"But it really hurts," says Zachary, a 9-year-old MTB 101 camper who's pointing to scrapes on his arm and leg after an accidental mid-pack front flip on the sidewalk.
"Well, the thing about getting hurt is that it hurts less and less with every minute," says Vail Valley Alternative Sports Academy (VVASA) co-founder Mike McCormack, who continues with some encouraging words. "Should we go catch up with our friends?"
Zachary hesitantly buckles his helmet and returns to the saddle. The pair cruises along Eagle Ranch's spacious sidewalks, pedaling past fairways and impeccably manicured yards decorated with lacrosse nets. Within minutes, we meet up with a couple dozen kids ranging in age from 7 to 11 gathered at the entrance of a foot-wide dirt trail that contours the green space between the sidewalk and the road. They're champing at the bit–most of the kids ride this three-block section of trail twice a day, to and from school. Some of them even helped berm out the corners to encourage small tires to stay in the tread. It's the first phase of Eagle's well-publicized Singletrack Sidewalks, a 'flow-to-school' program that plans to connect seven neighborhoods with Eagle's two public schools and area trailheads.
Zachary watches the first group of kids charge the trail. They're right on the wheel of VVASA co-founder Karen Jarchow, pedaling, pumping and jumping the rolling grade reversals that look a lot like tabletops when you're on 24-inch wheels. As the bikes get smaller and the helmets more bobblehead-ish, Zachary cautiously files in. Thirty feet downhill where the trail meets sidewalk, he's breathing heavily through a big smile–the crash forgotten, confidence restored.
When McCormack moved to town with his wife and two young kids a few years ago, he noticed little footpaths within the landscaped buffers in Eagle Ranch, a 1,900-acre golf community located just southeast of Eagle. McCormack saw an opportunity for kids to experience "five minutes of bliss" on their way to school. "A brief endorphin rush, the wind in your face…that's why we all mountain bike, right?"
Drawing from his experience co-founding the Mountain Bike Junior League in nearby Summit County, Colorado, McCormack sold the idea to trail builder Matt Thompson of Momentum Trail Concepts, Eagle County planner Adam Palmer, who heads the local trail advocacy group Hardscrabble Trails Coalition, and Eagle Mayor Yuri Kostick. The town unanimously approved the plan last November. Singletrack Sidewalks isn't just about physical activity. The program teaches trail stewardship, environmentalism and accountability–the kids help flag, design, build and maintain trails.
"It took a village to get the first segment done," says McCormack.
The program is a prime example of Eagle's recent efforts to establish itself as Colorado's one-stop mountain-bike town. With thoughtful, user-friendly trail development, cycling-centric city planning and new festivals and races, the town of 6,500 residents is gaining national attention for using mountain biking as an economic driver. Mayor Kostick earned the National Interscholastic Cycling Association's Community Impact Award for bringing together public and private landowners and stakeholders to build the Haymaker trail that hosted the Haymaker Classic Colorado High School Cycling League State Championships last year. And Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper singled out Eagle as a model cycling community at the Colorado Bicycle Summit last February.
"Everything that needed to happen came together," says Kostick. "We [Kostick and other local politicians who ride] had the political support from the community and when we were elected, we followed through with actually implementing new trails, building new amenities and improving river access. It's been so well-received, there's no turning back from the course we're on."
It's one that's proving incredibly successful. During the high school championships, several Eagle restaurants and breweries pulled their busiest days ever. And though Eagle Ranch was built as a golf-course community, real estate agents now advertise the trail system as its No. 1 amenity. The town budgeted $125,000 for recreation-based tourism in 2015, up from $80,000 last year.
Halfway between Denver and Grand Junction, Eagle's high-desert climate (and its reputation as a donut hole of sun when it's storming everywhere else) means the trails are ready to ride in April and dry until mid-December. That's about four more months of riding than you'll find in Vail, just 30 minutes east.
After stints living in other mountain towns like Breckenridge and Carbondale, McCormack revisited Eagle a few years ago and saw a family-friendly community with unbelievable trail access. He lives 100 feet from one of the main trailheads and three blocks from his kids' elementary school. "All the riding is accessible from town," says McCormack. "Unlike Fruita, where you have to drive to a trailhead, you can park anywhere and there's singletrack close by."
Thompson, the Momentum Trail Concepts founder, says it's that accessibility that breeds an authentic mountain bike community. "You can park downtown and start and finish any ride from the Mountain Pedaler bike shop or Yeti's Grind coffee shop," he says. "And for people who live here, your driveway is your trailhead."
The town hired Thompson to build the Haymaker trail last year. When he first drove from Denver to scope the project three years ago, he pulled over on a side street to take a call. A group of kids playing street hockey told him to move his truck.
"I called my wife and said, 'We need to put the house on the market–we're moving to Eagle,'" says Thompson. "I knew it was where we should raise our son. Kids rule the streets in Eagle. The bike racks at school are full every day. My 9-year-old is thrilled to live here."
Haymaker's loop flows through the lower sage and piñon that surrounds Eagle and returns with huge berms, tabletop hits and sprawling valley views. This summer, Momentum was planning a 1.25-mile extension.
Dominating Eagle's horizon, the appropriately named Hardscrabble Mountain and its fellow peaks, the Seven Hermits, offer rolling sage singletrack along their flanks, while the upper reaches beckon with loam-filled aspen alleys. The Sawmill trail places riders above timberline nearly 4,000 vertical feet above town. Along the lower reaches, you'll find the lunch loops of Eagle Ranch. Most locals end their rides with a roller-coaster finish down Bailey or Mayer Gulch. This year, pending approval from the Bureau of Land Management, Momentum will reroute the School House Rock trail to create better intermediate access to the Hardscrabble network. But it's the 3,000-plus-foot descent from the top of Hardscrabble to Eagle that Mayor Kostick is most excited about. That's about 1,500 feet higher than the top of the existing Pipeline trail.
"We need to get the Forest Service and BLM on board, but it could be on par with the Whole Enchilada (ride in Moab)," says Kostick. "It would put [Hardscrabble] on the map as one of the rides you have to do in Colorado."
For those just passing through town, the Boneyard trail network begins minutes from the Eagle exit off Interstate 70. Designed and built by Eagle legend John Bailey (the architect of the 1996 Olympic mountain bike course in Atlanta), Boneyard climbs 3.2 miles to the top of Bellyache Road, then descends on the newly realigned and mellowed Pool and Ice Rink trail–which formerly required a 7-inch-travel bike and is now more suited to a bike with 5 inches of travel–or the slightly more rustic, exposed Redneck Ridge, which Thompson also recently tuned up.
Through his PR and event agency, McCormack runs the Eagle Outside Festival and he worked for three years with local, state and federal land-management agencies to permit a new backcountry course for the endurance cross-country race, the Firebird 40. This year's route traveled through four ecosystems, from sage-dotted high desert to snow-filled alpine meadows, and showed off some of Eagle's best trails, including Mike's Night Out, World's Greatest and Pipeline.
"A significant challenge for riders new to Eagle is the sheer size of its surrounding trail network," says McCormack. "The race shows riders a rich diversity of trails, some of them difficult to locate at first without a directional arrow or two. It's hard to develop a sense of this from town, but there's a little bit of Crested Butte up there. Some Fruita. And a fair dose of Vail."
The second phase of Singletrack Sidewalks began late this summer. The new section routes through open space, eliminating two busy road crossings.
"The shit is officially being ridden out of Phase One," says McCormack. "You can't drive or walk by without seeing kids or adults on it. In the mornings, when school is in session, it's like a superhighway. The sheer volume of use serves as proof of concept. We're going to keep at it."
STAY | AmericInn has rolled out the welcome mat for riders, offering affordable rates, bike storage and an on-site bike wash. Several other mid-range hotels are within riding distance of all Eagle trailheads. Sylvan Lake State Park, approximately 13 miles from Eagle, offers campsites, yurts and cabins around a scenic, 42-acre lake that's also a stand-up paddleboard destination. In town, grab a shower at the Eagle Pool, right next to the BMX track and the Haymaker trailhead.
DRINK | Both of Eagle's breweries–Bonfire Brewing and 7 Hermits Brewing Company–are excellent and support the mountain bike community by raising funds for trail maintenance and building through the sale of seasonal brews. The back patio of the Dusty Boot provides epic sunsets, big burgers, plenty of Colorado beer on tap and an outdoor tiki bar that dispenses frozen boat drinks by the bucket.
GO | Eagle is a high-desert climate, but riders can access three different environments from town, so pack accordingly. The Mountain Bike Eagle guidebook is so helpful, it's almost mandatory. MTB Eagle and the town's EagleOutside website (eagleoutside.com) offer GPS-driven mapping programs accessible from your smartphone.