Pete Costain talks about dirt the way a chef would talk about his favorite dish. With a contagious stoke that belies his age, he starts with the ingredients (limestone binded to glacial till) then switches to land planning without missing a pedal stroke-and when you're chasing him around his own trails, you'd better be prepared.
The owner of Terraflow Trail Systems has had his hands in the dirt of Whitefish, Montana, for 20 years. Originally bound for Seattle, he and his wife Linda got waylaid by the beauty of the Flathead Valley and never left. They moved into the conductor's house next to the railroad and got by grooming snow and waiting tables. Eventually Pete, an ex-downhill racer and geology student, started building trails-and Linda (now a nurse) got used to getting scary phone calls about crashes from Pete and their two sons.
On the chairlift, Pete and his oldest son Parkin speak their own language, casting the trails below in broad brush strokes. Grade reversals and pavers; brake jack and berms-the science of the art is unmistakable, yet Pete insists that it's more art than science. To him the aesthetics of a trail are as important as how it rides, and he prides himself on leaving as much of the existing terrain as possible. "All of his trails ride really naturally," says Terraflow employee Dani Menter. "When we can, we'll use gullies and rock features to set you up for everything."
We're treated to a prime example within minutes of hitting the dirt. Runaway Train is a sprawling alpine flow trail punctuated by natural rock drops and screaming fall-line straightaways. Like a lot of Montana's trails, it's scrappy in the best way, gorgeous without even trying. On the next lap, we watch Parkin effortlessly air doubles to a chorus of cheers from the lift. Flowing from huckleberry patches to deep woods, every berm and lip is crafted to lead you into as much as you've got the cojones to try.
It wasn't always this way. Back in 1997, the only summer offering at Whitefish Mountain Resort was a bench-cut cross-country trail built by Travis Grey, one of the other groomers on the mountain. People loved the Summit trail (and still do), but after experiencing the Canadian trails over the border, Pete saw untapped potential. He started planning with the mountain and the U.S. Forest Service, and in 2008 Runaway Train became the mountain's first official 'gravity' trail. "There were tons of volunteers," says Pete. "People were just so stoked."
It's the community that carries the bike scene in Whitefish, which revolves around a much-loved hill near town with just enough vertical to accommodate after-work therapy sessions. Spencer Mountain sits on School Trust Land, a plot held by the state to generate funding for Montana schools. Its primary purpose (at least in the eyes of the state) was logging so every 10 years or so everything got plowed. Since the trails weren't legal, there was nothing riders could do but rebuild. In 2003 the city started planning development instead, which galvanized the mountain bike community into action. In a monumental collaboration between the Department of Natural Resources and Conservation, the city and the Whitefish Legacy Partners, an agreement was reached in 2004 to set aside some of the nearly 13,000 acres of School Trust Land for animal habitat, clean water and recreation. The Whitefish trail (formerly known as the Trail Runs Through It) now boasts 36 miles, with a total of 75 planned, and Spencer was legalized last year. Easements for the land are paid for with community donations, and volunteers maintain the trails. Logging will still take place to supplement the School Trust, but in a way that preserves the trails, which are now acknowledged as a community resource.
Whitefish still struggles, as many western bike towns do, with the Wilderness designation and other well-meaning, but limiting, conservation efforts. The hope is that these early successes will establish bike access as a truly beneficial long-term investment. Pete credits the local advocacy group, the Flathead Fat Tires, for the strides Whitefish has made thus far. "They've got a lot of young energy, and they're passionate, articulate and informed. That's what we need."
Just a couple hours south of the Canadian mountain-bike meccas of Fernie and Rossland, the trails around Whitefish offer similar berms, jumps and the occasional wooden feature, all connected by miles of rolling, shady singletrack. Spencer provides an ass-kicker climb and a variety of descents peppered with playful jumps and features. Everything seems just a bit sweeter knowing that the community is behind it. We saw families, coaches and athletes, visitors and locals all enjoying the fruits of their labor.
On our last day in town we headed back to the resort, braving the haze from a nearby wildfire to ride Kashmir, one of Pete's recent creations. The 2014 IMBA award-winning trail dishes up turn after turn of buttery, bermy goodness, serving as both Kool-Aid for new converts and a choice cut for veterans. Despite the smoke, it more than lived up to the hype, and we hacked our way back up the lift for multiple laps.
Kashmir will set the tone for the mountain's future, with a focus on filling the considerable gap between beginner and expert trails. "We want people to be able to come to the resort and ride with their families," says Pete. As for how much building he's got planned around town? All he has to say is: "years."
KNOW BEFORE YOU GO | Get rolling on the moderate Whitefish trail, or bang out laps at Spencer Mountain for access to wooden features, tables and big berms. Ride the lift at Whitefish Mountain Resort (known locally as Big Mountain) and check out Runaway Train, Freebird or GNR. Beta for the Whitefish trail and Spencer can be found at whitefishlegacy.org, and resort info is available at skiwhitefish.com. Glacier Cyclery has been around forever and has friendly staff to help with mechanical and navigational needs.
STAY | The Whitefish Bike Retreat is the definitive answer for cyclist lodging in town. Owned and operated by veteran Tour Divide Racer Cricket Butler, the eclectic hostel spares no luxury for riders en route, including bike washing facilities, a full tool set, secure bike storage and trail access (including a deluxe pump track) out the back door. Plus, there is free local coffee and homemade scones every morning. Private rooms go for $95 during the summer, or snag a full-service campsite for $30. whitefishbikeretreat.com.
FUEL | With roots in mountain biking and the local block party, the Bonsai Brewing Project offers fantastic and unique beer in a laidback setting. Sit in the back yard and chat with your buddies, or hang out with the tap meisters inside for beer knowledge and entertainment. After you're hydrated, check out Craggy Range for a great menu and live music. thecraggyrange.com.