“Mining town turned mountain bike mecca.” That’s how many describe Leadville, Colorado. About 2400 km (or 1500 miles) north, in the Village of Valemount, people say a similar thing: “Forestry town turned mountain bike mecca.”
Even though they are thousands of kilometres (or miles if you prefer, this is a cross-border piece of writing after all) apart, Valemount and Leadville both have strikingly comparable histories of being built on resource extraction.
Through booms and busts, both towns have survived, and now, part of that is due to a new, renewable resource to exploit: mountain bike tourism.
In the heart of Colorado, surrounded by the majestic Rocky Mountains, lies Leadville. Notable for being the USA’s highest-elevation incorporated city, Leadville’s past is scarred by the tough and dangerous life of silver mining.
Empty mines, once bustling with the spoils of the silver rush, now sit empty, echoing stories of a once bustling town. The silver dried up, and with it, the town became stagnant.
If you follow the Rocky Mountain range northwest from Leadville for 2400 km (1500 miles), you come to Valemount. Nestled between three converging mountain ranges; the Rockies, the Cariboos, and the Monashees, is the small village of Valemount.
Much of the economy was built off the forest, cutting logs into lumber. But when the last sawmill shut down, things looked grim for the tiny Canadian hamlet.
These two towns may be thousands of kilometres (miles) apart, but they share a tale of reinvention - from struggling resource towns to thriving hubs of cycling.
“I remember when the only folks pedaling through here were the paper delivery boys,” chuckles the bartender at Leadville’s Silver Dollar Saloon. He moved to Leadville in the 80s, when it wasn’t much more than a struggling resource town of the past.
“Then came those bikers, and everything changed!”
Leadville’s transformation from near-ghost town to a must-visit destination for cyclists started with the Leadville 100 MTB race. First held in 1994, the idea was simple: a 100 mile mountain bike race across the sky, starting and finishing in Leadville.
Leadville’s resurgence grew alongside the Leadville 100 MTB race. Athletes looking to conquer the bucket-list-worthy event brought with them a new energy, a new hope, and new businesses, giving what could have just become another old mining town a new lease on life.
Over in Valemount, the shift was less sudden, but equally transformative.
“We’ve always been a stopover town,” says Randy Pruden, a local trail builder. “People would stop to refuel, then carry on their journey. Then we started building trails.”
Randy had an insatiable passion for creating bike trails, something the National Park restrictions in his former home of Jasper wouldn’t allow. Moving to Valemount in 2001, he began carving out trails, initially just for himself and a handful of locals.
Years later, an idea sparked in the tiny Village of Valemount: the idea to build a bike park.
As word spread about Valemount’s ever-growing trails, the seasonal tide of mountain bikers began to rival the winter influx of snowmobilers, breathing new life into mountain town.
“Seeing people come from all over to ride our trails… now that’s something else,” Randy says, his eyes lighting up as he watches a group of riders load up a shuttle to the top. “We turned a quiet logging town into a mountain bike haven!”
Both towns have tapped into the ever-growing popularity of cycling, harnessing the power of pedal to drive their economies. Bike-friendly accommodations, local breweries catering to the post-ride crowd, and bike shops have popped up in both towns. There’s a palpable sense of energy - a revival fueled by the love of two wheels.
Although new and renewed, both towns still bear their history. Leadville’s downtown is dotted with preserved Victorian-era buildings, and the Mining Hall of Fame, a tribute to its silver-digging past. Valemount’s local museum showcases the sawmill culture that helped shape it. But it’s clear both towns have found a new identity.
As trails carve a path through the hills around Leadville and Valemount, they’ve also drawn a map to survival for these once resource-reliant towns. Their shared tale of transformation serves as an inspiring blueprint for communities on harnessing the sustainable power of tourism, one pedal stroke at a time.
Story: Evan Wishloff. Photos: Stirl and Rae Media Haus, Evan Wishloff, and Public Domain