Interview- Ashley Korenblat

Ashley Korenblat has
been the owner of the Moab based tour company Western Spirit Cycling since 1996,
and has been in the bicycle industry for many years previous.  Ashley is a former bike racer, former wall street
captive,  and was president of Merlin
during the titanium mountain bike heyday and served as president of the
International Mountain Biking Association (IMBA). She lives in Moab.

What is your
background? How did you end up in Utah?

I grew up in Little Rock, Arkansas, went to Dartmouth
College in New Hampshire and then got my MBA from the Tuck School at Dartmouth,
worked on Wall Street and then ended up in the bike business running Merlin
Metalworks in Somerville, MA.  I wrote a
business plan in exchange for a bike and they hired me to be the CEO.  For many years we had 3 times as many orders
as we could ship and I actually made both Greg LeMond and Lance pay for
bikes.  We sold Merlin to Saucony, and it
has since been owned by Litespeed, Competitive Cyclist, and now backcountry.com.
So somehow both I and Merlin have ended
up in Utah.

What are the origins
of Western Spirit?

Western Spirit was founded by a couple from Park City in
1990 and I bought it in 1996. My husband Mark Sevenoff joined me at Western
Spirit in 1997 and since then we have grown the company by about tenfold.  Mark and I have spent many years traveling
through the public lands around the country putting together both road and
mountain bike trips that range from 5 days above 10,000 feet on the Colorado
Trail to a gentle cruise through the Grand Staircase National Monument, which
Mark’s mom did for her 70th birthday.

How has mountain
biking and the tour business changed over the years?

Mountain biking has changed in many ways over the years.
There are more people from all walks of life and all parts of the world who
have single track skills and want to ride on their vacation. There are also
people who begin riding to get back in shape, sign up for a trip as an
incentive to stick with it and after a week on the bike they become cyclists
for life.  The steady improvements in
technology continue to make a difference. I just got a new bike with XX1 and I
love it.

Your favorite trip?

My favorite is the one I am scheduled to do next, I really
love them all. We spend a lot of time in the office helping folks choose the
right trip for them. If they want a big challenge we find that for them, if
they want to bring a friend with less experience, we have trips that work well
for that as well–and the family trips are a great way to get out there and go
camping with the kids.

 

I just did the Black Canyon Trail north of Phoenix and it is
a great early season ride that reminds you how much fun single track is but
doesn’t force you to climb any big passes before you have a chance to get a few
miles in.  I am hoping to get back up to
the Methow Valley in Washington this summer and ride the Umpqua Trail in
Oregon, and hopefully out on the White Rim this fall, but I also really love
the Sawtooths, and Mt Hood and … I really do love them all.

How has the biking
scene in Moab changed?

About 5 years ago, I was really worried about Moab. We
didn’t have enough single track, and people who used to come to Moab for a week
were going to Whistler or Fruita instead. Then several really great things came
together to change things. The BLM Resource Management Plan identified 150
miles of potential new single track and some truly INCREDIBLE volunteers turned
up to help apply for the permits, raise the money, and build the trails. We
have 75 miles of them built already.
Every day the town further embraces its identity as THE mountain bike
mecca–with friendly folks, paved bike trails that head to the back county, and
a genuine appreciation of all the visitors.

What are the
challenges of a tour operator?

The biggest challenge we face as is convincing folks that it
really is better with a guide, whether you are an expert or a beginner; it is
just more fun to let us load the truck, make dinner, and keep the beer cold.
Spending your vacation riding, eating, and enjoying the scenery without having
to plan the food or sort out with your buddies which trail to ride
next—-really is about the most fun thing you can do.  And because we can get you further into the
backcountry, your cell phone usually doesn’t work. I know that idea gives some
people the shakes, but it really is good to get away from that thing for a few
days.

Best/worst memories
from a trip?

One of my best moments on a trip was actually on a road bike
tour, at the bottom of a hill with a black cloud coming in fast. I was riding
with an older lady who hated climbing and had just announced to me that
“She didn’t do rain.”  And
since I knew the support van was many miles away at that point, I suggested
that she pick a climbing song. She didn’t have to sing it out loud, she just
needed to have it going in her head to get her to the top.  She burst right out in “Rolling,
rolling, rolling on a river …” We made it to the top and the sky opened up
and it started to pour. We put on our rain coats, but it was a warm summer
shower and we took off flying down the back side of the hill.  Between making it to the top of the climb and
surviving the storm, that gal felt like a million bucks and her husband
couldn’t believe she hadn’t gotten in the sag wagon.

One of my worst was attempting to drive a van and trailer
across a creek in South Dakota and burying the hitch in the bottom of the
creek, with the van on onside and the trailer on the other with all the guests
watching. They helped me dig it out.

You’ve been active in
the politics of outdoor recreation in Utah and the US for some time. What are
the challenges recreationists are facing in Utah

When I first joined the IMBA board and served as the Chair,
we were just starting to prove that mountain biking on public lands was a good
idea. We had to sort out trail sustainability and user conflict issues, among
other things. Today IMBA is recognized as the leader in trail building
worldwide and works as an invaluable partner to land managers of all types.

Our biggest challenge going forward is better integration of
resource extraction and recreation. This goes for all recreation–motorized,
non-motorized, hunting, fishing, everybody who goes outside. Our current land
management system was not set up to accommodate the growing demand for
recreation opportunities. The system favors resource extraction and right now
we are in danger of many different trails systems being incrementally degraded
by drill pads and access roads.  And
there will be no recreation opportunities anywhere near tar sands operations.

Each and everyone of us uses the oil and gas, it is not
about stopping it, but it is about zoning. While the Master Leasing Plan
currently being implemented is a start, the only real tool we have to sort out
the zones is legislation, and I greatly appreciate Congressman Bishop’s
willingness to begin work on a public lands bill that will do just that.

Utah Gov. Herbert has
recently made an outreach to the outdoor biz in Utah with his “Outdoor
Recreation Vision.” What are some of the challenges/successes you would expect
from his proposed outdoor policies?

While most of these lands are federal, Governor Herbert’s
new Outdoor Recreation Vision and the upcoming formation of the Outdoor Rec
office is going to be critical to future trails all over the state. In the
past, many Utahns have complained and resented federally owned land because in
previous centuries making a good living has depended on owning land.  But today, wealth generation comes from whole
new sources.  Economists are calling this
the knowledge economy. Sure capital is important, but today it is more about
what you know and what skills you have, not how much land you own. Much of
Utah’s current business success comes from our ability to recruit growing companies,
like Adobe and Goldman Sachs and the good jobs they bring.  Many of these companies have chosen Utah
precisely because the federal land in the state makes us rich in recreation
assets, like trails, rivers, mountains and streams.  Our recruitment of these businesses is
changing the demographics of the state, both on the Wasatch front and
throughout rural Utah.

Compared to non-renewable energy production, the best thing
about recreation assets is that they do not degrade over time or wreck our air
and water when we use them.  If our goal
is to maintain our standard of living, we have to find a way to power our
economy that doesn’t simultaneously degrade our quality of life.  Why bother keeping the lights on if you can’t
breath the air?   A good place to start
this inevitable transition away from carbon increasing resource extraction and
its heavy toll on the landscape, is to set aside some lands for recreation.

What can the mountain
biking community in Utah do to expand/improve riding opportunities?

If mountain bikers want more trails, they need to get
involved in public land issues. They need to get to know their land managers
and elected officials. They need to be willing to help with trail work and show
up for meetings, and they need to join IMBA.

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