Can gravity-fed downhill mountain biking become as big as downhill skiing? Killington and ski resorts around Vermont are banking on it.
By Kelly Ault
I was feeling unsettled by the exposure as the K1 Express Gondola ascended steadily toward the summit. Through the windows, I scoured the forest canopy far below, looking for inviting snippets of trails and studying the straightforward dirt paths.
Before I could reconsider my decision, the doors opened, and the lift operator handed me my trail bike. There was no turning back.
Killington Peak’s 4,241-foot summit juts out from a ridge that sweeps in all directions with views to three states. Below, the land drops steeply to the wide basin, where the vertical fingers of ski trails spread neatly down through the forest cover. Miles of mountain bike trails snake between the ski runs. Some are fun and flowy trails like Slideshow Bob or the Light, trails that send you rolling down—fingers light on the brakes—through forests and open meadows. They are the moderate equivalents of blue square ski runs.
Then there are the double black diamonds, like the corkscrew turns of Scarecrow. That was where I was headed, practicing for a race.
I have raced around the country and Canada, surfing down Mammoth Mountain’s “kitty litter” sand, descending high speed switchbacks though Sun Valley’s lupine-covered meadows and tumbling down Whistler’s rugged rock faces. I’d raced my home terrain at Killington before, too. But when I learned that the course for the Eastern States Cup would include Scarecrow’s rowdy stretch of rock rumble, I knew I was going to have to get out of my comfort zone.
At the summit, I paused. I sat on the saddle and adjusted my full-face helmet and goggles. Alongside me, my husband Phil Beard, and my twin boys, Austin and Carson, age 14, already had their bikes pointed downhill and were looking at me expectantly. I took a deep breath. “Ok. I’m ready.”
We maneuvered along work roads until we ducked into the woods along a trail lined with wildflowers. I trained my eyes on my sons’ colorful clothing ahead as we turned onto Scarecrow, where my vision quickly dropped to the boulders in front of my front wheel.
Ahead, Phil, Austin and Carson had parked their bikes by the side of the trail and were animatedly discussing “lines.” As I followed them to scout the first pitch, my eyes – and my brain – adjusted to what they saw more clearly – a smooth rock to roll over, a trough of tacky dirt, and plenty of handlebar clearance between the trees. I was reminded of the core rule of riding and skiing: look where you want to go, not at potential obstacles.
Back in the saddle, I steadied my bike and nerves. Following the boys, I puzzle-pieced together the rock, the dirt, and the space between the trees. Before any self-doubt had time to rise, I was rolling along a sunlit open slope with breathtaking valley views. I whooped with relief and joy.
Growing the Beast
Killington’s mountain bike scene has come a long way since the late 1990s. Back then, “Beauty and the Beast” races called attention to the playful nature of the lower flanks of the mountain. Race organizers mapped out cross-country, downhill, and slalom courses that connected ribbons of singletrack with fire roads and grassy ski trails. As the notoriety of these events grew, so did Killington’s reputation.
Susan Clifford of Hyde Park was an expert cross country racer at the time and remembers the courses that climbed from the Snowshed Base area, around Needles Eye and Skye Peak areas, and meandered over to the Ramshead area. “The trails were challenging in that they showcased the enormity of the terrain available at Killington, as well as the vertical drop.”
As lift-access biking expanded across New England, Killington stayed focused on becoming the “Whistler of the East,” a vision for gravity-fed trails that could serve beginner, intermediate and advanced riders.
Today, more than 30 miles of trails span multiple peaks and Killington includes more beginner-friendly terrain than most bike parks—without sacrificing the gnarly and old-school vibe of early trails. “The [resort] has done a tremendous job modernizing the park,” explains Clifford, who caught some of her last runs of the 2017 season during peak foliage. “They’re showcasing the trendy jump trails and machine-built ‘flow’ trails, while staying true to their classic roots.”
Classic design for bike trails isn’t that different than what’s done to keep ski trails “natural.” It often means embedding natural features: A long slab of slate rock makes up a section of Funny Bone and Low Rider takes riders on a loamy, dirt traverse through tight woods.
The breadth of the mountain allows for different environments to be linked together within a single descent from the summit: you can dive into the historic Cable Trail, lined with bright green moss, ferns, and stunted spruce, launch into a hardwood forest to finagle the gnarled root ladders of Yo Vinny, and end the run by floating effortlessly along the hard-packed flow trail of Jump Start.
Perhaps the biggest change has been the expansion into the Ramshead and Snowshed areas. That started in the summer of 2014 when Killington began spinning the Snowshed Quad and has allowed the resort to add in much more beginner and intermediate terrain.
This summer, Killington is adding even more beginner and intermediate terrain in the Snowshed and Ramshead areas, including a beginner’s skill park at Snowshed.
As Kristel Fillmore, Killington’s communications manager, explained: “Just like we have multiple peaks for all levels of skiers and riders, the same was bound to happen naturally in our Bike Park. Snowshed is a great place to start and we offer lessons on our skills track to get participants comfortable before heading up the Snowshed Express Quad.”
Whistler’s Gravity Logic has consulted on the design and been engaged in building trails on the lower part of the mountain. For 2018, Killington has improved the beginner terrain, added the new Krusty Trail on Ramshead and extended riding hours.
“Killington went from having a handful of great trails that the locals loved, to being a bike park that can entertain first timers while drawing the best riders from all over the world,” says Jordan Newth, a West Rutland native whose professional downhill and enduro racing takes him around the country.
The Snowshed area has become a one-stop shop for anyone who wants an introduction to gravity riding. Take a high-speed quad swiftly to the top and you can roll down on wide, mellow trails, with names like Easy Street and Step it Up. Flanking the Ramshead’s lift are Blue and Black Magic, trails with the freeride flair of berms and tables. From the top of the K1 Gondola, expert riders seek out the challenge of The Beast’s chunky rock gardens while others prefer the alpine wilderness traverse of Solitude.
The 22,000 riders who visited the park on one July weekend alone in summer 2017 is proof that visitors are finding an option that is right for them. Kids with parents, packs of hard charging youth, and groups of friends often inter-mingle in the lift line. The 45-to-53 age group had the second-highest percentage ridership in the summer of 2017.
Still, it’s the “untamed” trails that Seamus Powell from Round Top, New York likes the most. Powell first raced at Killington in 2003, the year he began his pro cycling career. Since then, the four-time national champion in multiple disciplines (most recently winning the 2017 US Enduro National Championships) has ridden around the world.
“Every venue has its own flavor based on the terrain available, but the accessibility and variety of riding at Killington is up there with any park in the country,” he says. He returns to race at Killington every season for what he describes as the “roots, rocks and wet conditions that are quintessential Northeast riding.”
As good as the riding is, it is the social scene that Powell says makes Killington the place that he likes to go. “On any given weekend, I’ll see someone that I know, end up getting some food at the Umbrella Bars, or hanging out in a parking lot afterwards to talk about our day.”
In 2017, MTBVT, working with Killington, hosted the Vermont Bike & Brew festival, which debuted as the state’s first downhill festival. The Vermont Mountain Bike Festival at Ascutney and the New England Mountain Bike Association Festival (NEMBAFest) at Kingdom Trails focus on cross-country riding.
Marketed as the “Beer-Loving Mountain Bikers’ Dream Event,” the event lived up to its promise as one part riding, one part entertainment and one part antics. The weekend-long event drew 500 people of all ages and abilities for organized rides, live music and wacky activities, such as a skinny bridge pond-cross challenge and a critical mass downhill ride.
“Everyone was so stoked,” says Clifford, who came for the weekend and set up camp in the parking lot like many of the festival-goers. “There were revolving party laps at every lift. By the end of Saturday, I’m sure that most people had either connected with someone they already knew or met for the first time.”
The riding continued well after the lifts stopped, with a whip-off competition, trials, tricks and night rides, all fueled by live music by the local band, The CopOuts. The energy still didn’t end there. “Killington had a huge bonfire set up in the camping area and the revelry went well into the night,” Clifford remembers.
This year, the Vermont Bike & Brew festival again kicked off the summer season at Killington June 21-23, and in August 2018, the Fox US Open of Mountain Biking drew world class athletes for downhill and enduro racers to the resort. Says Newth: “It’s no coincidence that races like the US Open have decided to move their events to Killington. And, I don’t think that’s going to stop any time soon.”
Gravity Doesn’t Suck
In the past two years, resorts around the state have made a big push building out networks of downhill mountain trails with berms and jumps, flowy downhill runs and rental shops with all the gear you need. In 2017, Okemo cut the ribbon on new downhill trails. In 2018, Suicide Six opened the first miles of trails in a multi-year plan and this fall, Stratton will open its first lift-served trails.
If you’re interested in letting gravity do the work for you, make a weekend out of lift-served, downhill riding. You may want to rent a full suspension bike with disc brakes. If you plan on going at any speed, consider a full-face helmet, upper body protection, knee and shin pads. Fortunately, all this is available for rent at most downhill resorts for about $100 to $165 (for a rental downhill bike, all your gear and a day ticket.) Want to take the lift up and ride down? Here’s where to go:
The network of 100 miles of Kingdom Trails in East Burke is legendary. But right next door, Burke Mountain Resort’s downhill trails are best enjoyed at high speed. Whip through bermed turns and ride up walls on favorites like Knightslayer, Dead Moose Alley and the J-Bar trail. Novice downhillers can develop their skills on Shire and Roly Grail—all with views to Willoughby Gap and Jay Peak. If you need further encouragement, the downhilling at Burke has earned the recognition of MTBparks.com as one of the top five mountain bike parks in the Northeast. For more cross-country trails and human-powered climbs, check out the nearby Kingdom Trails network, which also features a kid-friendly pump track, across the street from the Kingdom Trails Association Welcome Center. Après-bike: Mike’s Tiki Bar, a funky, fresh-air, food truck-serviced bar with a great selection of local craft beer on draft. Catch some live music on select evenings during the summer. Local shop(s): East Burke Sports, Village Sports. Don’t miss: 2020 New England Mountain Biking Association Festival, June 26-28. Also, catch live music and sample local brews at Burke’s 2019 Bike ‘N’ Brew at Burke Mountain Resort, August 10. Cost: Day tickets are $40 for adults 15 and older Friday through Sunday, and $30 for children and seniors. Twilight tickets (2-6 p.m. on Sundays and 3-7 p.m. on Thursdays) are $20 for adults and $15 for children and seniors. Opening day: May 26. More info: skiburke.com
Killington offers 30 miles of downhill riding across five peaks with trails for the beginner, intermediate and advanced rider. The higher you go on the mountain, the more advanced the trails, with beginner and intermediate terrain located near the Snowshed and Ramshead areas. The lines are steep and the trails slash in and out of woods on trails designed by British Columbia trail builders Gravity Logic. Last summer, Killington unveiled its new Krusty Trail in the Ramshead
area, a 2.29 mile-long intermediate flow trail. Must ride: The Krusty Trail, Scarecrow, Gambler, Kon Tiki. Easiest trail: Anything in the Snowshed Express zone. Best cross-country trail: The mountain primarily features downhill trails, but cross-country style trails can be accessed in the South Ridge area or near Kent Pond in town. Après-bike: On-mountain, head for the Umbrella Bars or Preston’s. The Foundry offers craft cocktails and pond-front seating. TheLookout Tavern is a local staple, and features burgers and a great craft beer selection. Local shop(s): Alpine Bike Works, The Basin. Don’t miss: Vermont Bike ,N Brew, June 21-23. Maxis Eastern States Cup Box Showdown, Aug. 3-4. Cost: Day tickets are $60 for adults, and $40 for kids. More info: killington.com
Okemo made its first foray into lift-accessed riding last summer with four miles of downhill trails within easy reach of the main base area. These trails cater to beginner and intermediate riders as they weave in and out of pockets of forests from the top of Quad A to the bottom. The trails are suited for a variety of mountain bikes (no full suspension downhill rig needed here), making them perfect for any rider looking to start easy, or to develop skills before moving on to harder terrain. Must ride: The Spur, Black Eyed Katy. Easiest Trail: The Green Mile. Best cross-country trail: Uphill travel is not allowed on Okemo’s trails. Après-bike: Grab some Mexican, Cajun fusion food featuring locally sourced ingredients at the Mojo Café in Ludlow, and cocktails at Main + Mountain. Local shop: Mountain Cycology in Ludlow. Don’t miss: Hops in the Hills, August 2-3. Cost: $35 per day for adults (13 and older) and $25 per day for juniors (ages seven to 12), and free for kids six and under. Opening day: June 23. More info: okemo.com
Thirty-two years ago, Vermont’s southernmost ski area was among the first to open its lifts and trails to mountain bikes. After hosting years of elite-level NORBA races, the resort’s 12-mile trail system continues to challenge all types of riders. For cross-country riders, the Base Loop is a fun, introductory loop. Downhill riders use the Canyon Express to access popular trails like Gateway, which, at 2.5 free-flowing miles is one of longest introductory downhill trails in the East. For those who like to use their full-body armor, Swamp Donkey offers a steep expert ride with large jumps and tall berms and winds in and out of the trees. This trail offers the opportunity for some air. You can rent both bikes and full-body armor at the base.
Must ride: Swamp Donkey. Best cross-country trail: XC Base Loop. Easiest trail: Gateway. Après-bike: Pizzas and small-batch brews at Pizzapalooza & Beer Naked Brewery in Wilmington, or grab some fresh fried pickles, fried cheese curds and craft cocktails after your ride at One More Time (OMT) Billiards Parlor in West Dover. Local shop: Mount Snow Sports at the Grand. Don’t miss: Eastern States Cup Downhill Finals, October 13-14. Cost: $44 for one adult day ticket, $30 for one youth day ticket. Opening day: May 26. More info: mountsnow.com
One of Vermont’s most family-friendly ski areas keeps its mountain bike focus on kids. Smuggs offers a two-acre downhill skills park with 350 feet of vertical drop. Kids can ride a magic carpet up, then test skills on two flow trails, a rock garden and a jump line. For those looking to learn, the mountain offers clinics for kids, families and a park-skills clinic. The resort has a fleet of full-suspension, hardtail, cruiser and even strider bikes for the littlest riders. In addition to the existing 15 miles of beginner and intermediate doubletrack, trail builders are restoring overgrown downhill alpine trails and plan to connect the resort’s doubletrack and singletrack trails to the Brewster River Mountain Bike Club trails. Must ride: Dale’s Trail, West Woodrun, Watson’s Wanderer. Best cross-country trail: Uphill traffic is allowed on Country Road Climb, Salmon Run, and all of the easiest trails in the park. Après-bike: Barbeque at Brewster River Pub & Brewery. Local shop: Smugglers’ Notch’s MTB Park & Bike Shop. Cost: $15 for one adult day ticket. Opening Day: May 26. More info: smuggs.com.
If you ride the Super Bravo Express Quad, here’s the reward: Sugarbush’s 18 miles of trails weave in and out of the woods of Lincoln Peak on narrow singletrack. With sweeping views of the Mad River Valley, the 37 trails include long, technical descents and freeride features. You can challenge yourself at Lincoln Peak or sign up for a learn-to-ride clinic. The mountain features five beginner trails and 16 intermediate and difficult trails. Must ride: Domino Chute, Burly Maple. Easiest trail: For a long descent on easier trails, try taking the Super Bravo Express Quad to the Valley House Traverse. From there, take the Reverse Traverse and Heaven’s Gate to Lower Downspout and The Runout. Best cross-country trail: For a serious climb without the aid of a chairlift, try the Lincoln Peak to Castlerock Loop. This expert lap covers 2,237 vertical feet over the summit of Lincoln Peak. The Mt. Ellen Summit Trail is an intermediate route that climbs 2,600 vertical feet to the summit of Mt. Ellen. Après-bike: Castlerock Pub at the base of Lincoln Peak features favorite local craft beers like Lawson’s Finest Liquids, Hill Farmstead, Frost Brewing, along with Vermont farm-raised burgers topped with local cheeses. Local shop: Stark Mountain Bike Works. Don’t miss: Eastern States Cup East Coast Showdown, July 15. Cost: $40 per day for adults 19 and up,$24 per day for youth 7-18, and free for kids 6 and under. Opening day: June 23. More info: sugarbush.com
This July, Suicide Six plans to unveil the first three miles of trails in its new lift-served Elemental Bike Park. “We’ll start out with blue, flowy trails,” says Suicide Six’s Nick Mahood, “with some jumps and small features.” In the plans are another three miles of trails, two pump tracks, a strider park for kids, a skills development area and downhill trails and jump lines for more advanced riders. The resort, owned by The Woodstock Inn & Resort, has been planning the park for more than two years and trail builder Sinuosity has been hard at work. “We’ll have the Vermont Symphony Orchestra playing here on July 1 with fireworks and it would be great to open it by then,” says ski area manager Tim Reiter. Suicide Six is also a sponsor of the Vermont Mountain Bike Festival, and a VMBAFest ticket will include free access to the lifts and a Friday night guided ride. For pedal-accessed trails, the Woodstock Inn also maintains some new downhill trails in the Mount Peg area. A fleet of premium Santa Cruz and Kona bikes in all sizes (kids too) will be available at the base. Must ride: The new flow trail has yet to be named. Best cross-country trail: Had over to Mt. Peg and scream down Cloud Drop. Après-bike: Grab a local burger at the Worthy Kitchen or at the Tavern at Woodstock Inn. Don’t Miss: Vermont Mountain Bike Festival, July 27-29, which will include a pass to ride the lifts at Suicide Six. Cost: $40 for adults, $20 for juniors. More info: mtbs6.com