Thursday, July 19, 2012

Highland Mountain Bike Park: The High Dive (July 2012)

Home of the unearned turn.

While I was growing up our local pool had a high dive that towered above the water.  It was a horrifying and exhilarating thing.  Rumors abounded about “this kid” who slipped and fell to the pavement onto his head, or “that kid” who did a can-opener the wrong way and split his gut wide open when he hit the water.  It was probably only fifteen feet high, but back then it felt like a hundred.   It was a rite of passage to make your way up to the board and take your first leap.  It was the kind of place where you tested your meddle and became one of the big kids.

Sometimes I’m reminded of the feeling I got on my first trip up that slippery metal ladder and out onto the thin, shaky board.     

Norman knows what I mean. 
Some of the world’s most interesting stories start with, “ I met this guy at a bar once…”  And some of those adventures end horribly.  Others open doors to worlds you nary knew existed.    For this story the bar was Jerry Remy’s near Fenway on premiere night of the mountain biking film, “Strength in Numbers”.  It was there that I ran into a guy, Rob, who was a huge fan of downhill mountain biking.  He was a regular at Highland Mountain Bike Parkin Northfield, NH, and although I had heard of Highland as “the” destination for downhill biking in New England I hadn’t yet visited.  Rob insisted that we go sometime.  A couple months passed before I was able to take Rob up on his offer of a tour but on an early July Sunday morning we set out from Boston with our bikes in tow for my inaugural trip.

About an hour and half drive from Boston, Highland Mountain Bike park is north of Concord, just off of I-93.  The mountain, which used to offer skiing, is now a dedicated mountain bike playground.  An old ski lodge sits at the base, which has been refurbished and updated to include a bike shop and lockers in the lower level, as well as a bar and café upstairs.  It has large flat screen televisions, comfortable seating, and excellent food.  As you sit and enjoy one of their sandwiches and a cold beverage you can watch some of the more skilled bikers hitting insane jumps on the slopestyle course.

The lodge.
After watching a short video and signing my life away Rob and I were standing in the lift line for our first run.  The lift, which looks almost like any old ski lift, alternates chairs with a unit that can hold up to three bikes. In the loading area you scurry behind one of these units to load your bike, then wait for the next chair to take you to the top.  At the top you’ll find the hardest working lifties in the business who are constantly unloading bikes and setting them to the side for you to pick up when you are dropped.    

As I stood in the lift-line, ready for my first run, I looked around at the other riders and it dawned on me that I was one of only a couple other people who were not wearing full-face helmets or body armor.  My Giant Trance, with its five inch rear travel and air shock looked puny next to the larger downhill bikes with their wider tires, spring shocks and burly frames.  Suddenly I was eight years old again, climbing the ladder to the high dive and walking out on the plank in front of all the big kids. There was no turning back now: no matter how hard the black hole in my stomach wanted to fold me inside out and collapse me in onto myself.  What the hell was I doing coming to a downhill bike park?  What was I getting myself into? 
I almost broke a sweat on this hill climb.

However, my panic attack was short lived.  The trails are very well marked (trail map here), and give an indication whether you are heading onto novice, intermediate or expert terrain, just like with skiing.

The easiest of the descents, Easy Rider, requires a short climb from the lift, before dipping off of the back of the mountain and winding around to the front.  This trail was slightly wider than singletrack, with excellent banked turns and some small table tops. 

I spent most of my day riding Cat Scratch Fever and FancyFeast which were similar to Easy Rider, except that they incorporated some steep rocky drops, and higher banked turns.  I found these trails to be challenging, but not horrifyingly so. 

In addition, I enjoyed Happy Hour, which again incorporated some difficult rock gardens and steep sections with fast flowy runs across the mountain.  This is the trail you spy from the lift as you are headed up the mountain.  

I tried my luck on some of the intermediate trails including Hemlock and Shillelagh, but found some sections that I had to walk around given the high penalties for failure.  One section in particular requires a descent down a steep craggy rock face surrounded by trees on all sides.  I didn’t even bother with some of the more advanced trails, lacking the protection and force of will to take on big drops and jumps. 

So buff I can see my reflection.
This was my first time riding at a downhill park so I can’t compare it to others in the northeast like Burke or Mt. Snow, however I can say that it has an excellent mix of terrain so that you can ease your way onto more difficult trails as you progress.

One important investment I made at the bike shop was to purchase downhill pedals- known as “flats”.  There were several moments that I was glad I didn’t have my feet clipped in, although it was difficult to get used to having to keep pressure on the pedals to keep my feet from bouncing around on the bumpy sections.

Despite lowering my seat, it was difficult to remember to stay back on the bike as I found myself coming forward over the handlebars now and then.  This is particularly disastrous when hitting table tops or step-ups as it results in a front tire landing and flying over the handlebars. 

I skipped this trail.
Although the five inch suspension on my Giant Trance worked beautifully, my one complaint was chain slap. Even though I set the gears to a protective position, my chain was constantly banging against the bike: sometimes so violently it flew off the front cog.  If I were going to do more downhill biking I would want something to address this problem – perhaps some sort of chain tensioner or guide.

Even as a cross-country rider I found that my one day at Highland helped me improve my downhill riding immensely.  The day after I rode Highland I smashed my previous record on a long descent on my home course in Belmont.   Suddenly the steepest drops and gnarliest rock sections didn’t look as scary.

Now if I could only get over my fear of high dives.

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