Linda Freeman, Barre Montpelier Times Argus
August 29, 2010

Twenty years ago the mountain biking image was murky: mud-covered riders on squatty bikes with chunky tires who rode slap-dash, perhaps in places where they shouldn’t be, and left behind some chewed up ground and broken vegetation. Today mountain biking has a sexy, marketable new image.

Glimpses of shiny mountain bikes and smiling riders promote everything from cars to medication. Photos of pricey bikes on picturesque trails invite tourists to enjoy a stay in an area that encourages outdoor recreation. Vermont is one of those places. Tourism is an industry and mountain bike trails offer a valuable commodity. Potential visitors looking to see what the state has to offer will be persuaded to visit if there are safe and appealing recreational opportunities for each member of the family.

Rick Sokoloff, president and co-founder of the Stowe Mountain Bike Association, looks back on ten years of Vermont’s mountain bike history.

Organizing the mountain bike community has been a process. Speaking of the early days, Sokoloff said: “At the time there was no organized trail group and we were having issues with losing trails. Property prices were going higher. New owners would come up from down country with different ideas of access. Years ago we never had a concern. People let you go pretty much anywhere. We knew everybody, everybody knew us and it was all fine. Now we’ve got a lot of new people coming into town and they have concerns for liability, privacy or whatever their concerns were.”

VMBA, or the Vermont Mountain Bike Association is a non-profit statewide organization formed to promote trail advocacy of the many multi-use trails in the state. The twenty local chapters share similar stories. “We started to focus our efforts on state and town land knowing that we were one land sale away from losing access to private property,” Sokoloff said.

Partners in this huge effort include Tom Harks, founding president of the Vermont Youth Conservation Corps whose organization provides trail-building effort. Patrick Kell, VMBA President and Executive Director and Hardy Avery, co-founder of SMBC and renowned New England trail designer, are just a few of the prominent individuals whose dedication provides the sustaining labor that results in the legitimacy of the mountain bike community.

Trails make or break the mountain biking experience. At one time bikers used old logging roads or simply rode across fields and called that mountain biking. Not so anymore. “Today nobody does that,” Sokoloff said. “The bikes are too expensive. The components are too expensive. It’s not the experience we’re looking for.” The old roads were typically too steep and riders were commonly filthy with mud and water. “People think of mountain bikers as trashing the countryside,” Sokoloff said. “Might have been true 25 years ago, but not today.”

There’s a hefty price tag on building good trails. You need a professionally designed master plan, equipment, thousands of hours of labor and then continuous maintenance. It’s costly and it’s serious, but if you do it right, trails are here to stay. “We’re building a legacy,” Sokoloff said.

“People flock to our trails because of the flow. Trails need to be purpose-built. Building trails is all about controlling water. Every 10 feet we have a rolling grade reversal,” – little roller coasters that keep shedding water off the trail. Controlled water extends the season while meticulous trail maintenance insures quality rides.

“The infrastructure is here. Economy is focused on tourism,” Sokoloff said. “This is a way to support the greater community as well as our own.”

A marriage of the ski industry and the mountain bike community is a no-brainer. Initial attempts by ski areas to offer mountain biking failed. They offered lift rides up for riders and their bikes who would then bike down – a recipe for a disappointing experience at best. “Without a purpose-built trail,” Sokoloff said, “it becomes suicidal. People just hurt themselves and destroy their bikes. It’s crazy.” Trails must be designed for a range of abilities in order for ski resorts to attract summer visitors from vacationing families to expert cyclists seeking new challenges and terrain.

Often there is a call for easy trails. The Trapp Family Lodge, for example, is building “phenomenal trails, so well-groomed they are not intimidating for an easy rider,” Sokoloff said. “If the spouse that doesn’t want to ride or the kids are getting into it, it is absolutely the best place. An advanced rider can just enjoy them in a different way.”

What does the future of mountain bike trails look like? The Ride Center concept is a “network of trails that would serve all users, built to the highest of standards and with low impact,” Sokoloff said. Rather than a physical facility, the concept includes clusters of trails throughout the state which can be grouped together into multi-day experiences for visitors.

With a massive new trail building plan for Adams Camp (an area put into conservation for recreation), a parcel of 513 acres will greatly enhance the biking opportunities. Adams Camp extends from Little River State Park, through the Cotton Brook area, Trapp’s and to the Mansfield touring Center. “We are now creating a destination mountain bike area. The whole region is becoming interesting,” Sokoloff said.

An address list for members of the Stowe Mountain Bike Club reaches beyond Vermont borders to Massachusetts, Maryland, Colorado, Canada and Alaska. Over 400 families enjoy the organized group rides and kids programs that SMBC offers. “Kids love it,” Sokoloff said. “Want to get them to enjoy nature? Want to get them out in the woods away from the Xbox? Put them on a mountain bike.”

Other VMBA chapters are experiencing similar growth and enthusiasm. Ask a mountain biker why he rides and the answer will probably be, “because it’s FUN.”

Linda Freeman is a certified personal trainer and director of personal training at First in Fitness in Berlin and Montpelier.

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