Mountain bikes have seen ebbs and flows in their popularity since they rolled into the heart of the American recreational mainstream in the 1980s. The same can be said for New England ski resorts, which were quick to initially adopt fat-tire bikes as they branched out into four-season enterprises.
I remember my first chairlift ride at Sunday River in Maine in the early 1990s, with my sweet steel black and neon pink Trek 970 Singletrack hanging off the back. At the time, the lift technology was far superior to trail design or the suspension systems on our bikes. In fact, in those early days, the “suspension” was pretty much non-existent. But the allure of the potential riding that ski resorts offered was impossible to ignore.
Over the next decade, I rode and raced at a number of Northeast resorts, including Sugarloaf in Maine; Temple Mountain, Waterville Valley and Loon in New Hampshire; Nashoba Valley and Jiminy Peak in Massachusetts; and Ascutney, Killington and Mount Snow in Vermont. The highlight was my bachelor party in 1994, which my brother Sean planned to coincide with a World Cup event at Mount Snow. My buddies and I got to cheer on the early heroes of the sport, including Ned Overend, Johnny Tomac, Tinker Juarez, Myles Rockwell, Missy Giove, Juli Furtado, Canada’s Alison Sydor and Italy’s glamorous Paola Pezzo.
Things have changed dramatically during the ensuing quarter century (though, fortunately, I’m still married). Mountain bike design and suspension systems have undergone a quantum evolution, allowing fat-tire fans to tackle even the most daunting terrain. But along the way, ski resort owners found that their infatuation with knobby tires waned. Perhaps it was the cost of operating the lifts or maintaining the trails, without the corresponding (or predictable) number of riders to make the financials work.
That lack of “critical mass,” except for the occasional race weekend, resulted in fewer and fewer resorts offering chairlift-assisted riding in the early 2000s. That was a shame for the downhill crowd, who ride burly, dual-suspension rigs that are ideal on an incline, provided they’re working with (and not against) gravity.
Instead, the majority of riders gravitated to areas like the groundbreaking Kingdom Trails in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom, or Vietnam just west of Boston, or the numerous wooded pockets of trails enhanced by local clubs, most notably the many chapters of the New England Mountain Bike Association (which owns and maintains Vietnam). Other great examples include the Coos Cycling Club, which has joined forces with the Borderlands Trail System to promote and build trail networks across New Hampshire’s Northern Forest region, and Maine Huts & Trails and the trail network surrounding the Sugarloaf Outdoor Center.
Some resorts, like Mount Cranmore in New Hampshire, have partnered with local trail builders and clubs to lead group rides — like the Spring Sender — and open more terrain to mountain bikes.
“We have an extensive network of cross-country trails that can be accessed from our parking lot,” said Benjamin Wilcox, Cranmore’s general manager, who works closely with the White Mountain NEMBA chapter. “Some future trails are in the works, but not yet announced.”
The former Mount Ascutney ski area in Vermont, which has sat in winter limbo since 2010, is home to the Ascutney Trails and Outdoors Center. The nonprofit center, along with an active mountain bike group, the Sports Trails of the Ascutney Basin (or STAB), maintains an extensive 30-mile trail network — best known for the annual Vermont 50 and Gnar Weasels mountain bike races — and hosts events like a Tuesday Night Ride series and the Mount Ascutney Solstice Fest on June 22. The area’s lifts, however, remain dormant.
Still, a number of resorts have stayed true to their original commitment to mountain biking. Places like Attitash in New Hampshire, Killington, Mount Snow and Sunday River continued to offer lift-serviced access. In the last few years, more have come on board, with Vermont’s Burke and Okemo, plus Thunder Mountain at Berkshire East in western Massachusetts, adding some outstanding enduro “flow” trails. Highland Mountain Bike Park, a former ski area in Northfield, N.H., made the leap to full-time dedicated mountain bike park in 2006 and now offers an extensive 15-mile downhill, slopestyle and cross-country trail network, skill-building areas, a 9,100-square-foot indoor training facility, and a 50-by-50-foot “Ayr Bag” for big-air aficionados.
Soon, there will be even more choices for the gravity crowd, as two resorts — Loon Mountain in New Hampshire and Stratton in Vermont — add lift-serviced mountain biking this summer.
This May, Loon broke ground on a multi-phase construction project that will ultimately produce a network of more than 15 miles of downhill mountain biking trails. Once all phases are complete, Loon will offer more than 25 miles of downhill and cross-country biking trails — the largest combined network in the White Mountains.
“We’re starting with beginner and intermediate trails, but we will grow and offer more,” said Jay Scambio, president and general manager of Loon Mountain Resort. “We want to do this right and make Loon a major mountain biking destination for riders of all ages and abilities.”
Designed and built in conjunction with Highland Trails LLC, the new downhill trails will complement Loon’s 10 existing miles of cross-country biking trails. Phase One will consist of five miles of trails, including a green-circle freeride trail, a green-circle technical trail, a blue-square freeride trail and a blue-square technical trail. Lift service will be offered via the Seven Brothers triple chairlift.
It’s an idea that’s long overdue, said Brian Norton, Loon’s VP of operations who oversees all terrain park and mountain bike activities at the nine properties of Loon’s parent company, Boyne Resorts.
“Loon last had lift-serviced mountain biking during the summer of 2002,” said Norton. “The trails were very technical and certainly not for the beginner. We have been toying with the idea of resurrecting the mountain bike program for years.
“It makes total sense,” he said. “We have all the lifts, facilities and employees we need to run a successful mountain bike operation already because of our winter ski business. We began the permitting and planning process almost two years ago. It’s been a long road to this point, but we couldn’t be any more excited to get started.
Norton readily admits that Loon’s approach to mountain biking has changed dramatically in recent years.
“Unlike the old days of mountain biking at Loon, we’ve taken a totally different approach in designing the new trail network,” he said. “First, we recognized what works for our winter business will work for summer. We want a network that caters to all levels of mountain bikers, from the families who have never been before to the aggressive avid full-time riders.
“Much like a winter ski resort wouldn’t make snow on their double black diamond trail before they make snow on their beginner and intermediate trails, we plan to start building with our entry-level terrain,” said Norton. “We can only build so many feet of trail in each phase of the construction process, so we wanted to get the most out of our efforts along the way. Everyone can ride the wide-open rolling green and blue terrain, so why not start there?”
Loon plans to open its first phase of trails to guests this fall. In subsequent phases, the resort plans to build freeride and technical trails for more advanced riders and add bike rentals and lessons, a bike shop, a learn-to-ride area and lift service via the Kancamagus Express Quad. All the work will be done in conjunction with federal officials.
“The majority of our trail network will be on national forest lands. The team at the White Mountain National Forest is very knowledgeable and has been a great partner to us throughout our planning,” said Norton. “We have meticulously taken every necessary step to make sure we are not impacting the land negatively while creating a new experience for our resort guests within the White Mountain National Forest.”
Stratton’s new lift-serviced mountain biking network is slated to open to the public in early August, pending permit approvals. Serviced by the American Express six-passenger lift to mid-mountain, the terrain will be family-friendly, offering more than four miles of beginner, intermediate and progression trails.
According to Tony Bailey, Stratton’s seasonal program manager, a team was formed in the spring of 2016 to create a mountain biking proposal that was presented to the resort’s parent company, Alterra, in Colorado.
“That spring we sent out surveys to our pass holders and homeowners to see what summer activities they would be interested in participating in. Mountain biking was the winner by quite a lot,” said Bailey. “We also contacted the Vermont-based trail building company Sinuosity to have them submit a rough draft of what mountain biking could look like at Stratton.”
During the summer of 2018, Sinuosity trail builders flagged and mapped all of the trails. Once that work was completed, Stratton partnered with the regulatory community to reduce the overall impact of the trails, said Bailey.
“Extensive walk-throughs resulted in some slight tweaks to our trail design, and then we submitted our request for the necessary permits,” said Bailey in May. “We are three-quarters of the way through our permitting process, and we hope to get approval and start construction in June.”
Like Loon, Stratton plans to offer a variety of terrain that will appeal to riders of all ability levels.
“We will building rougher black diamond trials in addition to some of our flowy blue and green trails,” said Bailey. “On our trails, we’ll have different line options, meaning that you may go down a blue flow trail but there will be signed options to hit a jump or drop along the way. This allows riders to build up their skills without having to commit to riding trails that may be more challenging than what they’re ready for.”
Similar to the Okemo trail system, progression is a primary focus for Stratton in both the winter and summer time, said Bailey.
“As a manager in the Mountain Sports School in the winter, I can say that our goal is for Stratton to be the place people choose when they are learning to ski or snowboard and/or when they’re looking to take their skills to the next level,” he said. “Our focus will be the same for mountain biking.
“We’ll offer lessons, camps, special events, et cetera, to introduce new riders to the sport and help those that have been riding for a while accomplish their goals,” said Bailey. “In addition to the lessons we will offer, we will have areas near the base area where families can practice skills in a safer, more controlled environment.”
Jeffrey Cavagnino, Stratton’s environmental and safety manager, said working closely with a reputable trail-building firm like Sinuosity will ensure that the trails are properly drained, leading to a longer riding season and a more dependable trail system.
Stratton’s “grand plan,” said Bailey, is made up of six phases. The first three phrases will result in roughly 12 miles of trail, including a pump track and skills park near the base area, all accessed from the American Express chairlift. That has Cavagnino salivating.
“I cant wait to get out there with my boys — 5 and 9 — and enjoy another sport with them like we do skiing,” said Cavagnino. “I love watching them be able to progress to new terrain in the winter and now I will be able to do that year round with them.”
By doing that, Cavagnino and Stratton are helping to nurture the next generation of mountain bikers. What could be better?