The Pacific Northwest boasts many treasures amongst its bountiful nature, but none strike as fierce an impression as the peak of Mount Hood. A towering rock spotted with glaciers and rimmed with a dense tree line, it stands as a dagger in the sky amongst the Mount Hood National Forest. Home to 6 ski areas, one of which is open year round, only the Skibowl keeps its lifts operating in the summer months for mountain bikers. In April of 2015, my travels brought me to the Hood River area on a hunt for true PNW dirt and some potential lift serviced downhill. Alas, my travels were in vain as I was too early in the season for down hill, but I vowed to return. After another contributor for Mountain Bike Tales traveled to Hood River, I couldn’t resist the urge to mount a second trip to the area. In the summer of 2016, I made my way back and as luck would have it, managed to stumble upon the Director of Skibowl Bike Park and Learning Center, Scott Connors. I had a chance to sit down with Scott and ask him about the history of Skibowl, as a downhill biking program and what the future may bring for this rugged and epic mountain.
MBT: Mt. Hood claims to boast the only Bike Park specific learning center in the Pacific Northwest. What can you tell me about the Bike Park and what its main draw is all about?
SC: Yeah, so what you’re looking at is really a three-part novel when it comes to our bike park. The first part of the novel is the historic part. We are the 4th bike-park in North America, one of the Founding Fathers of Bike Parks. So here we are in 1988, putting bikes on a lift. In and of itself there is some heritage there, and what I mean specifically is, starting in 1988 there were kids as well as adults, locals that started riding their bikes downhill. Well, those have created families of riders now, and the local component that early history gave birth to is seen in the guy who runs our rental shop, Brad Delzer, who won the Northwest Cup, and now his son Brayden is on top of the podium. So there is a history that is created by this community of downhill mountain bikers, and they’ve been around for a long time. So I think the sports birth is organic. When you talk about Whistler and Mammoth and the Northshore, you need to put Oregon, and put Skibowl specifically, into that context.
MBT: So how is Skibowl building on that history to bring the full Bike Learning Center to the public?
SC: We are predominantly today a downhill park, even our easiest trail, Sunrise, still has a downhill feel to it. You will learn quickly at Skibowl to ride your bike with a very high degree of technicality. You will learn how to feather your brakes, you better learn the right pedal position or you’re going to get those pedals clipped right off in those rock gardens. There’s just a certain level of even our easiest trails that suggest you better be proficient on your bike.
SC: So while we are in the 2nd part of this 3 part novel, which surrounds the bike park, what you have is zero lift lines… What you have is access to a growing number of trails that are built by a seasoned trail crew who has worked in this dirt and on this mountain and knows this community and is part of this community. That’s rare! I read your piece on Winter Park and Trestle Bike Park, which is designed and built by Gravity Park…
MBT: Right, but they’re not local…
SC: They are great trails, they’re fantastic trails! But you don’t necessarily have to be a great mountain biker to get on it and say “I went downhill mountain biking today.” Its not really the essence of a true downhill track.
MBT: I agree, my experience there would confirm that.
SC: Even our Timberline to Town Trail from the shuttle bus down, with our partnership with Clackamas County, there’s a component of “I have got to be able to ride my mountain bike well”, number one. Number two, you really want to have a dual crown fork bike, a DH bike. A lot of these bike parks are talking about these free ride bikes, you can get away with 6 inches of travel. You really don’t want to do that here! You want to come with a full-faced helmet; you want to think about that. That’s really part 2, for me I love that and then I love the bike learning center. It creates the environment where you can be brand new to the sport, show up to the parking lot in a pair of sneakers and 3 hours later you will have tackled one of our trails, and its being done without getting off your bike. Without having to walk your bike, without riding around anything and it is this true bike park experience.
MBT: So what would be the big difference between a place like Trestle’s Bike Park School, for example, and your Bike Learning Center?
SC: So when you went to Trestle, and you took your lesson with Nick Horning, who is a great instructor and a great guy…
MBT: Yeah Nick was awesome for sure…
SC: Well you were part of a fish tank that day, throughout that day, there was a 160 some odd students. With our bike park and the way we’re developing it, if you schedule a private lesson you are on the mountain with me, or one of my instructors, for 2 hours in that Bike Learning Center and then up on that hill, for $79.00.
MBT: Wow, yeah Skibowl ‘s Bike Learning Center prices are extremely competitive.
SC: I would say we set the expectation for competitive, I think, when you’re talking about a resort and that kind of pricing where we get constant positive feedback from people saying, “Hey, thank you for the lesson, and thank you for keeping it inexpensive. I thought I was going to spend a lot more money today.”
MBT: A lot of my downhill experiences have been in Colorado and Montana, and those places set my expectation of costs really high. When I got to you guys, I was pleasantly surprised at how affordable a day on the hill was.
SC: Yeah, our season pass is $255, which includes unlimited shuttle rides. But if you’re not going to ride the shuttle bus, if you’re not that into the zone, that pass is $205.
MBT: When you are talking about the shuttle bus, what exactly does that include?
SC: So Clackamas County has an affordable bus system that’s $2.00 a ride. You can catch that bus from Sandy all the way to the top, which is Timberline Lodge, and you can ride a 6 mile section, an 11 mile section or a 19 mile section, completely downhill, US Forest Service bike permitted trail. All of which is maintained by Mt. Hood Mountain Bikers, which is the local club and also our trail crew. So, Joel Armstrong heads that up, he’s a local been here 25 years, ex-pro racer, the whole nine yards.
MBT: So the $255 season pass gets you unlimited shuttle rides?
SC: Yeah, so basically you come into Skibowl, park at Rhododendron, OR at our base camp, jump on the bus and come ride at the bike park. Ride all of our trails. Then get back on the bus, go to the top of Timberline and ride yourself 19 miles, 11 miles or 6 miles back to us, ride back to Rhododendron, and get in your car and go home.
MBT: Wow and you barely need a lift line to get all of that experience!
SC: This is the biggest downhill mountain biking zone in the world, but we would never say that because we have so few trails per acre.
MBT: That is really a unique experience to anything I have seen in the downhill world. I would like to take us back to the Bike Learning Center and talk about that a little more. One of the biggest complaints I’ve heard in other learning programs is that there is a lack of skill level separation when in groups. If you are giving a group lesson, how does your program work in respect to that issue? And also how do you take an individual from the group program into a designed, individual setting?
SC: Right, that’s a great question, that’s why I designed it this way. I took what I learned at Trestle and brought it here to do it differently. So, you’ll notice in our Bike Learning Center, we’re not on a mountain where we’re responsible for an entire group to go a certain pace. We all know each rider takes things at their own pace, and those can be the difference of a tenth of a mile an hour or five miles an hour. So you’ll notice we built the Bike Learning Center with two tracks, and so we’re able to separate the group from the first drop. If we see guys scrubbing corners and using the right pedal position and good body balance during what we call EDD, Every Day Drills, then were gonna drop some of you on the inner track and some on the outer track. We can still coach all of them and we’ll coach one after the other.
MBT: So each rider gets to watch the rider before them and learn from their mistakes as a whole?
SC: Yeah, so lets say that you’re next to someone who is a beginner, right? I’ll say: “Ok guys we’re gonna watch Ryan drop in, now Ryan here’s the things I want you to work on. I want you to get your head around that corner and I want to see you back into the attack position before the jump.” [Then the group will be instructed to observe your body position through your run and learn from it so that we can move on to different techniques.] Within an hour to an hour and a half, half of you are going up on the hill and the rest of you are staying in the bike park. 2 instructors handle the whole group by separation.
MBT:So once that group ride is over where do lessons go from there?
SC: Now, at the end of that class, we talk to each of you individually. The conversation we would have with you would be different than the conversation we have with a beginner. You spend a total of 25 to 35 minutes together [with other students] and you’re done.
MBT: That’s really great to hear, that sounds like an efficient way to separate the groups and keep all skill levels learning at their own pace. So at the end of the day, what happens to the individual as far as future lesson plans?
SC: Depending upon level things will look different. So we just had a kid come up for his 4th lesson this morning and he was riding the pro line course and he registered online for the Northwest Cup Race, he’s 12 years old.
MBT: Oh damn!
SC: His coach is Tyler, who is on the podium in Cat 2 right now. He’s 19 and a very gifted rider and gifted kid, and he relates well to the kid. So he’s actually going to be up there and spend a coaching day with this 12 year old. So his 5th lesson will be riding with Tyler the day before the race, on the course that he is going to race on, riding with Tyler behind him and then riding behind Tyler.
MBT: That’s a very personalized experience.
SC: So we can take these lessons, you’re not hogtied. If you progress 10% between lesson one and two and 50%, which we see a lot, between lessons 2 and 3. Your next lesson, its gonna be “Hey you’re gonna meet us at 4 o’clock and your taking the bus up with the trail crew and you’re gonna ride down with us. You’re just riding with us now, buddy.” And now you’re paying to ride with a pack, and you’re going to learn how to ride with a pack. You’re going to learn how to keep the pack, you’re going to learn how to not be the last man in the pack, you’re going to learn how to pass and learn how to over take riders. Then you’ll be expected to lead us to the next section, and you’re riding with 4 guys that are ex-pros. So we develop it custom based on our resources, your expectations and your abilities.
MBT: It almost sounds like you’re going on a ride with a group of friends who all know how to ride and want to teach.
SSC: Yeah, and then there was a young lady who had just gone through a bout with cancer. She’s about 46 years old now. She’d been off of her bike for about a year, and she was rusty and just wanted to get back on her bike and have somebody just point things out. We turned that into 3 lessons, all with me personally. On the 3rd lesson, she just wanted to be alone and deal with her body changes. She was not someone who in my analysis was ready to be with a group, so we kept her in private and charged her the group rate because it was the right thing to do. Our owner believes in that, we believe in that philosophy, and her 3rd lesson she just wanted us to be available for advice between runs. She came back and said: “Hey I’m having trouble with my right brake, is it me or is it the brake?” I tested it, it was her, she was gripping her thumb too tight, which is common amongst women. We fixed it, moved her cockpit around a little bit, and she was extremely thankful.
MBT: So you guys are coaching from the group level, to private lessons, and in some cases as personal consultants?
SC: When I say custom, I mean truly custom to the individual, and they’re students for life. You get 10% off your season passes and 10% off everything at The Hurricane [Hurricane Racing] if you have bike problems. If you ever need any of us to spend a few minutes with you just stop by.
MBT: So you guys are really building a culture instead of a one and done educational experience?
SC: I would say we are building more than a culture. What we are building is a community.
MBT: I noticed that Simon Lawton [Founder of Fluidride] is there teaching in some way. Is he basically coaching your coaches?
SC: Simon teaches us the mechanics and the verbiage, and he will critique us and watches us teach and watches us ride. When we learn about ourselves, we learn how to help others. Simon has been racing at Skibowl since he was a young man, and he is a huge fan. And the bottom line is, at the end of the day, we take everything we learn and parlay it downstream from him.
MBT: So you really get a top down consistency in your coaching staff because of that?
SC: Absolutely consistency, and I demand it. We’re not going to teach everything the same, it doesn’t mean everybody learns the same way. But riding the bike in perfect position, with perfect balance, we all need to get there. We might get there with a different methodology, but we all need to get there.
MBT: So considering your coaches, are they full time coaches? Do they race? Who are the Mount Hood Coaches?
SC: Our instructors are our trail crew, they make up our ski and snowboard instructors, and they make up our liftees. Right now, because of the size of our business, we need to cross-pollinate them and keep them here year ‘round. We have 3 requirements. Number one you gotta love to ride. Number two you have to be accountable, and number three you have to be responsible. The team can vote you out and the team has to vote you in. The point is, they are people who live on that mountain all year, who are passionate about mountain biking, who are accountable and responsible.
MBT: So I think we have finally worked our way to part 3 of our novel. What does that consist of?
SC: Part 3 is Phase 2. We are going to submit a Master Plan, just like Winter Park did, for the backside of Skibowl. We are going to submit the Master Plan to the Forest Service, this winter, that will allow us to double the size of the Bike Park, move our lift operations to get a vast majority of our bikes away from the Alpine Slide Lift to the East Side and we are going to have our own spot on the mountain. So everything you have ridden before will still be there, just double it in shape and size, and there will be even more challenging downhill tracks as well as jump lines. We are going to build at least one signature jump line.
MBT: Do you have an idea of what those trails are going to look like at this time?
SC: 8 to 12 trails and connectors, 25 – 30 total miles, and 1100 – 1300 ft. in vertical descent.
MBT: Wow that is quite a Phase 2.
SC: Yes sir, it is.
MBT: One thing I find interesting is the involvement of the Warm Springs Indian Reservation on the mountain. What can you tell me about their involvement with all of these developments?
SC: Well, Warm Springs is one of our labor sources. They’re a good 45 miles away, but we have a shuttle bus that picks up folks from the reservation every day and brings them to work, and brings them home every night. We do a lot to help our Native American community to be a part of Skibowl and continue to be a part of the heritage. We do that the best we know how, and that’s providing labor and employment.
MBT: Are they big into biking? Do they have good trails there?
SC: I suspect those conversations will come in time. Right now the focus is on developing Skibowl, and the next question is where do we take this business unit, and how do we grow it and develop it around us where we have cultural access too.
MBT: Well Scott, you have answered everything that we had interest in for now, in great detail. Mountain Bike Tales will be sure to stay in touch with your program and future developments, and look forward to seeing the progress at Skibowl.
SC: Sounds good, Brother. Thank you for taking an interest in us, and we look forward to working with you in the future.