GUNNISON • A divot in the ground is nothing to see in this vast mountain biking playground, unless you’re Tim Kugler.

He’s executive director of Gunnison Trails, a big player in making Hartman Rocks what it is today. He stops now along one of the vaunted singletracks found in this high desert: Rattlesnake is aptly named for its mean streaks, its lines ripping down rock-formed guts and hucking riders off boulders.

This is a flowy section through sage, and something is off. “Ideally, this doesn’t get a drainage here,” Kugler says of the slash interrupting the epic trek over berms.

He smiles and shrugs. “I’ll have to talk to someone.”

He looks ahead to the point before Rattlesnake’s next curve. “You want to put drainages leading up to the turn,” he says. “That’s an excellent drain.”

The effort to maintain the treasured 45-mile network of Hartman Rocks continues, but Gunnison Trails is pleased with the work of its first decade. The nonprofit enters a new era under Kugler, the second leader into his second year. And with Hartman Rocks now a big blip on the West’s riding radar, he’s setting his sights beyond.

From Rattlesnake, he gazes out to Signal Peak. The in-town mountain is set to become the valley’s next singletrack destination, with the Bureau of Land Management green-lighting Gunnison Trails’ plan for about 21 miles of what Kugler calls “a stacked loop system.”

That network will be years in the making, just as the concept has been — it started as a dream in Gunnison Trails’ 2006 emergence. But there Kugler has been this summer, bushwhacking and contemplating routes to be built in the coming weeks and months.

He knows Signal Peak might just be his lasting mark with Gunnison Trails. “There’s some trepidation,” he says. “In the history of our organization, we’ve never had a project as big as this. So yeah, you want to make sure you do it right.”

Kickstarting transformation

When Dave Wiens launched the organization, Signal Peak was one of his three big ideas. Beginning right behind Western State University, the trails were envisioned to give locals a quick adventure, quicker even than the go-to place 3 miles away.

Seeing the project come to fruition is exciting to Wiens, of course, but for Hartman Rocks lovers, expectations should be tempered. The peak isn’t about to rival the area.

Wiens’ perfect description: “a sea of sage with granite islands.” The hills are punchy, overlooking the Elk Mountains and Collegiate Peaks. The rider has the choice of simple and swoopy or fast and white-knuckling, the bravest attempting technical bits that claim blood and bone.

Summer isn’t ideal with the heat, but the early evening with “magical lighting” is, says Wiens, who’s ridden around the world as an elite racer, besting the likes of Lance Armstrong.

“Give me one place to ride for the rest of my life, only one, and it would absolutely be Hartman Rocks,” he says.

He explored the area on two wheels through the 1980s, a Western State student riding the wave of the sport’s revolution in the valley. Back then, Hartman Rocks wasn’t as well-known as a place for recreation as it was a dumping ground, an open range where Jeeps rumbled free and trash was left everywhere.

Cattle trails webbed the land. But as the years went on, they disappeared under the wreckage, the rides Wiens and his buddies took no longer available.

Crested Butte had a mountain bike association since ‘83. It was time advocates mobilized down valley.

“It was a perfect situation,” says Jim Lovelace, on hand at the Bureau of Land Management’s Gunnison field office since 2005. “We had trail enthusiasts stoked about doing the work, and an agency who needed the help.”

Wiens picked the name Gunnison Trails hoping it would convey the group’s mission for all user groups. But as he tried gaining credibility in the eyes of the BLM’s local recreation manager at the time, Wiens felt he was fighting a perception that mountain bikers continue to fight today.

He recalls being with that manager at Hartman Rocks, scouting a trail. “Here come these four guys, looking like in their mid-40s,” Wiens says. “We stopped to talk to them, and they were really nice. They were college buddies now living all over the country, and they were back together enjoying themselves.

“I think that really changed his perception of mountain bikers. He realized it wasn’t just a bunch of young, rowdy kids trying to tear up the landscape.”

Bordered by ranchland with a population less than 6,000, Wiens introduced Gunnison to an economic boon when he brought the Growler to town in 2008. The annual race through Hartman Rocks now attracts 700 riders, whose entrance fees fund the salary of Gunnison Trails’ executive director.

Along with that position, Wiens sought grants and organized fundraisers that could pay for students to work on trails through the summer. A three-person crew is geared up for a third season. Around town are modern eateries with menu items named for the trails, with displays that proudly proclaim them as Gunnison Trails sponsors.

Volunteers continue to optimize the fun at Hartman Rocks, thanks to the trust Wiens earned from the BLM. Graceland, dropping to a riparian sector of high willows and cottonwoods, and Aberdeen, weaving past rock gardens and open vistas, are two favorite loops recently added by Gunnison Trails.

“You don’t really get to achieve the things he’s achieved as a racer without a lot of determination and perseverance,” Lovelace says of Wiens, “and that’s one key component of getting an organization like Gunnison Trails off the ground.”

‘A dream opportunity’

The grass-roots effort in the tiny town impressed the board of the International Mountain Bicycling Association enough to make Wiens its chairman and then, last year, its executive director.

Picking Kugler as his successor, he says, “was really no contest.”

The 34-year-old had made a reputation for himself with the Crested Butte Mountain Bike Association. He arrived to the valley 10 years ago, a traveling college graduate looking for purpose in the great outdoors. He found that in trail stewardship.

“This is a dream opportunity,” he says now. But he can’t help but feel pressure as he fills the shoes of someone he considers “like a mythical figure.”

“You’re driving the bus,” Wiens has told him, encouraging him to make the organization his own.

Kugler is championing Wiens’ three big ideas, starting with Signal Peak. The other two: a high-alpine trail system in the national forest northwest of town and, most ambitious, a Gunnison-Crested Butte trail touring the mountains from one town to the other.

“I don’t want to say it wouldn’t happen in my time,” Kugler says. After all, with Gunnison Trails, one can dream.

Seth is a features writer at The Gazette, covering the outdoors and the people and places that make Colorado colorful.

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