Tue, 31 Aug 1999

Troubles for MTB World Cup in Napa

This article was written by a staff writer on the Napa Register, Mitch Tobin. Concerned about trail erosion caused by knobby tires, the governing body of Skyline Park has voted against hosting next spring's World Cup mountain bike race and it may extend the ban for five years. The three-day event, which attracts the world's top mountain bikers and thousands of spectators, was held for the third consecutive year in late March.

Canceling the event could cost local businesses more than $500,000 in visitor spending and deprive Napa of free international publicity from television coverage, according to the Napa Valley Conference and Visitors Bureau. Muddy conditions at this year's race caused "extensive damage" to the park's trails, said Milan Pittman, president of the Skyline Park Citizens' Association. "We really need a rest." Promoter of the race, Gale Force Inc. of Redwood City, was required to protect sensitive areas and repair damage to trails after the race.

But Pittman said the impact this spring was too severe. "(Gale Force) paid for some (trail work), but there's no way they can completely restore the trails," Pittman said, citing deep gouges caused on race days and by the influx of riders practicing in the weeks before the event.

Gale Force officials said they were surprised by the park's decision and are now looking for alternate sites in the Napa Valley and in surrounding counties. Rick Sutton, Gale Force president, said that this year's race damaged about 600 to 800 yards of the five mile course. But Sutton said the eroded area is being restored and that "overall the trail system has really benefited from the race being there."

Sutton said Gale Force pays the park $20,000 each year to hold the event there and donates hundreds of hours of labor to fix damaged areas and improve other trails not used during the race. "Gale Force has more than lived up to our end of the bargain," said Napan Mitch Wippern, Gale Force's operations manager. "There's a lot of work done that goes way beyond what the race (course) needed." Bob Hillhouse, owner of Bicycle Works, said that "over the long run there's been a great working relationship between Skyline Park and (local) bicyclists." But he said some equestrian users of the park have been vocal opponents of bicycle use there.

In June, the park's 16-member board of directors nixed the World Cup by a vote of 10 to 2, Pittman said. Pittman said he appoints eight of the members to the board and the remaining seven are elected by the Skyline Park Citizens Association, a group of about 25 to 30 that is open to anyone with an annual park pass. Two members of the board of directors are mountain bikers, said Pittman. Pittman would not reveal how he voted on the issue. But in October 1998 he supported the 1999 World Cup race in testimony before the board of supervisors, which approved Gale Force's application. Pittman then called the race a "good advertisement" for the 900-acre, privately-operated park, noting that "we're not anywhere near maximum use of this park."

Several local business people also endorsed the race at the October hearing, saying that thousands of spectators were a boon to local eateries, shops and hotels during a lull for tourism. Daniel Howard, executive director of the Napa Valley Conference and Visitors Bureau, said the event attracts at least $500,000 in direct spending in the county. Because the event is televised throughout Europe, Asia and South America, Napa also benefits from the equivalent of $2 million in international advertising, Howard said. "It helps our economy in a very big way ... it puts Napa Valley on a worldwide scale," said Howard, adding that the recreational nature of the event meshes well with the bureau's strategy of attracting tourists to Napa for multi-night stays, rather than just an afternoon of wine tasting. While disappointed that the event might disappear from Napa, Howard said he respected the park board's right to decide what events take place there and said the bureau would not lobby for them to reverse their vote. "It's truly their decision," he said, "Hopefully we can find a win-win a place that wants (the race) and that will benefit the valley."

Pittman said the park's board tried to get Gale Force to change the event to a drier time when there would be less erosion. But Gale Force said it is unable to control the scheduling of the World Cup series, which includes races around the globe. Wippern said Gale Force has tried to re-route the course every year to avoid areas susceptible to damage.

A trail survey conducted after the 1998 event by park association members and others found that damage was "minimal" and that most problems "occurred from the race spectators and not the cyclists." The ban on the World Cup "isn't necessarily permanent," Pittman said, but the "feeling on the board" was that rehabilitation of the trails would require halting the event up to five years.

Sutton would not disclose the location of other possible sites for the race. "If someone in the community or the city of Napa invited us, we'd be happy to approach (Skyline) again," said Sutton. "We don't hold a grudge. We'd love to find a solution."

Besides races for professionals on Saturday and Sunday, the World Cup includes an amateur day on Friday and this year held various races in downtown Napa on Thursday evening.