How big are your wheels?

If you are a mountain biker or know someone who is, you may have heard the debate raging on about mountain bike wheel diameters. From 26 to 27.5 and all the way to 29-inch, there seems to be little consensus. To attempt to sort out what the ideal wheel dimension is, I recently sat down with Chris Erkkila, assistant mountain biking manager and Doug Gormley, lead bike instructor at Deer Valley Resort.

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JF: Sometimes I wonder if I have the right size wheels on my mountain bike and if I am not giving away performance by staying on traditional 26-inch tires?

Chris Erkkila: It’s been a steady progression. In the old days, I’ve saw downhill bikes with a 24-inch wheel in the back and a 26-inch wheel in the front. And then, a few years ago, the 29-inch craze hit so big that the bulk of our rental bikes were all 29-inch wheels! Now, with the 27.5-inch design gaining acceptance, the pendulum has swung back to a position that manufacturers are finding to be a right size that covers everything.

Doug Gormley: Just like Chris, I’ve experienced all wheel sizes, from 26, to 27.5 and 29-inch. There’s no “holy grail” though. All these sizes have strengths and weaknesses. A very simplified argument for the 27.5 is that it “splits the difference.” It falls somewhere in the middle, albeit not quite exactly…

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JF: What’s the most obvious benefit of a large, 29-inch wheel?

Chris Erkkila: The theory is that the larger the diameter, the more efficiently it rolls; that’s right, rolling gets easier with bigger wheels. This is the reason why the settlers in the west put large wheels on their wagons; it was much easier for them to go over ruts, wood stumps and rocks.

JF: What was your experience with last year’s rental fleet and its 29-inch wheels?

Doug Gormley: Overall, it worked out really well. There were some issues with some of our smaller riders feeling a bit awkward on the bike. One of the positives was that a 29er rolls over rough terrain very well. For somebody who is struggling to maintain momentum, these wheels can roll over features that would normally hang them up. Another advantage is that this larger wheel provides more traction and also brakes more effectively.

JF: Any downside to a 29-inch wheel?

Chris Erkkila: Well, going downhill gets you more centrifugal force with 29-inch tires, which causes the larger wheel to resist turning. Another possible drawback is that larger wheels create a longer wheelbase that makes turning in tight corners a little bit more challenging.

Doug Gormley: I agree; they are not as maneuverable. I do think there are some people who thought the bike felt a bit cumbersome and awkward at times. This is why our rental fleet will mostly be 27.5 this summer.

JF: But, I’ve also heard that larger wheels make it less likely that the rider will fly over the handlebar; is this true?

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Chris Erkkila: Ha, ha! I think the chances are really still there. Maybe just because they can roll over stuff more smoothly, you might be less prone to do it, but if you aren’t very gentle with the new, powerful, hydraulic disk brakes in front, you might still go over the handlebars!

JF: I still don’t understand which wheel performs better for downhill versus cross-country use?

Doug Gormley: Downhill riders need smaller size wheels for nimbleness and maneuverability. Today, in World Cup competition, most riders are still on 26-inch wheels, but more and more are moving to the new 27.5.

Chris Erkkila: You won’t see downhill racers riding a 29-inch, because, as Doug said, it’s less maneuverable; but he’s right, they are leaving their 26-inch for these new 27.5-inch wheels.

JF: So, are you suggesting that 27.5-inch might be a happy medium?

Chris Erkkila: From what I understand, the trend began in Europe with the “650B,” as they call the 27.5-inch over there. It was actually borrowed from road bikes, then adapted to mountain bikes and from that point forward, it was enthusiastically adopted and caught on rather quickly.

JF: Is there a reason for a holy war to settle the perfect wheel size?

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Doug Gormley: No, there are so many factors to consider that each size can be fully justified. If you’re into cross-country, 29 might be the obvious choice, but if downhill is your thing, a smaller wheel will work better. I still feel very strongly that there is no panacea, though.

JF: Have the junior riders been spared that tug of war?

Doug Gormley: If anything, there are many junior bikes that benefit from a 24-inch wheel. There are lots of factors like clearance over the top tube, rider’s weight and height that come into play in that category. There are still lots of benefits to 20, 24 an even 26-inch wheels for youngsters.

JF: Are these new 27.5-inch wheels adapted to women’s bike frames?

Chris Erkkila: When the first 29er came out, companies scrambled to place these larger wheels on existing frames, with obviously less success on women’s frames. It wasn’t always a good match. Today, with the growing popularity of 27.5-inch wheels, manufacturers have been adjusting their frame design and construction to work better with that diameter.

JF: As every ounce seems to count enormously, how is wheel design impacted by the quest for weight reduction at all cost?

Chris Erkkila: It was pretty rare to see “everything carbon fiber” 10 to 15 years ago. This has changed and today you’ll see frames and rims made of that material. A larger wheel is heavier and light weight materials become more attractive. Carbon fiber is one of these materials, extremely light and strong but less sturdy than aluminum. If you crash and your bike goes flying off the trail and you damage the carbon fiber, it’s pretty catastrophic. You can put a dent in an aluminum frame and still ride it to a certain extent and be okay. Today, it’s quite common to see carbon wheel sets matched with carbon bike frames. Because of the rocky nature of some mountain trails, there’s obviously a risk that a close encounter with rocks and other obstacles could severely damage these pricey rims.

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JF: Do you feature carbon rims in your rental fleet?

Doug Gormley: No, and it’s essentially a matter of cost. These rims are still very expensive! Sure, they’re very lightweight, strong and super stiff. Sometimes even too stiff!

JF: All these considerations about sizes and materials shouldn’t make us forget the critical element that is the tire. What’s new in this area?

Chris Erkkila: We are seeing more tubeless tires these days, just like the ones you have on your car. Tubeless tires allow you to ride on less pressure and they’re also lighter. To a certain extent they also reduce the chance of getting a flat tire.

JF: Why?

Chris Erkkila: Because you can hit certain obstacles on the trail without getting a pinch-flat or “snake-bite” as some folks call it. This happens when the inner tube gets pinched against the rim and you get two holes in the tube. In theory, running without a tube eliminates this, but you should still pack an extra tube, just in case.

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Doug Gormley: Our rental fleet is still running with tubes and tires. On a personal level, I’ve been slow embracing the tubeless trend, because it had not prevented me from getting flats. Even with my best tubeless set up, I still carry a tube as a backup.

JF: Are bikes delivered with tubeless set up?

Chris Erkkila: Not usually, it’s more an after-market option.

JF: Let’s talk about inflation. What tire pressure do you recommend?

Chris Erkkila: Several factors should be considered. One is downhill versus cross country. Others are how much a rider weighs, what type of terrain is involved as well as particular trail conditions. I’m 6 feet tall, I weigh 200 pounds, so I inflate my cross-country bike in the high 30s psi (pounds per square inch). On the other hand, my downhill bike is only inflated at 20 to 25 psi. Typically, the lighter you are, the less air you put in; but when you do that, you might increase traction too much. Conversely, the more air you put in, the less rolling resistance exists.

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Doug Gormley: In our rental operation, we’re about at 35 psi with the bikes. In some instances, we go as high as 38. This is the best balance we find between good traction and pinch flat avoidance. Of course, if we see a rash of pinch flats, we can always raise that threshold.

JF: I’ve always been told that, prior to going downhill, it make sense to let some air out; is that right?

Chris Erkkila: Oh, yes. It’s hard though; the biggest mistake people make is to just do it “by feel”; unless you do this very often, you’ll mess up. The only way you’ll know for sure is by using a pressure gauge.

JF: On these big, fat tires, what kind of tire tread works best for Deer Valley’s trails?

Doug Gormley: The manufacturers are all doing a good job at matching tire tread with bike suspensions, dimensions and performance. We’ve selected a trail bike that is the equivalent of an all-mountain ski; it is very versatile and the tread selected for these bikes strikes a nice balance between cross-country and downhill.

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Chris Erkkila: Tires are like shoes; you might prefer Nike over Adidas, so it comes down to personal preferences. Of course, here we have dry, dusty soil and our tires are suited for these conditions. When we get a rain day at Deer Valley Resort, we call it a “powder day” because if you get just a little bit of moisture on the trail, it gets “tacky” and you can go a bit faster and carry more speed into the turns; it’s fun!

JF: What an enlightening conversation about wheels! As many riders are headed for Deer Valley Resort and get ready to hit your trails this summer, what last piece of advice do you have for them?

Chris Erkkila: There’s no one right wheel size for any certain type of rider. It’s up to each person to go out and try what seems to work best. The 26-inch size probably isn’t going to be around for much longer. It’s going to be 27.5 and 29-inch for the foreseeable future, with the latter wheel size likely to be preferred by many cross-country riders.

Doug Gormley: Beyond this discussion about wheels, we see a large variety of bikes on the mountain. Ultimately though, a good all-mountain trail bike works best, whether you ride the lifts or just pedal. Having a very versatile bike with a suspension offering four to five inches of travel works very well and allows you to accomplish everything you want in a day while truly enjoying it!

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Midweek Mountain Bike Race Series: A Family Affair

When Mom and Dad are avid mountain bikers and love to race on fat tires, the next great thing to do is bring the whole family along and have a fun, late day competition, where every one can enjoy the company of friends in a cool mountain environment. That’s what the Midweek Mountain Bike Race Series is all about and they have two upcoming events at Deer Valley Resort. To learn more about the series, I met with Brooke Howard, one of the race co-directors, during a Round Valley event, in Park City, Utah.

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JF: How did this program get started?

Brooke Howard: Jay Burke, the original founder of the series, started it at nearby Solitude Resort. At first, it was just a very casual, small group of racers who wanted to compete. Jay was also the founder of the Park City Point 2 Point and as this program grew in popularity, it quickly captured his entire focus away from the series.

JF: So what did you do?

Brooke Howard: At that exact same time, I wanted to start a midweek type of event, maybe not necessarily in mountain biking, but our family came out to the series every Tuesday; it was a wonderful event. My husband and my kids raced and the idea of seeing the series go away was simply terrifying. I met up with Jay and we took over the series. Today, Luke Ratto is my partner and the series’ other co-director.

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JF: When did you take over?

Brooke Howard: In March of 2011, so this is our fourth year.

JF: At the program’s inception, how many participants did you have in a given race?

Brooke Howard: Jay was averaging 75 racers and when we took the program over, our first race attracted close to 150 participants, including the kids. We nearly doubled the attendance and today we are averaging about 230 participants per event.

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JF: Counting the kids?

Brooke Howard: Not counting the kids! We have about 40 plus children at each event and those are free to participants.

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JF: How many events do you have in a season?

Brooke Howard: We organize 12 events.

JF: Where do they take place?

Brooke Howard: We have two at Corner Canyon (near the Point of the Mountain, in Draper, Utah), one in Heber, Utah, four at Solitude, two at Deer Valley Resort, two in Round Valley (Park City) and one at Snowbird.

JF: How long is a loop for the kids?

Brooke Howard: For the kids, we do a mini loop that takes about 15 minutes and depending on the location, we offer different options. For instance, at Deer Valley Resort we create a skills course for them.

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JF: What’s the course for adults?

Brooke Howard: For beginners we average four miles. The sport class is about eight to ten miles and the Pros and Experts are between 12 and 16 miles.

JF: Is it the same course for everyone?

Brooke Howard: Yes, for the most part. In the majority of cases, it’s just a matter of doing loops and on other courses, we will have a break-off loop.

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JF: Is it always a cross-country type race?

Brooke Howard: Yes.

JF: Why do you offer free registration for children under 12?

Brooke Howard: Mostly to give them a taste of what mountain biking is all about, get them outdoors and exercising. As a matter of fact, and with few exceptions, all the children that come out here are children of racers competing in the main event.

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JF: Lucky kids!

Brooke Howard: Right! But that’s not all. Summit Bike Club coach Kristi Henne coaches the free kids race too, so you can see that children are especially cared for and receive our undivided attention.

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JF: So you’ve created a program that fosters both a fun and active family outing that everyone can look forward to?

Brooke Howard: Absolutely!

JF: Did the series start with that scope in mind?

Brooke Howard: For me personally, that’s what it was from the beginning: something we did on Tuesday’s with other racers. It’s a casual, family-friendly event, filled with camaraderie and aimed at encouraging health and fitness while helping grow the sport.

JF: How do you get the word out?

Brooke Howard: Facebook is a very good friend of ours, but most importantly, it’s word of mouth.

JF: Are bike shops helping you too?

Brooke Howard: Yes, we have flyers and posters in all the Wasatch Front bike shops, from Springville all the way to Ogden, Salt Lake, Heber, and of course Park City. Bike shops are also actively involved with the series. Locally, we work with White Pine Touring; they support the races in Park City and at Deer Valley.

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JF: I’ve also noticed your impressive list of sponsors.

Brooke Howard: Among the main ones, there’s Mark Miller Subaru, our title sponsor behind the funding of our series, and there’s also Backcountry.com who came in last year, as well as Scheels, our 2014 “Wrench’n Sponsor”. Sheels has “trail marshals” who are out on the course, packed with a supply of tools, tubes and the like to help those in need of a fast repair or a tire change. All of our sponsors provide raffle prizes at the end of each event and the end of the season.

JF: Are there prizes at each event?

Brooke Howard: Yes, there are prizes at every single race and our sponsors also provide a monster raffle at the end of the season. Instead of honoring the winners after each race, we accumulate their points and, at the end of season, we award the top five finishers in the expert and pro class with some money and winners in the sport class are awarded with some prizes or a pass for next year. We also give a little goody bag to all the children.

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JF: What about the monster raffle?

Brooke Howard: We reserve this one for those who participate in six or more races; prizes are season passes to a ski resort, bike racks and other sporting equipment.

JF: That’s quite a comprehensive program.

Brooke Howard: Indeed! While we are on the subject of rewards, I would also like to mention that, at the end of the season, a portion of our proceeds go back to help maintain the trails and keep providing a wonderful experience to all trail users. All of our funds go back to the trail community both in terms of physical work and cash.

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JF: You said earlier that you have two events scheduled for Deer Valley Resort?

Brooke Howard: That’s right. The first event is at Snow Park on June 24 and the next one is at Silver Lake on July 22.

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JF: Are both events for children and adults?

Brooke Howard: Yes. Snow Park will be set up as a skills course for kids, while Silver Lake will offer the regular children’s race.

JF: I’m sure many locals will be eager to participate. Could you tell us more about these two events?

Brooke Howard: Registration always begins at 5 p.m. If you register online, the adult entry fee is just $15, or $17 if you register at the race. The free kid race always starts at 6 p.m. and the adult race begins at 6:30 p.m. The adult race is a staggered start, beginning with the pro men and continuing all the way to the beginners group.

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JF: Are spectators encouraged to come and cheer the racers?

Brooke Howard: Absolutely! Spectating is free and we love to have crowds at the finish line. We would just love to see you all come out and have a great time mountain biking and cheering the competitors.

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Interview with Steve Graff, Bike/Ski Patrol Manager

Last week I caught up with Deer Valley Resorts’ Bike and Ski Patrol Manager, Steve Graff, as he was returning from inspecting the impressive network of hiking and mountain bike trails the resort will soon re-open to the public. Here are some of the many interesting things I learned about his busy department and their myriad of responsibilities…


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JF: Steve, it’s good to be visiting with you and the patrollers again. Tell me, where’s all the snow? What has happened to you and your staff since the end of the skiing season and what are you up to now?

Steve Graff (SG): After we closed the mountain down in April, we spent another week taking down signs, ropes, pads and getting everything ready for snow melt. After taking a little bit of time off to transition between seasons, our staff is back to work. As you can imagine, our personnel shrinks a bit at this time of the year; most get back to their seasonal jobs. Many go to work as National Parks Rangers all over the country, while those who can never get enough winter continue ski patrolling in New Zealand and Australia. Some are wild land fire fighters or smoke-jumpers, and the rest of us are back at Deer Valley Resort getting the place ready for warm weather activities.

JF: How many employees return for Mountain Bike Patrol?

SG: Out of our 70 or so ski patrollers, about 15 stay on during the summer.

JF: How long is the season?

SG: It goes from mid-June through Labor Day (September 2, 2013).

JF: Are you the crew in charge of maintaining trails and cutting new ones?

SG: Our main priority is helping injured but the bulk of our work is actually trail construction and trail maintenance.

JF: Any new trail this year?

SG: The two newest trails were actually started last season. Both are in the Empire Canyon area, off the Ruby Express chairlift.

  • Drift: An intermediate trail
  • Payroll: More of a free riding, “flowy” trail, with some nice jumps and drops that should add some extra levels of excitement in that general area

JF: This sounds promising! By the way who comes up with these unique trail names?

SG: Payroll is actually a mine name and Drift comes from a drift road that is off Tour de Sud. Some others come directly from the public, “Devo” is a good example; we were just finishing constructing it when we ran into a lady that said “Yeah, that trail is ‘Devo.”

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JF: Does your remaining staff receive summer-specific training?

SG: There’s a lot of cross-over between summer and winter duties like medical training and lift evacuation skills and those are regularly being refreshed.  We add motorcycle, ATV and six-wheeler riding that are unique to our summer season.

JF: You mean, training on vehicles that get you around the mountain?

SG: Right; instead of snowmobiles, toboggans or skis, we use bikes, motorcycles and ATVs!

JF: What types of interventions are typical to the warmer months?

SG: Overall, the few injuries we deal with are less severe than in winter because speed is less of a factor. We see a quite a few scrapes and bruises though, maybe a few dislocations, perhaps more blood than usual, but in general, far less severe injuries.

JF: It seems to me that you and your staff aren’t always on the mountain; over the years, I’ve noticed your presence at all the Deer Valley’s summer concerts. What’s your role there?

SG: To attend the concert!

JF: I should have expected this! So, all Patrollers are music aficionados?

SG: Well, this is another one of our Mountain Bike Patrol duties. We offer first aid response at the Deer Valley concerts, so we attend them all. Depending on the event, between two and four of us are present. We’re there for medical emergencies or other situations.

JF: Are they specific recommendations you’d like to share with mountain bikers and hikers intent to use the Deer Valley Resort trail system?

SG: There are a few good rules; first, we don’t charge for uphill travel outside of chairlift rides. If trail users bike, they must wear a helmet and dogs must be left at home whether their owners hike or bike. Always make sure to look at the map and come up with a route before heading out; remember that there are some trails that are specifically for downhill mountain biking, others specifically for hiking and then they’re others that are designated for both. So, it’s good to know what kind of trail you’re planning to take. If you want to hike and don’t want to see bikers, go on a hiking-only trail. If you want to pedal up, make sure you chose the multi-use trail, not the downhill-only one. That way, everyone can enjoy their experience to the fullest.

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JF: Are there lessons or orientations tours visitors can take?

SG: Yes; both are available and are highly recommended. We offer guided tours of the mountain that will also provide some mountain biking tips; those are for intermediate level and above, but they’re also “mountain bike 101” lessons that will take a rank beginner straight to the single-track trails. Many riders often say: “I know how to handle a bike, therefore I don’t need lessons” but as you know JF, mountain biking is a very different deal, it’s not like riding in the neighborhood; there’s weight transfer, forward-and-back and side-to-side involved, it’s a lot more dynamic experience than pedaling on asphalt around the block.

JF: What other recommendations would you give hikers or mountain bikers visiting Deer Valley Resort?

SG: I know some people who chose to ride their mountain bike by themselves, purely for exercise. If you’re one of them, just let someone know where you are going and when you plan to be back. Always wear a helmet and sunglasses. Even if you’re going on a short trip, throw an extra power bar in your pack, a replacement tube, enough water, some basic tools if you ever break down.  Even if you aren’t quite sure how to fix it, some passer-by might be able to assist you and get you back on your way. Always wear gloves; if you ever fall, the first thing that’s going to hit the ground is your hand. Some extra protection goes a long way!

JF: Any tips about the weather?

SG: Always be prepared for anything! In the mountains, the weather can change rapidly. Look for thunderstorms. If you can hear thunder, lightning isn’t far, so get off the high ground, don’t huddle under the tallest tree, just wait for the storm to pass; it generally never lasts very long.

JF: What about encounters with wildlife?

SG: We do see quite a bit of wildlife. This is one of the great things about hiking and mountain biking around Deer Valley. I’ve had the pleasure to see all kinds of animals around this mountain. You just got to give them space. We’ve taken a lot of space away from them and we should always treat the mountain as their own domain. If I see a moose on the trail, I make my presence known, and hopefully he’ll amble on.

JF: So, how ready are you for Deer Valley Resort summer opening?

SG: Well, we’re opening on June 14, and based on my most recent trail inspections, we’re going to have a fantastic opening, with ninety percent of the trails perfectly passable, so please, come and join us!