them to yield to you!” added Suzie Snyder, a local XTERRA professional. Snyder also said, “If you hear a rider come up behind you on a single track trail, ask if they want to pass and then allow them to go by.”
Asselin’s other rule: “Don’t ride a muddy trail. If it’s muddy, it’s closed.”
Before heading out, she recommends perusing the VVMTA trail conditions page or VVMTA trail conditions group on Facebook. In fact, Asselin said VVMTA is a decent one-stop-shop for new trail users in every aspect.
“If you live in the valley and want to get out on the trail, there really is no better place to start for community information.”
Conservancy cultivates community
The mission of the VVMTA is “to connect our community to the outdoors through sustainable recreation.” Amongst other enterprises, the organization advocates for, builds and maintains local trails. Asselin, who moved from Broomfield to the Valley nine years ago “for a bigger biking backyard,” originally connected to the mountain bike community by serving on the Hardscrabble Trails Coalition, Eagle’s local trail advocacy organization. She knows from experience how participating in events like VVMTA’s weekly Wednesday trail maintenance crew is a great way to meet others and foster conservancy.
“We feel like maintenance and volunteering helps create stewardship and when we have stewardship, the community really rallies behind the trails to preserve and protect them, which is our ultimate goal,” she said.
“If we don’t maintain the trails, it’s just not a great experience for anybody.”
VVMTA also believes lack of bike ownership shouldn’t be a barrier to the great outdoors. In 2022, the organization partnered with Eagle Valley Behavioral Health to launch Soul Dirt, a program that provides free VVMTA Ambassador-led group hikes and mountain bike rides for people of all ages and abilities. Bikes are free to borrow for the events.
“We started it up to help connect people to the trails, some for the first time,” Asselin said of the program, the brainchild of programs director Erinn Hoban and executive director Ernest Saeger. Hoban and Saeger spearheaded a conversation with EVBH around mutual interests: improving mental health through outdoor exercise.
“I think it’s something that we take for granted — just the ability to get out on the trails and clear your head and exercise and connect with other people,” Asselin said.
“It was just a very natural, synergistic program and it’s been a huge success.”
Last year, Soul Dirt served 400 people, lent 146 bikes and saw 680 hours spent on trails. Asselin said 80 events, some public and others private, are already on the calendar this year. Another trail etiquette-related initiative, VVMTA’s Respect the Wild campaign, encourages Eagle County trail users to respect wildlife and trail closures.
“Our seasonal wildlife closures are really important for our valley,” Asselin said, noting that in Eagle those closures run from Dec. 1 until April 15 and up-valley until the end of June.
“It goes back to the sustainable recreation piece,” she continued. “At the end of the day, we’re all stewards of the land, and if we can all be aware and take better care of our land and the resources around us, it just helps ensure that the trails are here forever.”
Find your route
Introverts more inclined to solo riding may resonate with Dorf’s favorite part of road biking.
“There is something to be said about the zen nature of spinning your legs and breathing hard,” he said of its meditative aspect. “Road riding is not as distracting as mountain biking, but it is a bit more pure. In order to achieve this calm feeling, however, you need to be comfortable, and traffic can be intimidating.”
The Town Series regular, whose son, Mack competes for Girona Racing Academy, suggests starting with the bike paths along the Eagle River, venturing up Vail Pass only once the fitness is there and out onto the roads only when comfortable. It’s particularly pertinent as one acclimates to the nuances of shifting, clipping in and out of pedals, and the overall feel of a bike with aggressive handlebars and skinny tires. Avoiding heavy traffic times, like weekday early mornings and Friday after 5:30 p.m, can help, he said. Also, don’t forget about the neighborhood next door to change things up.
“If you haven’t ridden the bike paths in Summit County, these are great too,” Dorf stated. “Go ride around Lake Dillon sometime — it’s amazing. Find your routes, the times they are quiet, and be consistent.”
One of Dorf’s favorite routes is a unique road/gravel loop that goes through Minturn to Redcliffe on Highway 24 and climbs on dirt to Vail Pass before coasting back around.
“There aren’t many great loops around here, so that is a nice 40-miler that can easily be done on a gravel bike, or even a road bike with a little wider tire,” he commented. For off-road-hungry individuals looking longer, he suggests climbing toward Piney Lake on Red Sandstone Road No. 700.
“Then, take Muddy Pass Road over to Wolcott,” he described. “That is a beautiful ride, but be aware that name is well deserved. It stays winter up there much longer than it does down here.”
Following well-known cyclists on Strava is another avenue to discover new routes. If you creep on Avon Venture Sports owner Mike Brumbaugh’s page, you’ll see evidence of a recent effort around a classic 85-mile circle starting in Eagle and heading out of Dotsero on Colorado River Road. Complete with 6,500 feet of climbing, the mostly-road ride has a small patch of gravel and eventually connects onto Highway 131 near McCoy before descending into Wolcott and back via Highway 6. It rides the other way, too.
For new mountain bikers, Asselin suggests starting at websites like Trailforks, mtbproject.com and VVMTA’s page. Each provide photos and rider reviews and in-depth stats on a trail’s location, technical nature, grade and total climb. Her favorite trail is right out her backdoor: LOV connection. Brumbaugh and Snyder also like the Avon Preserve trails if you’re just getting your feet wet.
“They’re not overly technical, but some of the climbing might be challenging for new riders who haven’t developed their fitness yet,” Snyder said.
“The beginner loop is super user-friendly. If you’ve never been on a mountain bike before, it’s a very un-intimidating spot to go,” Brumbaugh added. Eagle Ranch’s bevy of 6-10-mile loops or out-and-backs, like Haymaker, Turniphead or Second Gulch, is the next rung on the ladder in his mind.
Snyder also enjoys Vail Mountain because it’s possible to climb up dirt roads without worrying about downhill riders. “And then you can descend on the single track trails that are a blast!” she stated. “They’re well-built and maintained.”
There’s no penalty for riding the same two or three trails every time, either.
“To me that takes a little bit of the intimidation factor out of it because you’re working at becoming more familiar with things on your bike as opposed to going and learning a new trail,” Brumbaugh said.
- Know where you’re going and make sure someone else knows, too. Use mtbproject.com, Strava, or Google maps and scan your route thoroughly before you take off, noting potential ‘bail-out’ spots if weather turns, you get tired, or you face a mechanical issue. Provide someone an expected ETA and a “something-went-wrong-here” time window so they know when they should get in a car and come find you or call for help.
- Wear a helmet! Can’t leave without one of those.
- Pack your tools. A good multi-tool is a must and can be purchased for $10-30. Pack CO2, an extra tube, and other necessary flat repair items for tubeless tires or clinchers.
- Seat bag. Buy this when you get a bike – you’ll need it for storing the above tools and/or energy gels.
- Bring some fuel. A couple of water bottles, one with an electrolyte drink, is a good idea if you plan on being out for longer then 90 minutes. Bananas are nature’s original energy goo, and slide into the back of a bike shirt pocket nicely (as long as it’s not too hot!).
- Layer up. Probably one of the trickiest skills to master, especially around the shoulder seasons, is knowing what to wear when you ride. Weather can change dramatically from start to finish and there are few things worse than being ill-prepared in this department. Everyone is a little different in terms of body regions that can’t stay warm — if you know you’re feet and/or hands are always freezing, use a warmer glove and consider a cold-weather specific cycling shoe just for spring and late-fall rides. Northwave winter cycling shoes were a gamechanger for this author. Up top, a ski baselayer underneath tight-fitting longsleeves preserves aerodynamics. A cycling-specific jacket or jacket with zippered sleeves can allow for many different options as weather shifts.
- Bike computer. Eventually, you might find tracking your distance, climb and average speed to be a motivating factor. As some are wont to ask: if you didn’t post it on social media or Strava, did it even happen? The more high-tech computers can also be your greatest aid in navigation, equipped with GPS and turn-by-turn route directions.
For those who want first-hand accounts of some of the area’s marquee rides and races, check out the Vail Daily’s mini-summer series from last year, with stories from the Copper Triangle, Enchanted Circle, Elephant Rock, Tour of the Moon, Wildhorse Gravel, Bighorn Gravel and Rad Dirt Fest.
Building relationships on the bike
When asked for her two best pieces of advice for new riders, Snyder’s responses were social slanted.
“First, just get out and explore,” she said. “Sometimes you meet people out there naturally and find fun routes.” Next, she said, is to choose one or two bike shops to affiliate with.
“And don’t be a stranger,” Snyder continued. “Building a relationship with a shop can go a long way and you could even meet people in the shop to ride with.”
Brumbaugh’s shop used to host a Thursday group ride. “With the stupidity of COVID, that got kind of canceled,” he lamented. “So we’ve actually been talking about bringing that back.” He also mentioned the Monday night ‘North Side’ ride.
“I’ll give homage to Jim Pavelich— he’s the braintrust behind it and the reason why that ride exists,” Brumbaugh said of the group that leaves around 5 or 5:30 p.m. from Beaver Creek’s Elk Lot.
Those interested in a women’s-only group should check out the Vail Vixens. From May to October, the Vixens host Tuesday road rides as well as regular mountain and gravel group rides.
For mountain bikers, the Vail Valley Mountain Bike Club has a weekly Wednesday ride for all abilities starting at 5:45 p.m. at Seagull’s Cycles. Organizer Jesse Horton said there are two ride options with differing intensities; distances range from 8-15 miles.
“We have been getting around 30-40 each week this season,” he stated. “The advantage we have here in Eagle is a longer riding season, so this time of year we have more people driving down from up-valley. It’s just really awesome to see people putting in that much effort to come to our rides.”
Horton said beginners feel confident within the group-ride scenario to step out of their comfort zones and try new trail features they wouldn’t attempt alone. Additionally, Horton loves watching newcomers exchange phone numbers at the start or end of a ride.
“It is very fulfilling to create an environment in what can be a very intimidating sport/activity, for people to bond like that,” he said.
Another perk — Seagull’s Cycles Kyle Foster offers ‘tech talks,’ breaking down the barriers of understanding how bikes works as well as maintenance and repair essentials, and guest speakers often visit to offer advice on nutrition and other topics. Horton, himself a physical therapist at Howard Head — a supporter of the ride — has also offered expertise in his field.
“I’m not aware of any other group that offers something like this,” Horton said. “I have been doing some form of a group ride through Howard Head since 2014, but it wasn’t until partnering with Kyle that we were really able to blow this up for the community!”
For those looking to forge friendships racing, the Vail Recreation District’s Town Series provides a welcoming atmosphere for riders of all ages and ability levels.
“I love the Town series races; primarily because I love competing, but it’s a really great group of people who are regulars,” Snyder said.
“The after-party is a great chance to put your competitive nature aside and just hang out and have dinner and a good time with like-minded people. You might get in a (friendly) battle with someone on course, which could be a good conversation starter afterwards.”
If you’re apprehensive about mixing it up with the area’s elites in a relaxed or competitive setting, Brumbaugh provided a reassuring story encapsulating the area’s cycling community. Eight years ago, he flatted on the side of Highway 6 with no CO2 or spare.
“And I own a bike shop —this is ridiculous,” he recalled. Just then, EagleVail’s former XTERRA world champion Josiah Middaugh whizzed by. Middaugh, “taking time out of what is literally his job,” as Brumbaugh put it, pulled over to help. Brumbaugh was able ride from there to Moontime Cyclery, where Frank Mitchell finished the repair, even though Brumbaugh didn’t have his wallet on him.
“It says a lot about the community we have. There’s a professional biker who takes pity on poor old me, then I go to another bike shop wearing my full Venture Sports kit and the owner takes care of me and trusts I’ll come back to pay,” Brumbaugh said.
“I think that story kind of embodies what getting into biking in this town is all about.”