Culture

The Loss of Lift-Served Riding Rocks a Canadian Resort Community

Ontario’s Blue Mountain Resort has permanently shut down its mountain bike operations

When Blue Mountain Resort announced last month that it would permanently shut down lift-accessed mountain biking, the downhill community in and around Collingwood, Ontario, was devastated. The Blue Mountain Bike Park Facebook page exploded with comments. Riders called for a boycott of the resort not only in the summer, but the winter months too. The core riding community, small but loyal, felt disappointed and lost, but mostly confused. Blue Mountain hadn’t offered any explanation for its decision. Like many resorts, it was closed last summer due to COVID restrictions, but management didn’t give any indication that it would never open again, and with upwards of half a million dollars invested into the park in the past decade, the news was shocking.

“When they announced it’s not opening, my girlfriend and I thought that if the bike park doesn’t open, where are we gonna move?” said Keith Grant, a local who’s been riding Blue Mountain for nearly two decades.

Alterra-owned Blue Mountain Resort is Ontario’s answer to Whistler. There’s nowhere near the vertical, but it’s the biggest and most developed ski resort in the province. And since it’s only 90 minutes from Toronto, Canada’s largest city, it draws from a population of more than 5.5 million people. In the winter, the resort runs 16 chairlifts that service 42 ski runs. In the summer off-season, the Village caters to all kinds: shoppers, tourists, families and sight seers. There are candy shops, art galleries and brewpubs; climbing walls, a coaster ride, mini putt and water fountains. And there were lift-accessed downhill mountain bike trails, nearly three dozen, ranging from green, machine-built cruisers to steep, technical double-blacks. Some of the trails date back to 1998, when the original lift wasn’t a lift at all, but a van that reeked of sweaty, dirty bikers, towing a trailer full of bikes.

People remember those years fondly. But Blue Mountain has always had a contentious relationship with downhilling. In 2007, after an injury and subsequent lawsuit, the resort “detuned” the jumps. 

“It’s one of those things where it’s still a very new sport, it’s being driven by the early-adopters, your really hardcore rider. The reality is, not everyone is at that skill level,” said Peter Sutcliffe, director of mountain experience at Blue Mountain back in 2008. “The best thing to say is we did some soul searching with regards to the mountain bike business and we just weren’t comfortable with the level we were at and the results. We’ve kind of taken a new approach to the business, and the new approach is definitely going to be far more family-oriented, and more catering to the lower end, or the less skilled rider.”

So Blue Mountain hired Whistler’s famed Gravity Logic, the crew behind Whistler’s bike park, to build trails. They put in machine-built jumps and berms, with wooden booters and a couple super fun green trails that my 8-year-old absolutely loved.

“You’re looking at $500,000 to a million dollar investment,” estimates James Frost, a local that was on the trail crew at the time. “There’s probably $250,000 worth of lumber on the hill.”

That investment cemented Blue’s hold on Ontario’s DH scene. And the center of the DH culture was the weekly Tuesday night race series, where a $10 entry fee got you an aprés pint at Jozo’s bar, the gathering place for everyone awaiting results. In 2019, the series drew over 100 riders each week.

So what went wrong? In a time when bicycle sales are going absolutely ape-shit, shutting down a cycling-friendly activity seems curious. Local reps are being asked to stop selling so much and shops are awaiting the delivery of bikes that are mostly already sold. Blue Mountain’s president and COO Dan Skelton, explains the resorts decision this way:

“You’re looking at $500,000 to a million dollar investment,” estimates James Frost, a local that was on the trail crew at the time. “There’s probably $250,000 worth of lumber on the hill.”

“Bike visitation is less than 0.01 percent of total visitation,” he says. “Although they are passionate, bikers are not a large part of our business. An entire summer of biking business is about the same as one mid-winter Saturday of skiing and riding at Blue. DH at Blue did not begin with a business plan. It was developed and organically driven by the passions and skills of the Blue Mountain bike team but was not a profitable offering. Unfortunately, when you put DH biking through the multiple filters of risk, liability, profitability, growth potential and environmental sustainability it doesn’t pass.”

With multiple COVID-19 related lockdowns in Ontario, running a ski resort over the past year hasn’t been easy, and Skelton says, the lack of communication from Blue Mountain about the closure wasn’t due to lack of trying.

Up until this spring, we simply did not have an update on biking,” says Skelton. “We spent 2020 adapting all of our operations to meet the COVID challenge. Early in 2021, we began looking at summer operations once again and the recreation team was working on a plan for biking this summer. There was considerable discussion but the decision not to move forward with lift-access mountain biking was made just a week before our official communication went out. It was not an easy decision, suffice to say the Blue bike team bent over backwards to try to make it work.”

And while DH is over at Blue, they’re working on some other trails for human-powered riding. 

“We intend to have offerings for bikers in some form,” says Skelton. “We are looking at cross-country trails and pedal-access riding on the mountain along with enhanced multi-use trails.”

And as rumours continue to circulate about the future of DH at Blue Mountain, Skelton is pretty clear.

“Never say never but as long as the fundamentals stay the same, we do not have a plan for lift-access downhill mountain biking to return to Blue.”

For Grant, shutting down the lift is a big deal. He started riding here way back in 2003. He rode the trails for years with his father and their friends. In 2015 his father died on the hill.

Unfortunately, when you put DH biking through the multiple filters of risk, liability, profitability, growth potential and environmental sustainability it doesn’t pass.”

“A heart attack is the simple explanation,” he says. “The slightly more scientific medical explanation is basically a large hit to the right spot around your heart can interrupt the electrical signals and cause heart damage. That was the actual cause. So basically heart failure due to crashing. But I know this was exactly what he wanted. I mean it was a bit more abrupt and sooner than he wanted, but for me personally it was kind of the perfect way for him to go.” 

Through talking with friends who are patrollers and trail crew, he found out exactly where it happened. It was on one of the Gravity Logic built trails called Haole.

But it’s unlikely that trail will reopen. It features jumps and berms that take a ton of trail work to maintain. But the real question is whether or not Grant is sticking around. It’s a question a lot of people are asking themselves. People who have moved here for the skiing and mountain biking lifestyle are suddenly faced with a totally different reality. It’s a first-world problem to be sure, but a problem nonetheless. And one that Grant points out the imbalance of easily.

“The skiing isn’t good enough to be the only reason to be here,” he says.

For now, downhillers in the area continue to fume from the news. Many riders are planning road trips to Quebec and nearby Horseshoe Resort to fill the void. But Blue Mountain is a behemoth of a resort and the destruction of two decades worth of vibrant culture and community will be mourned for years to come.

Photos: Marc Landry