Sat, Jun 16, 2007 - Page 16 News List

Mountain bikers carve out dream terrain

Not far from the biking mecca of Moab, Utah, off-road enthusiasts have created a spectacular network of trails among the mesas near Fruita, Colorado

By Abrahm Lustgarten  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , FRUITA, COLORADO

World-reknown single track mountain biking on a trail called Zippety, off 18 Road in Fruita, Colorado.

PHOTOS: NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE

There is a spot on the Zippety trail, a sinewy, 25cm-wide track of hard-packed dirt near Fruita, Colorado, where the sides drop away so steeply it's like biking down the tip of a knife blade. It's the kind of trail that demands a pause before you commit yourself, so I gazed out over the broad Grand Valley to the snaking Colorado River and the red sandstone towers of the Colorado National Monument beyond.

People in Fruita — the ones climbing out of full-size pickups in wide-brim cowboy hats and snakeskin boots — tend to call this God's Country. That's fine, I thought. I could use the good vibes.

Click. My cleats settled into the pedals, and my front wheel dropped over the block of stone that starts the narrow, impossibly pitched ride. The knobby tread of tires grabbed the dirt as my weight slid back, so far that the seat grazed my navel.

Brake discs started to howl. Surely the bike was about to twist out and pitch me headlong into the hot, dry air. But just as quickly, the moment passed — I was still riding. Gravity had been cheated.

It's experiences like this that keep bringing people to Fruita, a once-struggling, now fast-growing town of roughly 10,000 perched not far from the Utah state line, home to arguably the best, and least-known, mountain biking in the United States.

That's a bold billing for a town that has grown in the shadow of Moab, Utah, about an hour and a half away. But Fruita (FROO-tah) has all the thrills and geological magic of Moab without the crowds, Jeeps and neon signs that have turned that place into a sort of amusement park of the Western landscape. It has managed to preserve a feeling of community and authenticity.

Just over 10 years ago, Fruita was a depressed agricultural town with an oil refinery being shut down by the Environmental Protection Agency. Then, Troy Rarick, a 44-year-old cyclist from nearby Grand Junction, conceived a plan to transform Fruita by giving it a new identity: ecotourism hub.

"So many people were driving from Denver to Moab," Rarick said. "Fruita is surrounded by 800,000 hectares of public land. Why was there nothing here?"

In 1994, Rarick bought a downtown storefront for US$26,000 and recruited a band of residents to build trails in an area on the north end of town called 18 Road, where broad, high mesas erode in 1,000m plumes that slope down to the verdant valley floor. Official trails would have taken years to permit and then would have been built as "multiuse," which for mountain bikers translates to "awfully boring."

So Rarick's crew surreptitiously tromped through the vast US Bureau of Land Management territory with shovels, meticulously designing what many mountain bikers would describe as their dream terrain, trails replete with steep banks and mad twists and turns.

While the trails were being carved, Rarick opened a bike shop, Over the Edge Sports; organized an annual festival; and lobbied the town council to recast amenities for visiting cyclists. Today the joke is that in Fruita, bikes outnumber people.

In April, more than 2,000 visitors flooded in for the 12th annual Fruita Fat Tire Festival. Where once they would have found a downtown of dilapidated buildings corralled around a single stoplight, instead they encountered shops, restaurants and a brewery, which offers, for those inclined, a local specialty: Rocky Mountain oysters.

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