This summer, bike enthusiasts have a new on-mountain playground: the Telluride Bike Park. By the time the park opened to the public on July 5, locals and visitors alike could not wait to get out.
Like many adrenaline-fueled adventure sports in the San Juans, mountain biking is not without serious safety hazards. In the two weeks since the Telluride Bike Park opened, visits to the Telluride Regional Medical Center have spiked.
The emergency room (ER) sees an average of two to four patients injured in the bike park per day, according to Dr. Diana E. Koelliker, Director of Trauma and Emergency Services at the Telluride Regional Medical Center. In total, there have been more than two dozen ER visits from the bike park since it opened. This figure excludes primary care visits, where mountain bikers with less severe injuries have been treated.
“We’ve definitely seen some very significant injuries,” Koelliker said in an interview with the Planet. “There’s been maybe only one day without injuries.”
In the ER, Dr. Koelliker has seen three serious spinal injuries — one thoracic, one lumbar, and one cervical — from bike park crashes. There have also been several severe “upper extremity” injuries, including head trauma and a clavicle injury. Many of the ER visitors have been treated for lacerations from falls.
“There’s tons of what we call road rash. Dirt and rocks dug into elbows and knees,” Koelliker said. “And many hand injuries from when people on fall rocks,” she added.
When the Telluride Bike Park opened, Koelliker consulted with other medical centers in mountain towns that have “ski area assisted bike parks” such as Crested Butte. Their injury estimations were under what the Telluride area has experienced thus far, however.
“The ones that we spoke to gave us much lower projections, one to two patients per day, so we’re already almost doubling those numbers.” Koelliker said.
James Ostrow, a local and avid mountain biker, is a part-time instructor in the bike park. Ostrow suggested that the increased mileage that comes with a lift-served park could a contributing factor to the injury rates. All the Telluride Bike Park trails are “gravity-fed,” meaning that bikers have to pedal very little, if at all, to navigate the connecting routes in the bike park.
“The lift makes it so you can ride way more downhill than you could ever previously ride in Telluride. Just like skiing, [with mountain biking] it’s not if you will fall, it’s when,” he said. “Unfortunately it only takes one fall to ruin your day or season.”
The Telluride Bike Park is intended to accommodate different experience levels. The 15 trails vary in difficulty, from green to double black, as with skiing. Ostrow noted, however, that the technical difficulty of a black trail is a sharp increase from a blue flow trail.
“I think the blue jump line is dangerously fun because the new flow trail is built incredibly well. The jumps are all rollable, the berms catch you like a glove. It’s pure type 1 fun,” Ostrow explained. The blacks in the downhill park are a different variety.
Regardless of skill, everyone can susceptible to injury without appropriate caution. “I’ve seen people who are novice bikers, as well as experts, so nobody’s immune,” explained Koelliker.
In Telluride, the bike park opened during peak summer season: the weekend after the Fourth of July and right before Ride Festival. Koelliker says the busy time may contribute to the high injury rates. It is still too early to know if ER visits from bike park riders will decrease as time goes on and people become more familiar with the terrain.
“[Other resorts] started out with higher numbers and ratcheted back, but so far it has been consistent here,” Koelliker said.
The Telluride Bike Park does have safety precautions in place. Riders are required to wear a helmet, and full face helmets are highly recommended, particularly for technical trails and jump features. Scott Pittenger, Director of Mountain Operations for Telski, acknowledged the potential hazards of the bike park.
“Mountain biking, like all of our favorite mountain sports, does present some inherent risks,” Pittenger wrote in an email. “Basically, accept all available safety equipment when offered at the shop, the lift is doing most of the work at our park, so don’t worry about overheating due to some extra pad,” Pittenger added.
Beyond the required helmet, Pittenger recommends that all bikers, regardless of ability, also wear a full-face helmet, gloves, knee, and elbow pads. Dr. Koelliker also emphasized that all riders should wear maximum protection, especially if they are going off jumps or other technical features in the bike park.
So far, Ostrow has seen tourists more “geared up,” while many locals are opting for more minimalist protection. “The culture is new to Telluride, and most of the more serious riders were cross-country and all-mountain riders who don’t own downhill gear,” he explained.
To help mitigate risks, Pittenger suggested that first-time users of the bike park go with one of the available professional bike instructors and to take a few judicious test laps before full-out ripping. “There are a lot of fun new features on our the trails, laps are quick, and there is no need to rush through skill progression,” he wrote.
Koelliker also stressed that mountain bikers exercise caution their first few times in the park. “My overall recommendation is for people to take it easy until they know the course,” she said.