Girdwood bike park a blast for all skill levels
If you’ve heard the bike park at Alyeska Resort is too steep, too scary or just all around too gnarly, stop with that noise, and get yourself to Girdwood.
Since opening four years ago, the Alyeska Bike Park has expanded, growing in popularity. Now this Friday-to-Sunday, June-to-September operation is something accessible to anyone 8 years or older who can ride a bike.
Is it technically challenging? Sure. Steep hills? Oh yeah – especially on certain runs. Adrenaline rush? Totally. But that’s all part of downhill mountain biking, and the thrill, skill and rush of the sport are among the many reasons folks keep coming back for more.
“You don’t have to be a super rad biker to do it,” said Di Hiibner, Alyeska Resort area general manager. “It’s just like skiing. There’s something for everyone, and we want to get the word out. You don’t have to be in super awesome shape. Definitely anyone can do it.”
And to prove that point, my editor sent me.
I bike. I mean, I have a bike, and sometimes, I ride it around, like on the Coastal Trail. But by no stretch of the imagination am I a mountain biker, so my enthusiasm waned when friends reacted by saying things like:
“Ooh, are you … seriously going?”
“You’re not really?”
“Will you text me when you’re done so I know you’re OK?”
Hiibner soothed any nerves. We chatted one morning in her office, in a modest wood building just east of the Day Lodge. Large windows looked up the sun-soaked slopes. In the corner, a bulky white bike speckled with dried dirt propped up, a full-face helmet dangling from a handlebar.
Hiibner – a trim, fair-haired woman with a patient expression and easy athleticism – wore knee-length gray shorts, a green long-sleeved cycling shirt, and a cool trucker cap with a graphic of Alaska on it. She joined Alyeska in 1994 and held various jobs – lifts, snowmaking, ski patrol, mountain hosting. She has worked as general manager for eight years.
Prior to the bike park, Hiibner said, just about the only year-round jobs at the resort were for vehicle and lift maintenance.
Owner John Byrne thought up the bike park concept, something that’s been done with success at other winter ski resorts. Whistler in Canada is probably the most regaled. Parks also sprung up in hot spots like Park City, Steamboat, and Tahoe.
Four years ago, Alyeska opened the bike park with one trail coming down from the tram. Using the same color-coded scheme that ranks difficulty of ski runs, it was labeled a black. That means it’s really hard, and opposite of green, the easiest. Blue is somewhere in the middle.
An astounding 250 eager riders turned out opening day. The steep and challenging terrain of that first trail was perhaps a bit ambitious, Di said. It maybe gave some a lasting impression that biking at Alyeska was only for really skilled riders.
Since then, the staff has worked to make the sport accessible. They built more trails. They changed up the terrain, with a mix of road, single-track and manmade features. Three chairlifts deliver riders to starting points: the Bear Cub Quad, Ted’s Express and Glacier Bowl Express.
Packages offer various orientations, lessons and camps, depending on riders’ skill levels. Those with downhill biking experience new to the bike park can get a tour of their favorite terrain – from the fastest trails to more technical runs.
Novices are encouraged to take “Bike Park 101” to learn basics – skills like appropriate braking, body positioning and “body-bike separation.”
I asked, “Body-bike separation? Is that when you fall off?”
Time to find out.
We started out in a gravel lot. Most bike park terrain demands full suspension downhill/freeride bikes. Alyeska has an impressive fleet for rent. Their forgiving suspension and sensitive, powerful disc brakes make for a safer ride.
I tooled around, testing the brakes, and next we moved on to stance. Hiibner showed how to stand on the pedals properly, chin over the handlebars, elbows bent, feet centered on pedals even level above the ground, knees turned out. It made sense as she explained the flexibility, safety and maneuverability this form provides when you’re cruising downhill.
“You want to look out in front of you, just like when you’re driving,” Hiibner instructed, as I moved slowly around the lot, rehearsing turns.
Finally, we covered that whole “body-bike separation” thing, which basically means when your bike turns one way, your body can go another. Translation: Ride fluidly.
We headed toward Bear Cub Quad, fully padded up – sturdy shoes, eye protection, full-face helmet, gloves, and pads covering elbows, forearms, knees and legs. My cool gear left me feeling pretty tough, until the cheerful lift operator kicked the chairlift down to slow-motion so I could practice loading the bike.
After loading our bikes, we hopped on the next chair, and at the top, the two lift operators had the bikes unloaded and ready.
Time to ride.
Downhill, turns out, is quite different from a parking lot. Instantly faster. Turns proved harder. At first my brain pleaded with me to sit my butt down – why was I going so fast and standing on a bike!? But I heard Hiibner’s warnings that “hugging the handlebars” was about the worst position once can be in, and willed myself into the stance.
Gravity pretty much rules when you’re up there. Your fingers can gently hug those brake triggers, but squeeze too urgently and you’ll fly over the handlebars. The best thing you can do is relax, look forward, remember what you learned, pay attention, and enjoy it. It’s an incredible feeling, downhill biking. In any setting, the adrenaline rush would completely rock, but at Alyeska, flying down the hill with all that gorgeous Alaska scenery coming at you, there is literally nothing like it.
Afterward, people kept asking if I fell. I didn’t! That is, I didn’t fall off the bike.
But on the last run of the afternoon, Hiibner had me wait while she biked ahead to photograph me coming. I got off my bike and stood in the sun, body already sore and a little shaky, and I just fell over into the brush.
Really. I went from standing, to lying in the bushes.
I was giggling to myself as a dude pedaled buy and said, “Right on! That happened to me yesterday.”
And I didn’t feel so bad.
I told Hiibner how much more comfortable and good I felt between the parking lot and that last run.
“It’s a fast skill progression,” she said. “And it’s an amazing workout. I just want to see it succeed because it is so fun.”
The Bike Park is open noon to 6 p.m., Friday to Sunday. With skiing, you have to show up early to get the fresh powder and grooming. Not with biking. The “brown powder,” as they jokingly call it, is good all day long.