By Hilary Delross
It was late Saturday afternoon last July and a beast of a summer storm was rolling in fast. Packs of riders were racing it back to basecamp, heading for shelter in the lodge at Sugarbush’s Mt. Ellen. Bike company reps wrestled pop up tents to the ground amidst a deluge of wind and rain. Most riders made their way inside unscathed and lined up for first dibs on Nashville hot chicken and corn on the cob. A band started up in the back of the pub. In the hour or so it took to clean our plates, the storm passed through and the party rocked on.
As the clouds parted and rays of evening sun lit up the grassy base area, four simultaneous games of cornhole got underway. The deck quickly became a dance floor complete with laser lights and a DJ spinning classic party anthems. Riders quenched their thirst with brews from Citizen Cider and Long Trail, a little liquid courage to those who were going to tackle the mountain bike Olympics.
Kids had the first go around the course, and showed off their skills, evoking envy from adults. Next up, a crowd-pleasing how-slow-can-you-go race before the main attraction—grown men and women tackling obstacles on tot-sized Huffys. Kids started hurling water balloons at the competitors in their final laps. Pretty soon my sides were sore from laughing so hard.
The rest of me was sore as well. I’d been riding some of the 45 miles of trails that criss-cross the Mad River Valley and, in the name of progression, joined group rides I expected would be slightly above my comfort zone. I was curious to try the intermediate Revolution and Evolution trails behind American Flatbread at Lareau Farm—mostly because they’re named after my favorite flatbreads on the menu. The climb was tough but worth the long downhill, which was flowy and fun.
As the night sky darkened, folks gathered around the bonfire. Others drifted off to their tents in the primitive camping area, to hotel rooms or condos at Lincoln Peak or nearby B&Bs. I was ready to tuck in early so I’d be up in time for sunrise yoga and Sunday’s rides.
Three years earlier I learned to mountain bike at the Blueberry Lake trails in Warren, after a friend convinced me to take a full day clinic for beginners. That summer, I spent the reminder of evenings after work stuffing my shoddy, second-hand hard tail into the back of my car to figure out the figure-eight-shaped trail network. I practiced skills I picked up in the clinic—looking ahead, cornering, hovering, and climbing—on the smooth beginner and intermediate trails next to the lake. I was instantly hooked and I wanted to progress my skills and explore some new terrain, but what I really needed was to find a community that would support my progression.
Enter the Vermont Mountain Bike Festival—a weekend-long, one-stop-shop for all things mountain biking and, for me, an integral experience for getting oriented to this remarkable sport.
In its early years, the Vermont Mountain Bike Association noted a growing interest from chapters around the state to host this annual event at different locations to showcase their trail networks. During its first years, several hundred riders descended upon, and up, Perry Hill where Stowe Mountain Bike Club (SMBC) hosted an early iteration of the festival. Riders could catch shuttles to Stowe and Waitsfield from the Waterbury trail head, which is now managed by Waterbury Area Trails Alliance (WATA). The festival quickly outgrew that infrastructure and moved to Mount Ascutney, home of Sports Trails of the Ascutney Basin (STAB). (If you find yourself speaking in acronyms, consider yourself indoctrinated.) After three years, the festival moved again, this time to Mad River Riders’ territory.
After my first festival, 2015 at Ascutney, I was hooked and headed to Sugarbush last year for more. Driving up to the festival and seeing cars parked, driverless for days on end, was nothing short of dreamy. People were moving about on bikes or on foot. The cars, once they were parked, were simply serving as mobile gear lockers for the weekend.
At registration, I picked up my wrist band and new t-shirt, snapped a few photos of the ride and clinic schedules to keep handy, and decided which were a good fit for my goals and skill level. I made a beeline over to the sign-up table to get on the appropriate lists before they filled up, then checked out the selection of demo bikes available in my size. I had a blast on Specialized’s Stumpjumper Fattie with 3” wide tires and a dropper seat post, their ladies’ specific Rhyme, and the aptly named Liv Lust, which I purchased soon after the festival.
The clinics made a big impact to my riding. Meridith McFarland, an International Mountain Bike Association-certified downhill instructor at Sugarbush, was leading a clinic. I had taken a downhill lesson with her at Lincoln Peak the year before and knew she’d help me step up my game. The main payout this time was learning how to load up my front suspension to gracefully get up and over obstacles, which in this case were six-inch high wooden boxes and bridges. This beginner group happened to be all women and we were stoked to see each other progress through the challenges.
We then practiced what we learned out on a group ride, putting our education (do you know your mountain bike ABC’s?), etiquette (uphill riders have the right of way), and skill development (tackling obstacles) to work on the demo trail, Sugar Run.
The success of the festival is due largely to Vermont’s stellar riding scene and more than 750 miles of
trails. As mountain biking has grown in popularity, the Vermont Mountain Biking Association has helped usher in a new era of advocacy for trail building. VMBA works to keep mountain biking growing in Vermont in a way that’s sustainable for all stakeholders. In the past 20 years it has grown to include almost 4,000 members and 27 chapters around the state and is now affiliated with organizations in Maine, New Jersey and New York.
As the umbrella organization, VMBA provides administrative assistance such as insurance, membership benefits and advocacy. Of the $50 cost for an individual membership, 84 percent goes right back to the chapters for trail grants (such as the grant for a mile and a half of new trail slated for Blueberry Lake this season) and chapter services (such as mailing out the yellow membership strips we wear on our bikes to show our support). It also helps chapters work with land owners to provide access and link trails. Consider this: the 45 miles of trails in the Mad River Valley cross two state forests, a national forest, and countless private and municipal lands. Leveraging partnerships allows local, volunteer-run chapters to focus on navigating trail maintenance.
In the last few years, VMBA has worked closely with chapters to develop a statewide trail map and to make trail conditions available on the app TrailHub. It has also partnered with other trail organizations such as the Catamount Trail Association and with local businesses to create VOICe, the Vermont Outdoor Industry Coalition, to get both public funds and private support for trail building. According to VMBA’s Executive Director, Tom Stuessy, VMBA is the only state-wide mountain bike organization of its kind in the country.
On Sunday, when the downhill enduro at Lincoln Peak and group rides throughout the Valley were finished, we headed back to basecamp for one last bite from The Mad Taco’s food truck. As I cleaned up my bike and got ready to leave, a guy in the car next to mine was pulling on the festival t-shirt. It could have been the cleanest piece of clothing he had left, or a badge from a weekend of bonding over bikes.
As I drove off, I thought about all I’d learned. I gained new skills, made friends, and discovered OWL energy bars, but the biggest takeaway came from the last line in Mad River Riders’ trail rules: “Remember to share gracefully, smile widely and appreciate often.”
Featured photo by John Atkinson