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Aug

5

Socialized Mountain Biking

The future of mountain bike advocacy is thriving in what was once an offroad challenged state controlled by a bourgeois landed gentry.  

 

 

by Marc Peruzzi | photographs by Grant Wieler

I couldn’t imagine a worse mountain state to be a mountain biker in than Vermont. 

I had that thought often when I lived in northern Vermont in the late 1990s. Prior to that, I’d lived in early mountain biking hotspots rich with public land like New Hampshire’s White Mountains, and Missoula, Montana, in the Northern Rockies. I’d grown accustomed to riding my mountain bike to exhaustive trail systems from my doorstep. Vermont, though, with much of its wild places locked up by private landowners only had a few accessible networks (East Burke and Smugglers’ Notch) within a reasonable drive from my house. I’d lived in southern Vermont for one summer years earlier—my wife is a seventh generation Vermonter—and found a similar lack of singletrack. In the 1990s, Vermont wasn’t just the armpit of New England riding, Vermont was the taint of Vermont riding. The entire state was gifted with exceptional mountain biking terrain, but, by Jim, you taint riding any of it Mistah Man.  

Flash forward to 2019, though, and the Green Mountain State is the gem of New England riding now offering a ballpark estimate of 1,100 miles of bike access singletrack from Bennington in the south, to the Grateful Treads terrain in Franklin County on the Canadian border. You can now find riding and mountain bike communities not just in the ski towns, but in nearly every little hamlet and hollow in the state. In addition to growing its own mountain bikers—the state mountain bike association expects 6,250 members by year’s end, up from 1,250 members only five years ago—Vermont is pulling destination mountain bikers from the Eastern Seaboard where 80 million people now live within a ten hour drive to Green Mountain singletrack. While Vermont doesn’t have a handle on how many rider visits its trails receive, a recent survey did reveal one telling stat about visitation. On average, out-of-state mountain bikers travel to Vermont to ride off-road six times a year. Meanwhile, the trailwork continues at a rapid, but prudent, pace with new connectors especially tying trail system-to-trail system, and town- to-town. This grassroots effort is helping to drive Vermont’s famous two season recreation economy (leaf season and ski season) to a year-round revenue generator. And as one of the many side benefits to more and better trails, businesses keen on recruiting younger and more talented workers have joined the push for trails, too—a development that could further expedite trail development and maintenance.   

So how did this happen? Like any success or failure—incrementally, and then all at once. In the 20 years since I left Vermont, a handful of local clubs petitioned their neighbors for access and then built and maintained trails almost entirely unaware of what other alliances were up to. Like mountain bike clubs everywhere, they worked in silos with their own self interest and the interest of their immediate community at heart. And then, in 2014, everything changed. 

To understand the how and the why of that change, it helps to understand how trail advocacy works elsewhere. Say you live in Colorado and most of your town’s trails were closed to mountain biking back in the 1980s. Because you want to ride more singletrack, you form a local mountain bike alliance and start recruiting volunteers for trail days. Maybe your club is an affiliate of the International Mountain Bike Association, maybe it isn’t. Slowly your work pays off, but even as scores of riders from out of town, out of state, and out of country eventually ride the trails you’ve built, your work remains local, and your fundraising is too. This, despite the efforts of IMBA to unify the disparate clubs, is how trail work gets done. Land use challenges vary, but communities with small cycling populations and fewer funds build and maintain more slowly, and those with more cyclists and more funds expand more rapidly. 

Now enter the Vermont Mountain Bike Association, which re-launched in 2014. The only statewide club in the nation* VMBA acts as an umbrella organization to a rapidly growing collective of local clubs that have bought into the idea that mountain bikers are stronger united than they are divided. While keeping the local affiliate autonomy intact—the clubs are best prepared to work with local landowners to gain access—VMBA started off lobbying on behalf of those chapters with the state legislature, pushing a pro mountain biking agenda, offering legal and risk management advice to the chapters, and helping clubs contract with seasoned trail builders. All that is valuable work that most mountain bike alliances would benefit from, but it was a unique fundraising initiative that helped spur VMBA’s rapid growth at the club level. 

Like most acts of genius, the linchpin play by VMBA almost came about by accident. It’s called the “Add-On” and it’s pretty simple. If you live in Waterbury, but occasionally like to travel to Ascutney to ride bikes and visit family, for a small fee you can add the Sport Trails of the Ascutney Basin chapter to your VMBA membership and give back. Here’s how it works: Your basic VMBA membership costs $55. Of that, half goes to your local chapter and the other half goes into the VMBA well to be dispersed in trail grants, fundraising, chapter level membership drives, and state level lobbying. Every penny VMBA receives goes towards the statewide effort. It’s the Add-Ons though—you can pay for as many as you like—that have helped coalesce mountain biking in Vermont. Buy one and you direct your $27.50 directly to that designated chapter’s efforts. In 2015, 78 Add-Ons were purchased, last year it was 1,500. This year’s forecast will thump that number. Call it wealth redistribution—this is Bernie country—if you want to, but when mountain bikers share their giving, everyone benefits. In 2014, VMBA claimed 14 chapters, by the end of this year they’ll break 30—perhaps more. “With the Add-Ons we knew we wanted to give riders a voice in multiple parts of the state,” says Tom Stuessy, VMBA’s Executive Director. “But the revenue exceeded expectations. It all becomes very meaningful for the local chapters.”

Throw in the substantial grants that VMBA also garners from the Vermont business community—Cabot is a major contributor—and you get this cyclical snowballing effect that’s transforming Vermont riding: More trails equal more riders, more funds, more trails. 

Each chapter tells a similar story, but perhaps no group can rival the success of the Waterbury Area Trail Alliance (WATA). Earlier siloed clubs predated WATA, but since its launch in 2015 it has transformed Waterbury riding. To begin with, the club’s primary focus was performing what they call “historical preservation” work on its legacy network at Perry Hill, but as each trail was updated, ridership grew. In 2015, WATA counted 40 members. Today, WATA represents more than 900 members. That’s pretty good turnout in a town of 40,000. Waterbury’s population is only 5,000. Last year, the updated Perry Hill network witnessed 20,000 rider days. This year alone they’re investing $28,000 in trail work throughout Waterbury—plus another $20,000 value in volunteer work. “We’re in this position where we now have the capacity to handle this massive interest in cycling,” says WATA’s Vice President Alex Showerman.  “And going forward we can work with VMBA on long-term master planning like how to disperse traffic; how to connect our internal networks; and ultimately how to connect Waterbury’s trails to Stowe’s. We’ve matured as an organization. VMBA, beyond being our voice in Montpelier [the capitol], lends us credibility and grant funding.” 

Because they’re now connected—this year the chapters will collectively decide where the grant money flows—individual chapters also benefit from sharing best practices. VMBA and the clubs don’t police it, but they ask that every rider enjoying Vermont trails joins the coalition. Show up at a trailhead and you’ll likely see the signage, but perhaps more effectively, because clubs like the Stowe Trail Partnership (STP) effectively open and close trails based on conditions, out-of-towners and out-of-staters turn to their sites for information. When they do so they’re offered the chance to be more than a rider. “We’re investing $100,000 in our trails just this year,” says Rachel Fussell, STP’s Executive Director. But because of our VMBA membership and the Add-Ons, communities 50 miles away are benefitting too. The chapters support one another, and we care about growing the pie as a whole. That’s the Vermont way.”

Could the VMBA model work elsewhere? I don’t know. Vermont is atypical. The Shire shtick is a cliché, but like most clichés there’s truth to it. What else would you call such a collection of  small, proud communities separated by rolling hills and forest? Woven together those villages create Vermont’s larger context. VMBA’s chapter model parallels that, but Coloradans, Mainers, and Oregonians share a similar pride in their in-state riding. It seems strange that they wouldn’t work together more to strengthen it. The mountain biking community used to be known for building secret trails that only a handful of locals knew about. But we’ve moved past that mindset. We’re all in it together.

Last fall I was invited on a press trip to ride some of VMBA’s gems. We skipped the better known networks like East Burke and Ascutney (where I’ve ridden extensively) in favor of the Mad River Valley, the Trapp Family Lodge, Waterbury, and Richmond—naturally we hit Killington and Stowe along the way. It’s all fun New England riding with roots and rocks and now machine built flow trail here and there, but it doesn’t ride the same. For a story, Mountain once sent a Vermont contributor out with the goal of finishing every ride at a brewery. The idea was to draw a connection between craft brewing and craft trail building. To be honest it felt a bit contrived to me. But after riding Vermont and finishing every ride at a brew pub, it doesn’t anymore. As a mountain biker you see these towns in ways that skiers and roadies don’t. Each network has its own flair and the organizers of each chapter take tremendous pride in their star trail builders. On the traditional hand-worked track especially, you can actually get a sense for which builders favor pump turns over rerouting a trail so you can trials ride over a granite erratic. Flow trails are fun and all, but in terms of character they’re more like mass-market light beer. Creativity is also the Vermont way.

The next iteration of mountain biking should take Vermont’s lead and celebrate singletrack diversity and historical preservation while unifying its disparate alliances through wealth redistribution. Call it fat tire socialism if you want to. Or just call it a better way to do things. But this land is our land. And we should share it.                 

*The Evergreen Club in Washington State comes close, as does JORBA in Jersey, though it doesn’t operate like VMBA.

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