The Grand Valley Beckons
by Jesse James McTigue
Sep 27, 2012 | 8732 views | 0 0 comments | 13 13 recommendations | email to a friend | print
A REGULAR RIDE –  ‘Cycling played a lot in our decision’ to settle in Grand Junction, says former pro cyclist Scott Mercier, stopping to take in the 
view as he heads up National Monument.  (Photo by Brett Schreckengost)
A REGULAR RIDE –  ‘Cycling played a lot in our decision’ to settle in Grand Junction, says former pro cyclist Scott Mercier, stopping to take in the view as he heads up National Monument. (Photo by Brett Schreckengost)
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IN THE SADDLE – Zeuner on a favorite single-track ride, near Fruita. (Photo by Anne Keller)
IN THE SADDLE – Zeuner on a favorite single-track ride, near Fruita. (Photo by Anne Keller)
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Anne Keller and Jen Zeuner on the job, at the Hot Tomato (top, courtesy photo).
Anne Keller and Jen Zeuner on the job, at the Hot Tomato (top, courtesy photo).
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Scott Mercier’s United States Postal Service collector’s card.
Scott Mercier’s United States Postal Service collector’s card.
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Josh Niernberg in his pro days (courtesy photo)
Josh Niernberg in his pro days (courtesy photo)
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Josh Niernberg today, on the job at Bin 707. (Photo by Brett Schreckengost)
Josh Niernberg today, on the job at Bin 707. (Photo by Brett Schreckengost)
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I now appreciate Grand Junction.

As a kid, I only went there when I needed something – the orthodontist, the Mesa Mall and the airport.

As an adult, I went to give birth. My Junction goal became very simple: successfully complete the two-hour, forty-five minute drive from my home in Telluride to St. Mary’s Hospital without having a child somewhere between Delta and Whitewater in the back of the car.

I never thought of hip wine bars, groovy pizza joints, world-class mountain biking, scenic road riding and easy-to-get-to alpine skiing.

Yet that is the Junction that I’ve now found.

With all the Grand Valley has to offer, it’s no surprise that there are many who discovered the jewels of Junction long before me.

And it’s no surprise that some who call the Grand Valley home are retired professional athletes, like snowboarder Josh Niernberg, mountain biker Jen Zeuner and road cyclist Scott Mercier.

All three rave about the lifestyle, and all three are contributing to make the Grand Valley even grander. 

From the Olympics to Grand Mesa

Former professional and Olympic cyclist, Scott Mercier is a calculating guy. He went to the University of California-Berkeley, and then made a career as a professional cyclist, riding for the United States Postal Service and Saturn teams, as well as competing in the 1988 Barcelona Olympics. He is known for his hard work, determination and talent.

Yet, in 2000, a few years after the end of his cycling career, he followed a suggestion from his free-spirited little brother that he consider moving to Junction.

“Blake told me I had to check out Junction,” recalled Mercier, who was by then married, with a baby daughter. “And when we got there, we thought, ‘This is really cool.’”

Having grown up in Telluride, Mercier was looking for something bigger, but knew he didn’t want to live in a big city, and that he was tired of long winters. Junction fit the bill. Today he and his family of four – his wife and two kids ages 13 and  9 – still love it.

Initially, Mercier said he was impressed with the Colorado National Monument, a butte of red rock that anchors Grand Junction’s western side. Wind and water have intricately carved away its center, forming a canyon full of rock spires and smooth amphitheater walls. One favorite ride follows a paved road that winds its way up one side along the canyon rim, and down the other side – a perfect road for cycling.

Mercier lives at the base of the Monument, and together with his wife has ridden to the top every month for 20 months – a testament to Junction’s year-round mild temperatures.

“Cycling played a lot in our decision,” Mercier said about the couple’s choice to settle in Grand Junction 12 years ago. “I just love riding my bike.

“When I left cycling” at the pro level, he said, “I didn’t envision I would get back and involved like I have been.”

Besides riding the Monument, Mercier participates in regular Tuesday and Thursday rides around Fruita’s farmland that sound more like hammer fests than friendly get-togethers. But on a more formal level, Mercier is active in Grand Junction’s campaign for a spot as a future host city in the U.S. Pro Cycling Challenge, and in raising money for Colorado Mesa University’s Cycling Team – a program he credits for the growth of the area’s cycling scene. The University’s Division II men’s team has won national championship titles for the last two years, and with the recent hire of Rick Crawford – former coach of Tom Danielson, the top American finisher in last year’s Tour De France – to lead the program, Mercier is excited about its future.

As far as his own cycling career, the former Olympian is busy entering a few mountain- bike races. The stakes are high – he’s bet a bottle of tequila on an upcoming race. He claims he’s better off staying clear of road races, and sticking to mountain-bike racing. On the road, he explains, he’ll get too competitive.  

“I don’t compete on the road very much, because I start getting mad, and I get way too out of balance,” Mercier said.  “The beautiful thing about Junction is most people have a really good work-life balance.”

Then he added, “Junction’s awesome; you guys should move here.”

Hot Tomato

Just a few miles west of Grand Junction is Fruita, home to some of the most sought-after single track in the nation, transforming what once was a typical agriculture town into a popular mountain-biking hub. So it makes sense that the town’s hottest gathering spot, aptly named Hot Tomato, is co-owned by former professional World Cup mountain biker Jen Zeuner.

Hot Tomato, best known for its pizza, salads and cold beers, is as down to earth as its owners, Zeuner and business partner Anne Keller. Its orange walls are decorated with framed cover shots from Bike Magazine taken by Keller, who is also a professioal photographer. Old bike cranks, brake parts and chains are inlaid into the tabletops as if announcing their purpose – to serve hungry cyclists. And, standing in the middle of the open kitchen, steadfastly churning pizza dough, is Charlotte – the 1967 Hobart professional floor mixer that Zeuner and Keller proudly painted  pink.

Zeuner seems to feed off the restaurant’s energy and her brown eyes dart playfully as she talks about two things she loves: pizza and mountain biking.

Yet even when she’s talking about biking and ’za, it’s hard for Zeuner to sit still. She’s used to being a part of the action. In fact, it was Zeuner who bussed my table the night before and ran around delivering beers. And it’s hard for her to complete a sentence, with customers continually approaching for a hug or quick hello. One asks what brand of vinegar is used for the house Balsamic; another, the restaurant’s architect, wants to catch up after finishing a ride.

Zeuner proudly sports a pink T-shirt with New Jersey Is for Pizza Lovers written across it. Jersey, she explains, is where she grew up and had her first experiences with both cycling and pizza. Zeuner’s dad owned a bike shop, coincidentally located next to Tony’s Pizzeria, so she grew up riding BMX bikes and bussing tables at Tony’s.

“I wanted the money for the pinball machines,” she recalls. “I’d bet the guys, being from Jersey.”

Zeuner headed west after high school, with the same daredevil attitude and willingness to take chances that defined her childhood. Her experience on BMX bikes led easily to mountain biking, and after a stint working for GT bikes, in St. Louis, Mo., she continued further west to pursue mountain-bike racing.  From 1993 to 1998 she raced nationally and in World Cups, focusing primarily on downhill and slalom.

“The awesome thing for all of us, at that time, was the camaraderie between the athletes,” Zeuner said. “There wasn’t a lot of money or big sponsors – it was about being a part of this niche family.”

Zeuner’s last World Championship races were in 1998, after which she wasn’t quite sure what to do. Like so many professional athletes, she found the transition to civilian life difficult.

“I quit racing, and asked, ‘Do I move home?’” she recalled. “I was in my early 30s – no job, no degree. I didn’t know anything but riding bikes and traveling.”

And pizza.

Zeuner bounced from Durango to Moab, working for UPS and then at a pizza shop. In 2002, she moved to Fruita because she had heard about the riding, and because an opportunity arose to work as the general manger at Over the Edge, the town’s bike shop. Zeuner recalls hungry bikers coming to the shop for gear and information, always inquiring where they could go to eat.

“They asked for something good,” Zeuner said.

Zeuner started sharing space with the then-owner of the local pizza joint, making baked goods and breakfast. Slowly, she began discussions about partnering in the business, but as the talks progressed, she realized she could run the show. The owner agreed, and sold her the business.

She began the first year as the only employee, and was excited to hit $300 in a day. Now, seven years later, with Keller as her business partner, the two have 18 employees buzzing around wearing black T-shirts enscribed with Pizza King or Pizza Queen, serving pizza, salads and calzones (which Zeuner affectionately refers to as “hunks of love”). The two are currently working on franchising.

With Hot Tomato, it seems Zeuner has created that same camaraderie and family niche that she longed for after her professional bike-racing career. But to be a part of this team, you don’t have to ride as fast as she did in her day, you just have to love Fruita single track – and pizza.

Snowboard-cross and Cuisine

Josh Niernberg, a retired professional snowboard-cross athlete, moved to Junction from Denver in 2007. Originally, Niernberg and his wife were drawn to the area because it was where she grew up, and there was an opportunity for him to manage a high-end steakhouse called Bin 707 Food and Wine. Having worked at different restaurants during his snowboard career and, most recently, while finishing his degree in Denver, it seemed like a natural transition.

The two made the move, and by 2010, Niernberg had the opportunity to buy the restaurant and  move it from the commercial district near the Mesa Mall to a quaint, pedestrian-friendly area a few blocks from the heart of Junction’s historic downtown.

“The location was good, and it had potential, but it required so much work,” Niernberg recalled. “So with my stepfather as an architect, my mom as an interior designer, my father-in-law as an attorney, my brother-in-law as the general contractor, and my wife as the realtor, we made it happen!”

Last year, Niernberg opened Bin 707 Foodbar.

Sitting in his contemporary yet intimate bistro-inspired restaurant, Niernberg is in his element. There’s a busy hum in the semi-open kitchen behind him; in the restaurant itself, colorful chalkboards display the day’s menu alongside original art and framed rock’n’roll posters. A beautiful copper-topped bar gleams in the front of the house.

Reflecting on what he has created, Niernberg observes that lessons learned during his days as a professional snowboarder have contributed to his success as a restaurant owner.

As a child, Niernberg was attracted to both ski racing and snowboarding – ski racing for its precision, speed and discipline, snowboarding for its freestyle spirit. Then he found boardercross, a hybrid he believes combines the best of both sports. After his first competition, at 18, Niernberg was hooked. He spent the next 12 years competing.

Niernberg agrees that it is this mix of discipline and freestyle that defines his approach in the kitchen. While his technique is rooted in classic French cooking, he prides himself on reinterpreting the classics. He serves “local American cuisine,” and relies on fresh ingredients and always having something new for regulars to experience, each time they visit.  

“Creativity is kind of how we do it here,” he said. “If someone walks in the door with a case of tomatoes that looks good, we’re going to take them.”

That open approach, combined with the determination of a professional athlete, is working. In just one year, Bin 707 has succeeded in not only becoming a hip go-to eatery for Junction folks ages 25 to 60, but in drawing a diverse employee group of athletes, musicians, artists and designers, as well. It all comes together to make Bin 707 a great place to work and a great place eat at, regularly.

As a restaurant owner, Niernberg believes, supporting his employees in their endeavors is important, because, he recalls, it was employers – like he is, today – who helped him during his athletic career.

“I had a couple employers who I worked for on and off for six or seven years,” he recalled. “I’d leave for six months and still have a job when I got back – it was huge to have that support.”

At Bin 707, he is paying back the favor and then some. He points to a framed music poster on the wall and explains one of his “guys” is an artist and a musician. He is referring to employee Andrew Watson, a member of The Heavy Drags, a local band, and owner of a print business, Press Gang Design, as well.

Another server was on the popular reality show, Project Runway. “She’s in Denver right now showing her collection at an Yves St. Laurent opening,” Niernberg said.

He also mentions Telluride Ski Patroller and former extreme skier Lindsey McIntyre (whom he endearingly refers to as L-Mac and LinZ), who worked at Bin 707 for five months while  in Junction, rehabbing an injured knee.

Niernberg loves the diverse cast of characters and customers Bin 707 attracts, and the dimension

they add to the culture of the restaurant.

He also realizes that the Grand Valley, with its access to the outdoors, is what attracts them. The valley affords his customers ample opportunity to play; and he knows the perfect place they can go to celebrate, afterwards.
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