Out there: A fruitful trek | AspenTimes.com

Out there: A fruitful trek

A group of female bikers participating in Sun Dog Athletics' mountain bike camps pose for a picture on Rustler's Loop, part of the Kokopelli Trail, in Fruita. The Colorado River is seen in the background. (courtesy Erik Skarvan)

FRUITA A vast expanse of desert stretches to the horizon, framed in one direction by the towering Book Cliffs. Barren Jeep roads and one-of-a-kind single-track, mimicking the movement of a wooden coaster, rise and fall through plateaus, orange rock canyons, fields of thick sagebrush and cactus on the rock-littered banks of the Colorado River. Fruita, some 13 miles west of Grand Junction and 120 miles from outdoor mecca Moab, Utah, is a fat-tire enthusiast’s dream, yet so unassuming that it went overlooked for years.Erik Skarvan, owner of locally based Sun Dog Athletics, was let in on the secret some 13 years ago.”I was hanging out in Rim Cyclery in Moab, and they told me to check out a place off the Loma exit near Fruita,” he said. “They probably regret telling me.”Skarvan exited at Loma, a few miles west of Fruita, and meticulously followed directions that led him to a dirt parking area near a Jeep road. He hopped on his bike and pedaled for hour and a half through an area now known as Mary’s Loop. He was hooked. And, for the past 10 springs, he has shared this piece of mountain biking paradise with 200 women from the Roaring Fork Valley. Today and Sunday, a few more will be introduced to the Fruita experience.

Each April and May, Skarvan leads mountain biking camps on the famed Kokopelli Trail and on surrounding terrain for advanced intermediate women riders, in groups of up to six. “Fruita has the perfect variety,” Skarvan said. “There’s some technical and a little bit of everything for every level of rider to get a taste.”This format really works for women. They’re a little more conscientious and don’t tend to ride away. They’re not as competitive as men. They’re low-key, friendly and very supportive.”This course is not about hammering the downhills and logging as many miles through the desert as is possible during the six-hour program. Rather, the clinic is centered around learning the fundamentals, the “nuts and bolts,” Skarvan said. And there are many. Staring at the line you want to take, often 40 feet to 60 feet down the trail, is crucial to preparing for sudden terrain changes, Skarvan said. Knowing how to position your body – getting forward on the saddle on steep climbs and sliding back on descents – and keeping arms relaxed can drastically improve efficiency. Arms, much like the legs of mogul skiers, act as the main suspension system, absorbing the impact during jaunts through uneven terrain with multiple obstacles. There’s even a science to knowing how to pedal. While most riders continually push in vertical fashion, in strokes resembling the letter “I,” rounding off those strokes will generate more energy, Skarvan said. It’s common for the group to stop in more technical sections of trail, or “rock traps,” as Skarvan calls them, for 20-30 minutes at a time. After a quick demonstration, Skarvan hops off the bike to help guide his clients through, helping them avert falls when possible. And, for those riders fortunate enough to wander through one of the instruction sessions, Skarvan is more than happy to let them listen in, then take a turn.”I stand there to try and take the risk out the equation, so they can go for it and charge,” he said. “Falls do happen – they’re not yet padding the trails – but if you take the fear out, confidence just snowballs.”

There’s an added incentive: Those who successfully maneuver their way through a technical section, like a rocky stair step, receive a “margarita incentive.” Those credits can be exchanged for a 99-cent jumbo margarita later in the day at Pancho Villa’s Mexican restaurant downtown.A black and blue lesion sustained during a fall, what Skarvan calls “badges of courage,” are also worth a margarita.”It’s not all about the game face,” Skarvan said. “We like to keep it fun and relaxed.”After a day on the relatively tame Rustler’s Loop on the Kokopelli trail, Skarvan typically ups the ante on Day 2 by guiding his clients through Prime Cut and Front Side in the Book Cliffs area. Here, the group encounters 2-foot tall rock steps, and little “whoop-t-does” – technical terrain features that will quickly determine whether Skarvan’s instruction on body positioning stuck. In just six hours, Skarvan said his client’s improvement is drastic.”It’s really amazing to see people’s faces light up. They look looser and happier on the bike,” he said. “They say, ‘This is fun. Now I know why my husband can’t get enough of his bike.'”Such is the reward for Skarvan, who set out a decade ago to find some way to generate income during the lean months following winter, before Aspen’s summer high season kicks into full gear. Teaching camps in Fruita seemed only natural.

After all, it was a place that had enamored him from the beginning. Skarvan still remembers the first time he laid tracks on the undulating, narrow spines of Fruita’s trails. He vividly recalls sneaking off during the middle of the week, whenever possible, to camp out near the Book Cliffs and delight in some of the country’s greatest – and mostly unknown – terrain. “I could wake up, whip up some pancakes and eggs and ride single-track all day,” he said. He still remembers the times he capped long, hard days of riding by downing a plate of Rib City Grill’s babyback ribs, then rested a beer on his gut while conversing with the wait staff. While Skarvan said it can’t compete with Moab’s awe-inspiring natural beauty, Fruita’s broad appeal and proximity (about two hours from Aspen) have made it a huge draw. Bicycling Magazine recently named it the seventh-best mountain biking destination in the nation. Hotel and restaurant chains as well as cars with roof racks are increasingly flooding in. It’s not often that Skarvan heads west on I-70 and doesn’t make an obligatory stop at the Fruita or Loma exits. In fact, Skarvan admits his trips to Moab have decreased from about 30 to an average of two times each year. It’s hardly coincidence that a Moab billboard sits on the interstate mere miles before the Fruita exit. The secret is out, and Skarvan is happy to introduce a few groups of women each year to the burgeoning area.”Everyone who goes out there absolutely loves it. They basically talk the whole time about when they’re going back,” he said. “You’re absolutely blown away. It’s exciting and spectacular. And there’s nothing like that first time.”Jon Maletz’s e-mail address is jmaletz@aspentimes.com

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