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Tribute: Phil Vigil

Honoring the legacy of a pioneering trailbuilder


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This article originally ran in the Spring print issue of Beta.

In the early 1990s, a thirty- something explorer named Phil Vigil started riding game trails around Cortez, Colorado. Vigil, a Santa Fe, New Mexico, native who had recently relocated from Alaska, spent hours scuffing in the trails to make them smoother. Others followed his lead and charted their own routes. The rolling, high-desert terrain was perfect for rigid or singlespeed bikes, and the resulting network of flowy berms and natural roller coasters became Phil’s World, now one of the most famous mountain-biking destinations in the Southwest.

But Vigil always felt conflicted that his name was attached to such a totem of growth and mass recreation. He died on Christmas Eve 2020, three days past his 64th birthday, after falling ill during a cross-country ski in his southern Colorado hometown of Mayday, the 50-person mining hamlet where he lived at 8,750 feet above sea level. In the wake of his heart attack, many around the region pondered his legacy, as the reluctant namesake of a modern mecca that he simply called “The World.”

The resulting network of flowy berms and natural roller coasters became Phil’s World, now one of the most famous mountain-biking destinations in the Southwest.

Vigil found adventure while serving in the U.S. Air Force outside Anchorage. He ran, hunted, skied and completed three Iditabike races, starting with the inaugural in 1987. 

After relocating to Colorado’s warmer climate, Vigil spent most of his time riding dirt. He worked as a medical records tech and shopped at thrift stores. He didn’t go to parties or seek out crowds. If friends saw him, it was usually in the backcountry. “He very much enjoyed his private time, but boy, one on one, if he saw that passion in you skiing or cycling, he just took you under his wing and wanted to share and show you,” says his friend Ken Fagerlin, who met Vigil in 1999. “He would just light up.”

In the wake of his heart attack, many around the region pondered his legacy, as the reluctant namesake of a modern mecca that he simply called “The World.”

“He had a sharp mind,” says his wife, Leslie, who met Phil in Anchorage and was married to him for 32 years. He called her “Bun,” she called him “the Joe.” “People wanted to be Phil, know what I’m sayin’? Or meet Phil, or be around Phil. He exuded fun and laughter and happiness. He was just such a life force: positivity.”

As the buzz about Phil’s World grew, so did Vigil’s quasi fame, for better or worse. He’d sign race plates and T-shirts in the parking lot, then joke about it when he got home. “Bun, I can’t go anywhere,” he’d say. “People are always stopping me and talking to me.” Later, he’d play the other side. “Not everybody has a world like me,” he’d quip to Bun—or, if he came out on the wrong side of a debate, “But you don’t have a world.” 

 

If he saw that passion in you skiing or cycling, he just took you under his wing and wanted to share and show you.

Lest anyone get the wrong impression, Bun says, “Phil’s World is a good thing, and he liked it not because his name was on it but for the ethos of getting people outdoors and riding. The only thing he regretted was how large it got.”

When Vigil was 47 and between jobs, Bun gave him permission to retire. She wanted him to be free to do what he loved. “Your job is to take care of me,’” she told him. “I’ll provide the money.” 

As his namesake network expanded to more than 40 miles and attracted visitors from around the globe, Vigil rarely made the 50-mile drive to ride it. Bun says he hadn’t been there in years. Instead, Vigil took to the San Juan Mountains. He sought out long, exploratory traverses above his home, hiking his bike when the trail got to be too rugged. “That’s what he loved doing,” Bun says, “so that’s what he did.” You could argue that tenet was his best legacy.

Illustration: Lucy Engelman