ECRT Hits the Ground Riding at Sugarbush
4 Jul 2014
Vermont is awesome. No question, after only a matter of hours, it was clear this State has a serious mountain bike pedigree, and is making up ground (and trails), that will rival any State in the country. And this is only the first stop!
We kicked off the East Coast Road Trip at Sugarbush Mountain Resort. Founded in 1958, the ski area was established on the northeast side of Lincoln Peak, and a three-seat gondola was installed, which at the time was the longest chairlift in the US. It was once so popular with the Hollywood jet set and high society, such as the Kennedy family, that it was known as "Mascara Mountain."
Sugarbush was open for mountain bikes as early as 1991, but went through a hiatus for a number of years between ’98 and 2006, re-opening as a ‘bike park’ in 2007, and re-vamping the trails that had become overgrown. Since then, they’ve been adapting and developing the trails to meet the changing demands of riders year on year – and they have much more to come.
A birds eye view of base of the main lift.
We rocked up on Friday evening and were immediately met by Mountain Patroller Mike Kroski, and his son, cruising around the village in a kick-ass open top jeep. Mike set us up with access to the lift station operations room for storing bikes and kit, before we had a wander around the largely deserted resort area to get our bearings. Saturday morning it was straight in to it – checking in with the bike park crew and starting with some warm-up laps - Colin, Reid, Connor, and later on Chad, introducing us to the trails. And along way we got to ride and chat with plenty of interesting local characters including a kick-ass MTB girl-gang…
There’s one lift open for bikes, the Super Bravo Express Quad Chair. The bikes hook on the back of every other chair, and there’s no need to do it yourself either – the lift operators do it for you whilst you go take a seat. There’s some really good vertical at Sugarbush so it takes about 7 minutes to get to the top, climbing 1,575 feet to Gadd Peak. Overall, the trails are more natural single-track, technical trails, rather than excavator built flow/jump rails. This is old school mountain biking at it’s best - the locals at Sugarbush often describe their trails as “bony” with lots of roots and rocks. There’s very little natural topsoil available on the mountain to create berms and jumps. However, there’s lots of natural, steep, gnarly terrain to be had for those looking for a challenge. Wild Turkey and Burly Maple are 2 great examples, and whilst both are intermediate ‘blue’ trails, multiple line choices with numerous small rocks and root-bundles to boost-off and air-out will also keep the attention of more advanced riders when going for speed. But beware when attempting to catch some airtime; there’s not always a clearly defined takeoff and landing. Learning the lines is essential as your speed picks up on these trails.
A wooden roller feature on the Burly Maple trail.
Having said that, there were really only a couple of spots on the trails where we felt the need to get off our bikes and walk a section to be able to ride it safely - it’s a long tour we’re doing this summer, so no need to launch blindly into the abyss just yet! And this was only the case on a black-grade trail anyway. The black trails here - like the excellent Rocks & Roll, offer more of the same technical style riding as the blue trails, but step it up a notch in terms of roots, rocks and gradient. So conspicuous by its absence – there is currently no classic machine-built advanced big-hit jump trail at Sugarbush. However, we spied some major building work going on in the woods and you don’t have long to wait – expect a grand opening some time very soon!
The new machine-built jump trail in development.
Unfortunately there are not many options available for beginner riders at Sugarbush. The main green-grade trail that starts life as the Valley House Traverse and takes on a few other names as it descends is actually a loose, rocky, access road that has the odd steep sections. This can be quite intimidating if it’s the first mountain bike trail you’ve ever seen! And even if this is achieved, there’s still a significant gap in standard up to the technical blue trails. The bike park team is well aware of this, and has already begun the process of developing a full top-to-bottom single-track line for beginners.
There are a couple of trails with huge sweeping switchbacks, which zigzag back and forth across the ski runs – Downspout and Snowball are both blue-grade trails with sections like this, out of the woods. In both cases we noticed a big off-camber issue when traversing from one side to the other, in between the big berms. Coming out of the berms, we were all wrestling to keep the bike straight and setup for the next berm, as the slope fell away down the hill. Turns out there’s a very interesting reason for this – the reluctance of the local Forestry Service to permit any sort of trail modifications, which includes moving dirt and even mowing the grass, on these open areas of ski run. The berms that run down the tree line at the edge are fine - no problem building them (so long as they are clear of the buried electric cables!). But it’s hands-off the transitions in between. This results in an unfortunate interruption in the flow. Again the team acknowledges this, and is actually prepared to focus attention on new trails on parts of the mountain where they have full control over the terrain. This shows a genuine desire to develop trails that people really want to ride, as they are just plain fun.
The open air switchbacks of the Downspout trail, with off-camber transitions.
Have to give a shout out to Colin Cascadden, the Sugarbush Patrol Director, who took time out to shuttle us around in the Honda 4x4 so we could get the heli-cam and other equipment in to some pretty inaccessible areas without riding bikes down the trails with an expensive load on our backs! And he did it whilst braving the relentless assault from the biting black flies that had us all coming up in big red welts by the early evening. Best way of avoiding them is to never stop moving on the bike it would seem!
We’d just wrapped up for the day and were making our way down in the Honda, when a desperate cry echoed out of the woods. One quarter of a Vermont girl crew, Brittany had flatted her rear tire and needed a ride back down. We obliged, and over post-ride beers, this hugely entertaining 4-piece gang which also included Tara (the angry one), Tina (the foul mouth), and Nichole (the belcher), gave us their thoughts and opinions on the trails here and across the State.
Getting a women’s viewpoint on the trails with some well-earned local brew.
The more we chatted with the locals, the more evident it became that there was much more to it than the bike park trails, and it was well worth exploring further afield. There’s a strong nod to this on the Sugarbush Bike Park Trail Map, which actually identifies the local trail hotspots, even though they are outside of the bike park boundaries. These are built and maintained by the local MTB group Mad River Riders, so plans were made to explore these in the next couple of days. If every stop on the ECRT is like this, and we suspect it might be, then this is going to be one epic summer...