As the sun rises over the barn, a new breed of animal amasses into a herd. The creatures’ ghostly silhouettes jump, shift and shuffle to keep warm. Without warning, a cannon boom sends the herd into a kinetic stampede of dust and color.
With Lycra hides, plastic skulls and polymer hooves, mountain-bikers are invading Montezuma County trails in droves. And according to a recent study, they could be worth a fortune to the local economy.
More than 900 riders participated in this year’s 12 Hours of Mesa Verde endurance mountain-bike race on May 11, many bringing with them family, friends, fans or support staff – turning the Montezuma County Fairgrounds into a tent city for the weekend.
The event is said to bring $10,000 in revenue to local bike shops, and race organizers say they have been able to donate over $100,000 of race proceeds to area youth programs between 2007 and 2012.
But it’s not just racers bringing in money. A recent study conducted by Fort Lewis College students found that most non-pro riders visiting Montezuma County during the spring are from out of town, riding with friends, visiting multiple times a year, and could be spending an average of $62.17 per person, per trip.
“When you take into account that 89 percent of people coming to mountain-bike will bring a friend, it increases the amount of money spent by $62.17 for every person that comes along,” the study states. “You can also take into account that 68 percent of those groups will end up riding the trails more than six times per year, further increasing the money spent in the area. It makes sense that mountain biking can bring in $25 million to a small town like Fruita, CO each year.”
Early into this year’s 12 Hours of Mesa Verde race, a cattle drive meandered down U.S. 160 near the race site. While a cowboy on horseback chatted with a bike rider, cows crossed the bridge, wary of the bikers whirring through the drainage tunnel underneath. In a way, the cattle are an homage to the origins of mountain biking in the area – as many of the first bike trails were built by stringing together a series of cow trails.
Jimbo Fairley said he came out West in 1994 to found the Kokopelli Bike and Board bike shop. Originally, the business was located at 30 W. Main in Cortez, and had about 3,000 square feet of space. At the time, the shop was operated only by Fairley and his business partner, Morgan Bell.
“It’s hard to put a number on it,” Fairley said. “But there were people biking in 1994 for sure. Durango had its cycling community. But Cortez hadn’t really blossomed yet. The trails weren’t really established.”
Today, the shop has moved to a new location with nearly 10,000 square feet of floor space and employs 14 to 16 staff, according to owners.
“It’s definitely grown ten-fold,” Fairley said. “I would attribute that mostly to the development of the trails – Phil’s World, the Boggy Draw trail system. With over 500 miles of trails in the area, it’s lending itself to be a mountain-biking community.”
The economic impact study was conducted by Fort Lewis College School of Business Administration students Taylor Sennett, Grant Duke and Lucas Perlstein on behalf of
Dolores Town Manager Ryan Mahoney, who was seeking the information to gain support for the building of a non-motorized trail connecting the town to the Boggy Draw area and House Creek on McPhee Reservoir.
“I think a non-motorized trail getting people to the forest will create a positive impact for the town,” Mahoney said. “I think what it mainly did was assign some numbers to what our suspicions were, that cycling is going to attract people from out of the area and they are going to spend money here.”
The study included a survey of 209 cyclists at the Phil’s World and Sand Canyon trailheads conducted during spring 2013.
The students found that area mountain-bikers are an older, more educated, and wealthier demographic than expected. Of people surveyed, most (41 percent) were between the ages of 35 and 50. Fiftytwo percent said they have an undergraduate degree, 18 percent have a master’s degree and 7 percent have a doctoral degree. Perhaps as a result, nearly 70 percent of riders surveyed earn $40,000 to $85,000 per year. A majority – 60 percent – were male, while 36 percent were female.
Bike shops are not the only businesses feeling the impact of mountain-biking. Bikers coming from out of town can spend money at other businesses, such as hotels, restaurants and gas stations.
A majority of the 23 Montezuma County businesses surveyed for the study reported increased revenue from mountain-biking. Local hotels reported the average visitor staying one or two nights, with mountain biking as one of the main reasons for staying. Of restaurants and other establishments surveyed, 11 reported a positive impact from cycling, while three reported no impact.
But not everyone is happy with the blossoming bicycle economy. One unnamed business owner cited in the study said the entrance to her business was obstructed during a bicycle race, forcing her to close down during the event.
The study found that 57 percent of bikers surveyed cited mountain-biking as their primary reason for visiting the area, while 32 percent said they live here. And bikers are likely to visit more than once – with 76 percent saying they ride the trail system more than six times a year.
“A staggering 74 percent of people say they have heard about the trail systems from word of mouth,” the study states, adding only 3.83 percent of riders surveyed found out about the trails through the internet and only 1.44 percent found out about the area through a printed publication.
While only 53 percent of Montezuma County bikers ride in groups, 89 percent of visitors from out of the area will bring friends to ride with.
“This shows that if people are driving a distance to mountain bike, they would rather have a friend with them,” the study’s authors write. “Mountain biking is a social sport, people want to have someone to talk to about the ride.”
Groups tend to spend more money than individuals, the study states. Further, 90 percent of visitors from outside the area will spend some money locally.
When calculating the average value of a visiting mountain-biker, the students came up with two figures – $36.14 as an average for visitors who spent $1 to $150, and $62.17 as an average of all riders surveyed, including those who spend more than $150.
“I think the $62.17 figure is more accurate,” Sennett said. “I think that one’s a better understanding, just because it includes everyone.”
However, Perlstein warns the data may have been skewed by respondents who may be spending money in the area, but outside the county.
Regardless, both authors agree that mountain- bikers from out of town are bringing money to the local economy. Eight respondents said they moved to La Plata or Montezuma County for the biking or outdoor activities.
Sennett said he was impressed by the willingness of people to participate in the study.
The student authors admit there are weaknesses in the study, such as limiting the survey to only two trail systems during the off season, and a lack of a trial-run survey. Due to a lack of available time, the authors were not able to provide an estimated total annual economic impact, Sennett said.
Fairley attributes the economic growth to the building and development of area trails, which is largely done by volunteers.
“It’s just great to see that this has continued to grow into such a big event (the 12 Hours of Mesa Verde) and such a great cycling community,” he said. “We’re lucky enough to have great trails and we’re continuing to expand those trails.”