Photo: Dave Smutok
“We should totally get you setup with a Find Your Ride” was about all it took.
Through the last two seasons I’ve done some work to improve my trail skills and I’ve referred to the bigger story as my gnarification project. Now I know that’s not a real word, but those that support the effort are going to think it’s rad no matter what it’s called and what started as a joke is actually gaining some traction around MTBVT hq.
Last winter when we sat around talking about plans for this season I mentioned that I wanted to do more skill sessions and keep building on what I did in 2012. Ryan and Jon both agreed that I should head down to Highland Mountain Bike Park and check out their all inclusive downhill experience- the FYR or Find Your Ride. While I can’t recall who actually said it there was quickly consensus- at least between the two of them- that I should check it out.
The package is pretty straightforward- a big hit rental bike, full face helmet, pads, a lift ticket and a lesson all wrapped up together to present a well-coordinated, legit downhill experience in a beginner-friendly environment. Cool.
After some quick emails I was booked for the Friday early session (usually there are two sessions per day but it’s recommended to call or email first to ensure availability). When I arrived I signed some forms and cracked some jokes about how mountain biking is a dangerous activity, and although I’m sure I’m not the first person to ever say that I got a kind chuckle from the staffers anyway.
With that out of the way I headed down to the shop to get setup with a bike, full face helmet and pads. The helmet and pads were nearly new. Admittedly this is the start of the season but I got the impression that the rental gear, and every other facet of the Highland experience, is taken seriously. Nothing was stored damp or thrown in a heap like the ice skates at Rockefeller Center. With some quick suspension tuning and tire pressure adjustment on the Cannondale Claymore I was equipped and out the door.
Did I mention the weather was questionable? It had rained for days before and the forecast was for even more rain throughout the day. Fortunately it was merely overcast as my instructor Chris “Green Tires” and I hit the flat grassy section to go over the basics. Right. As I bumbled around and figured out how to handle a bike with a wicked short top tube and a seriously slack head angle he went over the basics of body position, braking and cornering. And after 16 years riding exclusively clipped in the flat pedals totally threw me off.
As we headed up the lift we talked about the trails, what Highland is all about and why riding there is so special. Although I knew Highland was bike-focused, I didn’t realize they were the only downhill resort that was exclusively for bikes and without any winter activities. The trails are built for mountain biking with no long fall line descents, poorly placed water bars or rutted out mud holes. There were some sections built to mimic old school New England terrain- jagged rocks, slick roots and poor drainage, but they’re by far the exception and not the rule. On a wet day I counted a total of 5 puddles total across all of the trails we rode.
Off the lift and onto the trails I had my option for where to start and not knowing how serious things would get I opted for the basic green trails. As soon as we made it to the top of the trail and started down I could tell that the bike was far more capable than any of the super light race bikes in my stable. I quickly saw that the bike had to really be moving in order to turn or barrel through the hobbly sections, but with momentum and the right body position I could bomb through things with incredible ease. With confidence in the massive travel and strong brakes I was- by my standards- hauling ass down the mountain.
After I got a feel for the bike I was able to get more comfortable with the speed and more importantly looking further down the trail. Chris brought me down progressively more challenging terrain starting with Fancy Feast and Cat’s Paw then working our way to Happy Hour.
What seemed like just a couple runs quickly turned into a few hours as we ripped down the steep, manicured and remarkably dry terrain (truthfully Chris ripped and I got about as close as I get) while on the lift we talked about the bikes we wanted but couldn’t afford when we started riding.
My comfort level on the bike was increasing and so before we stopped for lunch we decided to hit Highland’s signature run. After a short debate Chris assured me that I could handle it with the B-Line opt outs around the woolliest sections. As he hit every lip, kicker and sender I kept the wheels mostly on the ground. That run was by far the most fun I had all day.
Back at the lodge I had a remarkably tasty sandwich while the guys in the shop prepped a Transition TR-250 for me to take out.
For whatever reason I’ve had delusions of owning one of these for a couple years. Given that I didn’t even stretch the limits of the Claymore I felt a little bad about taking out the TR-250 as it was an even more suitable DH bike, but with it on offer it felt impolite not to take it out.
Greg, the shop manager, and Chris got the TR dialed in for me and even swapped in a heavier duty coil spring in the back. Having the bike setup appropriately was going to optimize my experience even though that meant I was largely taking them at their word as I had no idea how to set it up myself.
With the goal of taking one more run I rode the lift to the top with Eduardo, one of the long time regulars. We talked about how great the terrain was and how inaccessibly scary many other downhill areas in the North East were by comparison. Highland encourages progression and from their stair step approach to testing obstacles on a pump track to their camps and clinics they really make an effort to support riders who want to improve.
And as soon as I rolled down the ramp from the lift I knew I wanted a TR. While the Claymore was capable and almost 10 full pounds lighter the Transition had a stable, planted feel that begged to be pushed. Sadly I didn’t have enough gas in the tank to fully enjoy it. With that DH capability comes the need for increased speed to make the bike come alive and had neither the reflexes nor the strength to do it. On a dry day with more energy I’d love to go back to hit Eastern Hemlock, an old school New England technical trail on that bike to see what it, and I, can do.
Back at the shop I peeled off the helmet and pads which were notably muddier than when I picked them up, but nobody seemed to mind.
Even muddier lower limbs.
When it comes to lift assisted riding I’m far from an expert, but I’ve ridden enough on pedal accessed terrain to recognize a well designed and well maintained trail network. In short Highland runs a top flight organization and is well worth the trip especially if you’ve only ridden DH or Freeride trails on traditional New England terrain.
For more information visit http://highlandmountain.com/.
In part 3 of 3 I’ll talk about how I’ve taken the skills I learned in this session and applied them to my riding and endurance racing.
For more of Matt’s posts check out his blog, pro-35.com.