Some runners spend time at high altitude to get in shape; I do it to get fat and lazy.
The mountains have always been my favorite place to kick back and escape the concerns of everyday life – so when our family had the opportunity to vacation in Vail, Colorado shortly after last month’s Western States 100, we jumped at the chance.
Vail had everything we could ask for: over the course of nine days, we spent a lot of time reading books, relaxing in hot tubs, eating burgers and pizza, and becoming excessively skilled at dual-paddle, two-puck air hockey. In other words, it was completely nonproductive – and completely awesome.
Here’s another reason I knew it was going to be a killer vacation: less than one mile from our condo was a Safeway store, and in that store, 20-packs of bakery chocolate chip cookies were on sale all week long. I mean … you can’t even plan for something that great. By the 4th time I returned, I was on a first-name basis with most of the Safeway bakery staff.
They even had an ideal form of exercise for slackers like me: downhill mountain biking. This turned out to be my favorite activity, and one I was able to enjoy for a couple of days with my 11-year-old son. By the time we were finished, we both agreed that this is just about the coolest thing ever invented.
Here’s how it works: you load your bikes in the gondola at the base of Vail Mountain …
… then let the gondola carry you 2300’ up the mountain, to a dropoff point called Eagles Nest, about three-quarters of the way to the summit. If your kids are too young for mountain biking, there are a lot of activities at the top like bungee trampolines, rock climbing, and a dinosaur dig they can enjoy before taking the gondola back down.
Outside Eagles Nest (at roughly 10,350’), you have a killer view of the Mount of the Holy Cross, one of the most distinctive of Colorado’s 54 “Fourteeners” (mountains over 14’000’ – although at 14,005’ this one barely qualifies): if you enlarge the above photo, you can make out the namesake formation on the left-hand face, created by two rocky shelves that retain snow far longer than the surrounding slope.
From this point, you can saddle up and ride upward to the 10,980' summit of Vail Mountain, or into its beautiful back bowls … or if you’re in slacker mode like I was, you point the bike downhill and start rolling.
The biking trails are generally separate from the winter ski runs, although a few of them are shared. There are separate signs to guide the bike riders, and the trails are categorized the same way ski runs are: green circles for easy, blue squares for challenging, and black diamonds for experts.
This fire road doubles as a catwalk for snow machinery during the winter, and it’s the most gradual route up and down the mountain. If you wanted to avoid paying 20 bucks for the all-day gondola pass, you could ride this catwalk 7 miles uphill to get to Eagles Nest. Sounds like a great workout, doesn’t it? In fact, we passed a lot of riders doing exactly that.
I briefly considered riding to the top, except, um … did I mention that I was on vacation? And since using the gondola enables you to ride down the mountain four or five times in a single day, you get a lot more value for your slacker dollar this way.
Most of the blue trails are single track that wind through very pretty aspen groves …
… or crisscross the regular ski runs in and out of the evergreens.
This ride actually proved to be an antidote of sorts to my son, who suffered his first major downhill wipeout several weeks ago, and still has road rash scars on his elbows and knees as a constant reminder. Ever since the crash, he’s been understandably cautious on any downhill slope, overcompensating with the brakes on hills that he used to bomb. His two days on the mountain were like an extended rehab session, as he gradually remembered about picking the right lines through technical sections, keeping his balance off the saddle, shifting his weight into turns, and – most importantly - learning to trust the bike again.
(Of course, he probably got sick and tired of my constant instruction to “Let the bike roll!” every time I sensed hesitation. I did everything short of jump on his back like Yoda – but I think the message eventually got through.)
In fact, the ride was such an intensified downhill experience that by the end of the second day, my son was complaining of his hands and forearms being sore from working the brakes so much. Actually, “complaining” might be a strong word; there wasn’t really a negative connotation to his report of soreness – it was more a point of observation after what he described as a very cool experience on the mountain.
As for me, I got a huge kick out of two full days enjoying 100% of the fun of mountain biking, with 0% of the difficulty. It probably didn’t help to offset the four cartons of Safeway cookies, but I’m not going to lose any sleep over it. That’s another worry for another day.