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Riding Vermont's trails to greatness

Email|Print| Text size + By Mark Condon
Globe Correspondent / September 18, 2005

EAST BURKE, Vt. -- ''You drove all the way from Maine," asked the man lounging on the common, ''just to ride these trails?"

Five friends and I were lounging on the lawn, too, resting from a hard morning of mountain biking on Kingdom Trails, a 110-mile network of biking trails that crisscrosses the green hills surrounding this small town in the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont. Burke Mountain, 3,267 feet high and home to the renowned Burke Mountain Academy ski school, loomed behind us. Bikes, helmets, PowerBar wrappers, shirts, and water bottles lay willy-nilly all over the lawn.

''Yeah," said my friend Eric Pandiscio. ''We'd heard about the great riding."

We asked the man where he was from.

''Ottawa," he said.

Funny, he had traveled father than we had. He even had to clear customs to ride his bike in Vermont.

Why had he driven from Canada for these trails?

''The singletrack," he said. ''I love the singletrack here."

Ah, singletrack. For mountain bikers, the word is magic. Off-road cyclists seek these narrow, shoulder-width biking paths like skiers seek fresh powder. They relish the thrill of riding a tight track through the woods, across open fields, or along mountain ridges. Not all singletrack is the same, however. The smooth singletrack of Kingdom Trails is, according to one publication, ''the stuff that dreams are made of."

That's why we were here. Of our group, two Boston friends and I had ridden Kingdom Trails several times. Over the last few years, I had promoted the variety (trails are well marked as either easy, intermediate, or expert), the quality, the smoothness of Kingdom Trails to my biking friends with the understatement of Donald Trump. Based on my exhortations, one friend mockingly refers to Kingdom Trails as the ''magic kingdom." Now, three other riding buddies had joined us for a day to see what the fuss was all about.

I was confident they would enjoy themselves. Mountain Bike magazine named Kingdom Trails one of the 50 best trails in America, citing terrain that delivers ''grins as wide as the sky." The International Mountain Biking Association named the system one of its 32 ''epic" rides in the country. A writer in Dirt Rag magazine touted Kingdom Trails as the ''best mountain biking in the country," celebrating the ''rolling, rocking, ripping singletrack."

Despite this, the success of the trip was not assured. Pandiscio, 42, a math education professor, had mountain biked all over the country, and had precise, exacting standards. John Gaise, 37, is a lawyer, and everyone knows those guys are hard to please. (The rest of the group was Eric's brother, Curt, 44, ahigh school assistant principal; Jared Baker, 30, a software product manager; and Ed Calnan, 34, a sales manager.)

So there was some inherent pressure on this trip: Would Kingdom Trails meet their standards? Would Kingdom Trails be worth the four-hour-plus drive?

Kingdom Trails surrounds East Burke on all four points of the compass, but we decided to spend much of our time riding on Darling Hill and along the east and west branches of the Passumpsic River west of town. A Kingdom Trails volunteer mapped out an 18-mile ride for us.

That morning, we pedaled up pavement on the East Darling Hill Road to the entrance of the trails. It was a hot 90 degrees, the air humid and thick. We huffed and puffed up the scorching road, passing The Inn at Mountain View Farm, elevation 1,444 feet, surrounded by huge, classic Vermont red barns. We regrouped and headed into an open, green field that marked the beginning of Kingdom Trails.

We rode the Loop Trail, an easy, wide path before veering into the woods onto Poundcake, a challenging singletrack. Cloaked by a canopy of leafy trees, I felt cooler immediately. Shielded from the sun, we glided on trails black as ink.

Poundcake followed the ridgeline and then dipped and rose in waves, a sequence of short ups and downs. The trail shimmied back and forth down the hill, looping through trees and around sudden corners, and rolled up and down, over and over, before descending through a number of switchback turns. It felt as if I were riding a small roller coaster on a bicycle.

What I noticed immediately was how fast I was able to ride. In central Maine, the singletrack we ride is lined with thick, hard roots, littered with rocks that slow me down, at times, to the pace of a fast turtle. On Poundcake, I careered around sharp corners, whipped between tight trees, slingshot up small rises.

Riding these trails is easier on my 42-year-old body, too. Sometimes when I come off the trail at home, or when I've ridden Lynn Woods, in Lynn, Mass., I feel like I've been working a jackhammer at a construction site. On Poundcake, a trail relatively free of mudholes, rocks, and roots, I easily found a rhythm, a flow, a cadence to the ride. This is more difficult to do when you are also trying not to fall over.

The terrain at Kingdom Trails is both an accident of geology and a function of good trail design. According to Tim Tierney of Kingdom Trails, Darling Hill is part of an esker, a long, narrow, steep ridge formed when the region was blanketed under a huge glacier. A river running under the glacier near East Burke deposited sand and gravel, building up the esker over time. When the glacier retreated, it left this long, steep-sided ridge in its icy wake.

The esker is ideal for mountain biking. The soil is sandy, not rocky, so it's smooth. Because it drains well, there are few mudholes. Plus, according to John Worth, a founding member of the board of directors at Kingdom Trails in 1994 and still trail manager, the association has learned through experimentation and experience how to angle trails away from trees to avoid erosion and exposure of their roots.

Close behind me, I heard the clicking of bicycle gears, tree branches snapping, my friends grunting as they ascended a rolling grade. They were riding hard and fast.

We stopped at a trail intersection for a water break and I asked John what he thought.

''Good," he said quietly.

As Rodney Dangerfield might have observed, adjusting his tie and twisting his neck, this was one tough crowd.

Off the ridge, the trail leveled and connected with Fence Line, an easier trail much like Poundcake: lots of rolling waves and dips, but also quick twists and turns through the trees that demand lots of zigging and zagging. We linked to Pastore Point, which runs along another ridge, eventually leading to a steep, scenic overlook of the West Branch of the Passumpsic River.

These trails form a compact looping network with rollers, short intense climbs, and fast downhills. We blazed through this section, but encountered other people taking it easy, idly sipping from water bottles, resting on the trail.

This terrain, like much of the terrain at Kingdom Trails, is what you make of it. Speed is the great variable. Lance Armstrong could ride Fence Line and have a great workout. So could my Aunt Barb.

We crossed a dirt road and saw mailboxes dotting the road -- a reminder that nearly all the land we were riding is privately owned. In the mid-1990s, after some locals had cut a number of ''outlaw" connector trails, people started coming to East Burke to ride them. Worth said they realized they needed to get permission from the landowners. The late Doug Kitchel, who owned Burke Mountain ski area at the time, went to local landowners with a modest proposal: Create a nonprofit organization that would cut, mark, and map off-road bike trails on private land to stimulate the East Burke economy in an ecologically sensitive way. The result is New England's largest mapped, marked, mountain bike trail network.

Next, we headed toward the west branch of the river, down a long, winding, fast singletrack called Tody's Tour. My hands were numb from hauling on my disc brakes, my heart beating hard even though we were going downhill. We then climbed a short hill before entering a massive pine stand.

We entered the Webs. I've heard this trail described as ''30 seconds of bliss." It's hard to disagree. The Webs is a nontechnical downhill that weaves through a stand of ancient pine trees that seem to scrape the sky, running on a thick, plush carpet of red needles. I went fast, hands off the brakes, skirting in and around these giant trees, feeling the rush of acceleration, the physical pull of downhill momentum. I checked myself, but felt like shouting ''Wahoo!" like a kid.

At the bottom of the hill, we regrouped. Smiles all around.Curt said, ''That was fun."

Okay, now we're making progress.

Soon after that, we got lost. Well, not lost exactly. It's hard to consider yourself lost when you have a map in your hand and are looking at a sign that corresponds to a point on that map. Yet I wasn't precisely sure where we were.

I had been leading the ride, consulting the sweat-dampened map at intersections. Thrilled by the rush of the Webs, we were looking for Old Webs, another trail that winds through a stand of old pine trees. I looked at the map, turned it sideways, thoughtfully rubbed my chin, looked at it again. We were either on Hog Back or Violet's Outback. Maybe neither.

A couple, in matching black bike shorts and white tops, resting at the top of a small knoll, watched. Finally, the man said, in a slight French accent, ''I think you're here," and pointed to where Hog Back and Violet's intersect.

''Ah, thank you," I said, and noticed that, though in good shape, couple were not hard-core bikers. Their bicycles, leaning against trees, were basic. They were enjoying a quiet ride in the woods.

This is an attractive quality of Kingdom Trails. You don't have to be a mountain bike racer to enjoy it. Of the 110 miles of trails, about half are doubletrack (a wider and easier trail), half singletrack.

The association has marked and mapped all the trails according to degree of difficulty, like ski trails. Green circle is the easiest, blue square more difficult, black diamond most difficult, double diamond experts only.

Kingdom Trails also offers ride and route suggestions. For example, beginner riders get sent to the doubletrack of VAST or River Run, even the in-town singletrack Park Loop. More confident riders are directed to the singletracks that we rode -- Pastore Point and Fence Line -- or Harp, Old Webs, and Riverwood, flat singletrack that follows the East Branch of the Passumpsic. Experts are sent to Poundcake, Tody's Tour, Jaw, or the more traditional New England rocky and rooty terrain of Owl's Peak and Dead Moose Alley.

Recognizing the growing number of downhill bike riders, the association added a downhill trail on a ski run at Burke Mountain and cut a trail that leads over logs and rocks and a 25-foot log bridge. In other words, there's something for mostly everyone.

After getting back on the trail, we still couldn't find Old Webs, and instead took the Border trail through a stand of thick maples, beech, and birch. We came out onto an open field and saw Burke Mountain. After being under the umbrella of woods for so long, it was a stunning view, the mountain looking like a massive, green pyramid in the distance.

After crossing Darling Hill Road, we headed up Jaw, a tough, double-diamond trail, and rode to Sugar Hill, a ridge with thick stands of sugar maples.

Just before we took a lunch break, we rode a new section of trail called Worth It. The trail starts out as a doubletrack, heading up a steep, steady pitch between maple and beech trees. We inched up the climb, gasping for air, cheered on by a father and son who had stalled out. We turned onto the narrow trail, and swooped and looped through the thick, cool, dark woods. We stopped at a trail intersection, and Eric said, ''That was a great trail."

As we headed back to town, he said to me, ''You really hyped these trails."

''And what do you think," I asked.

''You were right," he acknowledged, and sped off down the trail.

Contact Mark Condon, a freelance writer in Maine, at mcondon40@yahoo.com.

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