Las Vegas, the city of partying, drinking, debauchery, gambling, machine guns, and…mountain biking?
I’ve been to Las Vegas several times. Sometimes for work, sometimes for play. Each time I have been I’ve stayed firmly planted on “The Strip” – an indulgent feast for the senses and a powerful magnet for your money. In all my trips, however, I never once considered that the desert beyond the oversized novelty buildings might contain great mountain biking.
Now that I have experienced that desert I have found a different Vegas. One that is less commercial, less over the top and less tipsy, but is still capable of producing the level of excitement that Las Vegas is known for. Venturing off the strip is a great trade; clubs and wristbands for shrubs and trackstands. You can have your Sin City, I want Spin City.
In early January (while my friends back home were enjoying -20 degree Celsius weather) I headed down to Las Vegas for a week-long conference. While it wasn’t outdoor pool weather at least the sun was shining and exposed skin wasn’t at risk of immediately freezing and falling off. The conference itself was great, but the part that really, for me, made the week shine was the availability of a little time at the end that let me get some riding in.
Given the limited choice for flights home my friend David Tran and I ended up being able to venture beyond the bright lights and see what was contained in yonder desert hills. We knew that mountain biking was a possibility, and after a quick google search we found a shop attached to a trailhead that rents bikes and equipment. Las Vegas Cyclery, a ~$40USD cab ride outside of The Strip, has a well-stocked fleet of high-end mountain bikes for rent (in our case, a pair of Santa Cruz Tallboys), and trail maps that helped us find our way.
Las Vegas Cyclery is a great spot to head if you are looking for a little healthful fun to offset the general cellular destruction that Vegas is known for. The staff is knowledgeable about the surrounding trail networks and the bikes are kept in good maintenance. In addition, the shop has a lot of high-end road and mountain bike products to drool over. Bike rental included a helmet, a saddle bag with some tools and a tube, and our choice of pedals (spd’s or flats). Remaining gear (shorts, jerseys, shoes, gloves) was not provided so we were grateful to have packed these ahead of time.
For those who can plan ahead better than I did – There are half and full-day tours available at Las Vegas Cyclery’s affiliated tour company Escape Adventures that include knowledgeable guides, bike and equipment rental as well as a shuttle to and from the strip. While we missed out on booking a guided tour through Cottonwood Pass, we still had a great time exploring trails that were a short ride away from the shop and were able to organize it within a few hours’ notice.
The trails we rode, a network called Bear’s Best , exist in a vast expanse of undulating rock interrupted at times by the odd cactus and seemingly randomly arranged piles of rock. Although the singletrack was well packed and maintained we did not see more than a small handful of riders while we were out. This was solitude; sharply punctuated at times by the sound of gun shots from a range off in the distance. It wasn’t hard to imagine Walter White and a young delinquent cooking meth in a Winnebago over the next hill.
The trail is technically located in Summerlin, which is a 22.5 acre planned community under development to the West of Las Vegas. The trailhead, located about a kilometre away from the shop, is right next to a luxury golf course community. Getting started requires dropping into a flood control basin and then up onto singletrack on the other side. The juxtaposition of the massive drainage system in the middle of a desert was notable. I guess when it rains out here, it pours.
There was something quite surreal about riding bikes on the ruddy volcanic substrate of Nevada mountain foothills, and something even more surreal about doing it while being able to see The Las Vegas Strip off in the distance. The skyline was a stark contrast as we rode, reminding us that off on the horizon there is a very different lifestyle being lived.
The grip of the earth was insane, especially combined with contact patch afforded by 29-inch wheels and sticky tires. It took a serious commitment to break traction which made carrying speed on twisty downhills a screaming good time. One time in particular I entered a large, sweeping corner that tightened up much faster than I was expecting. After gritting my teeth and charging, I found myself carving all the way through to the end rather than high-siding into the rhubarb as my inner chicken had anticipated. That said if one were to fall here the ground is not particularly forgiving as there is no soft, loamy dirt or lush vegetation to be found. In place of that are jagged rocks, dry brush and spiky Wile E. Coyote style cactuses.
This lack of traditional foliage brings up another point, and a chance to share a top tip. With the desert vegetation there are no leaves to wad up if one needed to clean up after nature’s calling. Bring TP accordingly.
There is very little shade to speak of on the Bear’s Best trails. I can only imagine how hot it must get out here in the heat of summer when the sun beats down on the Nevada desert (in true Vegas style, maybe you can book bottle service and get Fiji delivered to the trails?). The elevation is moderate however you are always climbing or descending which gives the trail a real circuit-training flavor. Rarely are you cruising along a flat path.
The nature of the exposure created an unusual (for me) phenomenon of being able to see the entire trail network from the top of every hill. The Nevada desert rolls out in all directions and is laced with thin strips of singletrack that are visible even at a distance. Given the massive visibility it seems nearly impossible to get lost here, which speaks to their value to out-of-towners looking for a rip.
The bikes themselves were a treat. This was the first time I had ever done more than bounce around in a parking lot on a 29er. In general I was impressed and truly believe that in this particular situation these bikes are the right ones for the terrain. The large wheels offer a tremendous amount of traction and the trails are open and high speed without much in the way of tight technical manoeuvring.
The Tallboy LT is a 100mm travel aluminum trail bike with 29 inch wheels. It utilizes Santa Cruz’s exalted VPP suspension linkage that greatly reduces pedal-induced squat. The suspension did all the things that it should – active on chatter bumps, but still relatively confidence inspiring on larger hits. The bike pedalled and descended well enough that we rarely felt a need to adjust the CTD (Climb/Trail/Descend) switch on the rear shock and instead just left it in Trail. Admittedly I am used to a somewhat shorter wheelbase and a slacker head angle but given the terrain this wasn’t much of a concern. The Tallboy LT has been a great seller for Santa Cruz and it is easy for me to see why.
When I mentioned to Jeremy (another RFG contributor) that I was able to fit in some warm weather riding this month he mentioned that it’s always great when you can “steal” a warm weather riding day in the winter. I couldn’t agree with the choice of words more. I stole that ride. Riding in shorts in January, for a Torontonian, is stealing. Experiencing the hyper-grippy Nevada desert dirt with the classic skyline of the Las Vegas Strip in the background, is stealing. From now on anytime I’m in Vegas, whether it’s for work or for play, I will book some time to head off the strip and steal a ride.
And you should too.
Like all good shops, Las Vegas Cyclery seems to be heavily involved in the local mountain bike community. Amongst other initiatives it is the headquarters for the inaugural Red Rock Fat Tire Festival that will be held over the weekend of March 20 – 22. The main event of the festival will be the Gila Monster – a grueling one-day 50km/100km Endurance race. The day following the race will include a more mellow family-oriented tour of the Cottonwood Valley, courtesy of Escape Adventures. Throughout the weekend there will be live music and meals provided. All in all it looks like a good time, so I would urge anyone who plans on being in that area at that time to check for more information at http://www.rrfattirefestival.com/.
Huge thanks to David G. Tran (pictured below being gnarly) for taking a ton of these pictures. Check out more of his work at www.davidgtran.com.