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Mountain biking in Breckenridge: How does it compare to Austin?

Pam LeBlanc
pleblanc@statesman.com
Pam LeBlanc props herself up against a tree on the Peaks Trail in Breckenridge. The mountain air takes a toll on Austinites.

We have a world-class mountain biking scene here in Central Texas.

The stair-stepped ledges of Emma Long Metropolitan Park, the rock- and root-studded single track through the Barton Creek greenbelt, and the up-and-down, whoop-de-do terrain of Walnut Creek Metropolitan Park chum up cyclists riding knobby-tired steeds like wriggly worms draw in bass.

So how does mountain biking in Austin, where the elevation is 621 feet at Camp Mabry, compare to mountain biking in the real mountains — the Rocky Mountains of Colorado?

I headed to Breckenridge, Colo., to find out.

The first thing I notice (besides the amazing alpine scenery) is that just hauling my suitcase up the stairs of One Ski Hill Place, where I've rented a room, leaves me breathing heavily. Transitioning to mountain air when you're used to breathing near sea level is like switching from whole milk to skim.

That difference becomes even more pronounced when you climb on a mountain bike, which I rent the next morning from Mountain Wave, a local bike shop, before pedaling a few blocks to meet Scott Reid, open space and trails planner.

What sets the mountain biking scene in the 151-year-old former mining town apart, he says, is the sheer size of its trail system.

"We have so much here as far as single track and dirt roads — it goes on forever," Reid tells me.

Right from downtown, cyclists can access hundreds of miles of single track and dirt roads. In addition, more than 50 miles of paved recreational pathways link Breckenridge to nearby Frisco, Keystone, Silverthorne, Vail, Copper Mountain and Dillon.

Breckenridge sits at an altitude of nearly 10,000 feet, and much of Breck's off-road system involves climbing that'll leave a flatlander from Texas panting like a hot puppy. It's also challenging if you haven't spent much time in the saddle, cruising through rock gardens and scrub.

City planners like Reid know that, and they're actively doing something about it.

"We have the technical, high-altitude stuff covered," Reid says. "It's fun to have that, but our focus is on creating beginning level mountain biking trails so folks can get their feet wet versus thinking, ‘That was miserable, I couldn't breathe and I had to hike my bike the whole way.'"

Reid flips open a map, available at area bike shops, that outlines local cycling trails. Like ski trails, they're marked as green for beginners, blue for intermediates, and black for experts.

He runs his finger along an area of intermediate trails southeast of town, and invites me to follow. In 5 minutes, we're pedaling up an easy single track trail along French Creek.

Thanks to the altitude, I do my best impersonation of a suffocating guppy as we grind 500 feet up Prospect Gulch, pausing now and then so I can pant in peace. Finally at the top, we admire the scenery, which includes an overview of a river far below where miners once dredged for gold.

Then the real fun begins.

We zoom down an intermediate trail called Minnie Mine, zooming under pine trees and aspen and past chattering chipmunks. We cross a couple of wooden planked bridges, stop to check out an old mining dredge boat that was abandoned here decades ago, admire a blaze of wildflowers, then zip off down a trail built last year called Turk's.

Instantly, I am in cycling heaven.

The shocks of my dual suspension bike bounce gently as I careen up banked berms, roll over rocks the size of soccer balls and screech to a halt in front of a downed tree blocking my path. Reid whips out a folding saw and clears some of the branches. We hoist our bikes over the log, then carry on for another hour before heading back to town for a lunchtime break.

Breckenridge's amazing network of trails didn't happen by accident, Reid explains. Town residents passed a referendum in 1996 that dedicated a half-cent sales tax to an open space program. Among other things, the program secures public land and easements on historical roads for its ever-expanding trail system.

Some of the trails trace pre-existing cart paths and flume lines used by miners searching for gold. Others are built specifically for bikes. A four-person paid crew and hundreds of volunteers have pitched in to create 3 miles of new singletrack so far this year.

Reid loves riding past abandoned mine shafts and along ditches once used to drain water in mining operations. The wildlife watching isn't bad either. He's spotted moose, bear, coyote and fox all while pedaling these trails.

"I'm just one of the people who have traveled on this road in the last 100 years, and I love that sense of history," he says. "The options we have here are really exceptional."

The League of American Bicyclists has named Breckenridge a Bicycle Friendly Community, a designation Austin earned in 2007. Bike lanes and sharrows, painted markings that alert motorists to expect cyclists on roads, are everywhere. Austin just got its first sharrows this year, too.

Each July, Breckenridge dedicates an entire week to cycling, with group rides, bike-in movie nights and races. The ski town is also home to big mountain bike races including the Firecracker 50, the Breck 100 and the Breck Epic stage race.

So how does all this stack up to home?

Hill Abell, owner of Bicycle Sport Shop and former chairman of the board of the International Mountain Bicycling Association, takes a couple weeks each summer to ride in Colorado. Last year, he finished the grueling Leadville 100 Mountain Bike Race.

"Colorado single-track is ideal for long, all-day epic rides with lots of climbing on mostly smooth trail," he says. "Texas, specifically Austin, riding is about short, hard technical sections, and mile for mile is as challenging as Colorado, and unless you're technically adept, actually harder to stay in the saddle. I've had more than a few Colorado riders hit the trail with me, expecting to be bored to tears, and come back blown away by how fun and rowdy the trails are in Central Texas."

Agreed.

I'm mainly a bike commuter, cycling 15 miles to 20 miles a day to work, swim practice and errands. I love some of the trails at Walnut Creek but have to get off and walk a lot of the terrain on the Barton Creek Greenbelt. City Park? Forget about it.

I love the softer, pine needle-lined dirt trails in Colorado. I don't like the lack of oxygen at the higher altitude.

Bottom line?

One isn't better than the other. They're different. And that's good. It means we have more trails to explore.

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Differences between mountain biking in Colorado and Texas:

Colorado

  • Less oxygen.
  • You might get tripped by a bear or moose.
  • Long, sustained climbs.
  • If it's 75 degrees it's ‘hot.'
  • Very few bugs.
  • No poison ivy or thorns.
  • Smoother, less rocky trails.
  • Big mountain views.
  • Season runs May through October.
  • Trails on old mining roads and flume lines.

Texas

  • Enough oxygen to breathe.
  • You might get tripped by an armadillo or rattlesnake.
  • Short, steep climbs.
  • If it's 85 degrees it's ‘cool.'
  • Bugs!
  • Poison ivy and thorns.
  • Sharp limestone trails, greater chance for laceration.
  • Hill Country scenery.
  • Season runs year-round.
  • Trails on old cattle paths and deer trails.

If you go: I rented a mountain bike from Mountain Wave, 600 S. Park Ave. 970-453-8305; $27 for four hours or $42 for 24 hours, helmet included.