- Associated Press - Saturday, May 2, 2015

BOZEMAN, Mont. (AP) - This past winter was just a tad on the dry side, eh?

Despite a survivable winter in Southwestern Montana - at least according to Bridger Bowl and Big Sky Resort - all is not well in the world of skiing and other winter sports.

Increasingly warm and dry winters, particularly on the West Coast, have left many ski areas struggling to stay in business. Several areas in California and Washington closed early this season, or went through multiple temporary closures, and some in California saw little to no snow for the fourth year in a row.

Times are tough, indeed, for the multi-million-dollar industry.

To try and recoup some of the big winter losses, many areas - more every year, it seems - are ramping up summer sports, not the least of which is mountain biking.

Big Sky Resort has offered downhill trails to mountain bikers for at least 20 years, said Christine Baker, mountain sports manager for Big Sky.

Last summer, the resort went from one chairlift serving bike trails to two, and it will likely add a third lift next year, Baker said.

What’s more, the area recently made it into Mountain Bike Parks’ 2014 Riders’ Choice Awards’ top five mountain bike parks in the Northwest region of the U.S.

Nearby Silver Mountain, Idaho, topped the list for the region, and Whitefish made number four on the list, just above Big Sky.

This year, the area is adding a coaching program as well, and Baker hopes to draw more families to the area with the sport.

Farther to the west, Discovery Ski Area added lift-served mountain biking to the fold last year.

Discovery’s president, Ciche Pitcher, said he sees it as a way to offer more for the nearby communities of Anaconda and Philipsburg.

But the bottom line for larger ski resorts is that increasing summer offerings can help draw visitors who will likely stay in resort hotels, eat in resort restaurants and rent resort gear - in addition to buying day or season passes for lift-accessed mountain biking.

It’s a win-win.

Infrastructure in place

It’s not a new idea to bring mountain biking to the otherwise empty summer slopes of ski areas.

Whistler Blackcomb, in Whistler, British Columbia, has built a reputation as something of a mountain bike mecca in the U.S., with a massive downhill park including 4,900 vertical feet and 76 kilometers of trails.

The first section of their park began in 1999, and since then has grown dramatically.

In 2010, the resort saw roughly 100,000 visitors for summer mountain bike operations, said Rob McSkimming, Whistler Blackcomb’s vice president of business development.

“Certainly, for the people who are in the lift business, being able to use that capital investment of time just makes a lot of sense,” McSkimming said. “You’ve got lifts, you’ve got base areas, you’ve got food and beverage. I think it’s very attractive for areas to use that infrastructure on a longer-term basis.”

Nationwide, mountain biking in general is a popular sport.

Nearly 40 million people take part in mountain biking annually, according to statistics from the Outdoor Industry Foundation.

For resorts looking to draw more summer visitors, the sport is fast becoming a bigger piece of the year-round package.

A growing piece of the pie

Compared to the zip lines and Lone Peak expeditions, mountain biking hasn’t made up a big part of summer activities at Big Sky Resort, Baker said. But she hopes that will change soon.

“We’re looking to have biking be the same, equal thirds, in five years or so,” she said. “I think people think it’s not super attainable for everyone, but the technology with bikes and flow trails is going to make it more like skiing, where more people can access it.”

With the addition of the coaching program - available as daily sessions or multi-week courses - Baker hopes to draw more destination guests in as well as local kids, she said.

Whistler Blackcomb has offered a similar program for five years now, and its popularity has grown considerably, just as interest in mountain biking in general has grown, McSkimming said.

“We’re seeing more and more of this trend of people having mountain bike holidays and I think 10 to 15 years ago, that wasn’t a big thing in the travel world,” he said.

At tiny Discovery Ski Area, Pitcher isn’t hoping to capitalize on the mountain biking as much as have more to offer the locals as the sport is growing there, too.

“Mountain biking is the kind of thing that can really transform a small town,” Pitcher said previously.

Easy access?

For many mountain bikers, the idea of paying to ride was long unheard of. But as downhill biking has become a more serious staple of the sport, so too have riders gotten used to shelling out a few bucks to get quick access to often superbly maintained trails.

But like lift tickets in the winter, mountain bike lift tickets can vary considerably, with many trails available for free access if riders want to climb on their own.

At Big Sky, day tickets are $35 - that’s almost $90 less than a ski lift ticket - while the area’s maintained trails (which include cross-country as well as downhill) are all free to access. A season bike pass can be added to a winter season pass for $99.

Discovery’s bike park charges $5 a day just to ride it and a lift ticket on Silver Chief (the only chairlift serving the area) is $28.

At Silver Mountain, in Kellog, Idaho, bikers can ride the lifts all day for $34 and add dining for a few dollars more.

Want to go ride Whistler? Better save a few more dollars. Tickets there run $53-$60, depending on time of year, but a 3-lap ticket can be had for $34 to get “a taste” of the trails.

Bikes, too, can be a costly investment, but Baker doesn’t think it needs to break the bank, she said. Lower-end bikes can be a good way for kids to get a start and see if they want to get more serious about the sport. And rentals are always an option to get spinning on Lone Mountain in the summer time.

“It’s a pretty sweet mountain to play on in the summer,” she said. “Mountain biking should be a little bit more affordable way for a family to spend two or three days and have a good time.”

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The original story can be found on the Bozeman daily Chronicle’s website: https://bit.ly/1A7xwEd

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Information from: Bozeman Daily Chronicle, https://www.bozemandailychronicle.com

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