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An off-season lift

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Imagine completing a 2,000-foot ascent on a mountain bike and being able to breathe and walk normally. Or being able to stand and look down over the landscape instead of looking for a shady spot to rest.

Skiers can do make such an ascent and have such an effortless view, so why not bikers? That was the thinking six years back, when the idea of turning ski lifts into summertime bike lifts first developed.The idea was to take the hard work out of biking - the ride up - and put all the fun work back in - the ride down.

It made sense. Ski areas have major investments in chair lifts - more than $1 million for just a basic model. They also have an investment in staff. Summer biking meant resorts could keep good employees year-round.

Six years ago, Deer Valley turned on its lifts for the first time in warm weather. Each year since, the number of riders showing up rolling mountain bikes along side them has sharply increased. Now, on some days, there may even be a biker or two in the lift line, just like skiing.

What has also increased, said Don Taylor, ski patrol manager in the winter and mountain-bike manager in the summer, has been the miles of biking trails - single track and service roads.

"I think when we opened, we had, oh, maybe five or six miles of trails," Taylor said. "Some of them were pretty rough. Currently, we offer more than 40 miles of trails. All of this is on ski-area property. All of it we groom and maintain, just like we do in the winter. There are also many more miles of connecting roads off the ski area."

Five ski areas offer lift-served mountain biking - Deer Valley, Brian Head, Sundance, Snowbird and Solitude.

Several areas have all received high ratings on both local and national levels for their trails and terrain.

Along with the lifts and trails, the areas also offer services such as bike rentals and riding instruction.

The lessons, said Taylor, cover such things as use of the brakes, proper riding position on the bike, shifting and getting on and off a bike. And while the last area may seem contrite, climbing off or getting on a bike on a steep ski slope is not easy, especially when the ground underneath is covered with small rocks that are sometimes more slippy than snow.

That prompted Taylor to encourage all riders to consider a lesson - "the same as I do for people into skiing. You can learn a lot, which can make mountain biking a lot more enjoyable, same as with skiing."

Two of the most important areas covered, says Taylor, are:

"Adjusting your weight on the bike. It's just like skiing. You want to make sure you put the outside pedal down and weight on the inside, again just like skiing. And you want to be looking down the hill for the next turn, farther down than most people would think, even around the next turn."

"Braking is another problem people have. There's this myth that you never use your front brake, but that's wrong. About 80 percent of the braking is done with the front brake. If you lock up the rear brake, all you do is skid the tire and tear up the trail. The secret is to slide the weight back over the seat before you hit the front brake."

All of this - the lifts, the lessons and the winding, weaving trails - has been a result of the rapid growth in mountain biking. Fifteen years ago, there were an estimated 200,000 mountain bikes nationwide. Today, it is estimated there are around 30 million mountain bikes.

Along with more bikes have come better bikes, said Taylor. Better brakes, smoother shifting and lighter frames have made riding safer and easier. One of the latest improvements - car-like shock absorbers, now for both the front and rear - has done even more to make riding easier and more comfortable.

Rates at Deer Valley are $15 for an all-day pass or $8 for a single ride. The lift is open Monday through Sunday, and on all holidays.

Sundance is open daily with lift-served biking. It has more than 20 miles of single-track riding available on resort property. Rates are $12 for the day, $10 for half-day and $5 for a single ride.

Solitude is open on Saturday and Sunday only. Rates are $15 for all day and $5 for a single ride.

Normally, Snowbird would be carrying bikers to the top of Hidden Peak by now, but heavy snow pack still blocks the upper trails. When the trails are open, the cost of taking a rider and bike up the tram is $16 for an all-day pass and $12 for a single ride.

Brian Head has the most extensive trail system for lift-served mountain biking. There are several hundred miles of interconnecting trails and more than 50 miles of single-track. The lift runs Friday, Saturday and Sunday, but shuttle service is available daily. A lift pass is $15 for the day and $7 for a single ride.