Bicycling the ski slopes Trails: In the off-season (May through October), ski resorts around the country are welcoming mountain bikers

Destination: Ski Country.

July 12, 1998|By Tom Gibson | Tom Gibson,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

For mountain bikers, finding ridable terrain can prove difficult. Private landowners often close their property to bikers, and government agencies frequently ban bikes from public lands. But in recent years, off-road pedalers have found a new friend in ski resorts.

Ski areas around the country - including a handful of mid-Atlantic resorts - have come to the rescue by opening their slopes to mountain bikers in the off-season and implementing programs to lure bikers. As a result, mountain bikers can explore new territory without fear of someone chasing them away.

You may see mountain bikers bombing down ski slopes on TV, but in reality most ski runs don't make for pleasant riding because of their steep pitch and the drainage ditches cutting across them. Most riding comes on maintenance roads and old logging trails leading away from the slopes to wilderness areas. These often combine with a few ridable ski runs to form a vast network of trails ranging from gentle roads to gnarly single track.

To draw bikers, most ski resorts offer a complete line of services, including rentals, repairs, tours and trail maps, and some also hold races, clinics and events. They often rate trails by difficulty using the beginner-intermediate-expert scheme found on ski slopes. Seasons generally start in May, giving resorts a chance to clear fallen trees from trails after the winter season, and run through October. Most charge a modest trail fee.

Resort operators as well as bikers benefit. Ski areas enjoy an additional source of revenue and remain open year-round. Many of the facilities that serve skiers in the winter accommodate bicyclists in the off-season. For example, lodging and restaurants are in place as well as ski rental shops, which become bike rental shops. And mountain biking results in a constant, rather than seasonal, work force.

Snowshoe Mountain

With more than 100 miles of trails, Snowshoe Mountain Resort in West Virginia reigns as the premier ski resort for mountain biking in the mid-Atlantic. The resort sits atop 4,800-foot Cheat Mountain in the Allegheny Mountains, surrounded by the sprawling, 850,000-acre Monongahela National Forest.

Snowshoe owns nearly 12,000 acres of forest land and has converted a vast network of roads remaining from a logging industry that boomed in the early 1900s. Trains out of nearby Cass once carried supplies to lumber workers in the mountains and brought timber back from the hardwood and red-spruce forests. The rails are long gone, but their paths remain as single-track and dirt roads.

Known as an upside-down resort, an oddity in the ski world, Snowshoe has its base at the top of the mountain rather than at the bottom. A five-mile drive up the steep and winding Snowshoe Drive takes you from state Route 66 to the lodge area. Two mountain-bike centers serve bikers, one at the bottom of the mountain near the Inn at Snowshoe and the other in the Silver Creek Lodge near the top. Most of the trails emanate from Silver Creek, so we booked a condo there for our weekend trip.

Trails cover both sides of Cheat Mountain, with mostly advanced trails - black diamonds in ski parlance - on the front, or west, side. These involve steep, hair-raising descents, and the ride back up is a long, tortuous climb, so Snowshoe runs a shuttle bus to return riders to the top.

A bike-shop employee encouraged us to ride to Bald Knob in the other direction, calling it the favorite ride at Snowshoe. After an hour and a half of moderately easy pedaling on dirt roads, we came to a rustic observation platform on Bald Knob from which we gazed at breathtaking views of the surrounding countryside. This is the destination for the Cass Scenic Railroad; passengers as well as cyclists often enjoy lunch on picnic tables here. Equally easy trails at Snowshoe include West Ridge, Shay Way and the road to Shavers Lake.

Back at the lodge, Silver Creek's combination indoor-outdoor swimming pool and hot tub welcomed us. The water felt as good after a day of riding as it does after a day of busting moguls in ski season.

Full of spunk the next morning, we embarked for the Enchanted Forest, a gnarly and narrow track under a dense spruce canopy. A trail beyond the Enchanted Forest took us to the abandoned town of Spruce, a former logging camp that thrived years ago; only building foundations, railroad bridges and rail-related hardware remain.

After lunch, we tackled a steep trail leading to an attraction known as the "landing strip." We asked at the bike shop how the mountain could have an airport on top of it, and a man told us it's actually an old strip mine. At the time miners carved it, strip mining was illegal, so they labeled it an airport to skirt the laws. Now it's a long, open field of grass that indeed invites small planes to land.

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