The video clip showcased low ceilings, quick drops, and sharp turns more akin to an Indiana Jones adventure than your typical mountain bike hype reel. I was entranced. The video, by mountain biker Jono Jones, has racked up 1.4 million views. It’s entrancing, hypnotic, and a little polarizing. The friends I’ve shown it to either want to get on a plane and try it immediately or never watch the video again.
Over the past decade-plus, mountain biking has exploded in popularity. One survey lists the number of 8.92 million trail cyclists in 2022. This is down a bit from the 2020 high of 9 million but far more than the 2007 numbers of 6.9 million.
But unlike the similar popularity boom in surfing, trails, unlike waves, are not finite resources. Sure, your local singletrack might be busier on a Sunday morning, but those newcomers can form an ideal group of advocates and trail builders, donating time, resources, and community importance.
I recently moved back to my college town in Michigan, where the mountain biking infrastructure is almost unrecognizable after my near decade of absence. Trail societies, local ski hills in the off-season, private builders tripling the miles and infrastructure available for Midwestern looking to ride on dirt.
All this to say, new trails and new ways to mountain bike continue to emerge. And they should; that’s the spirit of a sport that emerged from a few intrepid frame builders welding together steel bikes with big tires in the 1960s and tackling their local trails before anyone else was riding them.
Who hasn’t wished for rocket legs or helicopter rescue on an ascent with painfully steep grades? Of course, ski areas across the states have carved a summer sports niche by repurposing lifts for mountain bikers eager to tackle downhill laps without sweating the uphill. And for the more intrepid (or ones with deeper pockets), a helicopter can do the same.
Jamie Carrol has a 10-year tenure as a mountain bike guide in the Sea-to-Sky corridor of Whistler, British Columbia — the past 2 years with AlpX Expeditions running guided heli bike operations on Whistler’s only sanctioned heli-biking trail.
AlpX takes cyclists up Ipsoot mountain via chopper, where a patrol guide waits up top to unload the bikes, and another guide huddles the adrenaline-fueled group into a safe observation spot away from the rotor wash. Then, Carrol says, “The pilot lifts vertically away, makes a turn and dives down into the valley below to pick up the next group. Everything goes quiet once the machine flies away, and the group is treated to an endless 360 view of the alpine and surrounding mountains.”
Guests then descend roughly 5,000 feet of singletrack through a combination of high-alpine rock slabs and loamy, berm-filled trails through old-growth forests and next to alpine lakes.
As for why one would ride heli-access trails, Carrol says a significant draw is the seclusion. “You’re miles away from liftlines and other riders. It is an exclusive product with roughly 25 to 30 people a day riding the trail.” Add staggered start times to that, and Carrol says usually, riders only encounter their group and no one else on the trails.
“We’ve had a marriage proposal, numerous bachelor/bachelorette party rides, and guests from all over the world,” says Carrol.
As you can imagine, privately maintained trails and helicopters make the price point of this unconventional mountain biking steeper than a tank of gas to your local singletrack or a one-day lift ticket. Private trips can run you up to 2,350 CAD even after the steep conversion to USD, but public trips are as low as 530 CAD. Not an insubstantial amount, but much less than one might anticipate for a helicopter ride in the Canadian wilderness.
Unconventional Mountain Biking: UTV Access
There are alternatives to accessing rugged terrain for those without the budget for helicopter shuttle laps (or perhaps for those concerned about the environmental impact of a slope-side rotored Uber).
Uncharted Society runs various guided off-road trips and recently launched a UTV-powered mountain bike experience. The premise is simple: rent a Can-Am from one of their partnered outfitters and engage in a guided or self-guided tour of rugged mountain bike tracks. They offer these in three locations: British Columbia, Utah, and Quebec.
I recently checked out the Quebec experience, staying for a weekend at Imago Village just outside Canada’s Mt. Valin National Park. I had some reservations about using machine power to access biking tracks — generally, I’m an “earn your turns” hardliner. But this area of Quebec, despite being home to Devinci Cycles, is still developing a network of singletrack. What they do have in abundance is chunky UTV track, alpine lakes, and beautiful views. The Can-Ams ate up off-road two tracks that would have been nightmare hike-a-bikes.
There were other advantages to having a mobile home base. When my brother, who tagged along on the trip, aggravated an old knee injury, there was no need to call the trip off or send a distress signal for a medivac.
Instead, we could radio to our UTV team (using the last-minute packing addition of Rocky Talkies, which I’ll never do another backcountry trip without) and get him picked up. And because Imago had a fleet of Fat Tire e-bikes for rent, he didn’t have to call it a day and sit along the sidelines.
There were other advantages of UTV-accessed biking as well. A packed lunch and campfire at a mountainside lake and the unhurried luxury of quick access to more biking allowed the mental space for a few diversions — like jumping into a flat-bottomed boat to explore the interconnected series of alpine lakes.
Imago’s array of self-produced luxury yurts provided an excellent place to recoup after a day on the trail. And the bar full of Liter Labatts and 50 Quebecans dancing to a French Canadian cover of Achy-Breaky Heart was also a trip highlight.
UTV access is a different cycling style than a traditional, self-guided trip. Ultimately, the proof of concept was strong, especially envisioning UTV access as a way to pursue trails otherwise inaccessible to two-wheeled traffic. And while I still have a masochistic attraction to a good sufferfest, it turns out that enjoying the downhill doesn’t always hinge on struggling uphill. But you won’t catch me admitting that twice.
Final Thoughts on Unconventional Access to Mountain Biking
As mountain biking continues to grow in popularity, a natural expansion follows. Some areas, like the South and Midwest, have plenty of land on offer and room for new trails. Some creativity is required in other areas like the West and overseas, where the land is more rugged and often more accounted for.
The answer seems to be either going up, via helicopter and UTV, or down via mineshaft to the Earth’s hard-to-reach and less-mapped regions. And while a particular unconventional mountain biking method might not be for you, it’s hard to deny that these new ways of accessing lines follow the creative, “we can ride that” spirit that still forms the essence of mountain biking. The bikes may get fancier, the vehicles more souped-up, but the desire to ride stays the same.
As for me, I’ve set up a price alert for flights to Slovenia. See you in the lead mine.