A mere decade ago, mountain biking in Stowe was the purview of a group of small but dedicated hobbyists, the local branch of a growing subculture around the country.
Like snowboarding in the early 1990s, the explosion of mountain biking in the United States first brought with it the kind of renegade image leant to many extreme sports.
But the sport has changed. The Volvos, Subarus and pick-up trucks that once parked next to trail networks around the country now share space with BMWs and Audis, minivans and SUVs. Riders cruise on thousand-dollar carbon fiber-frame bikes before returning to day jobs as lawyers and doctors. Kids are giving the sport a try.
It’s a change that has been felt in Stowe, and at the Stowe Mountain Bike Club.
“In talking to real estate agents, the first question a lot of them get asked now is, ‘How close is this property to mountain bike trails?’” said Ron Murray of iRide, a bike shop on Mountain Road.
The sport is growing differently in Stowe — a tourist and second-home destination — than in many other parts of Vermont, say long-time riders. And it has brought with it a host of growing pains, from increased traffic to a less exclusive vibe for local riders.
But those are challenges that can be overcome, said club President Jay Provencher.
“The number one thing is sustainability,” Provencher said. “Without sustainability nothing works. We are at the point now where it makes sense to have a paid employee to run the club, but we can’t even get people to join the club. People can hop on a bike and ride any time.”
The way it was
Over 20 years ago, the sport was in its infancy here, said former Stowe Mountain Bike Club President Rick Sokoloff.
“We were basically riding logging roads, or any kind of deer path in the woods,” he said.
In the early years, Sokoloff and friends cleared trails by simply raking the leaves out of the way and riding a section long enough to pack it down, he said.
For a long time, local riders had informal agreements with property owners to use their land. If only a few bikers were riding on a parcel, the landowner didn’t seem to mind.
“It was kind of like more of a secret handshake,” Murray said.
That all changed around 10 years ago, Sokoloff said, when experienced trail builders, including Hardy Avery, started to apply advanced techniques to building trails. The Stowe Mountain Bike Club emerged around the same time, and quality improved, but guaranteeing trails on private property was becoming a challenge.
“We were always one land sale away from losing a trail,” Sokoloff said.
The group switched its focus to public land, working with the Stowe Land Trust to preserve access to Adams Camp and Cady Hill Forest, among other properties, and thereby staking out the future of the sport here.
The change, in part, comes from local inns and resorts, which have gotten over their initial skepticism of mountain biking as a tool to draw summer business, said Ed Stahl, executive director of the Stowe Area Association.
“It’s definitely growing, and we’re all excited about it,” Stahl said.
For the first time, the sport is becoming monetized here. Trapp Family Lodge is now offering mountain biking programs, and charging a rate for accessing trails, like ski areas do.
Last year, when the Stowe Land Trust worked out the purchase of the 258-acre Cady Hill Forest, complete with miles of trails, Stowe’s tourist industry embraced the project as a win-win.
The Stowe Area Association now certifies certain inns as “bike friendly,” meaning they have space for bike storage and cleaning. One by one, they’re recognizing the potential for all types of riders to come to Stowe and spend money, Stahl said.
“We’re starting to market it more directly in terms of the Internet and in terms of working closely with the Stowe Mountain Bike Club,” he said.
Stahl said visitors now riding in Stowe often fall into one of three categories:
• People for whom “mountain biking is their ‘thing,’ like golf is some people’s ‘thing,’” he said. “Those people are looking for a destination to go to, where there is a trail system.” Many stay in Stowe and take day trips to other trail networks, like Kingdom Trails in Burke, Stahl said.
• People who come here on vacation and go mountain biking as one of their activities, often with their kids.
• People who hadn’t even previously thought about it, but end up going to a bike shop and giving it a try on a whim.
Stowe’s trail network will have to evolve, Stahl said, while keeping the hardcore riders happy.
“We definitely need to expand our beginner trail system, but one of the challenges is in talking to somebody that has been mountain biking for 15 years; their perception of a beginner trail and the perception for someone who is truly a beginner — there may be a disconnect there,” he said.
With Cady Hill and other projects, publicity and better-marked trails have brought traffic — and the problems that come with it.
“There was a group of the core riders that really wanted to keep their private stashes,” Sokoloff recalls. “But, over time, a lot of them came to realize that in order to do this, we have to open it up. It’s the only way to get funding.”
In recent years, the club has taken a big step by printing trail maps, outing the secret spots once reserved for those in the know. The catch was charging $10 for the maps to get more funding for the club.
Some riders still chafe at the idea of losing their secret riding spots, Murray and Provencher said. But if the sport is going to evolve in Stowe, it had to happen eventually.
“There’s always going to be curmudgeons” who wish trails were still secret,” Provencher said. “But when the sport gets legitimized as it has in Stowe, that’s not possible. Our challenge is finding a way to grow our base, to show people that riding here has value.”
The Stowe Mountain Bike Club charges only $30 a year for an individual membership. Family ($50) and corporate ($100) memberships are also available. Currently, the club has about 150 paying members.
Still, the club hasn’t reached a point where it can hire paid staff to maintain trails, write grants and do other work needed to expand the club.
“It’s just growing to the point where people are coming here to vacation, and the inns are getting filled, and people are going to the bars and going to the restaurants, and that’s great,” Provencher said. “But the downside is we probably have 10 times as many people on the trails, and (the trails) are just getting pounded.”
The trails don’t build themselves, Murray said, and getting volunteers to maintain them — as well as making sure people don’t ride on muddy trails and ruin them — has been a challenge.
“I’ve had people come into the shop who would say, ‘You must be excited about the new trails at Cady Hill.’ But you know, some of those trails have been around for 20 years,” Murray said.
More riders means more work, and maintaining the DIY, community-driven culture of mountain biking here is becoming perhaps the biggest log for the club to clear. A group of volunteers from the bike club continues to reach out to people for help, but more are always needed (see related story).
“It’s getting people to realize, if you’re throwing your leg over a bike, you should be throwing your hands around a shovel,” Murray said. “Somebody has to build the trails you’re riding on.”