All Geared Up

Stratton adds new trails—this time for mountain biking

By Andrew Mckeever

“First and foremost, mountain biking is really, really fun.” That’s the bottom-line assessment made by Tony Bailey, the mountain bike manager at Stratton Mountain, of a sport the resort is making a big investment in, and carving out a set of new trails for enthusiasts that will be accessible from the American Express chairlift. It’s hard to argue with that, really. It’s exhilarating to cycle down a hill, or in this case, a mountain slope.

Photo by Hubert Schriebl

But that doesn’t mean that only daredevils or those who’ve racked up hours of biking experience need apply for a new challenge. Just like ski trails are rated in grades from beginner up to black diamond, there are degrees of difficulty in the 17 trails the resort is offering. The plan is to have eight trails opened this year, another four next year, and the rest the year after, creating all together about nine and a half miles of biking terrain, added Jeff Cavagnino, the mountain’s permitting and planning manager.

Photo by Keith Patrick

“We’re excited to get going,” he says. “It’s a lot of fun and something everyone can do with the whole family.” Jeff and Tony are the pair spearheading Stratton’s mountain biking efforts game in earnest.

Construction of the trails started in June and trails are now open. A lot of thought and planning has gone into the effort, Jeff says.

A Morristown, Vermont–based company, Sinuosity Flowing Trails, has been hired to design and build them, and the decision was quickly made to focus the trails on the mid-mountain stretch that fed off the American Express, rather than up at the top. They will cut across the existing ski trails and disappear back into the woods, he says.

“We’re being very careful about how the trails are constructed,” Jeff continued. “They’re being done with minimal impact to the environment.”

One factor leading them to focus on the middle of the mountain was to avoid the habitat of the Bicknell’s thrush, a rare bird species. But in addition, it’s also a little rocky up there, and building them down lower makes it easier for riders to use the Base Lodge area, Tony says.

Not disturbing animal habitats, and cutting down as few trees as possible, were priorities.

Brooke Scatchard is the co-owner and founder of Sinuosity. The process of making the trail network come to life is anything but random, he says. “Last summer we spent probably three weeks out here figuring it out,” Brooke says. “We started with a conceptual design a few years ago and then started figuring it out on the ground where everything would go and flagging trees.”

There will be four different levels of difficulty among the trails when all is said and done, ranging from beginner to advanced. Beginner trails will be smoother and wider with fewer rocks on the trails. Advanced riders can expect a trail that’s steeper, rockier, and with a few jumps thrown in, along a wooden structure like a ramp or bridge, he says.

“Our company has a unique style to building, so we’ll always build in a variety of features on every trail so people of different abilities can have fun riding the same trail,” he says. “The beginner trails will be family friendly as well as the intermediate ones—newer riders will be able to make their way through the trails.”

A survey sent out to Stratton pass holders a couple of years ago asking them what would bring them back to the mountain during the summer months revealed that mountain biking was high on the collective wish list. It was the kind of sport that offered something for everybody, for all members of a family, Tony says.

“It’s a great combination of a little bit of thrill and some exercise—it’s nice to be out in nature for sure,” he says. “The sport has grown over the past 10 years quite a bit and the technology that’s going into these bikes is getting better and better.” That translates into a faster learning curve for riders ranging from youngsters to those whose fingers haven’t gripped a handlebar in a while but who can still recall the fun and sense of freedom riding a bike around the neighborhood brought. The same holds true if you’re already an experienced rider looking for an upgrade in adventure and challenges.

Tony Bailey will also be managing the bike operations at First Run, a ski and outdoor experience outfitter located in Stratton Village, which will be the focal point for riders seeking to access the new mountain biking trails. This will be the first stop for the riders, as this will be where they will obtain their tickets. Bikers will be able to get on the trails two ways. One can take the American Express lift, which has been modified to carry four bikes at a time. Riders will roll their front wheel into the slot at the front of the carrier as it comes around at the bottom and then they will get on the next chair. Lift attendants will take the bikes off the carrier at the top.

Adult lift tickets for those 13 and older will cost $25, plus tax; those for children 12 and under will be $15 plus tax. But a $5 trail pass will also be offered for those riders who prefer to pedal to the top instead of riding the chairlift. Now that’s a workout.

First Run will also be a place to rent or buy bikes, or get lessons or repairs if needed and try out the new e-bikes available for rent. They also host group tours and rides that start at the South Londonderry Depot and go on to Winhall Brook  ampground via an old railroad line bed that are based on ability level. Selfguided tours are also available.

Tony is excited about where the trends in biking are headed. “It’s growing—more and more people are starting to buy bikes—the technology on the bikes keeps getting better and better, and the price for a high-quality bike has come down dramatically versus where it was 10 to 15 years ago,” he said. Enduro bikes are especially popular, he added. Enduro bikes occupy a middle ground between cross-country biking and downhill riding, and reward skill sets that cover both, from athletic fitness to skill and technique. A flexible bike, they’re outfitted with enough suspension to handle a variety of terrain.

“Because bike manufacturers continue to improve on suspension design, bikes that years ago were not very efficient to pedal can now be used for a lot of different things compared to what they could be in the past,” Tony says. Meanwhile the buzz around biking in all its varieties, from road to off-road to mountain, continues to advance, with more people reaching out on social media and expressing interest in buying a bike, he says.

“It’s catching on way faster than we had hoped, and we’re real excited to open these trails and get everyone out on bikes,” he added.

A visit with Tom Maneggia of Norse House, located adjacent to the Stratton Mountain Access Road in Winhall, reveals the range of possibilities of today’s biking world. The business opened as a ski shop in 1961 but added a bicycle line in 2008 when he acquired it, along with other outdoor enthusiast supplies.

Tom and Ben Lennon, who run the biking department at Norse House, are happy to see Stratton making the plunge into mountain biking. Both are estimating that the new trails, which may appeal more directly to a younger demographic, will also spur interest across the board and get riders on everything from bikes built for mountain trails to those for regular roads, from e-bikes to gravel bikes.

E-bikes—short for electric bikes—are a booming and relatively new business in the larger biking community. They come with a battery that engages a small motor that assists with the pedaling, and you can set them at different levels depending on how much of a boost you want. You can go from an “eco” setting to “turbo” on the fly and according to the terrain you’re negotiating. They’re the “next big thing,” Tom says.

Then there’s the “gravel” bike, which developed out of the cyclo-cross bike, or one that resembles a bike used for road racing but has a wider clearance for larger tires and the road debris that those tires may more likely encounter. They have drop-down handlebars and a frame designed to handle rugged terrain or pavement. Gravel bikes are even beefier in that regard, which is the main difference between them and their cyclo-cross cousins. A long wheelbase yields greater stability. Flat-mounted disc brakes offer more stopping power. “Gravel bikes are a versatile bike—they can handle dirt roads and have the same stability on paved roads,” says Ben, the bike manager at Norse House. “They opened up exploring back roads.”

Stratton Bike Park trail map

A pure mountain bike, in turn, like the ones riders might take down the new trails at Stratton, is the next step up in rugged design, stability, brakes, and suspension. They are durable and relatively lightweight, and the seat is positioned to be comfortable to a rider “jackhammering” down a narrow mountain trail that isn’t as perfectly smooth, as say, your basic Vermont asphalt one.

Not far down Route 30 in neighboring Rawsonville sits Equipe Sport, which has four locations overall, including one in Stratton Village. Three of them are centered around Stratton, says owner Parker Rice, with a fourth in West Dover.

“I hope it also creates value to the current homeowner network … creating en more activity during the summer,” Parker says, hailing the decision by Stratton to offer serious mountain biking. “This is a really great change.” He expects it will stimulate their rental business and draw more day-trippers, especially for beginners, intermediates, and families. “That’s where the excitement is,” he added.

He also sees the new trails and advancing bike technology that offers lighter, but highly durable platforms that have better suspension and braking as another breakout moment for biking. He, too, sees the potential of the electric, or e-bike, which they will start renting next summer. E-bikes are like salad bars, he says—lots of different features to choose from to customize a riding experience to one’s personal taste. The range of pedal assist offers everything from something close to a scooter to one that behaves like a regular, although heavier, bike— one that makes biking accessible for more people.

Biking by Manchester Elementary Middle School Photo courtesy of Robin Verner

Making biking accessible means more people riding them, and not just on narrow mountain biking trails. There has been a surge of interest in people taking to biking for exercise, outdoor recreation, or even commuting down the valley in Manchester. An overhaul of Depot Street, or Routes 11/30, and one of the main commercial thoroughfares of the town, led to a designated bike lane being incorporated into it. Not far from the new pavement of the redesigned street is Battenkill Bicycles, where owner Barrack Evans sells and rents biking gear.

“Mountain biking is here—it’s made it—it’s caught up,” he says. Now the key is connecting all the disparate routes and biking trails that have been popping up throughout Southern Vermont, he continued. He’s spotting several trends, such as road bikes with features that allow them to get off the road a little bit, and dual sports bikes that can go everywhere except for a mountain bike trail.

“Getting away from traffic is a goal,” he says. Which leads to the connectivity piece. One of the other big hoped-for initiatives, which has been underway for several years, is a biking and hiking trail that follows a former railroad line abandoned many decades ago that traces a course from Manchester and provides access to Dorset and possibly beyond, if all the dots eventually get connected.

Robin Verner and his wife, Amy, owned Battenkill Bicycles before Barrack bought it from them a few years ago, and they have been deeply involved in pushing the proposed rail trail forward. In its full form, the vision is to have a biking trail navigable by off-road bikes starting from Manchester Elementary Middle School.

Photo courtesy of Robin Verner

It traverses the town’s neighboring Dana L. Thompson Recreation Park through Hunter Park, where Riley Rink is located and then on to the path of the old rail line. It would then follow another set of roads and paths until it connected to The Dorset School. Meanwhile, another possible extension might allow a trail to cross a 300-acre parcel of land recently acquired by the town of Dorset, which then comes tantalizingly close to the Slate Valley Loop, which runs from West Pawlet to Poultney and back.

That route in turn overlaps with the Western New England Greenway, a series of biking trails and routes that start near Norwalk, Connecticut and roughly trace Route 7 north from there to Montreal. It’s not hard to imagine a biking route from New York City all the way into Canada, with Manchester being one spoke in the larger wheel, Robin says. “There’s a lot of research that says that being on one of these routes is terrific economically because people will come here and stay the night,” he says. And maybe go out for dinner and breakfast, and shop a little as well.

And for the hard-core mountain bikers, there’s more in the making. About three years ago, Joe Miles, the owner of the housewares and lumberyard business rk MILES, along with a group of friends, built a four-mile-long trail known as Humphreys Trail off West Road in Dorset. They are now hard at work at another one, this time off Dorset Hollow, which when completed will offer no shortage of challenges for those who get “stoked” on that sort of thing. The trail, when finished, will run about four and a half miles; about three miles have been completed so far. It will offer an elevation gain of more than 1,200 feet over the four and a half miles, which is as challenging as it sounds.

Doing all of that right involves more than just plotting a course and hacking out a trail, says Kris Dennan of Gravel Tours, which offers guided tours and rides around Vermont. Drainage is a key, as well as the soils you’re dealing with—you have to have the right base for it to work, he says. The grade or slope of the trail and the ease of the corners is what usually measures the difficulty of the trails. And let’s not forget the width— or narrowness—some of them have on offer. “A single-track width is 16 inches or so,” he says. “That’s the fun, right there.”

Mountain biking is clearly growing again following a big surge in the 1990s, which then seemed to soften for a while. Bikes today that are lighter and yet more rugged and have more sophisticated breaking and suspension systems are fueling the growth, he says. “I think it kind of got to the point where the access to the ordinary person felt a little intimidating because it seemed like racing was the big deal, so now trail riding has kind of matured and it’s growing again.”

There’s an old saying about some things you never forget how to do because it’s just like riding a bike—that theory may get its test over the 17 new trails soon to be a significant part of the outdoor recreational experience at Stratton. For mountain bikers, and those who want to be, it’s time to gear up. 

 

ALL THE DETAILS

Ticket Sales and Pick-up in First Run in Stratton Village
Lift tickets are for riding the American Express chairlift with your bike. Guests who have purchased a mountain bike lift ticket can ride the gondola to the summit without their bike for mountaintop views and hiking to the fire tower.

Times of operation: 10am–5pm Friday, Saturday, and Sunday through October 14.

Holiday dates: operating Monday, September 2 and Monday, October 14.