Letting off the brakes

Ridden and written by Shelly Martin
Photos: Dave Smutok

Downhill mountain biking was never even on my radar. Some of our riding friends DH’ed but I was having so much fun on singletrack I didn’t think I needed anything else. One summer day in 2010, my favorite riding buddy decided that we should go to Highland Mountain Bike Park in New Hampshire. He had heard about their lift access trails and wanted to try it out. I went along with it thinking this would be a one-time thing…

It’s ladies first down Upper Cat’s Paw! Then hop on board with me for the classic lower section of the trail in this raw shred footage from a gorgeous late fall day at Highland.

A couple of hours after hitting the road in Northern Vermont, we walked into the Highland Lodge and I signed up for a “Find Your ride”. The FYR package included a downhill bike rental, all the armor you could ever need/never want to test out, and a one hour lesson with one of Highland’s coaches. My stomach flipped a few times as my feet swung from the chairlift. Is this really for me? Am I going to make it down in one piece? You see, I like knowing that I am in charge of my destiny and I always perceived downhill mountain biking as a sport meant for total badass hooligans hurling themselves down loose gravel without any regard for self preservation. And jumps?! I don’t think so… My bike is meant for rolling, not catching air! Or so I thought…

We start down an intermediate trail and I quickly realize that the 7” travel bike under me can handle this terrain; it is me that’s going to be the problem. Let off the brakes and woah, so much easier to stay in control. Wait that doesn’t make sense, but it was true. And before I knew it, we were at the bottom. Hammies and hands cramped, forearms pumped, but unable to contain the huge grin across my face. Let’s take another lap!

Dropping in on Upper Cat's PawDropping in on Upper Cat’s Paw

Cats Paw's new berms next to the access road are FUN!Cat’s Paw's new berms next to the access road are FUN!

Wooden jumps, dirt tabletops, and more, on Highland's most feature packed trailWooden jumps, dirt tabletops, and more, on Highland's most feature packed trail

And that’s how it began. Fast forward 3 years, and 15 or so trips later and Highland is one of our favorite big kid playgrounds. We make it down a half dozen times or so a season and every time I am so impressed with just how much fun everyone is having. From the groomed jump trails like Cat’s Paw (my all-time favorite for endless laps) and NE Style, to the natural gnar of Eastern Hemlock and Maiden Voyage where I can test my skills and push myself to charge a little harder each time down, I never get bored.

After a day playing at Highland, there always seems to be another feature that I’ve been able to conquer, which makes it so darn addicting. Consistently going back for more has allowed a rider like me to progress on incredibly fun terrain while only leaving my comfort zone when I want to. This year my big accomplishments were hitting (small) drops with confidence and clearing tabletops. The more my skills improve, and the more I begin to see what is possible, the more I want to learn! I can’t wait for next season!

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