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The Highland Family

The Highland Family

We’ve been wrestling with the term ‘cult’ as it generally has such negative connotations. Bad shit happens in a cult, we all know that. And yet we also understand that it represents a collective commitment to a cause, in an overwhelming and comprehensive way. One online dictionary defines a cult as “a group or sect bound together by veneration of the same thing, person, ideal, etc”. Well that’s exactly what it feels like at Highland. The whole setup is like an MTB cult – without any of the negative implications of the word – this is all positive! Maybe 'culture' is more appropriate though. And the Highland ‘family’ certainly is.

The Highland base from a birds eye view.

The Highland Bike Shop Manager Greg Goldbach talked us through the hugely well-equipped on-site bike shop. Open 30 minutes either side of the lift operating times, there’s a good stock of retail goodies from Fox and Smith Optics, with various components, parts and tires from Specialized. You can pick up a custom branded Highland ODI clamp for your grips, or a custom SDG Highland too! There’s a standard rental fleet of Specialized Status 1’s, which are owned by Highland and used by the Find Your Ride programs. These programs are specifically designed for riders new to mountain biking. The package includes lift pass, rental bike, pads and helmet, and a one-hour ‘park-ready’ lesson with an instructor. After the lesson, you’re free to go at it at your own pace. And all this for only $99, with a 3-pack deal for only $267! Definitely a great way to get over the ‘barrier to entry’ of cost, that many consider to be an issue with mountain biking for first timers.

Hard at work in the Highland bike shop.

Then there are the higher-spec demo bikes, with a rather unique setup for how Highland offers these to riders. The bikes are actually supplied by 4 local bike shops - Littleton Bikes and Fitness, Gorham Bike and Ski, Belmont Wheelworks, and S&W Sports, as well as a few bikes supplied directly from Xprezo Bikes up in Quebec. This means the demos could be any brand – depending on what the shops are carrying, so currently that’s Giant, Specialized, Transition and Trek. When Highland gets them from the stores, they remove all ‘wear’ items from the bikes – grips, saddles, tires, sometimes even the whole wheel set, and replaces them with stock components. At the end of the season, the bikes can be sold off nearly new with most of original unused parts reinstalled. And the sales are made through the bike shop that provided the bike in the first place. If you demo a bike and want to buy it, then you get that credit off the cost of the overall purchase price, as well as a free 1 day or 3 day lift pass for Highland, depending on the overall value of the bike. This setup basically spreads the expense and shares the risk as it enables the bike shops to reach more customers through Highland, and means that Highland does not have to purchase and maintain a high-end fleet of bikes each season. Win-win.

Under the lodge, just outside the bike shop entrance.

There’s a cool reservation process for the demos - you reserve a bike online using the web-reserve system on the Highland website, and you can enter your weight and height, plus add comments like your own personal suspension setup or pedal preferences etc. Then when you roll-up at Highland, the bike is sat there ready and waiting when you – marked with a sticker with your name on it, so you waste no time getting out on the trails. Cost will set you back $109 for the day, which is pretty standard, and you can rent just for 2 hours for $40 if you just want a taster. But if renting for the full day, you can switch it out for a total of 3 different bikes at any time (assuming availability), providing a pretty unique opportunity to test out some different DH bikes.

View from the main lodge deck.

Naturally, given the Highland commitment to development, there are plenty of kids’ bike rentals as well. There are 3 main options – the Specialized Grom-hit 24 inch, Commencal Supremes 20 and 24 inch, and the Little Shredders – hand made from Oregon and re-named as Little Hellions in honor of the famous Highland trail. And they now even have walkover bikes – Specialized hot walks – meaning that they can cater to kids as young as five!

The bike shop crew – consisting of Shane, Mike, Chris, Chad, and another Greg are obviously capable of doing anything – but it’s really worth mentioning their expertise in suspension. The guys spend a lot of time tuning and/or rebuilding forks and shocks so have developed a super-high level of suspension knowledge specific to gravity riding. Pick their brains if you get the chance.

Josh hanging out at the top station patrol hut.

The Highland Patrol team is another hugely impressive setup led by Patrol Director Josh Moreau, who has worked at Highland in some capacity for 9 years! There are 4 medics on duty every day – a base attendant, 2 circulating patrollers, and a medic stationed at the top of the lift. If it’s a super busy day or an event then they can bring in others from a larger pool. The Patrol conducts a trail sweep every morning to open things up – check trails for storm damage etc. And at the end of the day, they’ll do another to check for stragglers – either themselves, or often by sending a well known local rider down a specific trail, with instruction to check in with an all clear at the bottom. The most common injury at the bike park is the clavicle – which is pretty common in mountain biking generally, and interestingly there’s no concentration of incidents at specific locations on the mountain - not on the biggest drops for example. It’s a pretty even spread. Response time is only 2 minutes – super quick compared to any other places, and impressive even though it’s a smaller mountain. It’s just another slick aspect to the Highland setup. And going back to the Highland family, it was Josh’s grandparents that established the original ski area, way back in 68-69!

There’s a lifestyle to Highland. It’s amazing to see such a concentration of freeride pros, directing the kid’s camps, and hanging out in the lodge for a beer at the end of the day, mixing with all the other riders. As well as Dave Smutok, Greg Watts and Aaron Chase were regularly around for a chat – especially given that Aaron is married to the Highland Marketing Manager – Kara.

Whitney and Karen bringing Natty up to speed on something funny. No idea what though...!

The Highland bar is the place to hangout, pretty much any time during the day, but more fun at the end of the day when you can swap stories of dropping Tombstone or hitting every feature on NE Style for the first time. Your host will likely be Jackie or Audriana, and they keep it open until people drift off – it was not uncommon to be hanging out until gone 8pm on the weekends! On the other end of the lodge entrance way, you’ll find the restaurant/café, which has a great selection of food running all day long, with breakfast bagels, huge burritos, pizza, smoothies, muffins, brownies, and so on.

Yes please, one of each, line them up...

And over in the other building next to the lodge there’s the Highland Flagship store, which stocks Highland branded t-shirts, hoodies etc – some really awesome stuff to take away as a souvenir. Cari was running things in there, and continuing with the Highland family thread, she turns out to be the cousin of Josh the Patrol Director!

Not gonna go hungry here - a bigger selection than many large resorts!

There’s one aspect of trails that we haven’t mentioned so far, and that’s the small XC network that’s part of the Highland setup, in association with the New England Mountain Bike Association (NEMBA). We took a quick ride to explore with Suzy – a long-time Highland family member, starting with Faux Pine off the top of the mountain – look out for the trail head on your left about 30 seconds in to the Easy Rider green trail.

Faux Pine trail head - don't miss it if you're bombing down Easy Rider.

Trey down the hand made rock section on Faux Pine.

There’s an impressive section of hand-made rock garden in there – just as much effort goes in to these trails as in to the freeride ones. It’s the only one-way trail in the XC network as it’s predominantly downhill, and great to ride with a DH bike – as we did – so long as you’re prepared to pedal hard or push out of the bottom back in to the Highland car park. There are multiple other trails for proper XC riding though, just be sure not to drop out of bounds – something that Suzy always seemed to struggle with. Just demonstrating the Highland community spirit, they even knocked up a special sign to stop her getting lost in the future...!

A special sign, just for Suzy. Now don't get lost down there again!!

It doesn’t seem like there’s a lot going on outside of the bike park, but there doesn’t really need to be, as you won’t want to leave. Check out Pauli’s for a great breakfast on Main Street in the town of Tilton, and there’s a secluded swimming hole nearby at Knowles Pond – a 10 minute drive and another 10 minute walk in from the trail head to get to a good spot to jump in. Not a bad way to wrap up an epic few days at America’s Bike Park before we moved on!

Claymore course and bag jump, from about the same height you get to if you hit the Red Bull jumps!

One of the other XC trails, fun on a DH bike but a grind to pedal out.

Knowles Pond - the local swimming spot for cooling off after riding.

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