Cross Country Course Construction at Sun Valley

Sep 22, 2011
Outside Magazine

Greg Martin Greg Martin in Sun Valley

Last month, I interviewed Greg Martin about building the USA Cycling Cross Country National Championships course in Sun Valley, Utah. I posted a quick by the numbers on the construction of the course, which led to some solid responses and more questions. For that reason, I'm posting the rest of my interview with Martin. For the non-singletrack diehards, that may be a snooze. You won't offend me be clicking off this post. For the two-wheeled grease monkeys, you're welcome.
--Heidi Volpe

The last national championship held in Sun Valley was  the 1988 NORBA National. Why the gap? 
The most telling reason was the perception by Sun Valley that greater economic returns could be achieved from an 18 hole putt-putt course than from any mountain biking activities. We’re all hoping that perception has changed after seeing 1000+ racers and 5000+ spectators in attendance at the USAC XC National Championships this past July.

We’ve been a little complacent here in the Wood River Valley when it comes to promoting our world class trail system. Collectively we have not come together to promote our cycling amenities or establish any kind of national level event that puts us in the spotlight. 

The course definitely didn’t highlight all the singletrack treats in your area. Why the ski resort?
Hosting the USAC XC National Championship event comes requirements that need to be fulfilled by the venue.  For example, USAC insists that the Pro Course meet the same design requirements that exist for World Cup UCI courses. The course must be 4-6 km in length, have a certain amount of climbing per lap, and also have a high level of ‘spectator-friendliness’. To meet these course requirements and also have the infrastructure to handle parking, media, spectators, etc; your options become very limited in finding a venue that meets all of the requirements. You can’t simply go out in the woods and pick your favorite loop and then host a National Championship on it.

At the Sun Valley resort, there are two ski mountains with two base areas that we had to choose from.  One is Dollar Mountain, and the other is Bald Mountain. Both of them have their pros/cons. There are differences in land ownership, existing trail networks, irrigation infrastructure, vegetation, parking facilities, scenic qualities, suitability for hosting all events (STXC, XC, Super-D), etc. All of these things were taken into consideration when choosing between the two venues and the River Run base area of Bald Mountain was chosen by USA Cycling. 

There were complaints about the course, mostly about the narrow single track bottleneck up Bald Mountain for the amateurs.
There were a couple of contributing factors to the bottleneck on Bald Mountain Trail. Well, we had near record turnout in most all categories. The other issue that is easy to address was the small splits between waves at the start. Our goal moving toward 2012 is to add another day to the event schedule and spread out the race starts more.  Having 30 second splits between seven waves of categories with 50-80 racers is simply not effective. You may as well have a mass start.

We are hoping to redesign the a longer prologue lap and give more opportunity for an initial sorting out of the field before heading onto any significant single track climbing.  It’s a double-edged sword here also, too much double track and racers complain that there wasn’t enough single track. Too much single track, and you will inevitably get some bottle neck effect. The goal is to reach a good balance of each.  The challenge is that this event is held primarily on public land that is not available for trail development or modification without due process. One suggestion was to go in and widen the Bald Mountain Trail to offer racers more passing opportunities. That option is simply not possible. This trail has existed here for many years and is highly valued by the people that live here.  Going in and changing it’s character significantly to better accommodate a five-day period of racing will simply not win support from anyone.

There were rumblings about the pros course not really challenging anyone technically, it was all about who had the most horse power at altitude to get up that road climb.
Not technical enough?  Why did I see so many of them wearing some of our dirt on various parts of their bodies? I realize that most of the course was not overly technical. What we had to offer was based on what we had to work with. We built two boulder gardens (one of which was 300 ft. long) and a rock drop that were sufficiently challenging.

For every person saying that the course wasn’t technical enough, there were roughly the same number saying that the technical areas were perhaps too difficult. There were also several racers and industry folks who were here that I highly regard who commented that it was obvious that the course was laid out and designed by mountain bikers, and that they loved it. From a race organization standpoint, you will never please everyone and your goal is to strike the best balance the best you can. The reasons that we went with the fire road climb were much the same. We were trying to design a course that meets all of USAC’s requirements. You have to show up with sufficient horsepower and bike handling skill to win any bike race. This one was no different. In looking forward to 2012, we are working closely with Sun Valley and both land agencies (BLM & USFS) and hope to be able to gain support and permission to add some trail system enhancements.

The short track offered great spectating! I heard you designed that course in bar.
The STXC course went through some significant design changes the day before the event. With support from the Blaine County Recreation District (BCRD) and the trail crew from Sun Valley, we were able to design a much more interesting course that offered more variability, more subtle technical challenges, and more spectator-friendliness than our original design. It was a collaborative effort with the crew from Breakaway Promotion and was perhaps the highlight of the weekend for me, personally. Seeing a need to make some significant changes, we were able to all work together on the fly to make the changes that needed to be made and, in the end, came up with a much better course for the event.  A large component of being able to do that was that the entire course was on Sun Valley and/or BCRD property.  Having their involvement on the ground enabled us to move quickly, which was key.

What are the changes you are making for 2012?
Changes for 2012 are being explored. USA Cycling would love to see us offer a course that more closely resembles the London Olympic course that the top riders will face later in the summer. We are exploring options right now with Sun Valley, BLM, and USFS. What we can get support for, and permission to do, will be determined in the next month or so. I hope that we can get the support and permission that we need in order to take this event to the next level for 2012 and truly put on the most incredible National Championship in history.


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