Monday, April 21, 2014

A Weekend of Mountain Biking in the (Lower) Upper Valley

Blue Ribbon trail on Gile Mountain.

If you're one of the many folks who make a regular pilgrimage to Kingdom Trails from your suburban hell of a life somewhere south of Nashua, you likely drive right through a hot-bed of singletrack and craft beer without giving it a second thought.  That might start to change.

Attention White River, Hartford, Norwich and Windsor of Vermont, as well as Lebanon, and Hanover of New Hampshire.  I need to get a little something off my chest before I tell the world how awesome you are.

Are you listening?  Good.  Now go f**k yourselves.

Okay, maybe that was a little harsh, but having grown up in the Northeast Kingdom I've got an issue with the name you've chosen for your little slice of heaven: YOU ARE NOT THE UPPER VALLEY!!!

You are not the gateway to the upper valley.  You are not the spokesperson of the upper valley.  You are not the satellite office to the upper valley.

St. Johnsbury is upper valley.  Lyndonville is upper valley.  South Royalton is upper valley.  No matter which river you choose to follow, you are not the upper part of it.  You can call yourselves the Mid Valley, the Lower Upper Valley, and for all I care the Lower Valley (although the folks in New Haven, CT might have an issue).  But under no circumstances do I condone your self-appointed "Upper Valley" status.

Nonsensical name aside, the Lower Upper Valley (the "LUV") has a critical mass of great singletrack unparalleled anywhere in New England.

The great biking starts on the trails of Ascutney.  Ascutney Trails, formerly known as STAB, is developing an already excellent assortment of singletrack on the slopes of Ascutney in Brownsville, VT.  I've been there a couple times, and my friends who live in the area rave about the variety, challenge and sheer vertical relief offered. With the nearby Harpoon Brewery, this area is a destination in and of itself.

If the absence of snow isn't a dead giveaway,
 this trip took place LAST spring.
Although I was already familiar with Ascutney, it wasn't until I visited this past Spring that I fully appreciated all the LUV has to offer.   On a cool Spring Friday I talked Brad into showing me around one of the local spots.  Gile Mountain, just outside of Norwich, Vermont provides a short but vertically challenging set of trails for someone looking for a few hours of riding.  We parked our car on Beaver Meadow Road, where the Blue Ribbon Trail intersects it to the South of Gile Mountain.  Instead of heading up on the trail we skirted to the West of the mountain on Beaver Meadow Road, turning to the right when we reached Chapel Hill Road.  We completed our circumnavigation of Gile when we followed Turnpike Road to the Northeast.  One section of Turnpike, near where it crosses the powerlines, is more a jeep trail than road and offered some fun rock gardens that we rocketed through (and over) on our full suspension bikes.  On the far side we huffed up the switchbacks, crossing the powerlines again, before reaching the tower up top.    From the tower we weaved our way down Blue Ribbon trail.  Despite our early spring venture, there was very little mud, and the trail offered occasional technical challenges mixed in with lightning fast hard packed descents.  This was the perfect warm-up for the weekend ahead.

Early on Saturday we left on bike from Brad's house in Lebanon and headed north into the wooded area tucked between Lebanon and Hanover known as Boston Lot.  If you're driving on I-89 North you get a sense of the scale of this area as you look to your right and notice the large wooded hills that lie undeveloped above the two towns.

Our entrance was at the edge of a large gravel lot where we immediately began climbing a rocky, rooty trail through young hardwoods.  The trail was far from flowy, as the various rocks and roots created classic New England gnar. 

The hardwood cover changed to evergreen as we neared the top, and large swaths of exposed rock welcomed us to an abandoned quarry.  We stood in the sun and peered down into the depths of the frigid water below wondering if we would survive a fall through the rebar roulette that surely waited below the surface.

We descended down off of the quarry heading further northeast toward Dartmouth hospital.  We flew through a large nearly flat pine glen with its soft, orange carpet, jumping off of small bumps on the smooth packed trail.

Another trail presented short steep climbs and rocky technical descents in a thick evergreen stand.  It was there that my front fork decided it had enough.  It expanded so far that it looked like I was riding a 140mm downhill bike, and locked into place.  Unsure of whether it was going to pop or twist apart, we cut our morning short and I gingerly rode it out of the woods and back to Brad’s place.

After our ride we indulged in backyard burgers and brews before our next ride.  Brad, in a moment of weakness, opted for a second burger.  A questionable decision at the time, this would come back to haunt him.

The look of second burger regret.
With bellies full of charred meat and beer, we headed over to Hartford Town Forest for an afternoon game of “let’s try not to throw up”. I borrowed Gered’s Giant Anthem 29er X1, which I found to be an extremely light and responsive.  The trails were much steeper than anything we had ridden at Boston Lot and took no mercy.  One step out of the car and we attacked a long climb.  Before we could catch our breath, we descended over the ridge down into a hollow on the other side.  The trail was so steep and so long that by the bottom my hands and wrists ached from clenching the brakes on sketchy turns.  The trails were less manicured than Boston Lot, having seen less traffic.  This meant the occasional branch or loose rocks.  There was also a carpet of leaves which made route finding difficult in a few locations.  We climbed a number of steep hills, working our way past a radio tower more than once.

It was after our third or fourth steep climb of the afternoon that I witnessed what I can only describe as Brad’s “second burger regret” face.  Brad, to his credit, fought through his misery and managed to keep his lunch from ending up on the forest floor.  After only a couple hours of biking and we were destroyed.

Between Ascutney, Boston Lot, Gile and Hartford Forest, the LUV has more than its fair share of good biking.  As Ascutney cultivates its nascent mountain biking scene its likely that things will only get better.

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