Mountain Biking to Diversify Gillette?

Brodie Rice got hooked on mountain biking after a trip with his friend Stan Israelsen to Curt Gowdy State Park, outside of Cheyenne. Before he’d even made it back to Gillette, he was already visualizing the new mountain bike he would buy once home.

“It’s an incredible feeling that sticks with you, even when you aren’t riding, and something you can’t find while on the road or paved path,” Rice said, describing the feeling of flying around those steep corners as “exhilarating.”

But as he soon realized, getting away for mountain biking treks to Cheyenne, the Bighorns or Moab, Utah, was becoming increasingly harder, given his busy job as a doctor at Campbell County Health and his two small boys, wife and new baby on the way. 

The desire for trails closer to home prompted the question: why not carve out terrain in Gillette?

A diverse option

There are roads and places to ride a bicycle in and around Gillette, according to Rice, but nothing quite as satisfying or challenging as some of the trails he’d been on. In the meantime, his new 2018 Trek Remedy 9.8, a carbon mountain bike designed specifically for rough trails and extreme speeds, sat gathering dust.

“Riding my new bike around town feels like driving a 4×4 pickup in downtown Chicago,” Rice said. “You just don’t get to enjoy its full potential.”

He craved the steep jumps, nerve-wracking switchbacks, high-speed descents, and challenging climbs. And when he heard about friend David Bauer’s idea for building a Centennial Trail system, which would run across a 640-acre plot of land north of Gillette, he immediately got on board.

“The rolling hills and buttes around Gillette are perfect for designing exciting features and trails to ride,” Rice said.

Bauer first proposed a 5K-trail system to be installed this year, utilizing existing horse and game trails that zigzag across the plot. Pending necessary funding, Bauer’s plan would then be expanded to include another 5-mile, or even a 10-mile, trail with help from International Mountain Biking Association (IMBA) experts.

Rice, like Bauer, believes the Centennial Trail System would bring Gillette two things it needs: diversification and an influx of tourists. In his position at the hospital, he’s experienced firsthand the difficulty of recruiting out-of-town professionals to Campbell County.

The only selling points for an athlete in Gillette, he noted, are the impressive Recreation Center and its geographic positioning close to the Black Hills and the Bighorn Mountains.

“It would be nice to say we have some options for outdoor recreation here in Gillette,” he said.

Along with mountain biking, he foresees the trails also being used for running, walking, and other recreational opportunities.

“It opens new opportunities for more outdoor activities, from mountain biking and trail running in the warmer months to cross-country skiing and fat bike trails in the winter,” he said.

Possibilities

While a mountain bike trail may not be the end-all solution for a city like Gillette in terms of diversification, Rice noted, there are other examples of the sport bailing out communities hung out to dry by industries moving on.

Take, for example, the community of Crosby, Minnesota. At one time, iron mining served as the pillar of the small community. But when the mines closed their doors around 50 years ago, Crosby was left barren and desolate.

In 1993, the Minnesota state government stepped in and declared the hills around Crosby a state recreation area, seeking to stop illegal dumping and to preserve the area’s mining heritage, according to Outdoor Magazine.

When mountain bikers learned of the red dirt hills surrounding Crosby, they quickly came together to lobby the state government to create Minnesota’s first state park focused entirely on mountain biking.

In 2011, Crosby was designated a bronze-level IMBA ride center, attracting riders of every skill level and type from across the country.

Tourism to Crosby skyrocketed. A survey at the time revealed around 25,000 people ride the Crosby trails every year, bringing in around $2 million to the local economy, Outdoor Magazine reports.

Since then, Crosby has had several new businesses set up shop, most of which were started by young residents moving to the area or those that chose to stay because of the trails, which further adds to Crosby’s relative economic prosperity.

Why not Gillette?

Crosby isn’t the only community to have experienced success from the mountain biking industry.

From town to town, stories of overcoming adversity and economic busts through mountain biking suggest possibilities for diversification. In communities left high and dry when the industries they solely depended on closed up shop or moved elsewhere, mountain biking created revenue to help them hang on.

Oakridge, Oregon, had once been a booming lumber town, but it was decimated when the local lumber mill closed in the 1990s.

Weaverville, California, formerly a gold rush town, was nearly barren when the rush died out. Anniston, Alabama, once a steel town near the Appalachians, again, left suffering when the industry left.

The examples can go on and on, and in an energy-dependent economy like Gillette, swings in industry can dictate the future of that town.

Bauer himself works at a coal mine and sees firsthand how the industry can fluctuate from one extreme to another. He acknowledges that the city is trying to diversify the economy by focusing on sports tourism, despite a less than favorable public reaction to the multi-million-dollar sports complex commonly referred to as the Field of Dreams.

But so much more could be done, Bauer believes.

He’s pushing for the area to become part of the Campbell County Parks and Recreation Department, but the trails won’t take a single penny from local tax payers, Bauer assured the Campbell County Commissioners when he broached the idea to them in March.

He intends to raise the necessary funds himself, through grants and entry fees for events hosted by his organization, Energy Addicts.

Overcoming obstacles

Money aside, the only major obstacle standing in the way of the Centennial Trail System is Gillette College. Right now, the county leases the Centennial section to the college as grazing pastures for horses and other livestock for the college rodeo program.

Gillette College Vice President and CEO Janell Oberlander said that talks have started between the college and the county to see what options are available. In a county commission meeting in mid-April, the idea of the college sharing the land with mountain bikers had been mentioned as a potentially viable option.

However, livestock had been the reason Bauer moved away from an earlier idea to have the trail system installed in Burnt Hollow, an 18,000-acre plot of public land owned by the Bureau of Land Management. Ranchers in the area release their cattle onto the land to graze, and Bauer didn’t want to take the chance of someone getting hurt colliding with livestock. Sharing the Centennial section with college-owned horses could result in a similar scenario.

Bauer has yet to receive the green light to begin the trail building process, but he remains strongly committed to the cause.

There are other communities around Gillette, such as Sundance and Sheridan, that already reap revenue benefits of hosting large-scale IMBA competitions and events.

“If Gillette had its own mountain bike trail system, we could be a part of that,” Bauer said.

By: Ryan R. Lewallen

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