Mountain Biking

How Did the COVID-19 Pandemic Affect Bike Parks in 2020? –

If we’ve learned anything in the past year, it’s that people want to leave their houses no matter what, and once restaurants and movie theaters shut down, people go outside. Despite massive decreases in global travel in 2020, new and seasoned mountain bikers alike spent plenty of time at their local bike parks.

Val di Sole reported a surprising record-breaking year in 2020 against significant odds, as Northern Italy was one of the virus epicenters in the spring. The resort town operates two bike parks: Pontedilegno-Tonale and Val di Sole. The latter, more well-known of the two, was closed for most of the summer for maintenance, only operating for three weeks, and still the two bike parks combined sold more than 7,000 tickets. Ticket sales for Pontedilegno-Tonale rose a startling 43% compared to 2019 with Val di Sole out of action for most of the season. Pontedilegno-Tonale saw a 50% increase in day pass sales, a 69% increase in weekly pass sales and a 40% increase in season pass sales, suggesting that the biggest jump may have been from European vacationers who were staying for a week or less.

Val di Sole wasn’t the only bike park to thrive this year. Mammoth Mountain, California, called its season “near record-breaking” in a Pinkbike post about extending its season. Mammoth’s communications department couldn’t tell me anything too specific, but did say that the bike park was popular this summer and will likely be successful again in 2021: “During the peak of the summer, the Mammoth Bike Park had very strong visitation… We anticipate high demand for organized outdoor activities again next season and expect it to be a busy summer in the bike park.”
Understanding the summer of 2020 seems like an interesting balancing game. How did bike parks implement COVID precautions when the demand for riding opportunities may have been higher than ever? Moreover, how did bike parks decide how many tickets to sell, given that they wanted to keep people safe while also making money? I know personally that there was demand for as many tickets as parks were able to sell – when I visited Winter Park, CO, this summer, I missed out on a day of lift access because I didn’t reserve my ticket in time for the sold-out bike park. The Trestle Bike Park at Winter Park told us:

We don’t publicly disclose specific sales numbers for either our winter or summer operations. I can tell you that we had a successful summer at Trestle Bike Park. Our season pass sales for summer were strong and we had a steady flow of riders all summer. After staying at home all spring, people were excited and eager to get out in the mountains and on our trails. Like skis, mountain bikes naturally create distance from others, and we can normally load only three bikes and three people at a time in our gondola cabins. Most of the time we’d have no more than two people and their bikes in a gondola cabin. The biggest difference is that we required riders to wear masks when in line and while loading and unloading lifts, and everything had to be pre-booked, from bike rentals to day passes (for non-season pass holders). Given the unpredictability of the times, it’s hard to say what the 2021 mountain bike season will look like. We anticipate opening when conditions allow, and we anticipate people will continue to be eager and excited to get back out on the trails.—Trestle Bike Park

Some of the decision-making seems straightforward, like making advance reservations mandatory and giving priority access to season pass holders, who are more likely to be local. Some decisions, too, helped pare the resort experiences down to their essential pieces, like closing lodges, trimming away the village attractions, and focusing on what is most important: riding bikes. Still, businesses have to profit, including those that rely on income from lodging and post-ride beers.
Not all resorts had such a strong year. In Vail Resorts’ 2020 Fiscal Year Q4 Earnings Release, Vail reported that revenue was down significantly compared to years past, but CEO Rob Katz is quoted as suggesting that the corporation’s U.S. bike parks, including Northstar and a handful of Colorado bike parks, were relatively successful during the early summer. “We believe this speaks to the current preference of travelers for outdoor experiences, locations they are familiar with and, for many, the option to drive to our resorts,” Katz said. My request for specific numbers was declined on the grounds of Vail being a publicly traded company, but I did receive a statement suggesting that the corporation suffered from the loss of its many international visitors.

Summer business was instrumental for bringing Vail Resorts back online this year. In order to reopen, we first had to introduce our COVID Safety Protocols, the same protocols we are working with for winter. It was a great way for us to understand how to work with physical distancing in lineups, achieve mask compliance and rethink every aspect of our business, from our restaurants to our retail outlets, to ensure we met the kind of sanitization standards a COVID reality entails. We GIS-mapped our lines to place our maze gates, worked out how to load lifts, and then addressed the timing involved. When we rolled into operation, the crowd were very grateful.

The standout experience managing our bike parks over summer was our dealings with the biking community. With so many people committed to the sport, and its growth, the vibe was positive, friendly and easily compliant, despite the many changes COVID presented. Even in the heat, people readily raised their masks in line and thanked us for our efforts. For our staff, it was a wonderful acknowledgement of many months of hard work over the closure period, and excellent learning for our larger winter operation.

We are a publicly traded company, so we do not speak to our numbers outside of our earnings release, but we can certainly acknowledge we served a smaller community without cross-border, international travel. For the moment, we are focused on winter operations, as we are still early season, and we do not know what COVID will bring; however, we can say our company deeply values its summer business and remains committed to this piece of our operation.—Vail Resorts

“In North America, our U.S. resorts experienced improved demand from leisure travelers throughout the quarter relative to the fourth quarter of fiscal 2020, but summer visitation remained well below historical levels. At Whistler Blackcomb, demand remained significantly below prior year levels due in part to travel restrictions, with the Canadian border remaining closed the entire quarter to international guests, including guests from the U.S.,” Vail’s 2021 Fiscal Year Q1 Earnings Release noted.

What differentiates a bike park like Mammoth or Val di Sole, which thrived, from a bike park like Whistler, that didn’t, seems to be the borders that allow or prevent access. Italy’s borders reopened on June 3, allowing the usual visitors from nearby Switzerland, Austria and Slovenia to travel to the Val di Sole area for riding. Mammoth, on the other hand, has traditionally catered mostly to visitors from Los Angeles and the rest of mid- and Southern California so was largely unaffected by closed borders. Unfortunately, the US/Canada border closed on March 24, 2020, and Whistler draws large crowds from just across the U.S. border as well as from other continents. An open border would mean easy access for Seattle and its metropolitan sprawl, but those crowds had to remain stateside this year.

As borders reopen, riders will have new opportunities to travel to bike parks as they progress in their riding. The balancing game – COVID precautions vs. high demand – will (hopefully) be in the past, and the trail riding explosion will likely echo in the bike parks, bringing a bike park boom that could have lasting effects throughout the bike industry in years to come.