A heavily tattooed woman called my name. I hungrily made my way to the counter where she beckoned. Her arms were sleeves of ink, a colorful mosaic that complimented her purple hair. She slid my pizza to me, a giant pie called the “Stinky Deluxe.” This hot crust smothered in toppings clearly existed in reality, but I felt disoriented. I thought I knew where I was, but none of this, the pizza, the woman, the static of activity around me, made sense. This place didn’t look or feel like it belonged in the town I once knew. As I returned to my table with the aroma of garlic and meatballs in tow, I passed the bar filled to standing-room-only capacity. Between barstools and resinous tables, expectant customers waited in a line that went out the door. The Hometown Christmas Parade of Lights on Main Street had just ended. Along with the usual stuff – Santa waving from a candy cane cottage and living Nativity scenes – there were bicycles, lots of them, all decked out in colorful strands of multi-colored light. Those bikes were now leaning against metal racks outside, which explained the elbowing crowd. From the look of red cliffs fading in the dusk behind it all, I would have sworn this was still Utah. But the long row of blue and red beer taps that hovered over the bar, each one a different variety from New Belgium Brewing, was a dead giveaway. No. I was in Fruita, Colorado, and the Hot Tomato Pizzeria was downright hopping. It appeared that mountain bikes saved this town. All of it was a surprise, and a revelation.
See, I lived in Grand Junction, just up I-70 from Fruita, for five years in the late ‘90s. Back then, Fruita was a cow town, largely regarded among my peers as a dusty burg disintegrating under the desert sun. Main Street was a stereotype of boarded up businesses and broken streetlights, where the only discernible life came from weeds growing through sidewalk cracks and the occasional old-timer rumbling down the avenue in a rusty truck. A barefoot, bucktoothed boy picking a banjo on a rotten porch barely held together by twine would not have been out of place. We “city folk” pretty much ignored Fruita, never stopping, always missing it in a blink as we sped by on the interstate.
Then the mountain bikers trickled in, and as I neared the end of my time in the Grand Valley, I heard rumblings about trails being cut in Fruita. But I never made it out there due to my preconceived prejudice against the place (and the fact that my college budget didn’t allow me to buy a bike.) Upon graduating from Mesa State College, I split to Salt Lake by way of Colorado Springs and never gave Fruita another glance. Ten years passed, and those rumblings about mountain bike trails grew louder and more insistent. But living in Utah meant biking the Wasatch, Moab, and Gooseberry Mesa – there was no need to cross state lines to pedal around on what I imagined to be trails dotted with cow pies while white trash stomped around with guns in hand, shooting at empty propane tanks where a stray bullet could hit and kill a spandex-clad cyclist.
But then that revelation struck when my mom moved to Grand Junction. While visiting her around Christmas, we went to Fruita on my birthday to eat dinner at the Hot Tomato. That’s when I saw the mind-bending transformation the town had undergone. This tiny dot-on-the-map inexplicably became hip, and apparently it all happened through the magic of bikes. I then knew a mountain bike trip was long overdue. So that autumn I, along with my wife and friends, made a trip to witness this town’s rebirth into the cycling realm and discover first-hand how a recreation economy can save a nearly bankrupt town and turn it into a world-famous destination.
If You Build It, They Will Come
Sure, it’s a cliché, but this bastardized film quote from Field of Dreams sponged into my skull as I straddled a mountain bike atop Kessel Run, a singletrack ride at the center of the 18-Road network of trails that nestle beneath the Bookcliffs north of town. We had indeed returned, this time with bikes in tow, and were about to get our first taste of Fruita singletrack. We chose Kessel Run not only for the promise of flowing dirt with berms that corner around pinion pines and juniper, but also for the fact that it’s named after the Star Wars intergalactic smuggling route Han Solo’s Millennium Falcon flew in under 12 parsecs. With that geeky trivia in mind, I dropped in.
I still couldn’t believe I was riding my bike through the desert wasteland north of Fruita, which was once an ignored place of redneck wonderment. Sun-faded beer cans riddled with bullet holes used to cover the ground, spent shotgun shells and garbage would contrast with the dusty green of sage and the pale chalk of earth, and 4-wheeler tracks once crisscrossed over hillsides and fins that spilled down like fingers from the Bookcliffs above, sectioned off by rusty barbed wire and abandoned appliances. But now, as I unclipped from my pedals at the bottom of Kessel Run after a super fun descent through a dry arroyo filled with U-shaped curves that resembled a bobsled track flowing through a natural halfpipe, I was convinced. The land wasn’t ugly anymore. It was beautiful. I could hear the hoots and hollers of those riding down behind me, and excited chatter of mountain bikers preparing to go up for another lap before sundown. I couldn’t help but smile. Here in Fruita, something was made from nothing, and that something was amazing.
Along with Kessel Run, we rode several more trails at 18 Road, each as impressive as the last. From the smooth corners of Prime Cut, to the roller-coaster spine of Joe’s Ridge, and the insane, steep, curving hills of Zippety Do Da, we discovered the secret ingredient that makes Fruita stand apart from other mountain bike destinations – desert singletrack.
These trails-made-for-bikes were hand cut, and the fact that it turned a financially tortured town into a mountain bike mecca seemed impossible. Of course, it didn’t happen overnight. A small, local community of riders dreamed the whole vision and took a gamble. In 1995, these roustabouts, led by Troy Rarick, owner of the local bike shop Over the Edge Sports and writer of the book, The Fruita Fat Tire Guide, made it happen. First they opened the bike shop in an abandoned building filled with spiders and tumbleweeds, then started cutting trails. Prime Cut was built, then others. Mountain bikers started to take notice, word spread, and industry magazines printed blurbs about Fruita’s potential.
Then the Fruita Fat Tire Festival was organized, and hundreds of riders poured into the once deserted streets. They’re still pouring in today by the tens of thousands. According to COBB & Associates of Grand Junction, the Marketing Company for Fruita Tourism, mountain bikers contribute around $8,713,000 annually to Fruita’s bike shops, restaurants and motels. Any doubt that outdoor recreation can be a main economic driver in the Mountain West had been torched into ash like bundles of dry logs burning in the campfires along 18 Road. At first, the town of Fruita was resistant to this change, but leaders saw the light once they realized the monetary benefit a mountain biking economy could have. One simply had to look east at Moab to see what bikes could do for a struggling community.
Moab, of course, is the model and pioneer when it comes to reinventing itself during a transition from the old economy to the new. A boom/bust cycle of uranium mining sustained the town until it went under for good in the 1970s. But rather than hang onto the old ways, ways they knew, Moab residents embraced a new, tourism-based economy made possible by nearby Arches and Canyonlands National Parks, and then the rise of mountain biking.
It was the early 80’s that saw the beginning of fat tires rolling over slickrock in Moab when Robin and Bill Groff opened the Rim Cyclery. At first, they only sold road bikes since mountain biking as we know it was still in its infancy. But it didn’t take long for Robin Groff to discover that sticky sandstone of the Slickrock Trail – then a motorcycle route – was also ideal for mountain bikes. Word got around, and riders from Crested Butte and Marin County made forays into the red rock. Outdoor rags published articles about this otherworldly mountain bike area in eastern Utah. That’s when everything changed. Old mining roads on Amasa Back, Gemini Bridges, Klondike Bluffs, and Poison Spider Mesa became the territory of two wheels and chain rings. New bike trails were built around town. Businesses moved in, including the all-important breweries and bike shops. In less than a decade, Moab transformed into a world-famous destination that welcomes over a million people a year who come to hike, climb, float the rivers and mountain bike.
Other towns and cities in Utah are looking at the Moab model, as dedicated outdoorsmen and women are working to bring recreation dollars into struggling economies where industries like gas drilling and mining can be fickle. Vernal has a growing mountain bike (and brewery) scene with Fruita-style trails being built at McCoy Flat and other locales around town. Price has a contingent of riders with shovels in hand, creating a network of trails they hope will bring outside dollars for years to come. And Hurricane is becoming like a sister city to Fruita, as Over the Edge Sports opened a bike shop there to support the burgeoning mountain bike world being nurtured under the ever-present lure of Zion. The transformation can happen anywhere. A spin on Fruita singletrack and a drink at the local pizza joint is all it takes see the power mountain bikes can wield over a dusty, desert town.
Welcome to Colorful Utah
Years after my revelation at the Hot Tomato, we set up camp at 18-Road on one of many bike trips to Fruita. A row of empty beer bottles stood guard on the campsite table, brown glass reflecting the campfire. After finishing my umpteenth microbrew, I stood to add another sentry to the lineup. While my buddies lounged around the flames finishing off their own beers, I walked out to the edge of the cedars and faced south where fading sunlight cast long shadows over the Grand Valley. Amber cliffs of the Colorado National Monument burned red in a sort of desert alpenglow, while the Bookcliffs directly above to the north sat dark under non-threatening storm clouds that divided the landscape between light and dark with a thin line of virga closing the curtain of day.
That day was a big one, and my legs burned with the memory of a massive climb up an unimaginably large line of perfect slickrock called “The Ribbon” in Grand Junction’s Tabeguache area. I had no knowledge there was slick rock comparable to Moab, and yet there it was, a landing strip of sandstone ramping down to the city skyline. It was impressive, and proved that Fruita could still surprise me. But while this place has made huge strides in the last decade, I felt there was still no competing with Moab. The town has little in the way of lodging, only a few restaurants exist to cater to a mountain biker’s appetite, and the place still shuts down on Sundays, even during peak bike season.
Yet clearly, Fruita is an excellent complement and welcome addition to the regional mountain biking complex of Moab and Eastern Utah. In fact, rolling over the singletrack at 18 Road, or dropping off ledges overlooking the Colorado River at the Kokopelli Loops, one feels like they’re still in the Beehive State. Every mountain biker should make the pilgrimage and see for themselves how the power of bikes can change the economy of the New West. And if you ignore the invisible state line some bearded, leather-booted map-makers drew over a hundred years ago, and close your eyes as you drive by the border marked by a “Welcome to Colorful Colorado” sign, you’ll find that Fruita looks and feels like it belongs to Utah.
Well, except maybe for that red and blue row of New Belgium beer taps.