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updated 9/26/2005 6:32:04 PM ET 2005-09-26T22:32:04

This is Fruita's secret season.

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In spring, SUVs decked out with the hippest bike racks swarm the farm town-turned-biking mecca near the Utah border. The trailheads are clogged, and on the trails themselves, well, watch out.

In October and November, the SUVs are gone, the days are clear and crisp, and the white-knuckle rides that beckon bikers from across North America and Europe are at their best.

"This is really our favorite time of year," said Troy Rarick, owner of Over the Edge Sports, Fruita's first and only mountain bike shop.

On a recent, leisurely morning, he was setting out bikes on the sidewalk in front of his store and chatting with the locals passing on the town's main street.

"Summer's really too hot. Spring can be crazy, but right now we have the best weather, and you can go out and ride without seeing more than one or two people," Rarick said.

On top of good weather and no crowds, Fruita has one more attraction: the trails.

This desert valley lays claim to the best riding in the state.

The varied geography manages to pack smooth, fast loops, easy beginner tracks, and jarring expert rock gardens all into one package wrapped in scenery so captivating it can cause even the best rider to swerve off the trail.

One of the most famous areas, 18 Road, romps over a series of steep shale hills in a grassy pinon forest on the skirts of the Book Cliffs. Riders describe it as "a roller-coaster ride," and "Disneyland without the lines."

Fruita has a handful of other theme parks, too. One network of trails hugs the cliffs above the Colorado River in a red rock wonderland. Another climbs the ridges of nearby mountains.

Rarick likes to tell a story of a magazine writer who walked into a bike shop in the more famous mountain bike town of Moab, Utah, and asked an employee where Moab's best singletrack was.

"In Fruita," he replied.

Fruita is an unlikely candidate for a mountain bike hot spot.

For decades, it was a dying farm town at the back door of Colorado National Monument _ the type of place that bragged about a guy who grew a 23-pound sugar beet at the turn of the 20th century. Then in 1994, Rarick bought an old store on Aspen Avenue for $24,000 and turned it into a bike shop.

"Everyone thought I was crazy," Rarick said.

And for good reason. Fruita had next to no prospects for attracting tourists. The only mountain bikers in town were folks who had gotten off the interstate at the wrong exit. And the place didn't have any mountain bike trails.

None of this bothered Rarick.

Before buying the store, Rarick had worked in a bike shop in Denver. He knew half of his Front Range clients were driving past Fruita every weekend to ride in Moab, an hour farther down the road.

He had grown up in Grand Junction, so he could see the trail potential of the surrounding public land.

As for not having any trails, he said, "That was no big deal. We just went out and built most of them ourselves."

The first ride, Prime Cut, started out as a cow trail running across Bureau of Land Management land north of Fruita.

It was a barren no man's land locals used for dumping old appliances and shooting guns.

Or, if you were a fat tire pioneer, it was a blank canvas. Rarick and a few friends crafted a rolling luge run through the shale hills.

"For the first time, we were building trails specifically for bikes," Rarick said. "Almost everywhere else - Moab, Crested Butte - people were just riding on hiking trails and jeep roads."

The Fruita crew added more trails on either side of Prime Cut. Each turn or drop of the path was shaped to serve up a banquet of speed and challenge Rarick calls "flow."

"We've worked hard to achieve flow. In almost every case the trails are tuned exactly to how riders ride," Rarick said.

All the trail construction paid off.

Bike magazine reviewed the area in 1996 and advised readers, "This is why you bought your mountain bike."

Fruita's popularity has ballooned since that first review. These days, the town's annual fat tire festival draws more than 2,000 people and Over the Edge Sports does a swift business.

But success has brought more regulation.

"When we started, we were just building renegade trails on public land, and no one cared," Rarick said.

Locals built almost a dozen trails with no official permission from the Bureau of Land Management.

"Then all these riders started arriving. We created this national monster without asking," Rarick said. Now trails must be approved, which can take years.

But getting the attention of the BLM brought some good news for mountain bikers.

The trails Rarick designed have attracted ATVs and motorcycles in the past few years.

The mountain bike community pushed for their trails to be marked for bikes only, instead of the "multi-use" standard applied to most public land trails.

For a long time, the BLM resisted, Rarick said, but in September, after receiving an unusually high number of public comments in favor of bike trails, the BLM released a new recreation plan preserving 5,298 acres and 35 miles of trail for mountain bikes only.

"It worked out pretty well," Rarick said. "And now that we have everything settled, we can work on planning out the next 10 years of trails."

The weather in Fruita is usually mild through November. The season kicks off again in March.

On the Net:

Over the Edge Sports: http://www.otesports.com/

Fruita "Fat Tire" festival: http://www.fruitamountainbike.com/

Copyright 2004 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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