The best views of a Vermont summer? From a bike
A thriving bike culture can be directly correlated to a city’s degree of coolness. Anyone who doesn’t think so should consider the über-coolness of the world’s predominant cycling cities: Copenhagen, Amsterdam, Paris, Tokyo and Portland, Oregon. For whatever reason, places that promote cycling also seem to have vital arts communities, good health and great bars in which to hang out with fellow bikers. Paris and Tokyo may not be squeaky-clean and green, but compared to the car mentality that dominates much of the United States, they’re doing all right. Scooters, subcompact cars and viable public transportation, in addition to bicycles, are widespread. And where else can stylish women be seen commuting on bicycles dressed to the nines, including high heels?
That’s not the case in Burlington, at least not when I’m there. But if the turnout for the New England premiere of the mountain-bike film Seasons is any indication, the city is on the right track. More than 450 people showed up for the film’s May 10 showing at the Main Street Landing Film House.
Around and beyond Burlington, a diverse range of cyclists take to the two-wheeler for multiple reasons: transportation or exercise, thrill-seeking or pure recreation. And, of course, competition. Accordingly, there are enough formal or informal groups around Vermont to meet the needs of anyone who identifies with cycling culture. Whether devoted to mountain or road biking, urban riding, commuting, racing or advocacy, these groups are always open to new members.
Public roads may be fair game for riding, but it’s not a given for public forestland. Thanks to the Vermont Mountain Bike Association and its affiliate clubs, that’s beginning to change. VMBA chapters such as Fellowship of the Wheel, MAMBA and Stowe Mountain Bike Club are legitimizing old trails where bikes were previously banned, and securing permission to build more trails on public lands.
FOTW’s Hinesburg Town Forest and Stowe Mountain Bike Club’s Perry Hill Trails in Waterbury were both gray-area trails at the time they were built, but are now on the up-and-up due to the efforts of VMBA. According to Executive Director Patrick Kell, the organization is currently negotiating with multiple landowners in hopes of eventually tying together trails from Little River State Park in Waterbury to the Cotton Brook network and Trapp Family Lodge in Stowe, and all the way into Jeffersonville. Formerly a volunteer-only group, VMBA has been making serious headway since signing Kell as its first paid employee.
As its participants become more established, so does the sport. Mountain biking as we know it has been around close to 30 years now and, finally, grown-ups who know how to go through proper channels and paperwork have been securing access to national, state and private lands, as well as grant money, at a rate that would have been unheard of in the not-so-distant past of renegade trail building.
There’s even a VMBA Landowner Support Fund, which shelters private landowners from litigation. While Vermont law (12 V.S.A. §5793) limits liability for recreational land use, landowners are not immune to willful and wanton misconduct suits, which require an attorney to get dismissed under the law. By defraying the cost of the occasional frivolous lawsuit, the VMBA Fund removes a substantial obstacle to obtaining permission for land use.
Efforts like these could help make our state as much a mountain-bike destination in the summer as it is a ski Mecca in the winter. Unlike most ball sports, which tend to have more spectators than participants, mountain biking is a fitness activity that entire families can enjoy together, be it casual day trip or outdoor-oriented vacations in summer and fall. And the seasonal maintenance of most trail systems requires less fuel and public budget than does a single softball field.
There are many kinds of trails and, not surprisingly, a corresponding array of different bikes. When most people think of mountain biking, they picture a typical cross-country bike — knobby tires a couple of inches wide and front suspension. Designed to be lightweight and efficient on smooth to moderate trails, these bikes leave something to be desired on steeper, more technical terrain, where both front and rear suspension with more travel, bigger tires and slacker handling go a long way to smooth out the rocks, roots and dropoffs of more challenging terrain.
This is where the “all mountain” category comes in, which is probably best suited to the terrain of Vermont and the way most people ride. These bikes have dual-suspension designs that are relatively efficient for pedaling, with travel in between cross-country and downhill bikes, somewhere around 5 inches. Weight-wise, they’re also right in the middle at just over 30 pounds.
The aforementioned “downhill bikes” are on the opposing end of the mountain-bike spectrum relative to cross-country. Imagine a dirt bike without the motor and you’ll be pretty close to a downhill bike. So-called “gravity” riding — which is all about descending — works best with special bikes weighing in excess of 40 pounds, with huge tires and very long suspension travel and limited gearing, since they’re only intended to be pedaled down hills. Elbow and kneepads, chest-protectors and full-face helmets are the norm.
Like baseball players and motocross racers, riders on this side of mountain biking are skilled and strong, but they are not endurance athletes the way cross-country mountain bikers, road racers or marathon runners are. Since the best gravity riding is lift-accessed at ski resorts, abstinence, self-denial and suffering are not required. Still, an aversion to breaking yourself or your equipment will seriously hinder progress in this category. When they’re not injured and their bikes aren’t broken, downhillers are probably having the most fun.
If sessioning jumps and learning new tricks is your thing, you probably already know that freestyle is making a comeback. Remember that ’80s bike movie Rad? BMX and freestyle riding have changed since then, but the basic idea is the same — guys throwing airs, bonks, grinds, tailwhips, and flips all over the place on small “flickable” bikes with 20-inch wheels. Though BMX is not as popular in this part of the country as elsewhere, mountain biking is absorbing elements of the style in the growing dirt-jumping/park scene.
Dirt jumping and park riding mix the freestyle sensibility of BMX biking, snowboarding and skateboarding with 26-inch-wheel mountain bikes. A dirt-jump park is like a motocross track for bikes — a collection of carefully sculpted terrain features including big banked corners, called berms, and tall jumps with near-vertical takeoffs and landings. Bikes are allowed at the Burlington Skate Park on the Waterfront, as well as during a single weekly time slot at Talent Skate Park in South Burlington.
While skate parks and ski resorts are easy to find, the trails used by the largest segment of mountain bikers aren’t. You won’t find any roadside signs for most trailheads, and published maps of trail systems are few and far between. Local bike shops can direct you toward some of the better-known spots, but let’s face it, quality riding zones don’t create and maintain themselves. If you want the full scoop on the local dirt scene, get involved with your local club — show up for some group rides and pitch in when trail-work days come around.
• Fellowship of the Wheel — A Chittenden County mountain-bike club. The website says it all: “So, what would mountain biking in Chittenden County look like without the efforts of Fellowship of the Wheel? In a word, ‘minimal.’ Most of the singletrack in the area would not exist without the dedicated constant efforts of FOTW.” Meet other mountain bikers, ride new trails, and learn to build and maintain them. http://www.fotwheel.org.
• Bliss Racing Team — A youth-development racing team, directed by FOTW founder Hans Jenny and Phelan Fretz, now expanding to include road biking. Bliss riders swept the top three spots of Catamount’s Flower Power Race in the Men’s 4-lap division May 18th. http://www.blissracingteam.com.
• Stowe Mountain Bike Club — Maintains an extensive trail network including the famous Perry Hill trails in Waterbury and the Stowe Dirt Jump Park. http://www.stowemtnbike.com.
• Montpelier Area Mountain Bike Association — Offers Tuesday night group rides and a laid-back weekly race series, including kids’ races, at Morse Farm. http://www.bikemamba.org.
• Catamount Family Center — Offers beginner and family-friendly mountain-bike terrain, rentals and dirt jumps, as well as the country’s oldest, longest-running weekly race series of its kind. Races include kids’ categories and are on Wednesday nights through August 27. Check the web for start times. http://www.catamountoutdoor.com.
People buy road bikes because they allow a great aerobic workout without the impact of running — an activity far less likely than cycling to make you shout, “Woo-hoo!” Slick tires less than an inch wide and curved “drop” handlebars distinguish road bikes. They are the Ferraris of the cycling world.
Top-of-the-line road bikes are super-light (around 15 pounds) and shift with the utmost precision. They feature frame designs that are both torsionally stiff and vertically compliant, optimizing power transfer while retaining some comfort for those bumpy, 5-hour century rides. But no matter how nice the bike, many would-be road cyclists miss out on the full experience because they’re intimidated by group rides.
Road cycling without group rides is like off-road riding without trails — just see how fun it is to ride your mountain bike around in uncleared woods or fields. About as much fun as riding your bike down the highway all alone. An exception might be made for serious training, but that’s usually preparation for group riding, anyway. After all, a road race is a group ride with an eventual winner — and you don’t get to stop at the bakery halfway through.
Although road cycling is inherently social and appears simple, it is demanding in terms of specific skills and fitness. For starters, riding with your front wheel less than 6 inches behind the next rider’s rear wheel. That’s the ideal distance for drafting — with a rotation of riders plowing through the wind while the others rest in tow, a pack can go faster than a lone rider can, while only doing a fraction of the work.
Pulling this off in single file takes practice. One overlapped wheel and an unpredictable swerve can cause a chain reaction of crashes. Using the brakes, especially without warning, is verboten. Add another line of riders at 6 inches shoulder-to-shoulder and you’ve got a double pace line; that’s when the fun really starts. Put riders on all sides and you’ve got a full-on peloton, ebbing and flowing down the road like some kind of self-propelled landslide.
A fast and disciplined group keeps it tight at speeds averaging more than 20 mph (reaching up into the fifties on descents), all the while negotiating cracks wider than their tires, roadkill, potholes, broken glass and the occasional hostile or erratic motorist. The last thing roadies want to worry about is an erratic fellow rider.
Most bike shops and clubs sponsor weekly group rides, so it’s not that road bikers are unwelcoming; in fact, they’re always looking for more people to ride with. But they do trust their skin — literally — to the other riders. If you’re willing to accept that practice is required and some etiquette must be learned, any number of local groups can help get you started. Besides, how scary can a bunch of exercise junkies clad in garish Lycra be?
• Montpelier Ladies’ Ride — An Onion River Sports-sponsored ride. Check the shop for a full list of weekly evening rides. 229-9409, http://www.onionriversports.com.
• Green Mountain Bike Club — Offers well-attended weekly group rides, the USCF sanctioned Racquet’s Edge Practice Criterium Series, with three categories (including an intro race), as well as a Time Trial Series. http://www.thegmbc.com.
• Green Mountain Stage Race (August 29 – September 1) — A four-day Pro-Am stage race with men’s, women’s, junior and citizen races. The first three days take place in the Mad River Valley, wrapping up with the Burlington Criterium, which starts and finishes in front of City Hall Park. http://www.gmsr.info.
• Stowe Bike Club — An affiliate of the Stowe Nordic Outing Club, the group puts on a laid-back Wednesday night Time Trial Series, with periodic cookouts following TTs. Check the website for race and cookout locations. http://www.stowetimes.org.
• Mad River Riders — Includes both mountain and road biking, offers Thursday night group road ride, Time Trial Series, Tuesday night group trail rides, and maintains nearly 50 miles of trail in the Mad River Valley. http://www.madriverriders.com.
URBAN RIDING, COMMUTING AND TOURING
Due to the efforts of a substantial core of dedicated cyclists and advocates, such as Burlington’s Local Motion, bike lanes and community recreation paths — like the ones in Burlington and Stowe — are popping up all over. These public initiatives make utility cycling more feasible, too, and with gas prices rising, more people are warming to the idea of biking to work.
On the other hand, there are those who revel in riding the tides of thick city traffic. Getting from point A to point B can be quicker on a bike than it ever could be in a car — that’s why bike messengers still exist in places like Boston and New York. In fact, big-city bike messengers have provided inspiration for a sub-sub-culture of hardcore urban riders all around the country.
Considered a bike counterculture by some, trendy and faddish by others, messenger-style riding has three main ingredients: image, fixed-gear bikes and skill. As long as you’re not dressed in business casual or in your race team’s matching Spandex, you’re probably all right, image-wise. Tattoos and scars are a definite plus, though.
Fixed-gear bikes — a.k.a. “fixies” — are next on the list. When playing in traffic (or, ahem, commuting) with a normal bike gets easy and boring, it’s time to get a fixed gear. A fusion of track racing and road bikes, a fixed gear is a simple single-speed machine that doesn’t coast. Since they can be slowed down to some extent by applying back pressure to the pedals, fixie riders tend to run no brakes or only a front brake for emergencies.
Obviously, riding a single-speed bike that doesn’t coast with minimal braking takes a good deal of skill, especially at high speeds through city traffic. To pull it off with style, there are two signature moves that every fixie rider needs to learn. First is skidding, the primary means of stopping. This is accomplished by transferring weight to the front wheel and locking up your legs to skid the rear wheel, bringing the bike to an eventual stop. The second is the trackstand — maybe the only thing that’s easier to do on a fixie than on a normal bike. The art of balancing in one place, or rocking slightly back and forth, with both feet on the pedals, this technique allows for quicker starts at light changes, and beckons all within view to take heed of the skills on display.
While fixie riding doesn’t really lend itself to formal organization, a loosely affiliated group of fixed-gear enthusiasts, who refer to themselves as the Skidmore Academy, recently held a messenger-style alleycat race, the May 17 Rush-More fixed-gear race. Word of mouth, a few blog posts and some fliers made it happen.
Another messenger adaptation, alleycat races are unsanctioned competitions that don’t have set courses, but rather revolve around a number of checkpoints that racers have to locate and navigate between. Good traffic skills and knowing the shortcuts and landmarks are more important than strong legs and lungs. Races are usually followed by trackstand and skidding contests.
By no means limited to competitive athletes, cycling culture has always been filled with self-reliant non-conformists. Aspiring lobbyists, naked bike riders, non-coasters, pedestrian safety educators, and antique cycling re-enactors who don’t quite fit in elsewhere should find a home among the following organizations.
• Alleycat Racing — A DIY hybrid of bike racing and scavenger hunt, the recent Rush-More race had a fun, low-key atmosphere. Keep your ear to the ground or ask your fellow fixie rider for future Skidmore Academy gatherings. Then again, there’s nothing stopping you from holding your own.
• Local Motion — The Burlington-based, member-driven advocacy group recently unveiled the Trail Finder (http://www.localmotion.org/trails), an online guide to 77 walking, hiking, and mountain biking trails in Chittenden County. LM also successfully advocated the Burlington and Colchester trail bridge, connecting the Burlington Bike Path to the Colchester Causeway to create a 12-mile recreation path. http://www.localmotion.org.
• Vermont Bicycle and Pedestrian Coalition — Responsible for “Share the Road” bumper stickers and radio PSAs, this member-driven, state-level advocacy group has plenty to celebrate, with the new Federal Transportation Bill bringing more than $29 million for bicycling and walking in Vermont. http://www.vtbikeped.org
• Cabot Roamers on Tour — Introduces Cabot-area kids ages 9-17 to distance touring, commuting to school and recreational road riding. Hosts group rides with kids and adults. Accepts donations of rideable bikes. Contact Mark Bromley at 563-2374 or Kathleen Hoyne at 563-3338.
• Freeride Montpelier — Hosts weekly maintenance clinics at its headquarters on Barre Street in Montpelier, and coordinates Montpelier’s contribution to the annual “World Naked Bike Ride,” this year leaving from Freeride on June 7 at 2 p.m. http://www.freeridemp.wordpress.com, http://www.montpeliernakedbikeride.org.
• The Wheelmen — A national club for vintage bicycle enthusiasts, the club promotes the restoration and riding of vintage bikes, especially high-wheelers. The Vermont chapter will conduct a vintage cycling exhibition at the Vermont History Expo in Tunbridge on June 21, and will ride in the Labor Day Parade in Northfield on September 1. Local contact is Ernie Gallegos (vtjackjumper@ aol.com). http://www.thewheelmen.org.