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Avoiding Super Trooper

Mountain biking Ascutney, Vermont.

ascutney vermont mountain biking

Photographer: Chris Milliman | Rider: Jim Lyall

By Kirk Kardashian

On my first ride on California’s Mount Tamalpais— the birthplace of mountain biking—Marin County park rangers hid in the bushes with radar guns, waiting to issue tickets for those who would scoff at the 15mph speed limit.

That trip was a completely foreign experience to me. I regularly ride in West Windsor, Vermont, an 1,100-person town in the south-central part of the state that loves mountain biking so much it bought a mountain.

As the host of the Vermont 50 mountain bike race since 1993, trail riding is deeply ingrained in the West Windsor community. So much so that landowners allowed the local mountain bike club, Sport Trails of the Ascutney Basin (STAB), to build more than 40 miles of singletrack through their forests and pastures.

But in 2010, much of that riding was in jeopardy when Ascutney Mountain ski resort went into foreclosure. STAB had built more than 20 miles of singletrack on the 468-acre resort and in the neighboring 1,112-acre West Windsor Town Forest. Residents worried that the trails might be lost to development, the Brownsville General Store would close, and gradually, the cycling community would roll off to greener pastures.

With East Burke, Vermont’s famously popular Kingdom Trails as a model for economic revitalization, West Windsor pinned its future on mountain biking. It partnered with the Trust for Public Land to raise more than $900,000 for the purchase of the property on 3,130-foot Mount Ascutney. The deal closed in December of 2015, and now the entire area is conserved for recreational use in perpetuity.

The conservation has freed up STAB’s chief trail builder, Jim Lyall, to continue his good work. An architect by training, Lyall has built or designed most of the trails in town since the late 1970s. He has a gift for incorporating natural features into his designs, such as exposed convex rock shoals or the organically undulating forest floor. “I’ve always been a bushwacker,” says Lyall, who writes weekly group ride announcements in verse, “and once I started building trails, I realized it was fun.”

On a sunny day this past June, I meet local carpenter and maple sugar maker Gary Macia to ride his favorite trails. Macia, 61, is tall and lean, with long gray-black hair and a mustache. Having grown up in nearby Windsor, he’s built and ridden trails around Ascutney for decades.

We park at the West Windsor Town Forest Trailhead, which provides direct access to the area’s most challenging trails. Soon, we’re climbing the Ascutney classics, steep with off-camber roots and damp rocks. We squeeze our bikes through narrow rock slots, claw up grippy igneous blocks, and weave through waving patches of deep green sedge. 

Logically, Lyall and the STAB crew have been building more trails for beginners and intermediates—after all, the smooth-flowing Kingdom Trails didn’t become a mountain bike destination for being gnarly. One of Lyall’s more recent offerings, Wind Up, is a meandering switchback climb from the old Ascutney base area that gets riders up the mountain without having to redline the engine, while trails like Broadway and 42nd St. bring less-skilled riders down on smooth, flowing dirt. Even newer is Swoops and Loops, an area specifically designed for kids and first-timers.

Macia and I roll over private and public lands, through backyards, and along an old pile of volcanic rock, high above the Connecticut River Valley. After a few of hours of riding, we sit under shady poplars drinking chocolate milk in glass bottles from local McNamara Dairy.

No, Ascutney, West Windsor, and the other surrounding villages here aren’t as famous as Mount Tam, but this is a place where you can ride for days, as fast as the trails allow, and never get a traffic violation.

If you go:

STAB’s Tuesday night mountain bike ride is a long-standing tradition—the locals will be happy to show you around. ascutneytrails.com

The Brownsville General Store & Queens Cafe offers homemade sandwiches, cookies, muffins, and huge, gooey raspberry-oat bars. 871 Route 44, West Windsor, VT

Visit Harpoon Brewery’s Riverbend Taps and Beer Garden in Windsor, Vermont, for more than a dozen freshly brewed suds on tap, plus a full pub menu. harpoonbrewery.com

Camp at Ascutney State Park, where a viciously steep auto road takes you to the summit of the mountain. Or, sleep out in the peaceful Path of Life Sculpture Garden, just a few wobbly steps from Harpoon Brewery. vtstateparks.com/htm/ascutney.htm; greatriveroutfitters.com/path-of-life

Drive By Singletrack — Presented by MTB Project

Drive: Hartford to Ascutney

Ride: Greenfield Ridge/Rocky Mountain Park Loop. This scenic network in Greenfield, Massachusetts, runs paralell to the Connecticut River. For a technical ride, hit the Pocumtuck Ridge to Little Sugar Loaf to Sugar Loaf. But if you’re looking for a moderate loop, try Sachem’s Head.

From our High Summer 2016 issue.

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