Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Prime Time and a Return to Ascutney (August 2015)

Mt. Ascutney
These are good days to be a mountain biker in New England. Trail networks are popping up like Republican presidential candidates.  From Stowe, VT to Charlemont, MA communities are embracing mountain biking and pouring resources into building and improving trails.  

But is more always better?  And does trail building equal improvement or progress?

Times are particularly good if you live in the (Lower) Upper Valley of  the Connecticut River between Vermont and New Hampshire.  

The Upper Valley Mountain Biking Association (UVMBA) has been cultivating and developing the trail network between Lebanon and Hanover, NH known as Boston Lot.  They've not so quietly been improving trails and signage, and protecting access for mountain bikers.  And they're still only the second best show around.

While the work of the UVMBA has been impressive, they still have a ways to catch up with the Sport Trails of the Ascutney Basin. STAB has established the area around Mount Ascutney as a mountain biking destination.  For the last few years the Vermont Mountain Bike Association has held its annual gathering in the area, and the incredibly popular Vermont 50 endurance race takes place on its trails.

Almost four years ago I rode Mount Ascutney and put together this review.   Last week I returned for the first time and was blown away at the improvements that had been made in a few short years.  I was even further amazed by how- despite all the improvements- the mountain still held onto its New England "gnarness".  Where I had once ridden a developing collection of trails, now stood a mature trail network just reaching its prime.

The climb out of the West Windsor Town Forest parking lot isn't Perry Hill difficult, but it will certainly get your blood flowing.  The terrain is fairly "up and down" rather than "rolling", but there are ample switchbacks to ease the effort.  Even with the new 1 x 10 setup on my Giant Trance 29er, I was able to pedal up almost all of the climbs around the mountain.  Only on the gnarly hairpin that sits just above the waterfall did I have to get off and hike-a-bike.

The most obvious improvement over my last trip was the amount, and quality of the signage that helps guide you around the mountain.  Armed with a map, my buddy Brian and I found it easy to make our way around the mountain. As a bonus, the map (which can be purchased at Mason Racing in Lebanon) includes several numbered loops-- and looking closely you can simply follow the numbers on the signs around the mountain for your desired loop.

Brian and I mostly followed the number 2 and 3 loops, with additions for several trail sections that had been recommended by the folks at Mason.

The trails are well cared for but not manicured.  And this is a good thing.  These are not some ski resort  "flow trails" with smooth berms, rollovers and table-tops.  The trail improvements have made the trails eminently rideable, while at the same time maintaining the natural "gnar" that makes your hair stand up and keeps you out of your seat on the descents.

Most of the trails are cut into the steep hillsides, hugging the numerous ridges as you pass along the side of the mountain.

One surprise, given the compact area which the trails inhabit, are the variety of landscapes that you will pass through.  From large open fields, to soft pine glens, to the rocky gardens under a high hardwood canopy.

Some argue that the development of trail networks, and the additional traffic it brings, leads to their "dumbing down" for the masses.  Ascutney is a case study in how to make trail improvements while at the same time preserving the natural features and challenges that make a trail system unique.   While there are smooth flowy sections of trail around Ascutney, you can also still find steep slickrock features, and challenging rock gardens.  The improvements that were made have only enhanced the features that I witnessed a few years ago- not changed them.

When I remember Ascutney as it was four years ago, I immediately think of the still developing trail system in Charlemont, MA.  Will the Warfield House trails, still natural and raw in their infancy, develop into the mature network that holds their character like the ones I see today at Ascutney?  Will Billy's World on Berkshire East, lose its unique feel under the weight of the additional traffic brought by the bike park?  Or will it continue to hold onto its gnar?  I don't know the answer to these questions, but given my experience at Ascutney I have hope.

After a full day that saw us cover most of the trails on the mountain, Brian and I stopped at the Harpoon Brewery just down the road in Windsor, VT for a couple cold beers, some poutine, and a recap of our amazing day.  It was a fitting end to an almost perfect day of riding in Vermont.  Again.

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