Eric Brown calls Bellingham’s culture “bike-centric.” He’s sitting on a bench outside Kulshan Brewery, beneath a Whatcom Smart Trips sign that says “Ride your bike.”
Pickup trucks carrying mountain bikes drive by on James Street. Their drivers honk and wave at Brown, who is the trail director at Whatcom Mountain Bike Coalition, a nonprofit trail advocacy group. In an hour at the brewery, Brown encounters several mountain biking friends, some who came from as far as Gig Harbor to ride Bellingham’s trails.
Brown realized that mountain bike tourism is common in Bellingham, and most out-of-town bicyclists spend money in town. During a 10-week period between Jan. 30 and April 18, Brown conducted an online survey of local trail users. The survey was done using SurveyMonkey software and publicized through the Whatcom Mountain Bike Coalition’s social media pages.
“Folks are coming to town to ride, and they’re usually taking advantage of some sort of spending opportunities,” he said.
In total, 749 mountain bikers completed Brown’s survey. Of those, 31.5 percent came from outside Whatcom County. Two-thirds of out-of-town cyclists earn more than $70,000 a year, and more than half reported spending a minimum of $40 each time they visited at breweries, restaurants, hotels, gas stations, bike shops, and grocery stores.
“Mountain bikers are an affluent crowd,” Brown said. “They’re not the dirtbag hippy-type everyone thinks they are.”
Seventy-two percent of nonlocal survey responders said they visit Bellingham at least quarterly to ride trails, with 25 percent coming monthly. About half of those out-of-town mountain bikers come from the Seattle-area, and 20 percent from Vancouver, B.C.
Dave Vitt, owner of Kulshan Brewery is a mountain biker himself. He said mountain bike tourism makes up enough of his business that he’d notice it if people stopped coming from out of town to mountain bike in Bellingham.
Kirsten Henderson drove from Seattle to Bellingham regularly to mountain bike before she moved to town for a job as operations manager at Fanatik Bike Co., on N. State St.
“Our first stop would always be Haggen to get some food for the trail,” she said. “Then after we’d always go to a restaurant and grab a beer and some food. I think that’s true for most people.”
Fanatik Bike Co. carries maps of local trails which Henderson said are especially popular with mountain bike tourists. In the last year they’ve sold more than 500.
Build it and they will come
What brings all those mountain bikers to Bellingham?
Brown said it’s the trails. Most of the local trails traverse a 3,000-acre privately owned forest known to mountain bikers as Galbraith Mountain. The trails, which are just east of Bellingham between Lake Padden and Lake Whatcom, are closer to an urban center than most popular mountain biking destinations in Western Washington, Brown said.
They’re also a big network, with about 50 miles of trails on Galbraith Mountain that connect to other riding areas near Lake Whatcom.
“I think at the end of the day it’s the type of trails and the variety,” Brown said. “We have technical single-track; flowy, jumpy trails; true cross-country loops; we have a little of everything.”
Galbraith Mountain drains well because of underlying sandstone and dirt that local riders rave about (one bike company employee called it “the best dirt in the world”). That geology makes it rideable year-round, Brown said.
Brown and other mountain bike advocates are quick to point out that local trails are built and maintained entirely by volunteers at no cost to taxpayers.
“Galbraith is amazing and it’s really only impressive because of the volunteers who have worked to make it that way,” said Kathy Salisbury, owner of Fanatik Bike Co. Her shop is in charge of maintaining a trail called SST, through the Whatcom Mountain Bike Coalition’s trail adoption program for local businesses. Currently, 21 businesses are signed up to take care of trails on Galbraith.
Not just for tourists
Mountain biking, like kayaking, skiing and other local recreation activities, attracts educated and skilled workers to Bellingham, Brown said.
“My wife and I are shining examples of people who make more than $100,000 a year and could live anywhere,” Brown said. “We sold our house and moved up here because of that.”
Canfield Brothers, a downhill-specific mountain bike company, moved to Bellingham in 2012. Chris Canfield, co-owner, said he thinks it’s the best possible home base in the country for a mountain bike company.
Kona Bikes and Transition Bikes–internationally distributed mountain bike brands–are both based in Ferndale.
“We ended up moving to Bellingham to be close to Whistler and because the local riding scene is great,” Canfield said. “It really couldn’t be more ideal.”
If Bellingham is a regional hub for mountain biking, Whistler’s mountain bike park in British Columbia is a world-class destination, Brown said. Some of the mountain bike tourism in Bellingham comes from people stopping by on their way to Whistler from all over the West Coast.
Canfield considered cities and towns all over the country before deciding on Bellingham.
He said one difference between Bellingham and other mountain bike meccas is that access to Bellingham’s trails isn’t secure. Other areas he looked into had more trails on public land and more support from local government, he said.
Polygon Financial owns Galbraith Mountain and manages it as a working forest. They allow recreation on their land, and even keep it open during logging operations. Across the state, bigger landowners and managers like Weyerhaeuser and Hancock Forest Management sell permits for recreational access, or block public access all together.
“The funny thing about Bellingham is it’s not promoted as a mountain bike town,” Canfield said. “There’s so much biking here that it’s kinda shocking that it’s not promoted that way.”