Shawn Gillis Helped Build the Mountain Biking Community in Salida, Colorado

If you stop in at Absolute Bikes, a bike shop in the mountain town of Salida, Colorado, Shawn Gillis, with his welcoming grin under a distinct ginger mustache, will likely be there to greet you. Whether you need a flat fixed on your commuter or the brightest bike light money can buy in order to finish the 2,745-mile Tour Divide, Gillis will lend a hand and have you riding again in no time.

But what he really loves is setting someone up on their first mountain bike, hearing about the adventures they want to tackle, and giving them tips about which local trails to start on.

What you’d never guess in small talk with Gillis is that he has completed the legendary Leadville-100 Mountain Bike Race 25 times, earning him a coveted 2,500-mile belt buckle. It’s colossal, and sits among a collection of other buckles and trophies in a display case tucked behind the newest fleet of shiny mountain bikes. You could visit the shop dozens of times and never see the mementos proving Gillis’ achievements. He’s raced just about every kind of bike, every distance, in all kinds of places. He’s also racked up plenty of running accolades. But he’s quick to downplay his own feats in order to hear other people’s stories.

Salida is part of the upper Arkansas River valley. The river runs right around the edge of town, with views of the Sawatch and Mosquito mountain ranges. Salida sits at just above 7,000 feet elevation, and is part of the “banana belt,” which means the weather is more mild than surrounding areas. Trails are used year-round (besides seasonal closures) because snow rarely sticks around longer than the day it falls. In the summer, evenings cool off significantly, so the heat never seems as crushing as it does at lower elevations. It’s the kind of town that has live music at the riverside amphitheater several nights a week in the summer, but people are tucked in bed by 10pm and the streets are quiet until sunrise. The kind of town where locals skin up the local ski hill for dawn patrol most mornings in the winter, and sneak in a quick rip on mountain bikes before dinner.

These days Salida’s trails include two multi-use systems — the Arkansas Hills (S-Mountain) and Methodist Mountain — making up more than 55-miles of singletrack. The community is spoiled by a trail maintenance organization, Salida Mountain Trails, with a dedicated staff and strong team of local volunteers. But trails don’t sprout up on their own — it’s taken decades of planning, working, and fostering to get Salida to where it is now.

After jumping back and forth from Flagstaff, AZ to Salida in a long-distance relationship with his now-wife, Dena, Gillis finally moved to Salida full-time in 1999. The move baffled some — why leave Flagstaff with an already established bike community, for a scruffy little mountain town with no real trails to speak of? But others got it. And the potential was obvious for Gillis. Plus, he was in love.

And he didn’t come to Salida without a plan. After owning and managing a bike shop in Flagstaff for 10-years, Gillis knew he wanted to do the same in Salida.

“[Dena’s] father mentioned that if I ever wanted to move out here, he would help,” Gillis said. So they started looking at properties that would facilitate a bike shop. And they landed on the old feed and farm shop, complete with a grain elevator. It had been sitting empty for several years, and Gillis immediately dreamed of seeing it full of bikes. “I figured ‘the feed store’ was a good nickname.” So they put the plan into action.

Although Salida’s downtown now fully encompasses the area where Absolute sits, it wasn’t always that way. “We were literally 100 yards off of downtown,” Gillis said. “And we had days where no one called, no one walked in. It was so quiet. And it was difficult.” But they chugged along, catering to the cruiser crowd and a handful of mountain biking pioneers like Mike Rust and Don McClung. “When we first opened, the audience was mostly very entry-level. We took no chances on bikes that cost over $1,000. And when you walked around town, there were tons of really cool cruisers, so we knew there was serious bike energy here.”

The Colorado Trail, Rainbow Trail, and Monarch Crest already existed just outside of town, but from downtown there was nothing more than a few miles of unplanned social trails. “We joked that we had the advanced trails outside of town and concrete paths in town, but nothing in between.” So Gillis got to work, talking to those in the community who were interested in trails, and he built a crew.

That crew quickly learned that the process is necessarily complicated. “Interacting with land managers is like learning a foreign language,” Gillis said. “But once you learn it, it’s an amazing relationship.” The land surrounding Salida is managed by different governing bodies. Some is city land, some is Bureau of Land Management (BLM), and some is federal land. Each tier comes with different requirements, but all require studies in order to preserve habitats and facilitate water flow. “It’s hard work, but with great design plans, and an understanding of water flow and mountain usage, trails can last forever,” Gillis said.

In Gillis’ early Salida years, the Arkansas River Trust was formed. “They asked the five properties along the river to donate their easement to the city of Salida, and so we did that.” And improvements to the river began. People now flock to the Arkansas River to raft, kayak, fish, and swim. But just like building trails, it took a lot of work. “Today we see more kids playing in the river in one day than we would see the whole year.”

Around that same time, BLM did a Travel Management Plan (TMP) — an inventory of all trails in the area — and confirmed that there were basically no trails in the area. So Gillis and others kept pushing forward on their trail system proposal. “In the early years, getting approval took about 6-years before we could put shovels to dirt.” The first official trail built was Tenderfoot on S-Mountain. “A lot of learning went into that one,” Gillis recalls. Back then, a good turnout of volunteers was a few people. Today, when Salida Mountain Trails puts on what they call a “ShinDig,” where community members help maintain the trails, they can easily get 50+ people to lend a hand on a weekend morning.

Jon Terbush, Executive Director of Salida Mountain Trails says working with multiple government agencies can feel like a lot of red tape, but that the trail building procedures and studies of the land are all about preservation, which is a good thing. If a trail is proposed in a certain area, several “-ologists” study that land, looking for animal habitats, vulnerable plant life, and what effects a trail will have on erosion. “It takes years of planning, with many stakeholders.” According to Terbush, the work is worth it because “we don’t want to love something to death — we want to build sustainable trails.”

Another goal of building the trail system is to cultivate a diversity of users. “Cycling has traditionally been white dudes with money,” Terbush said. “But Absolute Bikes puts on women’s mountain biking clinics, and other programs to get more women and kids on bikes. There’s no room for gatekeeping in the mountains.” Terbush says any good trail system creates an opportunity for all different kinds of riders to enjoy the trails. That means lots of International Mountain Bicycling Association (IMBA) standard beginner and family-friendly trails, plenty of intermediate trails, and then more extreme trails that beginners will never accidentally wander onto.

Creating an experience for a diverse group of people is the only way to sustain such a large area of recreation. “If you have this teeny narrow mountain bike group that only wants the triple black diamond trails, you have a very narrow interest group. But with more and more people on the trails, you’re growing your tent, and then there’s more support when you want to build more trails and enhance the trails you have.”

Salida Mountain Trails just applied for a $45,000 State Trails grant from Colorado Parks and Wildlife to kick off a county-wide plan to develop even more trails in balance with conservation projects. The full scope of work is projected to take 2-4 years and $250,000. And that’s just for the planning, not the implementation. Such an undertaking requires support from every level — from individuals, to organizations, to government agencies. And for the most part, that support very much exists in Salida.

And that’s one of the subtle differences between a town where mountain bikers visit to ride, and a town where people live in order to be mountain bikers. Salida is the latter. It’s an ongoing community effort. That’s not to say plenty of riders don’t visit each year — they do — but Salida never feels like it’s being overrun by tourists. Riders know that this isn’t an amusement park — it’s a community, a place many envy as a full-time home. And maybe most importantly, a place where you learn how to ride, and then never get bored on the endless trail combinations.

More and more, the town’s operational structure encourages its residents to engage in outdoor activity. Beginning in 2012, the Salida school district moved to a 4-day school week. The decision was chalked up to budget cuts — four longer days meant saving money on utilities as well as food service, transportation, and custodial staff hours. Change is never pain-free — especially for those who need more paid hours, not fewer. But one positive outcome of the excess free time for school children was several recreational opportunities. Why live in a mountain town if you aren’t going to take advantage of the scenery?

Jess Downing, Absolute Bikes’ Youth Cycling Program Director, coach, and Salida parent, says the 4-day school week is a great system as it “allows kids that extra day to get out and enjoy where they live.” There are many programs in town that cater to kids on Fridays, including the Boys & Girls Club, the City of Salida Camp Friday program, ski lessons and ski team at Monarch, and Absolute Youth Cycling. “As a parent and a coach, having Friday as the scheduled adventure day allows more flexibility on the weekends, and also the trails and ski runs aren’t as busy on Fridays.” It’s tough not to be envious of a kid’s life in Salida — they’re better on skis and bikes by the time they hit middle school than most adults ever hope to be.

The Friday programs have become a huge part of the lives of the kids in Salida. “We were able to adapt and run the [mountain bike program] during the height of the pandemic with very small classes and a lot of precautions,” Downing said. “And it was an important moment for those kids as it was one of the few chances they got to interact with their friends.” This year the program has ramped back up to usual numbers. “This fall we have 60 young riders [1st grade through 8th grade] spread over three class times. In addition to myself, we have two other certified coaches, plus numerous parent, community, and high school helpers to have a good coach to kid ratio. The little first and second graders ride for 2 hours, and the 3rd-8th grade classes are 2.5 hours.”

The Absolute Youth Cycling program acts as a stepping stone for the high school team, developing skills for kids interested in racing, but it also creates another place for kids to connect with each other and with the local trail system. No matter if the kids go on to race or not, it gives them an appreciation for where they live.

“Salida had a reputation in the 80s and 90s,” Gillis said. “People thought, why would any high school kid ever stay in this town? And now it’s like, ‘Wow, you live here and you want to stay here for the rest of your life — I don’t blame you.’”

What Gillis and Terbush and everyone involved with trail building has continued to learn is that it’s a privilege to be in such an incredible place, with so many excellent opportunities to play and learn and relax. Andy Warhol once said, “I think having land and not ruining it is the most beautiful art that anybody could ever want.” In many ways, land managers, trail builders, and stewards are the ultimate artists. And they have all come to realize what the indigenous people have known for so long — that the land isn’t ours. We’re guests. And with careful planning, we get to enjoy the land without ruining it — without driving the animals out or destroying necessary waterways and habitats.

Gillis’ passion and commitment for trail building and for his community are as strong as ever. And it’s a passion he puts into practice. Often, he can be found shredding down Dream On or Chicken Dinner before the shop opens. And he’s confident he still has another sub 9-hour Leadville 100 race in him. But what he cares about more than anything, is seeing the land used and protected by all kinds of people, and living the dream that he imagined when he first set eyes on Salida.