When the chairlift started cranking earlier this month on opening day of the new Spider Mountain bike park near Burnet, snow flurries sifted from the sky.
That seemed appropriate, considering that the very same lift that now carries bikes up a Central Texas hill once carried skiers to the top of Al’s Run at Taos Ski Resort in New Mexico.
Onetime Austin resident and overgrown-kid-in-disguise James Coleman, managing partner of Mountain Capital Partners, which owns six ski resorts around the country, purchased the lift, had it disassembled and trucked to Central Texas, where it’s now doing duty at the only lift-served bike park in Texas.
I’ve come to Spider Mountain on its second official day in business, following a stream of vehicles with mountain bikes strapped to racks into a gravel parking lot next to a little building that says “lift tickets” out front.
A herd of cyclists, most of them male, have wheeled their bikes to the base of the lift, which has been reconfigured so it holds nearly as many four-person chairs — about 120 — in a quarter of the distance that it did at Taos. Half the chairs are equipped with hooks to hold bikes; the others carry just humans.
I’ve brought my own dual-suspension mountain bike, although the park also rents bikes. There’s no wait at the lift, and an attendant helps me hang my ride on one of the chairs. From there it’s a quick six- or seven-minute ride up 350 feet of elevation to the top, where I step off while someone unloads my bike.
“You don’t have to have 2,000 feet of vertical to have a good time,” says Coleman, 51, who rides the lift alongside me. Even the bike park in Jackson, Wyo., has just 350 feet of elevation change between the top and bottom, he says. “This is fun even if you live in the big mountains.”
Here at the top, where the wind whips, choices await.
Coleman and his brother John, 47, who was the last person to ride the lift when it was at Taos, lead me across the top of the 1,500-foot “mountain” to take in the view. I can see Lake Buchanan and, beyond it, layers of hills and ridgelines I never knew existed.
Then it’s time to dive in.
Hogan Koesis, the mountain bike director for Coleman’s collection of ski resorts, designed Spider Mountain’s 4 miles of trails, which are rated green for easiest, blue for intermediate and black for advanced, just like a ski hill.
I’m not a super technically skilled mountain bike rider, so I opt for Itsy Bitsy, deemed a beginner-friendly run. The Coleman boys take off; I jump in behind them.
The trail twists and turns. I swoop around banked corners and zip past prickly pear cactus and chunks of limestone. I’m tentative at first, but as I get used to the feel, I let my bike go a little bit. I reconnect with the Colemans at the bottom.
“It’s so fun,” James Coleman says gleefully. “Going down trails, it’s a blast. It’s similar to skiing in feel. It’s an adventure going through the woods, and freedom. It makes you feel like a kid, and a lot of us still want to feel like that.”
And Coleman, who now lives in Durango, knows skiing. Among his company’s holdings are Purgatory Ski Resort in Colorado, Sipapu Ski and Summer Resort and Parajito Mountain Ski Area in New Mexico, Arizona Snowbowl and Nordic Valley in Utah.
John Coleman, a partner in the project along with an uncle and a pair of high school friends, found this property in 2001, and the family kicked the idea of a bike park around off and on for years.
Ultimately, they decided to build one, and it’s now the only lift-served bike park in the country that operates year round. (Most of the rest are at ski resorts, where it snows too much to ride in the winter.)
The partners also bought the adjacent Thunderbird Lodge, an old-school and no-frills collection of lakefront cottages and lodge rooms, a 15-slip marina that sells gas, and a swimming pool.
But today, the focus is on the biking. Visitors, some wearing full-face helmets, are speeding down tougher trails than the one I just rode, popping over jumps, crossing small bridges and zooming up berms on traditional mountain bikes or sturdier downhill bikes.
“People are loving it,” James Coleman says. “There are people who’ll pinch me and say, ‘I used to have to drive 11 hours to do this, and now it’s right here.’ Bringing this to people in Texas is awesome.”
I make another lap on the same trail, this time rolling faster and flowing through the banked corners. At the bottom, I take a break to talk to some of the other cyclists.
Bernie Stray, 40, an Australian who now lives in Dallas, drove down with a friend for the day to check out the park, which they heard about through the local mountain biking community.
“I’ve taken six or seven runs, and I love it,” he says. “It’s great — it really is a fantasy. I was sitting on the lift thinking, ‘Is this in Texas? Are we in Texas?’”
Stray says he likes the layout of the trails, especially the rock ledges, jumps and other technical features on the expert terrain. But even the beginner trails have features that more skilled riders can enjoy, he says. “It’s more bike park style,” he says. “It’s fun, challenging and it’s nice to be in the Hill Country, and we could bring beginners or kids and ride the green.”
His friend, Don Bullard, 43, of Canton, says it’s worth the trip from the Dallas area.
“It’s a must-see. For our drive — under four hours — you’re not going to find to anything in Texas that’s this good,” he says. “I love the black trails. They’re steep and loose, all off camber, and have good natural and man-made features. There’s plenty of opportunity to get air. I’m definitely coming back, and I’m going to have to bring many people with me, including my son.”
The only way to make it better? “A concession stand with sandwiches and beer would be nice,” he says.
He might just be in luck. James Coleman says he might one day put a café at the top.
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