Photos: Aaron Rohde
Words: Mark Tucker
This past weekend I took a diversion from my usual competitiveness to travel down to Ascutney Resort for VMBA‘s Vermont Mountain Bike Festival. There were plenty of options if I wanted to be competitive this weekend: Gnar Weasels Shreddeth, Carrabassett Backcountry Challenge and the Bike for Bovines race in Keene. Three mountain bike races on the same weekend is unusual. Instead of all that, I went out and just rode for the fun of it. Imagine that!
This is the first year that the festival has been hosted at Ascutney mountain and my first time attending. Having grown up nearby in Ludlow, I’m very familiar with the area and it felt a little like returning to my back yard. Back then, STAB didn’t exist and neither did most of the trails they maintain. My only experience with mountain biking there has been racing in the Vermont 50. In that race, we ride some of the trails in their network; but the best ones seem to be in the final leg of the race when nothing seems like very much fun except the idea of stopping to lay down on the ground. I had always been curious what it would be like to get out and explore the trails when I could actually enjoy them. Thankfully, I was able to find out over the weekend.
This weekend would be the first time I’d be back on the bike since splitting my knee open at the race up in Stowe. I was actually a bit tentative about putting it into full use. The doctors gave me a pretty graphic understanding of what it would be like if I pulled it open. After quite a bit of gentle tooling around the parking lot, I became more comfortable with pedaling and putting it under full load.
With that in mind, I signed up for one of the intermediate rides for Saturday morning. They had the rides organized according to ability and very well marked out with maps and descriptions. It was very well thought through. Normally, I’m more interested in riding as close to Mach 2 as I can, preferably with some challenging terrain added in, but this ride turned out quite well. Our ride leader took us out all over the side of Ascutney mountain on some really great single-track. I was impressed. STAB has put together some really, really good trails. They are every bit as good as any other trail system I’ve ridden in Vermont with no shortage of technically challenging terrain, as I would find out that afternoon.
It’s not easy to talk about trail conditions lately without the topic of rain coming up. Over the previous weeks, we’ve had nothing but tons of rain. The Ascutney area was hit particularly hard with a recent storm dumping well over four inches of rain in under two hours. In spite of this deluge, the trails were in great shape and there were very few muddy spots anywhere. There were several places where you could see that little rivers had formed in random places in the woods. Amazingly, there was almost no obvious trail damage to be found. Lots of work must have gone into getting some of the bridges and trails repaired in time for this weekend.
After loading up on a good lunch and meeting some more people, it was time to head back out for some more riding. This time I was confident enough in my knee to join in a more advanced ride labelled “The Dark Side.” This ride was lead by Eric from Penguin Cycles and would cover trails further over in the town forest area. I knew it was going to be good when I saw that Eric was riding a single-speed bike too. There was no lack of climbing on this ride, but that was eclipsed by the incredible terrain. The climbs were ledgy with switchbacks and rocks all over the place. Eric then took us around this loop that seemed more fit for a trials bike than anything else. It was excellent. We climbed more and were rewarded with some more amazing descents with ledge sections, drop offs and rock spines. I could probably write several paragraphs on how cool this stuff was.
Saturday evening was filled with plenty of activity in the expo area after the BBQ. There was a bike limbo followed by a slow bike race. I blew it in the slow bike race by losing my balance early on. There was also a “Bike Olympics” which was an adult obstacle race on 12–inch kids’ bicycles. The kids got to participate by lobbing water balloons at the racers, and they seemed to thoroughly enjoy it. This was all capped off by the Huffy toss. After giving the kids a chance at it, they let the adults have their turn at heaving the little two-wheeled tank. I set the bar with my double underhand fling technique but was ultimately edged out by a couple of other guys who had a little more power at their disposal. Some of the photos I’ve seen of that airborne bike are glorious.
Sunday turned out to be a pretty good day as well. I went out for another one of the advanced rides lead by a guy named “Turtle.” This time we rode some more new trails and overlapped a couple that we rode on Saturday, but in the opposite direction. It turned into a really hot and humid day only briefly interrupted by a short shower. The riding was great although I think everyone was a little tired from a full day of riding on Saturday. Still, we managed to get in some more climbing leading to more great descents.
After lunch, I decided that I would just wind down for the day. We hung out for the raffle, which had some pretty nice prizes, but didn’t win anything. There were some afternoon rides but I didn’t want to burn myself out. I talked with a few more of the vendors and then just sat around for a while before packing up and heading back north later that afternoon.
Initially I wasn’t sure what to expect from the festival, especially after being part of the large scale of NEMBAfest a few weeks earlier. While clearly smaller, (think hundreds, not thousands) it was every bit as fun in its own way. The whole weekend had this very laid back vibe to it. It was also very family friendly with plenty of kids running around on foot or on bikes. In addition, they put together an amazing collection of Vermont companies in the expo area as well as some of the larger bike companies. Hopefully, next year will somehow be even better and more people will discover the great trails hidden in this part of Vermont. I hate to admit it, but it really was more fun than racing.