Vermont Mountain Bike Festival at Sugarbush

[Also on MTBVT.com with some extra photos.]

Every few years, VMBA moves the Vermont Mountain Bike Festival to a new location highlight the riding in different parts of the state.  After three years at Ascutney, the Mt. Ellen ski resort became home for the festival with the Mad River Riders chapter hosting.  Since my first time attending several years ago, this festival has become one of the highlights of my summer.  The riding and laid back vibe of the whole thing is just awesome.

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I haven’t ridden in the Mad River valley in over 20 years.  It used to be a regular thing for me back in the mid-90s when we were all poaching single-track under the radar.  That is, until some things went south with a couple of land owners… but that is the reason why VMBA and the many chapters around the state exist.  Cooperation between riders, trail builders and the land owners.  Regardless, I certainly wasn’t going to pass up a chance to return to take in some of that great terrain.

When I arrived late Friday afternoon the parking and camping areas were already filling up.  For whatever reason, there were already more people here than I saw in previous years.  I quickly picked out a spot to camp for the night and headed up the hill to register for the weekend.  They even had some very cool new T-shirts for the event this year.

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A full schedule for the weekend.

Once registered, I organized my stuff a bit and then connected with fellow Kingdom “fast old guy” Derek for a quick evening ride.    We pedaled up German Flats Road and jumped onto the trails to follow the well-marked demo loop.  It was the perfect length for an evening ride.  With the warm, humid weather I worked up a light sweat before we left the pavement.  On the trail, I was quickly reminded how good the rooty, rocky single-track in the valley is.  We had a nice undulating ride down Sugar Run and Catamount.  After carving through some switchbacks, we dropped out onto German Flats Road.  From there, we climbed back up to the Mt. Ellen base lodge area.  A nice end to my day and a great start to the weekend.

Riding always brings out my appetite unlike anything else.  I embarked on a quest for food before returning to set up my camp site.  In the end, I settled down in my hammock to watch the sky light up with the arcs from a line of thunderstorms passing just to our north.  The show was awesome and I drifted off… until I was awaken by the rumble of a much closer oncoming storm.  I quickly rolled up my sleeping bag and made a mad dash for the car just seconds before the deluge unleashed.  I hid out there for about an hour until the storm had passed.

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Post storm quiet.

All of the nasty weather had cleared out by Saturday morning and everyone seemed ready to ride.  After a pancake breakfast (with real syrup), I was also itching for some single-track.  I waffled a little between the “epic” ride and the “classics” but  I ended up taking the option for more distance.  There would be no shuttle bus ride on this one.  We rode down to the trailhead just below the access road and started climbing up the stuff I had descended the previous night.  Then we climbed some more.  After that, we really got into climbing.  It was really fun stuff in spite of all the vertical gain.  The Mad River Valley has some of the most interesting and technically challenging terrain of any place I’ve ridden.  I never tire of it.

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Signing up for rides.

With the climb up Techie behind us, the group descended Maple Twist followed by Enchanted Forest.  We looped around on several more trails in that area:  Cyclone Connector, Clinic, GS and probably some others.  There was so much good riding that it is nearly impossible to describe adequately.  There was tight stuff, wet, mossy ledge, rock drops, roots – an almost constant challenge every where we rode.  It has to be ridden to truly appreciated.    Our group held together pretty well through all this.  We finished out our time on this side of the valley with a long descent down Cyclone and Revolution to Lareau Farm.

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The shuttles were popular for avoiding the two mile climb back up the road to the festival.

At the farm we regrouped and topped off our water supply for the remainder of the ride.  We also had a handful opt for the shuttle ride back up to the base lodge.  The rest of our group continued on.

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Me.

We rode along the river path and through the village to Center Fayston Road.  As we turned onto the dirt road one, of the ride leaders informed us that we’d be climbing for about 20 minutes.  He wasn’t kidding.  We climbed up Gumball and Old Center Fayston back to the road.  At this point, I was starting to feel a little bit shaky.  I had been questioning whether or not I had eaten enough for the ride, and it was becoming apparent that I hadn’t.  I peeled off from the group and rode back down into town retracing our path back to Lareau Farm.  Riding 20+ miles in this part of the state is nothing like the same mileage at Kingdom Trails.  It felt like twice the distance.

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A brief, but intense evening shower made things interesting.

After a post-ride jump in the river and change of clothes, it felt good to be clean and dry again.  Saturday evening always has a fun agenda at the VMBA festival, starting with the BBQ.  As people were starting to gather, another storm was imminent with dark clouds rolling over the tops of the mountains.  I had never seen a faster breakdown of the vendor tents at any event.  Only a handful were battling the strong wind gusts that preceded the rain.  There were several rides still out on the trails and the folks had some interesting stories to tell when they returned.  The BBQ was moved inside the base lodge which seemed to work out pretty well.  Fortunately, the storm cleared out just as most had finished eating.  The evening “bike olympics” and other games went on as planned.

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Bike Olympics
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Crash and burn on a 12″ bike.

Sunday was another beautiful day.  There were still quite a few guided rides available, but I was able to connect with my friend Dave for our own tour. He made a point of getting me out on some of the trails that I missed on Saturday.  We climbed up German Flats Road arriving at the trail head just as a shuttle bus was unloading.  We could have ridden the shuttle, but why do less riding?  Dave led me back up Techy and then to Ridgie, Pusherman, High Plum and Plum Line.  Ridgie and Pusherman felt like we were riding miles away from civilization.  Super fun terrain.  High Plum was a fairly amazing, narrow path cut into the side of a steep hillside.  Some of the trail features had some potential failures of pretty high consequences.  It was definitely one to keep you on your toes and picking your line very carefully. The remainder of Plum Line was just plain fun with seemingly endless series of drops and short, punchy climbs as it worked its way down to the river valley.  I was pretty spent at this point and decided to head back up for some lunch.  It was a great way to end the weekend for me.  Dave and I haven’t ridden those trails together in over 20 years.

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Dave!

A final long ride was the perfect ending to a great weekend.  I grabbed a burrito on the way out of town for a late lunch and then took a short swim before driving home.  I have to admit that I was initially disappointed that we wouldn’t be returning to Ascutney this year but things turned out well enough that I’ll be glad to come back next summer.  In spite of some weather that could have ruined things, the event turned out really well.

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Vermont Adaptive Ski and Sports was at the festival showing us some of their bikes.
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Technical climbs!
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The Vermont Agency of Natural Resources was there answering questions.

 

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NEMBAfest 2016

“You couldn’t ask for a better weekend.”  That’s the phrase I heard numerous times over the three days of NEMBAfest.   The weather was truly exceptional and bikes were everywhere.  In spite of all the rain we had during the prior week, the trails were dry, even a little dusty in places.  We had all the makings of the biggest bike party of the year.

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The expo area and nice, white, fluffy clouds.

The good weather had another side effect – it drew people out of the woodwork. NEMBAfest has been hosted at Kingdom Trails for five years now, and this was the biggest one I’ve seen.  I heard that somewhere around 1200 people preregistered, and who knows how many decided to show up and register because of the perfect forecast.  Let’s just say that there were clearly more people than last year.

As in previous years, our family got involved with volunteering to help out with the family camping area.  My daughter and I also put in some time leading or sweeping a few of the group rides.  Being involved, even just as a volunteer, opens your eyes to all the little details that have to come together for an event to run smoothly.  There are a lot of them.  While there might have been some snags behind the scenes, everything appeared to run like a well-oiled machine.

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Marshmallows too!

I was originally going to be leading the advanced night ride Friday evening, but readjusted to my new assignment taking out a large “inter-mellow” ride.   Thirty-two riders showed up with headlights, ready to pedal around in the dark Vermont woods.  In spite of my reputation, everyone seemed to have a good time.  It was really cool to look over my shoulder and see the glimmer of headlights scattered all through the woods.  It gives an odd perspective of the trails I ride regularly.  Thanks to Tim from NEMBA for showing us their 2nd man drop technique – it made keeping our large group manageable on the ride.  Also, a huge thanks to a guy named Mike for stepping up to be the sweep for our group.  I owe you one.

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Just a few of my Friday night ride followers.  Awesome group.

The next day started out a bit more laid back with a nice morning ride with my wife.  When you have kids, you savor the moments when you can get out together as a couple just to do something fun.  The cool morning was great for riding and the trails weren’t yet busy with groups of bikers.

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Old Webs in the morning.

Later that day I joined the NEMBA Racing team ride.  I’ve not been on the team for a few years now, but it was great to get out and pedal around with the group of guys that I used to race with. In previous years, I had been the one to lead the team on a large loop around the trail network.  Kevin set the route this year and he didn’t disappoint.  With the inevitable group ride attrition, we eventually were left with our core riders from several years back: myself, Shawn, Kevin, Shaun and Andrew.  Whenever Shawn (a.k.a. “Ride Bully”) joins a ride, I know how things are going to go; neither of us do well at self-regulating our desire to go faster.   I had a blast even if I was pretty much spent after our ride.  This has always been a highlight of NEMBAfest for me.

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NEMBA Racing: Turning NEMBAfest into a suffer-fest.  Well, not really; we did have fun.

Even though I was pretty well thrashed, my day wasn’t over.  I was scheduled to lead another night ride on Saturday.  Like Friday night, we had a good turnout with around 18 riders putting on headlights to extend the day with some more riding.  My daughter, Emma, filled in as sweep for the ride.  The sun was just at the horizon when we hit the trails; and it didn’t seem dark enough for headlights to be necessary.  That was true right up until we got under the thick canopy of the woods.  Someone in the group had a blinding, mega-bright headlamp on for the ride, and  I think it might have left a slight suntan on the backs of my legs.  Many people in my group rides mentioned that this was their first time visiting Kingdom Trails.  It was interesting to hear the first time impressions of an area that I am so familiar with.  It made me realize that I often take the good riding I have in my back yard for granted.

I started the day on Sunday running sweep for a small advanced group ride.  I was clearly losing some steam at this point so riding at the back was a perfect fit.  Our group was small enough that a sweep wasn’t really necessary, but I was glad to get out on the bike one more time.  I did get to meet some new people on the ride, including another semi-local from the Mad River valley and a photographer visiting from Australia.  I think he wins the prize for being the visitor from the longest distance.

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There was no shortage of riding opportunities.

For the remainder of Sunday, I mostly poked around at the Expo checking out the vendors and demo bikes.  There were so many bikes available to try out that you could spend the entire weekend just riding different demo bikes.  It was interesting to note how many “plus” size bikes were out there.  They were all over the place.  From talking with some of the vendors, their plus demo bikes were in highest demand.  That’s something I can understand being on my third season riding on 29+ wheels.

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Demo bikes came in all shapes and sizes.

I flagrantly ignored my better judgement by taking out a demo bike from Pivot.  This was seriously sowing the seeds of discontent.  They had a Mach 429 paired up with a set of 27.5 plus wheels.  The flotation of the 2.8″ tires was slightly less than what I am used to with 29×3″ tires, but the overall ride of the bike was amazing.  I take back just about everything I’ve ever said about full suspension bikes.  If this frame could accommodate full width 3″ tires I’d seriously think about getting one.  Yes, you heard that right.  If you know me at all, you now know it’s time to put your affairs in order as the end of the world can’t be far off.

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Mike Stedley making the difficult look easy.

We hung around to catch the final trials show with Mike Stedley and then packed up for home.  It’s surprisingly difficult to put into words all that made up the weekend.  More than just great riding, there were times catching up with old friends and acquaintances, hanging around the campfire, eating a long needed post-ride meal or simply enjoying the quiet of the early morning.  I ended the weekend sore, tired and more than just a little bit dehydrated.  It was great!  Now I’m looking forward to the VMBA festival next month.

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Lots of smiles.
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The schedule of events.
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The calm of the family camping area early Friday morning.

Links:

Vermont MTB Festival 2015

[Also posted on MTBVT.com]

View from the trails.  (Photo by Dawn Blanchard)
View from the trails. (Photo by Dawn Blanchard)

The Vermont Mountain Bike Festival is one of those events that I look forward to all year long.  A weekend of camping, great riding, good food and hanging out with friends is hard to beat.  I was unable to go last summer, so I had built up even more anticipation for getting down to Ascutney again.  Especially since this would be the last year it would be held there for a while as VMBA moves the festival around the state.  The riding there was so good last time, I really didn’t want to miss it again.

We tend to travel to events like this as a family.  We arrived on Friday afternoon to setup camp and hang out a little.  I thought I might catch the first round of rides but I was a little late for that.  Along with some friends, my wife and daughter went out together for the first novice ride that evening.   They seemed to have had a really good time hitting some of the trails around the Mile Long Field, finishing up with Hayride – a nice swooping ride through the field.

Sunset.
Friday night sunset.

A little while after they returned from their ride, I went out to join the night ride scheduled for that evening.  The sun was just setting as a handful of us started our winding climb into the woods.  It didn’t take long under the thick canopy of summer leaves for us to need our headlights.  We did a nice little loop around the side of the mountain.  We also came out of the woods at the top of the Hayride trail.  The sky was just light enough to see the bats dancing around overhead chasing Vermont’s never-ending natural resource: bugs.  We cruised down the field and then worked our way back to the camping at the old Ascutney base lodge parking area.

Part of our night ride crew.
Part of our night ride crew.

Saturday started out with a little threat of rain, but that quickly burned off and blue skies soon prevailed.  I signed up for “The Works” ride: a meandering tour of the Ascutney mountain trails.  Stan, our ride leader, was on a fully rigid single-speed bike; I had a feeling this was going to be good.  I thought he looked familiar and eventually figured out that I had ridden with him the last time I was there.  The group started out quite large for an advanced ride with nearly forty people showing up, but that quickly broke up into two groups as we started climbing.  Fortunately, there were enough ride leaders to adapt to the change.

We worked our way up and over to the West Windsor town forest trails where we spent the bulk of the time on our ride. I’d love to give a play by play of all the terrain we covered, but I was mostly in tent caterpillar mode following Stan’s wheel.  Getting into the details would take up too many paragraphs and would fall far short in conveying how much fun I had.  Some of the trails were familiar and others were quite new to me.  The terrain on the mountain is an awesome mix of technical challenge and pure flowing joy.  There’s nothing boring to be found anywhere.

Stan, our ride leader, cornering on the Grassy Knoll.
Stan, our ride leader, cornering on the Grassy Knoll.

We crossed back over to the main mountain area by taking the Last Mile trail.  This gave me momentary Vermont 50 flashbacks.  I quickly recovered from the sudden anxiety attack when I realized that I wasn’t bonking, in pain or otherwise hating my bicycle; and I was able to continue to ride, enjoying the experience.  We finished up the ride by climbing up the recently built 42nd Street and descending Broadway, a trail even more recently cut.  Very nice work by Jim Lyall and STAB.

While I was out riding, my wife went to the women’s skills clinic.  Being relatively new to mountain biking, she really enjoyed the clinic.  The women in the group had a pretty wide range of experience, from those who had only ridden off-road a few times to some who were just looking to improve an already existing skill set.  Everyone seemed to be accommodated by the women instructors.  Some of the more experienced participants even chipped in to help or encourage the newer riders.  There was a lot of information to take in, but she came away with quite a bit that she felt would be helpful.

Dave! on the Grassy Knoll.
Dave! on the Grassy Knoll.

I returned from the morning ride a little bit later than I had planned.  I ate a quick lunch and then met my friend Dave.  Not getting enough riding in that morning, we opted to head out again for the afternoon with our own group of two.   We hit much of what I had ridden that morning, but in the opposite direction.  Along the way, we got slightly lost and worked in a few new trails as a result.  We met a couple, both wearing NEMBA Racing team jerseys, who had a trail map.  Dave and I mooched a look at their trail map more than once trying to figure out where we were and how to get to where we wanted to be.   We crossed paths a couple of more times before heading back to eat.

The bike olympics.
The Bike Olympics.

One of the things I really like about the festival is that everything stops for the Saturday evening BBQ and games.  After eating, there was a bike limbo, slow bike race, and the “bike olympics” – a short race over an obstacle course (including water balloon pelting) on 12″ wheeled bikes.  The industry isn’t likely to latch on to that wheel size as the next big thing, but maybe 12″+?  Who knows?

The Saturday evening games at sunset.
The Saturday evening games at sunset.
Slow racing.  The girl on the right had her trackstand technique down.
Slow racing. The girl on the right had her trackstand technique down.
The winning toss.
The winning toss.

For me, the highlight of the evening was the Huffy toss:  bike snobbery at its best.  The kids were first to try their hand at tossing a small bicycle made of the lowest grade steel known to man.  I’m pretty sure my full size 29+ rig is lighter than that little bike.  I was the first one up in the adult competition and set the mark with my underhanded sling technique.  There were many attempts at spinning the bike discus style – some of which seemed quite dangerous for any nearby spectators.  One toss looked like it would have won, but was disqualified because of stepping well over the line.  In the end, my toss stood, but victory by technical fault.  I got to keep the bike as my prize for winning.

The Trophy!
The Trophy!

Sunday morning was another beautiful day and the trails in “Joe’s Jungle” were calling me.  I’ve ridden the trails on the mountain a few times, but what I was looking forward to this year was getting out on the trails on the other side of the valley.  These are off the official map but I’ve been told by several people that they were really good.  My legs were definitely a bit heavy from all the riding the day before and there was plenty of climbing in store.  At least with all that climbing comes a boat load of great descending.  With all the looping around we did, I didn’t really know where I was at any given point, but I wasn’t too concerned either.

Every group ride has to have at least one mechanical.  It's like a rule.
Every group ride has to have at least one mechanical. It’s like a rule.

We wandered all around the woods in West Windsor following mile after mile of great singletrack.   Near the end, we stopped at  Joe’s house where we cooled off with the garden hose and his wife had some tasty cookies for us to munch on.  Gary, one of the leaders for this ride, decided to take those of us who wanted more speed out for a hammer for the remaining couple of miles of the ride.  That was a blast.  There was still more riding to be had, but I needed to get back to my family before they packed up the camper and left without me, so I pedaled back to Ascutney with a couple of others from our group.

On the way home, we stopped at the Ascutney State Park.  My wife and daughter got in one last ride out on the Swoops and Loops trails.  They’ve built what might be the best beginner-oriented trails I’ve seen.  It’s definitely approachable to a less experienced rider, but still interesting to ride.  It was a nice way to close out the weekend.

Mother and daughter finish up the Swoops and Loops trails.
Mother and daughter finish up the Swoops and Loops trails.

It was one of those weekends I didn’t want to end.  I thoroughly enjoyed the festival.   Not only is the riding great, but the atmosphere has a cool, laid-back feel.  It has a good family atmosphere that’s not an afterthought.  While it’s nice meeting new people, it seemed like half the people there were familiar faces. VMBA and all the local members did an excellent job putting things together.

Looking over the map, I realized that there are still quite a few trails that I haven’t ridden and still many more that are not on the map.  STAB has done an outstanding job with building a great trail network and there seems to be more in store in the future.  It’s definitely one to visit and keep your eye on.  I need to make the time to get back down there to ride, even without the festival.

Early Saturday morning.
Early Saturday morning.
There's a trail here and it's actually quite fun.
There’s a trail here and it’s actually quite fun.
Jim and others check out the ride schedule.
Jim and others check out the ride schedule.
Leader of the night ride.
Leader of the night ride.
Camping is incomplete without a campfire.
Camping is incomplete without a campfire.
Mt. Ascutney
Mt. Ascutney

Riding Florida in June

Why would anyone in their right mind go to Florida in June?  The reaction that I’ve gotten from most people in Vermont is something similar to what I would get if I told them I was going to remove my own leg with a butter knife.  Generally, Vermonters carry this understated attitude that we’re tough enough to deal with anything nature has to dish out.  Thirty degrees below zero?  No problem.  Cancel school because of a couple of inches of snow?  Don’t be a baby.  Mud, ice, wind, black flies, mosquitos, tourists… we seem to be able to put up with anything.  Except heat.  Mention temperatures over 79F and people around here seem to wilt and turn into whiners.  I’ve never seen anything like it.  Air conditioning in a Vermont summer is about as pointless as an electric blanket in Miami, yet I see homes with units installed in their windows all around the Northeast Kingdom.  Regardless, we made the trip in June despite all the well intentioned warnings about our imminent doom from the heat and humidity.

Resting.
Resting.

My family and I have visited Hanna Park during previous trips to Jacksonville, Florida and we’ve really grown to like the place.  In addition to being located directly on the beach, there is a pretty large campground, freshwater lake and quite a few miles of mountain bike trails packed into the same area.  The beach is only a few minutes walk from the campground and we all love the warm ocean water there.  At a time when the water in Vermont is still capable of creating hypothermia in minutes, it’s beautifully warm in Florida.  I also like the place because the mountain biking is surprisingly good.

The thing that is most amazing to someone from Vermont is that the trails are all basically flat as a pancake.   There actually are some minor elevation changes throughout the park, but the “climbs” are pretty much under 10 vertical feet; small enough that no change in elevation shows up on Strava or any other GPS tool.  You’d think that this would make the biking easy, and it can, but it also means that there aren’t any downhills to coast and rest on; you can keep the gas on the whole time.  This is perfect single-speed stuff.

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More of the South Loop

Coming from the northeast, the vegetation is also pretty interesting.  The trails wind through a dense, semi-tropical undergrowth.  It makes the woods in New England look big and open in comparison.  The canopy of palms and deciduous trees provide shade like the New England forest, but at the ground level it’s crazy. It has a bit of a surreal sensation with palm fronds all over the place, Spanish moss hanging from the tree limbs, and huge tree trunks sprawling up to the green cover above. It really has the appearance that you’re cutting through the jungle even though civilization starts just outside the gate.

just a little undergrowth!
just a little undergrowth! (find the owl)

The trails in Hanna park can be broken down into three main loops:

E line – The E Line trail(s) are found to the north of the main access road to the park.  There are a few options here that vary from the main loop.  This area is the technical middle ground in my mind: a little more challenging than the South Loop but not nearly as tight and demanding as the Z Loop.  For some reason, the way the trail winds around left me a little directionally disoriented.  It took me a few times around this loop to get a real feeling about where I was.  I eventually figured it all out to the point where I could just cruise the loop and know which turns to take.

South Loop –  All of the bike trails in the park have a pretty nice flow to them but the South Loop is probably the most fluid of them all.  Overall, the trail is pretty smooth and very fast as it takes a full loop around the outer edges of the park.  It’s not entirely without any technical challenge with some tight turns, narrow gaps, and frequent rooty sections, but there’s very little in the terrain that will slow you down.  The corners take nice wide arcs and have built up small, natural berms from traffic over the years.  I got into this loop as a way to open up the throttle and rip.  Seriously fun to ride.

Some narrow spots in the south loop.
Some narrow spots in the south loop.

Z trail –  This trail is among the tightest singletrack that I’ve ridden anywhere and, by far, my favorite.  While it can easily be ridden in a relatively moderate manner, it’s best when done at speed.  The frequent direction changes and narrow paths between trees impose restraint.  It ends up being an exercise in power and bike handling.  Accelerate.  Brake. Corner.  Repeat these steps over and over.  A couple of laps on this trail would give my legs that tired, rubbery feeling.  The Z Trail also has an alternate line cut on the northeast portion of its loop, but there was very little sign that it has been used at all.  I’m not sure why that is, because it had a pretty good feel to it.  If it were just cleaned up and some of the brush cut back it would just as much fun to ride as the rest of the trail.

Z Trail junction
Z Trail junction

The park designates the direction that the trails are ridden in.  This is a good thing because without it there would be some serious injuries happening from head-on collisions.  Most of the corners are completely blind and can be ridden at high velocity.  It would be nearly impossible for two riders coming toward each other at speed to be able to react in time to avoid each other.   The other benefit of this imposed direction is that the park swaps it daily.  Riding in the opposite direction can give you the feeling that you’re riding a new trail.  Doing this is almost like doubling the available mileage.

The one downside I found to riding in this part of the country is spiders.  Every night these big, nasty, creepy-crawly spiders spin large webs that span the trails.  Their webs are made up of thick strands that have the elasticity and strength of lightweight fishing line.  There were a few mornings where I was the first person out on the trails for that day and I returned from my ride with my helmet coated in webs.  The spiders themselves often ended up on my arms, chest or head but they will abandon ship as soon as they realize that they’re on you.  Of course, this means that they’ll crawl around until they find a way off, which isn’t my favorite sensation.  I would often wait until later in the morning to start my ride, hoping that someone else has gone through to clear out the webs before me.  Sometimes that worked, but not always.

What the spiders really looked like.
What the spiders really looked like.

As I was warned, Florida was a bit warm in June.  But, it’s not the heat, it’s the humidity.  Seriously.  Never been so drenched in sweat from riding my bike.  By the end of any ride, literally, every thing on my body was dripping from sweat.  I could squeeze my shirt or shorts and they would stream sweat on the ground.  It was awesome.  My bike was spattered all over the bars, stem and frame.  I was slightly dehydrated for days in spite of drinking water constantly.  I didn’t really recover until I returned to Vermont.

Lots of sweat.
Lots of sweat on the downtube.

One of the cool things about riding in a new place is meeting new people.  Everyone I talked with was pretty friendly and all had suggestions about where else to ride in the region.  It seems that there’s definitely more to explore in the long run.  We’ll see.  After a couple of weeks in the area we had to pack up and head back north.  During the time we were in Florida we had seven inches of rain and two frosts back home.  No regrets on missing part of my Vermont summer.

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I sometimes steal KOMs here, but not this trip.

 

 

 

Returning To Plymouth Five Corners

Class-4 road on the way out to Reading Pond.
Class-4 road on the way out to Reading Pond.

[Also published on MTBVT.com]

I was just getting into mountain biking when I returned home from completing my enlistment in the Army.  Coming back to Vermont, I brought my new Cannondale M600 with me and was anxious to find places to ride.  After connecting with some friends old and new, someone lead me on a ride on the trails surrounding the Plymouth Five Corners area.   This was the real start to my mountain biking career, if you want to call it that.  I probably put thousands of miles on my bike on these class-4 roads and trails.

The Five Corners area consists of thousands of acres of forest with many, many miles of abandoned town roads cutting through them.  Most of the land falls within the Arthur Davis Wildlife Management Area (WMA) and is surrounded by various privately owned tracks of land spanning the towns of Plymouth, Reading and Woodstock.  These roads were old roads from the village of Plymouth Five Corners and surrounding residents.  The town peaked sometime in the mid-1800s and was eventually abandoned some time early in the 20th century, but the roads remained.  With a little bit of effort, you can still find old stone foundations from the farms, homes and businesses that once made up the community.  I was always fascinated with the history of this area.

Some history from a kiosk put up by VT Fish & Wildlife.
Some history from a kiosk put up by VT Fish & Wildlife.

For me, the real draw of this area was the seemingly endless, rugged class-4 roads.  These roads were not the boring dirt road type stuff you often think of when someone mentions riding old roads.  They were rocky, steep, ledgy, sometimes severely eroded terrain that could be very challenging to ride.  Some sections resembled a stream bed more than a trail.  A few actually were stream beds.   There were many sections where it took some real bike handling skill and strength just to be able to get up while still on the bike.  It was not uncommon to lose traction and have to walk up the remainder of a section.  It wasn’t all work though, each climb was rewarded with long, gnarly descents.

Back then, pretty much everyone in the area who mountain biked rode these trails since we didn’t have access to any purpose-built single track.  There were no mountain bike clubs in Vermont and no developed trail systems.  What little single track we did have just happened organically as we packed down the same path through the woods, usually to connect one back road to another.  Mountain biking, at that time, mostly involved hunting down challenging terrain where ever it happened to already exist – class-4 roads, 4-wheeler trails or simply old log or farm roads.

Going up.
Going up.

Last time I had ridden these trails was nearly twenty years ago and I’ve often been curious about what they would be like now.  While down in Ludlow for the weekend, I thought I could take a few hours off in the morning and do some exploring.  I decided to start riding right from town, climbing up and over North Hill like I always used to do.  While some things have changed, the start of the ride had a pretty major deja vu effect on me.

My first obstacle was to find the old trail connecting North Hill down to Chapman Road.  Many things can change over the span of a couple of decades: houses get built, roads paved, property changes hands, gets posted or logged, and trails grow in.  I’m not sure exactly where the old trail went, but it wasn’t going to connect to my destination any more.  I meandered around in the woods following several log roads for quite a while.  Eventually, I stumbled upon Rick Trainer’s personal stash of single track.  I thought this might be a good thing but it ended up being quite a little maze in the woods.  After looping around a bit more I eventually exited the woods by cutting across Rick’s lawn.  Not my first choice, but at least I wouldn’t be trespassing across the lawn of someone who doesn’t know me.  Doing that kind of thing didn’t bother me as much when I was in my early 20s.  I guess maturity has it’s down sides.

The Colby Pond end of the trails.
The Colby Pond end of the trails.

Following a little more dirt road burning, I found the trailhead at Colby Pond.  The initial bit of trail has obviously been graded and nicely resurfaced with some gravel.  A couple of miles of this crap got me far enough in that I could start connecting with some of the “real” trails I used to enjoy.

I first attempted to climb the old jeep trail up past Reading Pond.  At one time, this was an extremely challenging climb that probably wouldn’t qualify as a rideable trail by most standards.  I loved it.  A small stream had been diverted down the old road rendering it only mildly recognizable as a trail.  I was really looking forward to this and the first half mile or so appeared to be just as I remembered it.  This was great until I got up to Reading Pond.  I discovered that the beavers had expanded the pond to include the old road, so that put an end to that endeavor.  I didn’t feel like wading through waist deep muck that early in my ride.

Reading Pond... expanded.
Reading Pond… expanded.

I returned back to the original trail and decided to find my way to the old Brown Schoolhouse in Reading from the other direction.  This involved following the main road to a nice rolling descent that takes you to Broad Brook.  There used to be a few run down hunting camps along this section of trail.  Now those camps are either gone or radically improved.  A couple looked like they had seen major renovations and maybe even inhabited for more than just hunting season.

The Brown Schoolhouse in Reading.
Domesticated hunting camps.

After that nice descent, there was quite a bit of climbing to get up Mt. Moses Road – significantly more uphill than I had recalled.  A good portion of that road had been widened out to accommodate logging equipment many years prior.  I was a little disappointed by this because this climb used to be very rocky and tightly lined by huge old maple trees.  It wasn’t improved enough to make the ride boring;  there were still enough rock and ledge sections to keep the ride somewhat challenging.  Fortunately, the trail over the top of the ridge to the schoolhouse wasn’t improved at all.  The brown schoolhouse was just as I remembered it, with the little spring by the road still flowing with water to refill water bottles in.

The Brown Schoolhouse in Reading.
The Brown Schoolhouse in Reading.
Yes, this is the road.
Yes, this is the road.

From there, I decided to backtrack down the hill and follow the old road along the brook all the way down to the actual Five Corners intersection.  The lower half of this trail was always quite enjoyable with a couple of stream crossings and a few bridges over Broad Brook.  Now, this section was even better and a sweet test of my bike handling skills.  For the most part, the old road was more like a stream bed, than a dirt road.  The bridges were gone and several portions had been completely taken over by the brook.  This was extremely fun to ride.  It also was the type of terrain that my 29+ wheels excel in.  I was riding alone, but I’m pretty sure I was grinning as I rode through this stuff.

I like this stuff!
I like this stuff!

Once at Plymouth Five Corners, all roads but one lead up.  There would be some climbing ahead, and much more of it than I remembered.  My 32:36 was adequate gearing for most of it, but I did find myself wishing I could drop down another cog more than once.  Turning back onto the class-4 road past the Bethany Birches camp, things got steep again.  Really steep.  This trail section had also been resurfaced to allow access to a log yard that had been cleared quite a way in.

Plymouth Five Corners
Plymouth Five Corners

Just past the log yard was an intersection where one road leads down to Buffalo Brook and Plymouth State Park, and the other road leads down to the back side of Lake Amherst.  In the past, I would have preferred to take the trail down to Buffalo Brook.  It’s a long, fast descent down to the brook.  From there the trail followed the brook to the state park with numerous stream crossings along the way.  I was told that the brook had been completely ravaged by Hurricane Irene and the old trail no longer existed in any real way.  Not wanted to turn my ride into a bushwhacking excursion, I opted for Lake Amherst.

The view along the road near Mt. Moses.
The view along the road near Mt. Moses.

The remainder of the trail that I rode was in pretty much the same condition as I remembered it from twenty years ago.  The top part of the road was worn double track that traced across the ridge before turning downhill.  The descent started with a few ledge outcroppings and then turned into a plain, old rocky pitch with sections of ledge or loose rocks.  As the trail goes on, it becomes steeper.  The final half mile or so is cut into the side hill.  Climbing up this hill was always a granny gear affair, if it could be ridden at all.  Parts of the road had become very eroded and were a bit sketchy at times.  With my brake rotors all nice and warm, I dropped out on the dirt road that winds behind Lake Amherst.

Ledge drops on the way down to Lake Amherst.
Ledge drops on the way down to Lake Amherst.

I made my way back to town following the dirt roads that run behind the lakes in Ludlow.  This was how I often ended my rides out in Plymouth, so it was a fitting way to wrap up this trip.  I usually made a bit of a time trial out of those dirt roads, so I had to push it a bit this time as well.  The end of the ride meant getting on Rt. 100 and then taking Rt 103 back to Ludlow.  Once in town, I had the climb up West Hill to look forward to.  The road up to my parents’ house gains a couple of hundred feet in less than half a mile with one pitch over a 20% grade.  Nothing like winding down at the end of a ride.

Eroded roads.
Eroded roads.

It was nice to check out an area where I used to ride so much.  Some of it was so familiar, it felt just like it did back in the early 90s.  Some of the inevitable change was a bit of a disappointment.  There are many more miles of trail out there that I wasn’t able to explore, only having the part of one day to work with.  At some point I’d like to get back out there and revisit a few more of the trails that I missed this time around.  After spending so much time riding single-track on trail systems made for biking, it was fun to get back to riding the terrain that I started on.

More stream crossings.
More stream crossings.
An old photo of Plymouth Five Corners when it was an actual community.  Photographed from the F&W kiosk.
An old photo of Plymouth Five Corners when it was an actual community. Photographed from the F&W kiosk.

 

Rocks anyone??
Rocks anyone??
This area is very remote with a lot of wildlife.  Bear tracks in the mud not much older than my tire tracks.
This area is very remote with a lot of wildlife. Bear tracks in the mud not much older than my tire tracks.
The start from the Reading-Tyson Road.
The start from the Reading-Tyson Road.
You are here.... somewhere.
You are here…. somewhere.

Riding Around Vermont: Green Mountain Trails

Awesome benched trails all over the mountain.
Awesome benched trails all over the mountain.

[Also published on MTBVT.com]

Like most trail systems in Vermont, Green Mountain Trails delivers some truly great riding.  When I first heard about there being some bike trails in Pittsfield, my first thought was that it couldn’t be anything other than steep mountain side trails to climb.  Having grown up in that part of the state, I knew that the area is made up of tight, steep mountains with valleys so narrow that there is just enough room for the riverbed that cuts through them.  The first view of their trail map confirmed that all the trails were, indeed, located on a mountain side.  My expectations were that the trails would be little more than a collection of hard climbs and steep descents.  Thankfully, I was wrong.

I attempted to squeeze in a ride on these trails last year while visiting family in the area, but couldn’t manage to find my way onto the trail network.  I pedaled around some farm fields looking for a bridge to cross the river onto the trails.  I didn’t realize that, at that time, the access on the north side of town required fording the river on foot.  I also didn’t realize that I could start from the Riverside farm on the south end of the village and avoid the river altogether.  Regardless, with a little bit of help, I figured it all out this time.  I was able to park at the Riverside farm and hop directly onto the trails.  I also got an official trail map from the general store in town.  The map cost a few dollars, all of which goes into supporting the trial network.  Considering that there isn’t any charge for access, it’s not a bad way to contribute something back and keep from getting completely lost at the same time.

The General Store
The General Store – they have great chocolate chip cookies too.

Without a doubt, there was a bit of climbing.  The good news is that it was surprisingly enjoyable.   My first task was to make my way up to the summit by climbing up Noodles Revenge and Luvin’ It.  While they gain some considerable elevation, they do so by breaking up the climb with many switchbacks with long undulating traverses in-between.  In order to get up the mountain, there has to be more up than down, but it really didn’t feel that hard.  Nearly all of the switchbacks seemed to have banked corners which were just as helpful in the uphill direction as they were going down.  The ride up felt fast.

The view from the top is great!
The view from the top is great!

The view from the summit is amazing.  There is a small stone cabin in the middle of a grassy clearing.  The cabin can be used overnight, but I’m not sure about the details.  If you want that experience, speak with the people at the general store in town.  I used this location to rest and repair a pinch flat that I had gotten from hitting a chunk of ledge on the climb up.

With air in my rear tire, it was time to think about how I wanted to continue my ride.  I talked with a local rider, Reed, and he suggested taking Labrynth to Warman to Stonewall.  Labrynth snaked a pretty narrow track through the trees around the summit.  This was not especially fast riding, but interesting in it’s own way.   Labynth led me to Warman which was a rolling ride with some pretty cool banked corners.  It definitely had a nice flow to it.

Enough signs to keep directionally challenged people like me from getting totally lost.
Enough signs to keep directionally challenged people like me from getting totally lost.

I don’t remember exactly where Warman switched over to Stonewall, but I do remember that Stonewall was super fun.  The trail seemed to be bench cut into the mountain side but was open enough to allow me to accumulate some real speed.  I noted this in the back of my mind as one to return to next time I got to ride there.  A quick climb up Lovin’ It brought me back to the summit.

Since I had seen quite a few mentions of Fusters trail on-line, I figured I should check that one out next.  Good choice.  Very good choice.  This trail descends off the summit and works its way across the mountain and back in a wide arc.  There were many huge banked corners.   Between them were numerous rollers and jumps.  The upper half of the trail was like a downhill playground.  The remainder was quite fun with plenty of single track over some pretty interesting terrain.  I didn’t want it to end.

Stream crossings!
Stream crossings!

I returned a couple of days later to hit a few trails I missed, revisit some others and repair another pinch flat.  The highlight of that day, for me, was the Bubba Trail.  I was expecting it to be much like Fusters, since it follows a similar line across the mountain side on the map.  The reality was very different.  This trail starts near the summit and quickly gets tight and technical.  It is technical in a low speed, “I know I can ride this” kind of way.  There are some ledge drops that gave me pause before continuing.  The trail cuts across steep side hills, following narrow bench cut lines around trees and over rocks.  Even though it is probably under half the length of Fusters, Bubba seemed longer.  This hand-cut single track had a wild, “out there” feel to it.  I would recommend against riding it alone – it was remote and with little enough traffic that getting hurt out there could have some serious consequences (No cell service, either).  That said, I absolutely loved the Bubba Trail.  It was a refreshing change from the trend where everyone is building ultra-smooth, buffed out, machine-made trails that resemble an alpine slide track more than a mountain bike trail.  More please!

Bubba Trail Terrain!
Bubba Trail Terrain!

Over all of my riding at Green Mountain Trails, I was continually impressed with the terrain and the work that was done to make such a great network in an unlikely location.  It seemed like nearly every trail was at least partially cut out of the hillside and not all of it could have been done with machinery.   Digging in central Vermont is hard work, and this hillside didn’t appear to have any shortage of ledge and rock to be moved.  Very impressive.  Most of the trails have a really great, smooth flow to them with some fun descents.   The combination of challenging terrain with outstanding trail building is enough to draw me back next time I am in the area.  More photos below:

The Amee Farm access.
The Amee Farm access.

 

Another summit shot
Another summit shot
I think I can ride this.  I think...
I think I can ride this. I think… (It’s much steeper than it looks)
The end of Stonewall
The end of Stonewall
The mountain viewed from Riverside Farm
The mountain viewed from Riverside Farm

NEMBAfest 2015

We’re in the fourth year running with NEMBAfest being held at Kingdom Trails.  This was also the second year that it was hosted at the Wildflower Inn on Darling Hill putting the event right in the heart of the trail network.  NEMBA and Kingdom Trails had it all pretty well dialed in this year with everything coming together remarkably well.  The weather was a mix of perfection and the dismal but the end result was still a great weekend of biking.

The Expo
The expo Area and campground (please excuse the crude panorama stitching)

Early Friday morning started off with a good dose of rain.  That delayed our arrival a bit and had me a little concerned about conditions for riding this weekend.  As the day progressed, the skies cleared up turning it into a really nice day.  We arrived mid-day to set up our camper and get things rolling.  My family and I were volunteering by working as hosts for the family camping area again.  We enjoy being part of the event and it’s a nice way to get to meet other people.  The family camping was relocated to a new area just behind Stepping Stone Spa about half a mile from the main venue and campground.  It was a little tighter on space, but I think that might have been better as everyone seemed to interact more with each other.

Once we were settled in, I went up to the venue area to check things out.  I stopped by the SRAM tent and their mechanics pulled apart and cleaned up my freehub innards just because I asked.  The mechanic also adjusted a few other things that he discovered.  Very nice.  I visited with several people I hadn’t seen in a while, but there were many others that I missed.  Maybe next year or at another event.

Our Friday night group just before the sun went down.
Our Friday night group just before the sun went down and the lights went on.

Friday evening I was scheduled to lead the advanced night ride.  The advanced and intermediate groups were each a bit small so we combined them into one group with Chris Dussault leading.  We meandered all around the east side of Darling Hill taking in the new trails Mansion View and Worth It.  In hind sight, taking a group of predominately intermediate riders down Pines at night may not have been the best choice, but everyone seemed to genuinely enjoy themselves.  On the way back out of the woods, we had an amazing view of the moon, Venus and Jupiter as we pedaled back to the campground.

The moon, Venus and Jupiter just after sunset.
The moon, Venus and Jupiter just after sunset.  This was the view as we climbed our way out of the woods.
Steam lifting off the pond on a cool Saturday morning.
Steam lifting off the pond on a cool Saturday morning.

Following a cool night, Saturday was nearly a picture perfect day in just about every way.  We started the day helping out around the camping area.  Later in the morning, my wife took out a demo bike and went out for a ride with me.  The Giant Obsess Advanced was probably a bit overkill for her skill level but a gorgeous bike nonetheless.  Our ride was probably the only time out of the entire weekend where the trails felt a little congested.  The groups of riders moved along pretty well, so it wasn’t a major factor in our ride.

Yup!
Singletrack!

After a quick lunch, I headed back out to join the NEMBA Racing team on their afternoon ride.  I’m no longer an actual member of the team, but it was great to tag along with some of the guys I used to race with regularly in the past.  We covered a good chunk of the trails on Darling hill over the course of that ride.  At roughly the half-way point, we stopped at the pump track in East Burke.  The new section along the tree line was outstanding.  This was surprisingly fun, but it turned out to be a somewhat dangerous with a bunch of lycra-clad racers randomly circling around each other.  After a little while and a few near misses, we decided to give it a rest.  We finished out the ride by tearing around the west side of Darling hill.  The team ride has always been a good time.

Race course... pump track - same thing.  Right?
Race course… pump track – same thing. Right?

Throughout the day on Saturday there was a LOT going on at the NEMBA venue: trials show, pit bike races, music, raffles, wheelie contests and many other activities.  Unfortunately, I didn’t have enough time to get to be part of all that as I was busy either out on the trail or eating and recovering for my next ride.  I was hoping that I’d have time to try out a few demo bikes, particularly the Trek Stache and the aluminum version of the Carver Gnarvester.  Cliff Bar gave out tons of sample bars to pretty much anyone that pedaled by and Pedros gave away some bike cleaner and degreaser to everyone who registered.  I was able to check out several of the newly available 29+ tires in real life, now that there are more options on the market.  I can clearly see some Bontrager Chupacabras in my future.

The women's riding clinic was very well attended.
The women’s riding clinic was very well attended.

At the end of the day, I was scheduled to lead another advanced group night ride.  This may have been the most enjoyable group ride I’ve ever had the pleasure of leading.  All the people who showed up for my ride were strong riders (Libby, Andrew, Phil, and Adam) and we were able to just cruise the entire ride with barely a rest stop or regroup.  100% fun.  My legs were starting to feel the weekend’s mileage on them by the end of the ride but it was all good.  Ripping these trails by headlight is a whole different experience than riding them during the day.  It’s like riding new trails, which only adds to the enjoyment.

Sunset
Pre-fest Sunset

I know I’ve commented on this before, but the trail crew, along with the entire Kingdom Trails staff, did an outstanding job preparing things for the weekend.  Many little fixes were made to the trails and signage leading up this weekend.  Overall, the event seemed to run like a well oiled machine.  I’m sure there were some hiccups behind the scenes but it all seemed to go very well.

Loaded shuttle ride.
Loaded shuttle ride.

As I mentioned earlier, Kingdom Trails reopened Worth It and Mansion View.  These trails disappeared from the network several years back at the landowner’s request but now they’re back!  I always liked those trails but their reinvention was excellent.  Worth It was rerouted down to the sugar house at the bottom of Sugar Hill.   The connection below the original Worth It route now takes a fantastic line through the woods with quite a few berms thrown in for good measure.  It’s just plain fun to let the bike go on this one.  “Swoopy,” if that were a real word.

This was the view out the window of my camper early Sunday morning.
This was the view out the window of my camper early Sunday morning.

Then there was Sunday.  I was woken up at some point in the dark hours of the morning by the sound of a driving rain on the roof of our camper.  It rained.  The rain would let up for a little while, just long enough to give a faint, false hope that it might clear out.  It didn’t.  As the morning progressed, it kept coming in waves.  All but a handful of people in our campground packed up and left along with a steady exodus of bike laden cars heading down Darling Hill Rd.  I was scheduled to lead one final group ride later that morning, but it became pretty clear that I wasn’t going to have any takers.  I was actually looking forward to that ride along with checking out some stuff with the vendors before it all ended.  It was a rather anticlimactic ending to an otherwise great weekend.  Still, we had two great days of riding, hanging out and generally enjoying all things bike related.  I hope that NEMBA continues to bring the fun back to Kingdom Trails for a long time into the future.

Also posted at MTBVT.com

Everyone packed up and heading home.
Everyone packed up and heading home.