Angel Fire makes push to rival top bike parks

Sep 3 2010 - 4:42pm

ANGEL FIRE, N.M. -- Sweeping berms, jagged rocks, elevated wooden bridges and a gap jump that would make even a seasoned downhill mountain biker think twice.

Angel Fire Resort has it all, and bikers are noticing.

Host to past World Cup events, regional competitions and an annual 12-hour downhill endurance race, cycling enthusiasts say this small-town resort is on the verge of rivaling some of the most renowned mountain bike parks in North America.

A two-man team worked all summer to improve lines that scream down from the top of Angel Fire's 10,650-foot peak, and management plans to bring the duo back over the next four years to carve even more berms and jump lines through the resort's privately owned patch of spruce and aspen trees.

"Within three or four years, Angel Fire is just going to explode. It will be a destination spot, for sure," said Tony Gradillas, a well-traveled downhill aficionado and co-owner of Bike Works in Albuquerque.

The success of Whistler's bike park north of Vancouver, British Columbia, has encouraged bike parks to sprout up around the United States, from the Galbraith Mountain network north of Seattle and Keystone and Winter Park in Colorado to Highland and Snowshoe in the East.

Angel Fire has hosted mountain bike events for 20 years and has offered chairlift access to bikers for more than a decade.

However, marketing director Dave Dekema said this is the first year the resort has hired a trail crew to expand its network and develop trails for a wider audience -- not just those decked out in body armor and full-face helmets.

The crew -- Hogan Koesis and Patrick West of Texas-based New Gravity Creations -- is improving and adding to several trails developed mostly by sponsors of past World Cup and Mountain States Cup races, including a line designed to get racers down the mountain in four minutes.

"These are the first dedicated trail-crew, bike-park builders that I've seen here who really level fun and excitement with safety and progression at the same time," Dekema said. "They're not building it for them and their friends. They're building it so people can see what's up there and work their way up to it."

That's where Koesis' "squirrel catcher" comes in.

The wooden structure, finished in the final days of the summer building session, stands just under 10 feet high. A steep curved wall induces some heart pounding, but it soaks up a rider's momentum and shoots him straight up to a flat landing at the top.

Riders can quickly catch their breath after realizing they're still in one piece and shoot down the ramp on the other side toward Candyland.

As fun as its name implies, Candyland was inspired by a line of dirt jumps at Whistler, which has become the gold standard among mountain biking's downhill and freeride scene in North America.

Koesis said Candyland is unique to Angel Fire.

"Like Crabapple Hits in Whistler, there are three massive jumps in a row," he said. "You go through and you're really nervous but it's really safe. It's a progressive style of trail. You get this crazy chemical reaction in your brain and it's pretty impressive."

If a rider can hit the "squirrel catcher," the rest of the jump line will be nothing but fun. Koesis said it was designed so most riders could do it, and future plans call for short drops to one side and magic carpets -- or rolling jumps -- on the other.

Riders visiting Angel Fire recently said they were impressed with what the resort has done.

"It's really one of the better places I've ridden in on this continent. The terrain is as good if not better than Whistler," said Rich Strang, 51, of Santa Fe, who has been downhilling and dirt jumping for several years. "This mountain is going to evolve next year full force."

Resorts with privately owned patches of forest are in a better position to develop bike parks since they don't need permission from federal land managers. However, Keystone works with the U.S. Forest Service each year to get its trails sanctioned before work begins and builders generally take care to make their trails sustainable.

"If ski areas are willing to see the risk and the potential, it's going to make money. There's no way that it can't," Gradillas said. "And if these trails aren't embraced inbounds, kids are going to build them out of bounds."

Angel Fire has been attracting riders from New Mexico and neighboring states, and resort managers expect mountain biker visits to surpass those signing up for summer golf rounds over the next few years as the build-out continues.

Bikers gearing up in the parking lot say part of the draw is the rush.

"Just the adrenaline and the skills that you need, it's just amazing," said Rich O'Connor of Albuquerque. "It's not like jumping out of a plane or something. You have to develop skills to negotiate different sections and obstacles. There is a learning curve and it can be a painful learning curve."

O'Connor and his friends all pointed to scars.

But they say it's worth the feeling riders get from threading their bikes through tight trees at speed, negotiating rocky lava pits and getting pushed by G-forces through manicured berms.

"I feel like I'm flying," Gradillas said. "I think it's the closest thing I can get to flying. It's a roller coaster that you're in control of and that's fun."




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