Want to be a better mountain biker? Vermont’s top pros can help, with clinics and camps aimed at every level—beginners to racers.
Andy Van Dam knows his mountain bike camps. For the last 20 years, Van Dam, who started the computer science program at Brown University, heads out on a guided mountain bike trip with a group of his former students. Often they head to Moab or points west. But for the past three years, there’s been a trip to Kingdom Trails in East Burke to ride with Vermont Mountain Bike Tours, a custom guiding service set up by Alex McAndrew and Ella Skawold.
“Usually you get some instruction at camps like this but Alex and Ella took us out on a pump track and we really worked on skills,” says Van Dam. “ They taught me to use a dropper post and I can ride better and faster now. They also set us up with lodging and cooked our crew some amazing meals.”
What Van Dam, who is 80 and has COPD, didn’t realize when he first signed up was that both of his guides are World Cup mountain bike racers. “When I went on their website I thought, holy shit, this is the wrong crew! We’re duffers, we’re not doing tricks or riding aggressively–but they’ve been just great.”
Vermont’s long been the place to learn to ski or snowboard. Now, with resorts from Burke to Mount Snow offering lift-served downhill mountain biking and coaching, it’s become the place to up your bike game. The one difference between ski schools and mountain bike camps? Most ski schools don’t have World Cup racers as instructors.
“Sure, we’re pros and out racing,” says Skawold, who left a corporate job in California to move east with McAndrew, a Vermont native. “But I didn’t learn to mountain bike until I was 24 and I can remember what it’s like to learn. The best tip I think I can give people is just use two fingers on the brakes so you have the rest of your hand left to control the bike.”
Isaac Allaire, 23, is a pro rider who spends part of his summers coaching at Sugarbush’s downhill camps for kids age 8 to 14. Allaire, who won both the downhill and the enduro at the Eastern States Cup at Sugarbush last year, still remembers the first time he started downhilling at 13. “It was so fun to be able to just do lap after lap with the lifts taking you to the top.” This season, in addition to the lift-served downhill riding on 28 trails, Sugarbush is also offering cross-country bike rentals and guided tours of the more than 50 miles of trails around the Mad River Valley. “We’re even getting rental e-bikes, says Jake Kenealy.
Electric-bike tours are also part of the program at Killington Mountain Resort, which is adding more beginning mountain bike terrain to its nearly 35 miles of trails, with new trails at the Ramshead base and a beginner skills park at Snowshed. “It’s all about access and we want to get anyone on a bike and if that’s an e-bike, that’s a great way to start out,” says Ben Colona, who manages Killington’s bike operations, shop and rentals.
In addition, the resort has partnered with Killington Mountain School, a ski racing academy that’s known for turning out top cyclists such as World Cup downhill mountain biker Mazie Hayden. The three- and five-day downhill camps for kids 7 to 17 will put kids up at the school while adults who do the two-day weekend camps (Aug. 9-11) have a variety of lodging packages available, but get the same top instruction.
Amy Alton, who was a policy expert with the Department of Defense before she moved to Vermont to mountain bike, is one of Killington’s pros. “I started out by trying to trade a bike pass for giving lessons at Killington,” she said. Now, she hosts free biweekly Divas of Dirt group rides for women of all abilities. This July 13-14 she’s also leading a dream team of pro riders who are teaching a women-only camp, Divas of Dirt Gravity Camp. The coaches include Alton, who has two USA Cycling National Championships titles, former World Cup racer Ali Zimmer, another pro enduro rider Clarissa Fink, and Ella Skawold.
While not every resort has sponsored pros, more and more ski areas are developing mountain bike parks and instruction programs. Burke Mountain Resort has a variety of features and lift-served technical terrain and, according to marketing director Jessica Sechler, has become even more popular with summer riders than it is in the winter for skiers and snowboarders.
Mount Snow has had lift-served downhill for nearly 32 years but six years ago realized the need for easier trails and put in Gateway, the longest intro downhill trail in the East. It also set up a First-Lift Program, (two-hour downhill lesson, lift and bike rental for $109) and a more advanced First Drop Program to teach drops, jumps and cornering.
At Suicide Six’s brand new bike park, certified coaches Christina Mattson and Nick Mahood can guide you on the park’s 11 miles of new lift-served trails (put in last summer by pro trail builder, Sinuosity), teach skills in one of two skills parks or take you over to the cross-country trail network at Mt. Peg. And for kids 7 to 14, there are three weekends of Gravity Camps and, for really little kids, free strider bikes.
Okemo began offering downhill lift-served mountain biking in 2015 and this August, Stratton will rev up a new lift that will carry bikes and is planning downhill trails. “Right now, we do offer guided mountain bike tours,” says Tony Bailey, who guided and taught in Moab, Utah before moving to Vermont. Bailey describes what sounds like a leisurely ride of 10 miles on trails up and down the West River.
“My best advice is don’t try something that’s too hard,” he says. “Take it slow.”
Featured Photo Caption: This summer Killington adds more beginner terrain to its 35 miles of trails. It’s also hosting new camps for kids and adults through Killington Mountain School and Divas of Dirt women’s rides and clinics with pro racer Amy Alton. Photo by Brooks Curran