The Andes + Gravity on Two Wheels: Welcome to La Parva

The snow has long since melted leaving the slopes a dusty and rocky sight, but one ski center still runs its lifts. Located some 30 kilometers from the capital of Santiago, La Parva wrapped up its first season as a downhill bike park on April 3 and is the first major resort to open its hills for mountain bike fanatics.

Santiago Chile La Parva
Photo by Colin Bennett

The concept is simple. Bring your bike and helmet, and for CP$10,000 (US$17) you can ride the lift to the top of the hill as many times as you please, and enjoy a fast descent back to the bottom on over 20 kilometers of trails for all levels.

Opening and adapting resorts for mountain bikes first caught on in Canada in 1998 and has since spread around the globe. But La Parva’s venture is just one of two serious bike parks in Chile, along with Nevados de Chillán in the south of the country. The success or failure of these bike parks is a sure barometer of how mountain biking will develop in Chile in the future.

Great Potential

Santiago Chile La Parva
Photo by Colin Bennett

In addition to serving the general public, the bike park is also open for international competitions. In summer 2009 (December to March) three international mountain bike competitions saw their home in La Parva, including the
Pan-American Mountain Bike Championship from March 20 to 23, which brought national biking teams from all over the Americas.

The competition on March 22 attracted scores of fans and friends of some of the competitors. People gathered in groups around the course, and some even rigged their coolers with wheels and hauled entire barbecue grills with them to fully enjoy a day of racing and sun.

For Chris Van Dine, the 2009 downhill continental champion and Cannondale-sponsored rider with team USA, the potential to develop the course in La Parva and in Chile in general is vast.

Santiago Chile La Parva
Photo by Colin Bennett

“I’ve been to bike parks all around the world, and although this still needs some development, the potential is huge here,” Van Dine said on the sidelines of qualifying rounds.

The aesthetic is much different from the North American courses Van Dine is used to. The high altitude of the park and the rugged conditions of the Andes create a unique environment, he said, noting in particular the absence of any trees and the loose shale that dominates this landscape.

This rugged environment and the size of the mountains in Chile provide a challenging experience that Van Dine says is perfect for training. La Parva's proximity to Santiago (about an hour and a half by car) also appeals to capital dwellers seeking an adrenaline-filled weekend getaway. For international visitors, this means there are plenty of other activities in the city apart from biking.

Santiago Chile La Parva
Photo by Colin Bennett

While the idea of the bike park is nothing new internationally, La Parva is the only resort near the Chilean capital to open its slopes for bikers. The plan to welcome bikes on its slopes stemmed from a larger need to break the seasonal nature of the ski resort. In the summer of 2007 to 2008 the park began to promote horseback riding and trekking, according to La Parva’s general manager Thomas Grob.

The resort wanted to take advantage of the vast amount of installed infrastructure and increase its capacity to receive people in the summer. The park's lifts give mountaineers a jump start in their summits up the towering peaks of the Andes that hover over the valley. Within a couple days, adventurous souls can reach the summits of El Plomo, El Pintor and La Paloma, using La Parva as a base. As for the other resorts, though, Grub believes that the high cost of running La Parva and difficulty of reaching potential mountain biking or hiking visitors has dissuaded other resorts from opening such a course.

“On one hand you have a limited budget, and on the other the public you are trying to attract is very specific--they are really like little tribes,” Grob said. In any case, he expects the idea to catch on with other ski resorts over the next year or two as the sport reaches new participants.

Santiago Chile La Parva
Photo by Colin Bennett

The timing of the seasons also benefits Chile as a destination for mountain bikers. With Chile’s summer being the northern hemisphere’s winter, the course is perfect for teams to train in the off-season. Grob said he has already received interest from several national teams to train on the bike course next summer.

The bike park does suffer from a lack of support services like restaurants, gear shops, mini markets or, as some suggested, a proper bar. Grob acknowledges that this is an area that still needs to be developed, but this year served only to test the general acceptance of the bike park.

Next year he expects the park to reopen with a greater selection of services for summer visitors. However, Grob isn’t convinced a bar would be prudent, considering the steep, curvy (39 hairpin curves), narrow, sometimes dangerous 30-kilometer road Camino Farrellones, which brings visitors up to all four major ski resorts from the capital.

Testing Experts and Beginners Alike

Santiago Chile La Parva
Photo by Colin Bennett

The La Parva bike park has trails that you should only attempt if you’re confident about your ability and equipment. A full set of protective gear and a downhill bike are recommended for the black diamond rated trails in the park. However, a winding network of support trails also gives the relatively novice rider an opportunity to get in on the fun with a hardtail mountain bike.

For hikers the lift (CP$5,000) offers spectacular views of the Andes mountain range and the mass of six million people in the city below.

The park will open again in December 2009 and costs CP$10,000 for a full-day lift pass. Trekkers can visit year round, but only with the benefit of the lift during the biking or skiing seasons.

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