Sundog has its day — celebrating 20 years in Aspen outdoors
Erik Skarvan is typically a pretty upbeat guy who generally goes only a couple of sentences before laughing, so it’s easy to see why he was overjoyed to celebrate his business’s 20th anniversary in Aspen this year.
Skarvan founded Sundog Athletics in May 1996 after he sensed as an employee of the Aspen Club that there was demand for mountain-bike instruction. He quit his job selling memberships to the athletic club and focused on his own teaching and guiding business.
After the initial focus on mountain biking, he expanded to cover road cycling, flat-water canoeing, snowshoeing and fat biking in the winter.
There’s no better way to make a living than sharing tips that help people get better at activities he loves to partake in personally, he said.
“It’s always been built from a passion and a love of what I do,” Skarvan said. (In the interest of disclosure, Skarvan files an outdoor video three times per week during the summer for The Aspen Times’ On The Hill series as a contractor.)
He moved to Aspen in fall 1982 and credits the decision with transforming his life. He watched mountain biking come out of nowhere and got hooked. He recalls participating in a 1984 mountain-bike race at Snowmass Village called the “Fanny Buster.” It featured “undoable climbs and treacherous descents.” Therefore, he loved it.
He turned from a pack-a-day cigarette smoker and partier to a devotee of outdoor exercise and adventure.
Skarvan works with a wide variety of clients — from locals discovering the joy of winter riding a fat bike to visitors wanting to dabble in mountain biking.
One day this week he went on a marathon road-bike ride with a longtime, out-of-town client who regularly visits. They spent more than five hours in the saddle — working on skills, introducing the client to new terrain and talking about life experiences.
He’s been working for years with clients who have become friends. Some are high-level athletes who want a new challenge.
“They just want to go out and get crushed for a day,” Skarvan said with his signature laugh.
But newbies to a sport bring him as much joy. He recalled meeting a woman in her late 60s a few years ago on a chairlift at Aspen Highlands. He started talking to her about his new passion for riding a fat bike in the snow. She wanted to try it, so the next day he had his first fat-bike client. She was intent on making it to Maroon Lake, and did.
“She was giggling like a kid,” he said.
Adapting to the times
Sundog Athletics has adapted to the times. A lucrative part of Skarvan’s early business was guiding and instructing women’s mountain-bike clinics on weekends on trails around Fruita. They would go on a three-hour instructional ride in the morning, have lunch, and then he would give a one-hour basic maintenance workshop.
The clinics continued for 12 years, but then companies from Grand Junction and Moab dove into the instruction business as mountain biking surged in popularity. The bigger companies had priority for permits from the Bureau of Land Management. Increased competition and a finite number of prospective female customers in Aspen forced him to cancel the clinics.
“It just kind of ran its course,” Skarvan said.
Realistically speaking, he said, he also is uncertain about the future of his business in Aspen. He loves what he does and he’s determined to try maintaining Sundog Athletics but acknowledges the times are changing.
Challenges in Aspen
“Big players” have a lock on obtaining the permits to offer commercial services in the White River National Forest surrounding Aspen, he said. Despite good intentions, the Forest Service contends it doesn’t have the staff to work on a system that would allow for smaller outfitters, he said.
Some of those big companies engage in what Skarvan calls “cow herding” — dumping as many cyclists on a road in a day or two as he does all summer.
Now Aspen Skiing Co. is offering downhill and mountain-bike lessons.
“These are multimillion-dollar giants putting the hurt on me,” Skarvan said.
He has survived by relying on Pitkin County roads, trails and open spaces. Recently built trails such as Airline at Sky Mountain Park have been godsends for his introduction to mountain-bike instruction, he said. But Skarvan has been operating without a county permit and was recently cited. Open space program officials say he must comply by getting a permit and proving he carries insurance. The two sides are negotiating.
Then there’s the standard business challenge. Business has been increasing annually for Sundog Athletics, which charges $120 per hour for clients, though it offers a locals’ discount. This year business is flat, he said.
Skarvan said he is witnessing a trend toward people hoofing it by venturing into the backcountry or even on Maroon Creek Road unprepared for what awaits. They don’t carry water, jackets for afternoon showers or maps.
“I’ve seen so many people so ill-equipped,” he said.
Skarvan, who turns 55 this month, said he will be a lifelong Aspenite. He’s hoping Sundog Athletics can boast the same.
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