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Mountain News: A ski town, yes, but also a bicycle town



ASPEN, Colo. — Aspen on Sunday afternoon was buzzing. CNN founder Ted Turner had been in town over the weekend, as had civil rights organizer Jesse Jackson and gas-and-oil entrepreneur T. Boone Pickens, all of them to speak at a festival called American Renewable Energy Days. The musician Taj Mahal performed at Paepcke Park.

But the commotion on Main Street had almost entirely to do with sweat, not intellectual heavy lifting. The USA Pro Challenge launched from Aspen on Monday with a three-lap, 66-mile race between Aspen and Snowmass Village. Booths set up in the park sold Fat Tire beer and the assorted paraphernalia that professional bicycling enthusiasts would want to buy. Around town, bicycle riders were thick.

Aspen may be a ski town, and a talk town, too. But it has also definitely become a bicycle town. The Denver Post picked up on this in its report Tuesday from Aspen. The newspaper cited anecdotal evidence, including the proliferation of businesses created directly to support bicycling.

As a result of the race, more avocational bicycle riders are now making a point of testing themselves on Independence Pass, the 3,687-metre Continental Divide crossing just east of town. "Independence has always been a proving ground for local and Colorado riders," said the Post. "Now it's internationally renowned, thanks to the Pro Challenge."

Now in its third year, the race has invaluable funding from a part-time resident of Aspen and assurances that the race will always have some Aspen connection, even if other legs of the race sometimes hit and miss other ski towns. The only other consistent stop, so far, has been Breckenridge. Riders set out from Aspen on Tuesday morning on that 203-kilometre leg, which includes two passes at or above timberline.

Bill Tomcich, president of Stay Aspen Snowmass, the valley's chief reservations agency, said the event has proven to be more than a flash in a pan. Evidence is in the bookings. As the Aspen Music Festival wound down over the weekend, nearly all rooms in Aspen and Snowmass were booked. But a flurry of last-minute bookings seemed to fill up many lodges in time for the races.

"We were close to sell-out on Friday and Saturday, but to see it on Sunday and Monday was impressive," he told Mountain Town News.

In an ironic twist, the Denver Post notes that spectators at Monday's race included Lance Armstrong, a part-time resident of Aspen. "Just another spectator watching with his girlfriend" and the local sheriff, noted the Post.

As for security — there are ripples from the bombing at the Boston Marathon. The Aspen Times reports that the hundreds of volunteers in Aspen were required to undertake new training that includes how to recognize suspicious packages or people and how to report those suspicions.

The training is designed to help volunteers be "vigilant but not over-reactive," said Blair Weyer, public information officer for the Aspen Police Department. "It's kind of stemming, obviously, from the Boston Marathon events."

Museum moves to California

CRESTED BUTTE, Colo. —The Mountain Bike Hall of Fame and Museum is departing Crested Butte for the more populated and well-heeled setting of California's Marin County.

Both places claim to be the birthplace of mountain biking, but in different ways.

"Fairfax (a town in Marin County to which the museum is being moved) is the true birthplace of the sport," says Don Cook, co-director of the Hall of Fame.

"Klunkers were being used in Crested Butte at the same time for commuting around our pot-hole streets. In Marin, the sport aspect was a real focus. From there it grew into what is now known as mountain biking. Crested Butte was quick to pick it up, and the history exploded out here after about '76 with the Pearl Pass tour."

To the Crested Butte News, Cook further summarized the chronology as this: "They had the technology and we had the terrain."

By why move to California? Because Marin County wants it. It offered space and support for staffing. In Crested Butte, the museum seemed to be operated on a shoe string. Founded in the mid-1980s, its contents even went into storage for a few years.

Plus, there's this small fact: Marin County is just across the Golden Gate Bridge from San Francisco and the Bay Area's 7.1 million residents. Crested Butte is four hours from Denver and the Front Range population of about four million.

Cook said that more than downhill skiing, mountain biking put Crested Butte on the map. Except, of course, for mining — but that's long, long gone. Unless, that is, the Wyoming company that owns the right to mine the molybdenum in nearby Mount Emmons finds a buyer. But that slow-moving story has been going on since the 1970s.

Keeping truckers off Teton Pass

JACKSON, Wyo. — In 1975, an entertaining ballad about an out-of-control truck carrying a load of chickens descending Colorado's Wolf Creek Pass into the town of Pagosa Springs hit No. 4 on the country music charts. The musician, C.W. McCall, later served for six years as mayor of Ouray, which sits at the bottom of Red Mountain Pass, another grip-your-handles crossing of the San Juan Mountains.

Well, Teton Pass is second to neither. The proof is in the number of truckers that have lost control and their 18-wheelers capsized while descending from the 2,570-metre pass.

Far lower in elevation than most crossings in Colorado, it is second to none of them in steepness. Sustained grades of 10 per cent are found on both sides of the pass. Vail Pass and the western side of the Eisenhower Tunnel are steep, too, with steady grades of seven per cent. Wolf Creek runs about seven per cent. But Teton has them all beat.

Truckers should know better, but if they read the conspicuous signs, they ignore them. Crossing the pass into Jackson Hole saves considerable time over the longer, more circuitous but safer routes. Year after year, trucks have screamed down the pass, occasionally overturning in Wilson, the hamlet in Jackson Hole located at the foot of the pass.

At last, the Wyoming Department of Transportation has an idea for discouraging truckers who ignore warnings for loaded trucks to take another route. The Wyoming Department of Transportation plans to install scales under the highway. Those weighing more than 60,000 pounds, the posted limit, will be alerted to turn around via overhead electronic signs. At the same time, state highway patrollers will be notified and the license plates of offending trucks will be photographed.

Wyoming is also installing a second device designed to reduce the deaths of truckers, reports the Jackson Hole News&Guide. A system of nets will be erected to catch trucks that roll from the highway onto steep, adjacent slopes.

One such network of nets, called an arrestor, is also in place in Wyoming's Bighorn Mountains, near the town of Buffalo.

Bears go over instead of under Banff highway

BANFF, Alberta — A new report from Banff National Park finds that wildlife crossings over the Trans-Canada Highway are indeed being used by both grizzly bears and black bears in important ways. About 20 per cent of local grizzly bears have used the crossings during the last three years.

The Trans-Canada between the eastern entrance to Banff and the border with Yoho National Park has six overpasses and 38 underpasses designed to allow bears, moose, wolves and other wildlife to be able to come and go without being threatened by traffic. The four-lane highway carries about 18,000 vehicles a day.

The crossings, supplemented by fences alongside the highway, were installed beginning in the 1980s and with several new overpasses in recent years. Parks Canada estimates roadkill has been reduced 80 per cent.

But if keeping critters off highways was the only challenge, it could be done with just fences. The harder question to address is the value of the expensive overpasses and underpasses.

To get a firmer handle on how the crossing structures were being used, researchers in 2006 strung strands of barbed wire at 420 sites across the wildlife overpasses. The barbs snag bits of fur, which can be analyzed for their DNA fingerprints. Some 497 trees used by bears for rubbing were also similarly outfitted.

The research documented that 15 grizzlies and 17 black bears used wildlife crossing structures to access habitat on both sides of the highway. What's more, the study found that 90 per cent of the time the bears used the overpasses, and not the culverts or underpasses.

"You can put in underpasses cheaper, but this data mean you can justify putting in overpasses," said Mike Sawaya, co-author of the study.

Tony Clevenger, a wildlife biologist based in Canmore, Alberta, has been monitoring the wildlife overpasses for the last decade. "We knew that the bears used the crossings. We just didn't know how many, what percentage of each species' population uses them, whether there is preference by male or females to use crossings and if there was a gender or species preferences for overpasses or underpasses."

He also noted that there is clear evidence that bears are learning how to use the structures.

Another report, from the same body of research, will be issued this fall. It will document the gene flow between bear populations in the Banff ecosystem.

The broader issue is of connectivity. A field of research called conservation biology has long maintained that species such as grizzly bears cannot be limited to small islands of habitat, as it limits their genetic diversity. In cases of islands that are too small, the inevitable result is a winking out of populations.

The work in Banff has been closely watched by wildlife advocates across the continent. Several other overpasses have been erected in Montana and Nevada, and others are planned in Wyoming and in Colorado.

Meanwhile, a design competition was held in 2010 with the intent of luring designers to Vail Pass, near where one of the first lynx released in Colorado in1999 was killed a few months later. Designers were asked to create a cheaper way of erecting overpasses across highways.

The winning team adapted an existing design used in other applications and modified it to work for highways. In theory, it will allow for highway crossings to be created at many more places. Several locations are being considered in Colorado. However, none have moved forward — yet.

Even in thin towns, girths are gaining

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS, Colo. — The Steamboat Pilot & Today proclaims Routt County as the "skinniest county in the skinniest state."

Strictly speaking, that's not entirely correct. In fact, it has the lowest obesity rate in Colorado, which has the lowest obesity rate in the United States.

As for children — no, not so much. LiveWell Northwest Colorado has found that children are growing obese by 1 per cent point per year since 2009. During that time the obesity rate for children has grown from 16.4 per cent to 19.4 per cent. That's not skinny and it's not healthy.

That is in line with the surging obesity rate for children in Colorado. For children, unlike adults, Colorado is 23rd in the nation.

What's happening? LiveWell Northwest Colorado presents the argument that while Steamboat Springs and Routt County are affluent places, higher-than-average food costs can create a budget crunch for some local families. "In a nutshell, healthy foods are available but not affordable for all residents," says the newspaper, echoing the LiveWell analysis.