Location: Colorado

Checking In On BikeTown USA

A few years ago, Steamboat Springs, Colorado set an ambitious goal: Steamboat Springs Aims to Become BikeTown USA. The idea was to take advantage of Steamboat’s geography — the city is set in the picturesque Rocky Mountains — to highlight the mountain biking and road biking opportunities in the area, and diversify it’s economy, which had been heavily dependent on winter ski revenue, but struggled in warm-weather months.

Now, the local newspaper, Steamboat Today, takes a look at progress towards that goal (Search for biking bucks):

Steamboat Spring Bike Town USA UpdateYes, it’s been a good three years for Wheels, and those three years have aligned precisely with the existence of the Steamboat Springs Bike Town USA Initiative, a group of local business owners, cycling enthusiasts and government officials who gathered together for the first time nearly four years ago to unify their efforts in making Steamboat a bicycling vacation destination.

So has the initiative been responsible for some of the growth Johns has seen?

“Yeah,” he said enthusiastically. “Definitely.”

Then he paused, looked to that ceiling and considered the question a moment longer.

“Well, I can’t actually say that,” he continued.

He’s not alone, not in his ongoing support of and belief in the Bike Town USA effort nor in his inability to show tangible results from it at this point.

The goal is straightforward: Find proof of positive economic trends resulting from the Bike Town USA Initiative.

The reasoning isn’t too complicated, either. Cycling projects have been siphoning an increasingly large amount of money from the city, no amount more important than the recent recommendation by the lodging tax committee that an estimated $600,000 per year for 10 years be spent to upgrade area trails and biking amenities in and around Steamboat.

Those pitching that idea firmly believe a dedicated effort to raise Steamboat in the cycling world will create such a sales tax windfall that the improvements eventually will pay for themselves.

But the journey to find the first evidence of that is anything but straightforward, and the quest to answer the simplest of questions — what has a Bike Town focus delivered economically? — leads only to a winding tour of Steamboat.

There are sets of Steamboat-specific data that do show economic growth during the summer throughout the past four years, though it’s difficult to attribute any of it directly to cycling.

City sales tax revenue has climbed in the summer months — June, July and August — by an average of 3.99 percent since 2009. Of course, that change also has mirrored the national climb out of a recession.

A 2012 survey by Bike Town USA shows evidence of a serious cycling surge, though the group’s Executive Director Doug Davis is quick to warn that the survey wasn’t meant to show that sort of data, so the results fall short of “statistical proof” and more in line with “anecdotal data.”

More than 50 percent of those who responded indicated cycling was the primary reason for their visit, outpacing even an “other” category that lumped in everything from visiting friends to family vacation and soccer tournaments.

More than 80 percent said they’d spend at least some time cycling, and half said they’d spend more than half of their time on a bike. Nearly two-thirds of those cyclists said they were in town for cross-country mountain biking, 40 percent for road riding and almost 20 percent for downhill mountain biking, showing “a tendency for visitors to come to Steamboat with more than one type of riding planned for their vacation,” a finding that fits very much with the broad-based appeal some say Steamboat offers to cyclists.

The economic benefit seems strong, but exact number are difficult to come by:

From bike shops to restaurants, from Ski Corp. to city hall, pinning any sort of economic windfall on a citywide bicycling focus is difficult. The game’s players hope to change that in the coming years. The Chamber plans to include cycling related questions in a new summer survey, and Bike Town USA hopes to install equipment to monitor traffic on some trails.

Even with the most optimistic data, there’s one flaw: It’s not just Steamboat. Mountain towns across the region have made cycling a priority, and proponents of Bike Town USA argue it’s essential for Steamboat’s summer business to keep pace.

What are Steamboat’s mountain-town rivals doing to draw their own cycling tourists, and what does Steamboat need to keep pace with those communities? Is Steamboat Springs prepared for what appears to be a bike town arms race?

Part 2 of the series, Battling to be the bike town, looks at where Steamboat Stands compared to it’s peers (and competition):

It doesn’t take a marketing slogan to convince someone that Steamboat Springs is riding high on bicycles. Any trip across town on a spring or summer afternoon will reveal as much, and the Steamboat Springs Bike Town USA Initiative hopes to ride that momentum into the cycling stratosphere. The goal of the group, made up almost exclusively of volunteers, is to lift Steamboat to the tip-top of the cycling globe, making it a world-renowned biking destination.

But simply liking bikes might not be enough, and the group’s lofty goals might hang in the balance as towns from across the state and region scramble to ensure they don’t get left behind.

When it comes to attracting mountain biking tourists, Steamboat is up to its handlebars in competition.

A dozen Colorado towns already have active summer cycling tourism efforts, and even more envision such a push.

“What you’ll see around the state is that it’s not as easy as just building trails,” Holme said. “We’ve taken our time to manage our resources and the forest in a really responsible way. There will be people who don’t do it the right way, and they won’t see the economic success we’ve had.

“There may be a lot of different resorts with bike parks popping up, but they won’t all be successful.”

Maybe that sounds like a dire warning for Steamboat and other towns hoping to get into the gravity market, but there’s also opportunity in his words.

Hope is rampant in the bike town battles, and the hope in Steamboat is that the money can be a springboard to fly past rival towns. There’s plenty on the wish list to make that happen, some of the shiny projects that cause cyclists to drool and other more mundane tasks that might prove just as important.

Steamboat is held back by late starts to the cycling season, and it needs more varied downhill trails, better trail wayfinding, improved trail system connections and maybe a little publicity behind some of its most epic rides if it’s to stay in the ring with its mountain-town rivals.

Good luck to Steamboat in the “bike town battles”.

From Kansas, we can only look on in wonder, and more than a little jealousy, to see so many communities in Colorado really embracing the possibilities of bicycle tourism, and poised to reap the rewards of investing in bicycling infrastructure.

Just what those rewards may be, is a little difficult to pin down, at this point. A shot in the arm, economically, is the most obvious allure, of course.

But hopefully, seeing bicycles as recreation, and bicycles as tourism, leads inexorably to realizing the untapped potential of bicycles as transportation — that’s the really big prize, and it’s one that can be won by every community big and small, mountain or plains.

There’s no reason at all that every community can’t be “Bike Town USA”.

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About The Author

By Randy Rasa, editor/webmaster at Kansas Cyclist, the web's premier Kansas cycling information site, featuring authoritative guides to Kansas cycling clubs, bike shops, organized bike rides, touring, trails, and much more. [learn more]

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