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My Private Idaho

01 December 2002

by Guy Wynn-Williams

Tempted by undercurrents of burgeoning popularity, it was inevitable that sooner or later we'd feel the need to give Ground Effect a nudge in the USA. Beating a pilgrimage to the Interbike Trade Show in Las Vegas soon surfaced as a useful first step... the prospect of some on-the-ground research with the treadlies wasn't too abhorrent either. So Steve, Frase and myself absented ourselves from work and family for two weeks in October and headed for The Strip. We snooped around the show for a couple of days - sussing out the local scene, ogling at the titanium exotica and sniggering at the ridiculous. Our pick was a drinking system that resembled a goldfish bowl mounted to your seat post! And then, unlike Nicholas Cage, we left.

A few month's earlier we had spied an article in Bike Magazine about Sun Valley, Idaho. "Undiscovered mecca" and "miles upon miles of velvet singletrack" went the rave. Clearly it would be negligent of us not to check it out. We flew from Vegas to Salt Lake City, belted out some tunes with the Tabernacle Choir, pointed our cheap rental northwards and made for Idaho - land of the potato.

Four-and-a-bit hours later we rolled into Ketchum - a cute, little Mid-West town nestled in the Sawtooth Mountains. It was jolted into the jet set back in 1935 when Union Pacific Railway Chairman, Averell Harriman created Sun Valley - America's first destination ski resort. By accident or design, the traditional feel of the place has been preserved. No Wal-Mart, McDonalds or high rise condos here. The locals are friendly and the countryside intoxicating. No wonder Sun Valley is a magnet for the rich and famous. Buzz Aldrin, Jamie-Lee Curtis, Arnie, Clint Eastwood and Bruce Willis are counted as locals. Frase spotted Mr Die Hard himself taking coffee 'with us' one morning at Java Café. Yippy-ki-yay.

The riding is truly world class. A vast network of singletrack stretches up the Big Wood Valley and over the Galena Summit to the Sawtooth Mountains. Ego-smooth tracks twisting 'n' turning through the pine forests... gentle climbs, no rim-scorching descents and no scary drop-offs. Our favourite was Adams Gulch. Just a short hop out of town on a bike path, cruising past the trophy homes secluded amongst the aspens. Then a couple of pleasant hours puffing up Adams Creek. A bit loose in places and a sting in the tail with a short push to the high point at around 9000' for lunch. Bagels with cream cheese and big views before we zipped along the tops and blasted down the far side of the valley. Curly, swirly singletrack with nice berms that just taunts you to be reckless. The gravity-fest lasted two fabulous hours. Part way down we met a sign warning "mountain bikers: long descent". You bet ya.

October was a little late in the season for riding. Clear and sunny during the day but sub zero at night - lucky we weren't camping! It took a while for the sun to kick in, so early starts were replaced with leisurely breakfasts. Permanent ice was beginning to form in some of the shady creeks. I hit one ford expecting to crunch through the 'thin' surface ice only to skate along the surface and crash into the other side. October is also hunting season. We were cautioned to avoid deer-coloured clothing - best we didn't end up stuffed and mounted on some fat cat's wall. On our first ride up Fisher Creek we met a gaggle of hunters - nice chaps who shared their deer jerky with us and the news that they'd spotted fresh bear 'sign' on the trail we were about to ride. Bumping into a grumpy grizzly preparing for a long winter's kip was not our idea of a good time. Luckily for us they had scampered off - probably to chase Goldilocks or something.

Other riders were also scarce on the trails so imagine our surprise when a mountain biker approached us clad in Ground Effect clothing. We ambushed the poor chap and quizzed him about his kit. It transpires Andrew is a local who had just returned from living in New Zealand for five years. "It's a small world after all."

We had been apprehensive about returning to the States. The dollar is crippling. Everything is grossly oversized - pick-ups and SUV's are all on HGH. Post September 11 airport security is both cumbersome and ineffective. Travelling on a foreign passport entitles you to extra luggage scrutiny and body searches - it took us two hours to get our boarding passes for one domestic flight. And we were hardly excited about the prospect of two weeks dodging bad coffee and choosing between burgers 'n' fries and Tex-Mex. The coffee was appalling but Ketchum is blessed with some excellent restaurants, a supermarket selling organic produce and an immensely popular bakery that crafts naturally leavened European style breads.

Ketchum is a great place by any standards - the daunting price of real estate confirms that. The backcountry is fantastic and the mountain biking unrivalled. Seven days let us tick off the must-do rides but there's enough terrain and singletrack to keep you going for an entire summer. Worth going back for? Damn right.

Nitty Gritty

  • We flew into Salt Lake City. Boise (Idaho's capital) is closer to Ketchum (2.5 hours by car) and there's a local airport 10 miles down the valley at Hailey but we were keen to keep our options open to travel to other areas. Fruita, Moab and even Durango are within half a day's drive of Salt Lake. 
  • The guidebook (Good Dirt II) and topo trail map for the Sun Valley area are both excellent. There are six bike shops in town. Mark at Backwoods Mountain Sports was generous in imparting his local knowledge to us. 
  • There's a ton of superb riding. Our must-do rides include: Coral Creek (short but sweet - ideal as a first day antidote to jet lag); Fisher Creek (watch out for bears); Adams Gulch Loop (the long version along the tops - as opposed to the shorter Adams Gulch Trail); Fox Creek/Chocolate Gulch/Oregon Gulch; Greenhorn Gulch/Mars Ridge/Red Warrior/Warm Springs Creek; and Cold Springs to Warm Springs Creek (around the Bald Mountain ski area - a substantial climb but a hooty downhill). 
  • Ketchum ain't cheap. Motels are less costly during the shoulder season and there's plenty of free camping up the valley. September would be the ideal time to visit. Check out www.visitsunvalley.com 
  • We ate really well at Globus (expensive but we struck a two-for-one deal the week we were in town); The Sawtooth Club (melt in your mouth fillet steak); Roosevelt Grill ($5 for a beer and burger); and Mama Inez (cheap and cheerful Mexican, popular with the locals). Williams Market has heaps of organic produce and Northwood Bakery makes fabulous ciabata.
  • Interbike highlights. The aficionados were fizzing over the Santa Cruz Blur, Maverick front shocks, and the 5th Element (anti-bob) rear shock. At US$400 and 190gms, Crank Brothers' Ti III Egg Beater pedals are very sexy, very light and very unaffordable.