Chutes and Ladders. Joe’s Ridge. Hot Tomato.
To Coloradoans, those names are synonymous with Fruita, home of world-class single track and the best New Jersey-style Za on the Western Slope. However, Fruita was not always the mountain biking mecca it is known for today.
When Hot Tomato mountain bikers-turned-restaurateurs Anne Keller and Jen Zeuner moved to town in 2002, the Fruita mountain bike scene (launched in the mid ‘90s) was still emerging, despite offering singletrack that was (gasp!) superior to Moab’s.
The couple had met in Moab, where Keller was working as a mountain biking guide and Zeuner was involved in athlete sponsorship/management, having recently retired from the DH/DS pro mountain bike circuit.
“For me Fruita had singletrack, which Moab at the time had very little of (this was prior to Moab’s explosive growth in trail building). As Moab residents, we used to drive over to Fruita to ride. Plus, it was a perk being on the ‘Colorado’ side of the border, as it was often referred by Moab locals,” said Keller.
It was in Fruita where their lives took an unexpected direction. Fruita was where had their first real date, and it was in Fruita where they decided to stay. More affordable than either Grand Junction or Moab, Fruita offered miles of amazing trails to shred without the pricey real estate or crowds.
Said Zeuner, “We didn’t think much about Fruita before we moved here, as we were looking for a place we could afford. I basically forced the local bike shop (Over the Edge) to hire me and then I hired Anne. I don’t believe we realized or cared much about how conservative it was.”
Initially, Fruita was supposed to be a short term stopping point before moving on to Durango, or another more desirable location. Except that it didn’t happen. The rest, as we know, is history.
“For the most part we just enjoyed how relaxed it was, we got to ride or play outside every day and we could afford to buy a house. It was like we just stumbled on this little bit of heaven,” she added.
Fruita 2002 vs. Fruita 2019
Grounded in its agricultural roots, the conservative community had few businesses that realized the economic potential mountain biking would bring and understood its diverse culture.
“I would say there wasn’t really a ‘scene’ when we moved here. There were 20-30 locals who were building trails and took a lot of pride in what they were doing. There were lots of group rides, trail days and barbecues. We saw tourists but not like today- a crazy amount of people have found Fruita!” Zeuner exclaimed.
Fruita as a mountain bike destination is no longer a secret. Mountain bikers they meet at the trailheads are no longer locals, but a mix of locals and tourists. Neither bad or good, it’s just a sign of the times.
“The valley is such a popular riding destination, and as more people move here for the quality of life, and more people come here to visit, we now often have the experience of pulling up to trailhead and not recognizing the folks around us,” said Keller.
The influx of mountain biking-oriented businesses and tourists has not been without its challenges.
Providing more lodging opportunities and increasing the number of trails all require a shared vision of the welcoming “Fruita Experience”, and close partnerships with the City of Fruita, the Bureau of Land Management, and local trails organizations.
As a mountain bike destination, Fruita has nowhere to go but up. Thanks to outdoor retailer Patagonia, Keller and Zeuner are literally the faces of mountain biking in their community, as they were recently featured in its newest catalog to promote the company’s updated line of mountain bike apparel.
Additionally, one could ascertain that Fruita’s transition from under the radar small community to national mountain biking destination is a reflection of the overall growth of mountain biking and a shift in demographics.
“I think the change (Fruita has undergone) has mimicked mountain biking as a whole with the transition from a sort of quirky fringe sport where it was easy to know all of the local riders to the scale that it represents now as a national whole,” said Keller.
“One of the most noticeable examples of growth here has been the increase of both kids and women on bikes, and not just out recreating, but out there shredding.” she finished.
Bike tourists who visited the bike shop where Zeuner and Keller were employed would often ask for local restaurant recommendations, places to grab a beer, or hang out. For bike tourists and locals, Fruita circa 2002 was limited in options.
Very quickly, the couple realized there was an opportunity for them to, as Zeuner describes, “stay in the community, ride our bikes, and pay our bills.”
Both Zeuner and Keller had some rudimentary restaurant experience, both liked to cook, and enjoyed being social. The former set her sites on the town’s existing pizzeria located directly across the street from the bike shop.
“I grew up in New Jersey (aka the ‘Land of Pizza’). I was THAT customer who would stroll into the restaurant and make suggestions to the owner,” said Zeuner.
The timing could not have been more opportune. The owner suggested to Zeuner that she and Keller buy the place and take over the lease. Soon-to-be Fruita destination eatery, Hot Tomato pizzeria, was established in 2005.
“Blissful ignorance is why Hot Tomato opened. The Tomato partly came about because we had effectively hit the ceiling so to speak at Over the Edge bike shop, and the owner of the shop at the time was not interested in selling,” said Keller.
“There were very few other job opportunities that would have allowed us to live and work in town, so when the pizzeria across the street from the shop became available for sale we thought ‘what the hell, we can do this,’ and purchased the equipment from the old owner. The name immediately changed, and we slowly began changing the recipes as well. We really had no idea what we were doing,” said Keller.
Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion
Both Zeuner and Keller grew up riding bikes and are fascinated by how what was once a “nerdy” past time has evolved into a full-blown “cool kid” sport.
The increased growth and population of mountain biking has dramatically shifted. Just Google search 1990s mountain biking images if you want some visible proof of our evolution, suggested Keller.
Carefree mountain biking culture is what attracted Keller in the first place.
While the core elements of mountain biking remain the same, the demographics continue to evolve. According to Keller, the push towards getting more females involved in cycling began around a decade ago.
Keller pointed out that mountain biking has made some major inroads since she first began biking. A lot of the success is due to thoughtful representation. Who is mountain biking for?
“Representation is never all of the battle, but it is an important component of it and I do believe media representation of women in the sport has helped drive the increase in participation numbers” she maintained.
Increasing participation numbers across the spectrum has become a driving force in the outdoor recreation industry.
Through a variety of media (including publications such as Outside Magazine and big-budgeted corporate advertising campaigns), the outdoor recreation industry has recently prioritized historically underrepresented groups (LGBTQ, people of color, etc.) as purveyors of outdoor life. However, according to Keller, the bike industry still lags woefully behind.
“In terms of media representation, the bike industry still has a way to go. Overall, it’s an exciting time to be a part of the outdoor recreation industry overall,” she enthused.
“These conversations that are starting to happen, while they should have happened years ago, have, I feel, brought a fresh breath of perspective to things. I hope all of this helps shape the narrative for years to come,” Keller finished.
Life of Pie
Zeuner and Keller’s mountain biking and adventures in pizzeria ownership caught the attention of two “out of town regulars”, filmmakers Ben Knight and Travis Rummel, who had witnessed the transformation of Fruita over the years.
Customers at Hot Tomato since 2005/06, the duo approached Zeuner and Keller about making a mountain bike film for outdoor retailer Patagonia in the spring of 2018.
Knight and Rummel had correctly deduced that the story of Hot Tomato, its founders, and their relationship to the Fruita mountain biking scene would be the perfect complement to the re-launching of Patagonia’s line of mountain bike apparel in its latest catalog. Filming the duo began in spring 2018 and wrapped up in fall 2019.
Despite the initial concerns Zeuner and Keller had that Life of Pie is not a typical bike narrative, they were thrilled when Patagonia gave them the green light to film. In fact they were surprised to see that their relationship played a central role in the film.
Life of Pie was a 2019 Five Point Adventure Film Festival winner, in the Pure Joy and People’ Choice categories.
Through their narrative, we see Fruita evolve from small rural town, to mountain bike tourist destination, to a desirable lifestyle community. Screening in Patagonia Denver on June 19, and Patagonia Boulder on June 20, Life of Pie is a must-see for Colorado mountain bike enthusiasts.