The COVID-19 pandemic likely will impact our lives, and our sense of carefree fun, for years. But if there’s a silver lining, the pandemic also has reminded us of the joys of getting outside, and appreciating the blessings that Mother Nature offers. For many of us, that translates to more time on our bikes. And those numbers are increasing.
Bicycle sales during late April 2020 though mid-June saw their biggest spike in the U.S. since the oil crisis of the 1970s, Jay Townley, who analyzes cycling industry trends at Human Powered Solutions, told the Associated Press.
“People, quite frankly, have panicked, and they’re buying bikes like toilet paper,” Townley told the AP last year, referring to the initial rush to buy essentials like toilet paper and hand sanitizer at the beginning of the pandemic.
Joe Minutolo, co-owner of Bar Harbor Bicycle Shop in Maine, told the AP that he hopes the sales surge translates into long-term change.
“People are having a chance to rethink things,” Minutolo said. “Maybe we’ll all learn something out of this, and something really good will happen.”
Something really good, like more people pedaling.
The new kid on the block
Trail builders are typically a busy lot, constantly cutting new routes or improving existing networks. You can see their handiwork at places like the Rochester/Randolph Area Sports Trail Alliance in Vermont; Willowdale State Forest on Boston’s North Shore; Bear Brook State Park in Allenstown, outside of Concord, N.H.; the ever-evolving Friends of Massabesic Bicycling Association on the edge of Manchester, N.H.; and Bradbury Mountain State Park in Pownal, Maine.
However, every now and then, a new destination comes across our fat-tire radar that really captures the imagination. The Green Woodlands Foundation in upstate New Hampshire, near the Vermont border, is exactly that type of place.
Green Woodlands is a multi-generational family organization with the stated goal of “preserving a little piece of nature for many future generations.” Though the foundation’s primary activities are wildlife management and environmental research and education, as well as historical preservation, it also promotes activities that encourage people to get out into the woods. To address the latter, the foundation maintains roughly 70 miles of mountain biking trails, half of which are machine-built singletrack. Most of the property’s doubletrack trails are part of foundation’s cross-country ski network (designed by John Morton of Vermont-based Morton Trails, who designs recreational trail networks around the world).
Riding the multi-use trails that meander though the Green Woodlands property — which incorporates forest land in Lyme, Dorchester, Orford and Wentworth, and features eight remote ponds, including the 160-acre Cummins Pond — is free, and available “at your own risk.” There are no services, in keeping with the “wilderness experience” concept. As an added caveat, riders should know that cell service on the property is practically non-existent. Trail maps can be found on the foundation’s website (greenwoodlands.org).
The Ascutney Outdoors Trails and Outdoors Center in Vermont also deserves special mention. This 30-mile network of mapped and marked mountain bike trails — cut within the former ski slopes of the defunct Mount Ascutney and the adjacent West Windsor Town Forest, plus private lands — is proof that if you have great terrain, mountain bikers (and trailbuilders) will find it. I have a soft spot for Ascutney, which hosted the epic Vermont 50 mountain bike/foot race for years (I completed the race twice, but failed miserably the last time I attempted it). These trails are meticulously designed and routed to guide riders through some of the most beautiful and diverse terrain in New England.
In Vermont’s unparalleled Northeast Kingdom, the Kingdom Trails Association continues to be the gold standard of New England riding, despite a few recent hiccups. Several landowners have pulled their properties from the network, creating some unwelcome detours. But that’s one Sour Patch Kid in a candy store of lip-smacking trails. Three decades ago, John Worth, a native of upstate New York, came to the Kingdom to attend Lyndon State College and never left, becoming part owner of East Burke Sports. An avid mountain biker during the sport’s formative years, he and friends got to work building “stealth” singletrack, and these recreational trails have been an increasingly popular draw over the past quarter-century. When Georgia Gould, a cross-country mountain bike racer and U.S. Olympian who captured a bronze medal at the 2012 London Games, moved back east from Colorado, she chose Burke in large part because of the trail system. “I love living here,” said Gould.
In 2003, the New England Mountain Bike Association made history by outright purchasing a 47-acre parcel some 20 miles west of Boston known as Vietnam in Milford to preserve this mountain bike Shangri-La for generations to come. The riding here is the stuff of legend, due to its technical nature. There are some mellow trails both on NEMBA’s property and in the surrounding 1,000 acres of conservation land, but most people ride Vietnam for the technical, physical and even mental challenge. Don’t worry, though. There are “escape routes” around most of the technical features, but pay attention. The scenery is a constant temptation, but these trails demand your full concentration.
Sugarloaf Resort remains my favorite New England ski mountain, and the mountain biking at the Sugarloaf Outdoor Center and adjacent Maine Huts & Trails continues to climb my annual to-do list. For years, the resort sponsored my ideal race — The Widowmaker — before curiously deciding to abandon on-mountain mountain biking. The town of Carrabassett Valley stepped up, developing a looping, rollercoaster trail network on the west side of Route 16 that mirror much of the cross-country ski network. When Maine Huts & Trails started connecting rail trails and high-end huts on the opposite side of the highway with serpentine singletrack, the region established itself as one of the best mountain biking destinations in the Northeast.
While some longtime riders might object to the inclusion of Highland Mountain Bike Park in Northfield, N.H., as a “classic,” there’s little argument that this former ski hill is a fat-tire dream. Located just 90 minutes north of Boston, Highland boasts more than 20 miles of progressive terrain, including a series of technical trails reminiscent of British Columbia’s famed North Shore, table-top jump lines, and downhill trails with some serious flow. The park draws an interesting crowd of freeriders, but the vibe is always positive. There’s also a kids zone, slalom course and even a dirt halfpipe. For next-level tricks, an air bag also is available at the base area.
In the early 1990s, Sunday River in Newry, Maine, was the first lift-service resort I visited, with my rigid Trek 970 Singletrack and neon-colored Spandex. The bike and the Spandex are long gone, and so is the lift service at Sunday River. I won’t miss the first two, but the loss of mountain biking services at the resort still stings. There still are great trails here and in neighboring Bethel, including some of the best technical singletrack to be found anywhere in the Northeast, but given the elevation gain, they’re better suited to the cardio crowd instead of the adrenaline crew.
Mount Snow in southern Vermont put New England mountain biking on the global map, thanks to playing host to World Cup downhill and cross-country events. These races were a big, big deal back in the day (True story: My brothers, friends and I spent my Bachelor Weekend here during the 1994 World Cup event. For that reason alone, Mount Snow always will be special to me). Sadly, the World Cup has moved on to other venues, and officials have decided not to offer mountain biking services (including lifts and rentals) this summer, in order to concentrate on preparing the resort for next winter. But the sublime trail network at Mount Snow is still open to riders “at your own risk.”
Soon after mountain biking really grabbed the imagination of the pedaling public, ski resorts saw an opportunity to keep their trails open, and their beds filled, year-round. Many also added chairlift-assisted riding, which was a huge boon for the downhilling crowd that was loathe to pedal their heavy, full-suspension rigs up the mountain.
Along with Mount Snow, Killington Resort was another hot spot on the New England race circuit, and the Killington Bike Park remains a popular destination for the freeride set. New England’s fastest-growing downhill mountain bike park, Killington features three high-speed lifts serving 45 miles of trails over five mountain areas and 1,700 vertical feet. As befits the “Beast of the East,” there are three unique areas: Snowshed is home of Killington’s beginner terrain, with plenty of intermediate trails; Ramshead features signature freestyle trails and intermediate and advanced terrain; and Killington Peak serves up classic New England trails featuring plenty of rock and roots off Killington Peak. Keep in mind, advanced purchase of lift tickets is required for non-passholders.
More recently, the Evolution Bike Park at Okemo Ski Resort really has stepped up its lift-assisted game. In addition to the expansion to the summit, which offers longer, steeper and more challenging terrain, the park offers its flow trails, which are accessed from the South Ridge Quad A. The trails from the top of Quad A are flowing descents that move through open terrain and pockets of forest, while rolling across the naturally undulating terrain. These trails were built with progression in mind, allowing novice riders an introduction to true mountain biking, while advanced riders can continue to push the edge.
In the state’s northeast corner, it admittedly still leaves a bad taste in my mouth that Burke Mountain’s outstanding enduro trail system is no longer part of the Kingdom Trails network, due to the selfish actions of Burke’s former owner. But these trails deliver. Readers of MTBparks.com voted Burke one of the top five best regional bike parks in the Northeast. The gravity-fed downhill park and trail system offers riding for all ability levels, from beginner to expert. The network at Burke includes three downhill trails from the summit, with fun, flowing singletrack and machine-excavated flow and jump trails lower on the mountain.
In western Massachusetts, Thunder Mountain Bike Park at Berkshire East Ski Resort is a white-knuckle blast, celebrating the downhill design talents of Gravity Logic. A progression park, Thunder Mountain is ideal for any rider hoping to take his or her game to the next level. If you don’t own a downhill bike (or at least an enduro rig) and protective gear, the park offers rental bikes and equipment in its rental shop (and premium demo trail bikes in the main-floor bike shop).
The Attitash Downhill Mountain Bike Park in Bartlett, N.H., has been a downhill mecca for years. The lift-serviced park offers some of the trickiest terrain in the region, with two high-speed quads providing access to two peaks and a total of 42 downhill trails. Experienced riders can rip a number of technical, hand-cut trails, while the park now offers its first machine-built, novice trail, Route 302. For cross-country fans, the Thorne Pond Trail System has 12 miles of easy to moderate single- and doubletrack terrain along the Saco River.
Four of the latest resorts to join the lift-service parade include Mount Cranmore and Loon Mountain (both in New Hampshire), Mount Abram in Maine and Stratton in Vermont.
Instead of the lung-busting climbs up Hurricane Mountain Road or the superb Red Tail Trail, riders in North Conway, N.H., can now hop aboard Mount Cranmore’s South Quad to sample more than five miles of beginner and intermediate terrain. The system was designed by Chris Lewando of Tyrol Trails, the main trail builder for White Mountains NEMBA, which manages roughly 60 miles of trails in the Mount Washington Valley. Special learn-to-ride packages are available.
Last fall, Loon Mountain opened four new downhill trails, covering more than four miles, designed by the trail-building wizards and Highland Mountain Bike Park. From the forgiving corners and straightaways of Mainline, Loon’s green-circle freeride trail, to the sharp curves and rollers of Bandit, a green-circle technical trail, these grin-inducing trails are ideal for beginners and seasoned riders.
Filling the Maine void created when Sunday River dropped lift-service riding, Mount Abram’s new mountain bike park in Greenwood, 90 minutes north of Portland, offers three downhill trails (with a fourth under construction). Access is provided by the Westside Lift. Rentals and lessons also are available.
The Stratton Mountain Bike Park has unveiled Phase One of its new knobby playground with eight downhill bike trails ranging from beginner to advanced in difficulty. Designed by the Vermont-based firm Sinuosity, the five miles of trail weave together natural terrain and machine-shaped features to create fun, flowing lines. I’m already looking forward to Phase Two.
The rider’s resource manual
Recognizing that it’s just about impossible to highlight all the great New England destinations for pedaling off-road, it’s better to suggest where you can get the best information for your neck of the woods. In the Northeast, there are two great places to find a great place to ride — local bike shops, and the New England Mountain Bike Association.
Bike shops almost always are run, or staffed by, people who ride. They know where the hot spots are, can quickly size up the riding abilities of their customers, and are usually happy to share that “local knowledge.” You may have to work a little harder to find their “secret stashes,” but that’s all part of earning their trust, the same way they need to earn your business.
NEMBA, meanwhile, boasts 30 chapters throughout all six states that will not only be able suggest great places to ride, including a number of lesser-known diamonds, but also will often provide riding partners (find complete lists of chapters and choice riding areas on NEMBA’s website, nemba.org).
We’d be remiss to not mention the Vermont Mountain Bike Association, which has maintained its independence apart from NEMBA. With almost 7,000 members, VMBA has built more than 200 miles of trail since 2012 and maintains more than 1,000 miles of trail. Like NEMBA, VMBA has individual chapters (29 as of now) that can provide uber-informative local beta if you’re coming in from out of town. The website (vmba.org) also offers a cool “Plan Your Ride” feature that helps you narrow your choices. The reality, though, is that the riding in the Green Mountain State is all good.