This story originally ran in the June issue of Bike. To subscribe to the digital edition, click here.
Jackson Hole, WY – Everything from epic downhill techy and jumpy shuttle trails like Lithium, Jimmy's Mom and Fuzzy Bunny on Teton Pass, or Sticks and Stones and The Grand Traverse at Grand Targhee Bike Park to the smooth buttery flow trails at Jackson Hole Bike Park can be found in paradise just outside the boundaries of Grand Teton National Park. Author Kim Cross and photographer Jay Goodrich captured some of the area's awesomeness in this article that recently appeared in Bike Magazine.
THE CRUX OF LITHIUM is a cheese-grater outcrop of limestone, steep and exposed, on a rib of the Tetons. It is the pivotal moment of a downhill trail that plunges, loose and raw, through Bridger-Teton National Forest. The man who built this illegal ride through public land is pointing out lines that appear to require levitation.
“Once you get past that crux,” says Harlan Hottenstein, “it’s easy.” A speed-slowing root precedes a wheel-lift over a knob the size of a toaster oven. Then you must brake and hang a tight right into a perilous off-camber plummet where trust and rubber are the only things holding your wheels to the crumbling rock. At the point of most exposure, the mountain falls away sharply to the right. It’s like a bouldering problem with consequences. At the crux, you’re committed. Or crashing. Hottenstein rolls in with the confidence of a guy who has solved this riddle hundreds of times, at least once in a yellow chicken suit. At the critical instant, he slows to a track stand–he’s a centimeter off the surgical line–and his front tire snags a nub. He puts a foot down but finds nothing but air.
The fall is, if not graceful, at least skillful and deliberate. Hot tenstein turns his head and scans for a soft spot to smear and roll. Then he’s a blur of plaid whirling down the mountain for 30 vertical feet. Tomorrow, this will hurt. But today, unless he wants that splinter of doubt festering in his psyche, he must dust himself off and ride it again.
This time he levitates.
“That’s the thing about downhill,” Hottenstein says. “It either looks easy or you’re crashing.”
The same could be said of the last 10 years, a wild and unpredictable adventure that transformed Hottenstein from a gravity pirate into one of the most respected professional trailbuilders in the region. This transcendental gap jump taught him one other important thing about downhill, especially here: It’s all about trust. You have to trust the bike. Trust the trailbuilder. Trust gravity. Trust yourself. Every rider who has chased his buddies down a trail knows that a train is held together by trust. Beneath Lithium’s hero dirt and babyheads, beneath the gap jumps and switchbacks through evergreens, lies a bedrock layer of trust.
No one knows this better than Hottenstein and the handful of guys who built Lithium in 2000, looking over their shoulders between every swing of the shovel. Once it was discovered, the trail would be closed. It had always been so. They figured it always would.
Lithium was, inevitably, stumbled upon by some hikers who got hurt and called for help from a trail that rescuers could not find on any map. The trailbuilders led them to their secret trail, knowing it meant the end.
It was the beginning of something else. A woman at the U.S. Forest Service did not shut them down.
Where others saw lawbreakers, she recognized talent. She saw a chance for new and better trails–trails she lacked the money and manpower to build–on certain public lands. She offered them a freeride corridor on Teton Pass. In exchange, they had to give up rogue trails that eroded the land and build future ones according to more sustainable guidelines. These trails would be open to everyone. And Lithium could stay.
The future Teton Freedom Riders set down their shovels. Linda Merigliano, a recreation program manager for the Forest Service, extended her hand. In a handshake that forever changed mountain biking in the Tetons, two historically opposing groups decided, cautiously, to trust each other.
As they talked about the weather, something was hanging heavy in the air.
HOW NOW, BROWN POW
“Looks like a brown-pow day!” yells rider Jake Hawkes at the top of Teton Pass, a notch in the chain of mountains that divides Jackson Hole from Teton Valley. His job perks include a year-round lift ticket to some sweet slopes and trails, but he shuttles up to the pass every chance he can get. One by one, the train drops into Jimmy’s Mom, one of several public trails brought to you by The Handshake. Recent rains have turned the dust into summer’s version of a powder day, and you can almost hear the sick days being phoned in.
“This is the first user-specific trail system on National Forest land,” says Andrew Whiteford, a local GoPro athlete.
“Our trail network is one of the best in the country,” says Kevin Kavanagh, president of the Teton Freedom Riders, the nonprofit group that formed in 2004 when the Forest Service partnership was formalized. The group now invests 2,000 hours of trail work every year on the pass. “We’re the end-all, be-all of public gravity trails.”
Our tires bite into berms and flick off booters that launch into a parade of natural features. The hustle and flow of Jimmy’s Mom feeds into Candyland, where linked jumps and boulders invite interpretation. These trails ride like a choose- your-own-adventure book, with gaps that will send you into next week and roll-arounds for those who would prefer to stay in the present.
When it’s dry, these trails swell with moon dust that swallows every turn. Too much rain turns tires into peanut-butter donuts. But today’s hero dirt makes for rides that define everything the rogue trailbuilders were going for.
“We just wanted to go powder skiing in the summertime,” says Hottenstein, whose lifelong affair with gravity began on backcountry skis.
To ride these lines is to be drunk on gravity and high on instinct. You can ride a trail a thousand times, and each time it plays out differently. But it tears up a mountain. Fall-line trails plunging down a slope lead to ruts and erosion. They become unrideable, and the sloppy roll-arounds spaghetti all over the place. Wildflower-blanketed alpine slopes are left marred by slow-healing abandoned trails, like scars on a beautiful woman.
Modern trailbuilding standards aim to prevent this. Behind every brilliant trail design lies an understanding of physics and engineering. Merigliano knew if Hottenstein could learn and refine these skills, he could add something singular to the 3,000 miles of trail in Bridger-Teton National Forest.Read more here: http://www.bikemag.com