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New School Singletrack in the Green Mountain State

Blood Sweat and Gears: Part 2

Story by Max Ritter

Arriving in Vermont was really nothing special: an easy flight to Burlington followed by a two-hour cab ride with some hot cider in hand, heading South as darkness enveloped the mountains. I catch glimpses of old-looking towns complete with church towers, covered bridges, classic storefronts, and loads of recent-looking renovations and improvements. My shuttle driver tells me about all the new state-sponsored infrastructure and improvements along the way since Hurricane Irene and the subsequent rainfall damaged a large portion of the area in 2011.  Much of it looks like the classic New England scene I was familiar with from growing up in New York. However, something about driving through Vermont feels different, and my inquiries were quickly answered with a simple statement. 

No billboards. 

Classic Vermont views. | Grant Wieler photo.

A landmark 1968 law abolished the use of billboard advertising throughout the state, cementing a legacy of stewardship and responsible development. Vermont looks pretty for a reason.

So what does any of that have to do with mountain biking? Simply put, Vermont’s approach to land use, and a unique sense of preserving community on an ultra-local level has transformed the state into a rapidly-expanding haven for all things two-wheeled. Enter the Vermont Mountain Biking Association, VMBA for short, a state-wide organization that does the dirty work for local mountain biking groups, so they can focus on things like building trails, hosting events, and actually riding their bikes. On a week-long trip through the Green Mountains, following the vein that is State Highway 100 north from Killington to Stowe, I get to know both a colorful group of VMBA community members that are pushing the development of the sport and the trails they call home.

A Bike Park With A Clear Future

When most mountain bikers think of lift-served riding, huge western resorts like Whistler, Northstar or Trestle, come to mind. Tucked at the southern end of the Green Mountains, Killington aims to change that. Touted as the biggest ski area on the East Coast, the mountain resort certainly has enough terrain and acreage for a world-class bike park, but even a place as popular as Killington needs more than just acreage to become a real player in the adrenaline-charged microcosm of lift-served bike parks.

Killington's bike park already has a long and storied history, but looking to the future and innovating wherever possible is still the name of the game. Local Alex Showerman chases his dreams. | Grant Wieler photo.

Killington first opened its chairlifts to mountain bikes 27 years ago, when the sport was experiencing its first real renaissance. Technology had finally evolved to a point where riders were actively seeking out terrain like that accessible from the top of a ski resort, and Killington was an early adopter of the trend. When other ski areas tried and failed for one reason or another to create a mountain bike scene, the resort kept pushing, and the success of their efforts lies clearly in the rocks and dirt.

Already famous for its endless rock gardens and absurdly technical trails with lines that take several tries for even the best of riders to successfully navigate, Killington saw the need to embrace the future of the sport: families and beginner/intermediate riders. What better way to push into this new world than hiring the team that built Whistler Bike Park? However, when Gravity Logic came onboard in 2012, the company presented Killington with a master plan that raised some eyebrows. The trails Killington was known for at the time ran off the top of the K1 Gondola, and Gravity Logic felt summit access no longer fit into their plan.

Sampling some of that perfect Fall tacky dirt. | Grant Wieler photo.

“Their initial goal was to create a beginner product on Snowshed and an intermediate and advanced product on Ramshead. Both were new locations at the time for bikes and would also require running two more lifts in addition to the gondola. These areas had the style of terrain that Gravity Logic liked, but the K1 Gondola is old school and it is hard for us to work on that zone because of restrictions with the land. However, we would run the gondola either way because of foot traffic and since it serves fun, technical riding, we found a compromise and kept our local gem,” says Ben Colona, Killington’s Bike Park Manager. Colona is also president of the Killington Mountain Bike Club, the local VMBA chapter, knows the park trails like the back of his hand, and was kind enough to take a day out of the office to show us around and tow us into some puckeringly-huge features.

The resort is heavily invested in the future, with constant trail construction pushing on under guidance of Gravity Logic, and further development of necessary infrastructure to support riders and other guests. The biggest long-term goal right now? Focusing on events like the US Open of MTB and eventually aiming to host a stop of the Crankworx World Tour.

Rainy East Coast Gnar and a Community of Many Talents

After a full day of blasting lift-access laps, nursing sore bodies and hands with a hot tub and some cans of tasty Vermont brews, we wake up the next morning to the pit-pat of rain on the windows of our hotel. Monitoring the weather forecast, our crew reckons we could at least squeeze in a morning ride before it really started coming down.

We pack up the cars and drive a few miles north to our first stop: Waitsfield and the Mad River Valley. With a handful of trail options to choose from, we link up with John Atkinson, the Executive Director of the local VMBA chapter: The Mad River Riders, and head into the woods.

Easily mistaken for the PNW in the rain, the Mad River Valley has everything a rider needs, and is home to some of VMBA's textbook trails. | Grant Wieler photo.

Atkinson leads us through the maze of trails that is the Tucker Hill network, egging us on to hit classic features like mini rock rolls and hidden ladder drops. Tucker Hill does not have much elevation change, and the trails are built with that in mind. “Here, we call it down-climbing,” says Atkinson, referring to the fact that even the technical downhill trails require a healthy amount of pedaling to clear features. Keeping speed up is a challenge and these trails will keep even the most experienced riders honest. Even though there is little vert, a full morning of riding leaves us feeling beat up and smiling.

As a trailbuilder, rider, and leader in the local community, Atkinson understands that in order for a trail network to be successful, it must cater to all riding abilities. With that in mind, the Mad River Trails are built specifically with an eye toward progression. “After our last chapter meeting, I can truthfully say that we have trails that serve people from age 2 through 80,” he explains. The trails are in fact some of the most-used in the state. Since 2005, the local VMBA chapter has grown tenfold, from 35-350 active paying members.

By early afternoon, we are forced to cut our day’s ride short thanks to continuing downpours, and head into Lawson’s Finest Liquids, who were putting finishing touches on a brand-new brewing facility. We had been steadily sampling their beers like Sip of Sunshine and Super Session #8 since arriving in Vermont, and seeing the brewery explains everything. In true fashion, the company was started as a homebrew collective among friends, including Atkinson himself, and has slowly refined their recipes staying true to a classic style. The new facility was designed with the local mountain bike community in mind, built a short ride from Tucker Hill and several other local trail networks. Its success lies directly in the hands of the mountain bikers.

Some of the VMBA masterminds. From left to right: RASTA President Angus McCusker, VMBA Executive Director Tom Stuessy, and Mad River Riders Executive Director John Atkinson | Grant Wieler photos.

"Waterbury and the Mad River area were saved by mountain biking and brought back to life by beer," explains Atkinson. With the expansion of local trails, people started biking there and it suddenly became cool to live in the area, and interest in a re-invented Waterbury quickly spilled over south into the Mad River area. 

The expansion of local trails and subsequent economic boom can be traced to one key development. In 2013 the development of the local Blueberry Lake trails was made possible through the buyback of land parcels from a private landowner by the US Forest Service. It became the first mountain bike trail network on federal land in Vermont, starting a trend statewide that spread to New Hampshire and New York’s Adirondacks. These days, it’s the busiest network in the area, largely because it is extremely beginner-friendly.

A second aspect of the development lies in looking past the old-school mentality that skiing was all Vermont had. Two local resorts, Mad River Glen and Sugarbush, lie a short drive away, but thanks to low snowfall in recent years, the whole area has been forced to look beyond winter. "We are very winter focused in the Mad River Valley, so it's good to focus on the other 6-7 months of the year," says Atkinson. The entire state’s tourism economy has shifted a focus past skiing, catering to growing summer and fall crowds that flock to the singletrack.

Highlighting the fact that the local community is one of many talents, the brewery’s founder Sean Lawson sees opportunity in that newfound audience. However, as a trained naturalist who started the naturalist program at Mad River Glen, he knows that development must move forward responsibly. Too much, too quickly, will upset that fine balance with the environment the local economy relies on.

Cloudy Skies and a Not-So-Secret Gem

The next morning the rain finally clears, setting the stage for the best riding of the trip: Waterbury’s Perry Hill and Little River State Park. Eagerly, we load into our vehicles and drive North yet again, parking at an unassuming dirt lot off the side of Highway 100 next to the Winooski River. A doubletrack trail crosses some train tracks and ducks beneath Interstate 89 before heading a steep hill into the woods. One after another, we encounter berms and perfectly sculpted roller features on the doubletrack, and before long we have gained a few hundred feet in elevation. I make a mental note as to which ones seem send-able for our descent later.

Out of the darkness into the light. | Grant Wieler photo.

Our first lap takes us down the ultra-classic linkup connecting Burning Spear to Rastaman. Rastaman is a deep dive into East Coast technical riding, linking half a dozen steep rock rolls with endless root sections. The terrain at Perry Hill is starkly different than what we saw in the Mad River Valley; it’s steeper, rockier, and with dense mossy forests, reminiscent of the Pacific Northwest. Rastaman kicks my ass, and excitedly we pedal back up for another lap, this time opting to drop into Joe’s Trail, yet another two-mile linkup of various rock slabs in the woods. Halfway down, we abruptly make a left at a sign that points to “Joe’s OG,” leading us down a 45-degree chute littered with rocks and roots and unlike anything I have ever ridden before. It’s awesome.

With sore hands and a few cuts and bruises, we head in for a lunch of pancakes and maple syrup (it’s Vermont, remember) before unloading again at Little River State Park on the back side of Bolton Valley Ski Area. Little River features a unique figure-8 trail loop that allows two different uptracks for the same rowdy descent.

Speaking of the descent, we’re dealing with one of Vermont’s best trailbuilders here. In the nationwide directory of trailbuilding masterminds, Vermont’s Knight Ide easily ranks in the top ten. He’s the one behind a good deal of famous trails on the East Coast, and they all have one thing in common: find your speed and your wheels will be in the air more than on the ground. An effort that made headlines in the action sports world was his rebuild of a trail in Burke featured in a recent Richie Rude video.

Roots and rocks for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. | Grant Wieler photos.

At Little River, that rule about airtime holds true. We drop into Hillfarmer (which Ide designed with help from fellow local Brooke Scatchard), and it’s truly a no-pedal-no-brakes style flow trail. Every bump, every compression, and every berm can be used to gain and control speed. It starts off with winding berms and perfect doubles through tight trees, progressing into ever-bigger features, including a rocky step-down into a triple set of tables that will remain forever seared into my mind. The trail was clearly built by a master.

Waterbury’s local VMBA chapter, the Waterbury Area Trail Alliance (WATA) works the same way as the other groups we’ve encountered so far. Their overarching mission is simple: empower local communities through mountain biking, and steward the land they use every day. That work mostly includes regular trail work days during the warmer months, to make sure the trails are rideable as many days out of the year as possible.

That night, after more rain moves in, we sit around a large communal table at a local Waterbury watering hole, the Blackback Pub. Just like Lawson’s, this particular cozy haunt also caters directly to the mountain bike crowd. Digging into a massive bowl of pulled pork mac and cheese, we hear more local stories about how bikes have impacted the local economy. Blackback’s owner Dave saw an opportunity and welcomed riders with open arms. “It’s not just locals who ride here,” he says, “on weekends we’ll get visits from riders all the way from Quebec to ride Perry Hill and enjoy some post-ride beer at the pub.” Just like Atkinson mentioned at Lawson’s the night before, mountain biking truly resurrected Waterbury. It’s now obvious that beer and the explosion of local craft brewers helped too.

Where does the manpower come from to actually build and maintain trails? The same riders that enjoy ripping through the woods. | Lauren Beeman photo.

“I can always tell when the riding conditions are good,” jokes Dave, “a solid ring of dirt forms around each bar stool by the end of the night.”

The Long-Term Forecast

On my final day of riding in Vermont, our group heads North yet again into the hills around Stowe. While Stowe is often regarded as more of a resort town akin to Vail or Aspen, a vibrant local community core remains strong. That morning, we head up through local favorite Cady Hill to ride a loop at the Trapp Family Lodge with an obligatory pit stop at the Trapp Bierhall, an Austrian-style brewpub smack in the middle of the 2600-acre network.

After riding for three days straight, the pace slows down slightly and we get to enjoy sunny views of Mt. Mansfield. The day’s conversation turns to the topic of “what’s next?” Over the past 72 hours, I have experienced a mountain bike-focused community unlike any I have seen before, and it turns out the work isn’t even close to over.

Tom Stuessy, VBMA’s executive director, sums up the rough plan for the next few years in one word: connectivity. “Through VBMA’s work over the last half-decade or so we have all these phenomenal local trail networks, but we want to take it a step further and see how many of these networks we can connect with rideable singletrack,” he says.

One of the many possible hut locations along the Velomont trail, Trapp's upper cabin is the perfect stop in the woods. | Grant Wieler photo.

Vermont already has a long-distance hiking trail, the famed Long Trail, but through work with individual chapters, VMBA has plans to start building mountain bike route following our footsteps from Killington all the way here to Stowe. The Velomont trail, as Stuessy and RASTA’s (the Rochester/Randolph Area Sports Trail Alliance – a local VMBA chapter) Angus McCusker tell us, will run along the backbone of the Green Mountain range and link six VMBA chapters on the way.

The trail will include 85 new miles of multiuse singletrack, aimed at advanced riders looking for long but accessible days in the mountains. Along the way, the Vermont Huts Association (close friends of VMBA) plans to finish construction of network of up to a dozen huts to serve both winter and summer visitors. Velomont would cross a combination of USFS, State, and private land, and VMBA is looking to form a new model for land-use.

“We get calls from all across the country asking ‘how the hell did you guys do that’,” says Stuessy. He thinks it’s likely thanks to the way Vermont government works, “Our statewide focus is broad enough, but representation is key. Vermont’s local legislators are pretty accessible, but I can’t really imagine doing this on a bigger level.” The larger VMBA organization is designed to help the smaller local chapters succeed, and only through work on small levels can a larger project like Velomont actually come to fruition.

That model seems to have worked so far, and the locals are excited as to where it will elevate mountain biking in the state.

Vermont's gates have opened for mountain biking, and the locals would like you embrace it. | Grant Wieler photo.

Since 2012, when the statewide member model was put in place, a total of 28 unified chapters have signed on with the same vision. In their words: “To inspire a Vermont filled with individuals reinvigorated by the beauty and challenges found in natural places in a manner that promotes community, ecological awareness and transcends the distractions of our time.”