Rock Steady

Tapping Millstone Trails' secret ingredient

Kevin Jaques is dressed like a gnome and running through the woods with a hatchet again. He’s got the pointy hat, fake beard, red flannel shirt and everything. It’s got to be hot in all that wool, but Jacques is committed to the character, hiding behind trees and threatening us with his hatchet. The last time he dressed like a gnome was for a video to commemorate the opening of Millstone Trails’ newest singletrack, the Angry Gnome. In the video, Jacques chases two mountain bikers down the trail’s bridges and switchbacks, throwing small explosives at them. While the video is rated ‘T’ for terrible, the Angry Gnome trail is helping to put Millstone Trails, a small, volunteer-built system on quarry land in working-class Barre, Vermont, on the proverbial map.

The Green Mountain State has some storied singletrack, namely Kingdom Trails, but the town of Barre (pronounced ‘Barry’) is better known for its unemployment rate than its mountain biking. And yet, the parking lot is full as Jacques hams it up in his gnome outfit. There’s a couple in an RV down from Canada, some dudes from Massachusetts on a bachelor party and a bunch of riders who drove in from Burlington.

This is gnome man’s land.

“A few years ago, nobody would’ve bothered driving to Millstone to ride, but it’s come a long way,” says Christsonthy Drellos, the floor manager of Onion River Sports in Montpelier, where I purchased my Millstone pass. “More people coming into the shop are putting Millstone on their list of places to ride. Stowe, Kingdom and Millstone. It’s cool to see it on that list of destinations.”

Millstone has earned a spot on Southern Vermont’s trifecta of singletrack largely because of the work done by the man in the gnome suit. Jacques is head of the volunteer trail crew, and along with his younger brother, Jason, has built feature-rich downhill and cross-country trails like the aforementioned Angry Gnome. If you like bridgework and boulders, the Jacques brothers are your guardian angels.

I’m here to follow them and the trails association president, Nathan Reigner, through Millstone’s bounty. Meeting the angry gnome is just a bonus.

Pickup Trucks & Priuses

Millstone is a dense system with 30 miles of trail split between public forest and privately owned quarry land. The trails wind in and out of residential streets a few miles outside of downtown Barre, and have been popular with snowmobilers for decades. From the parking lot, we pedal into the forest on a wide snowmobile path, passing a heavy-set couple playing disc golf. It’s rolling terrain, with short, punchy ups and downs through a forest stacked with young beech trees. The once-active quarries are now placid granite canyons with water in their bellies and tufts of forest sprouting from their cliff tops. This is what Millstone has going for it: granite. It comes in the form of gorgeous, manmade canyons scattered throughout the woods, and by way of burly features, like slickrock skinnies and boulder drops. The locals who build and ride Millstone are proud of the technical aspect of their trails, and in a spin on Mad River Glen’s famous tagline, their mantra is “ride it if you can.” In other words, don’t bother looking for a flow trail.

The reputation is a bit disconcerting, and I’m straight-up worried about the amount of body armor I see Jacques put on before we start riding. He assures me I’ll be fine. “I only wear it because I’m old and fall a lot,” he says.

The brothers Jaques contemplate their stony surroundings.

The trail network is divided into three areas. The older cross-country trails are in the Barre Town Forest, a 400-acre chunk of land recently made public. Canyonlands has more of a backcountry feel, with remote singletrack running through expansive quarry sites. Gnome Man’s Land, also on quarry land, is where most of the new trail development occurs.

We hit Barre Forest first, which consists mostly of social trails cut years ago that have been adopted into the master plan. It’s all beautifully old school, with roots spread across the dirt like spaghetti, sharp corners that act like speed checks and narrow corridors where trees grab your bars. It’s classic, East Coast tech where you have to be light on the front end of your bike, like Bruce Lee gearing up for a punch. Don’t rest after you clear a boulder, though, because there’s another you have to bounce over, and another, and another. The trails make good use of the natural rock features, twisting through an understory of moss and ferns while rolling past a handful of former quarries. One has water so placid that the cliffs form a mirror image on the surface of the lake; another is filled with chalky green water that looks to be the consistency of whole milk.

Local trails association leader Nathan Reigner.

Remnants of the area’s industrial past linger throughout the forest. There’s a rusted truck with trees growing through its windows, a dynamite shack that’s been converted into a tool shed for the trails association and thick, heavy cable everywhere. A massive, rusted boiler that looks like a train engine has been abandoned deep in the woods. Just downslope from that boiler, there’s a lean-to built out of thick branches that a hobo lived in for most of the summer. We occasionally pass stacks of waste granite–jumbles of jagged rock, some of which are piled 30-feet high–called ‘grout.’ The temperature drops several degrees next to these piles, going from hot and muggy to downright chilly. “Cold spots,” Reigner tells me. “Weird, right?”

There are a few mystical explanations for these, but the prevailing theory is that the rocks trap snow and ice throughout the summer, keeping temperatures nearby significantly lower. “Millstone isn’t like anywhere else on the planet,” Jacques tells me as we pause to enjoy nature’s air conditioning. “This is reclaimed quarry land. A hundred years ago it was a wasteland and now, it’s … special.”

The brothers grew up riding Huffys on snowmobile trails in this forest. Kevin is stocky, with a goatee and a thick Vermont accent that could easily be mistaken for Canadian. Jason, his younger brother, is quieter. He’s still riding 26-inch wheels, on a dented frame with a derailleur that’s stuck in one gear. He has a newborn at home, so there’s no chance of upgrading anytime soon. They both rolled up to the trailhead in pickup trucks, wearing flannel, before changing into baggies. Like most people in Barre, they work construction: Kevin’s a carpenter, Jason’s an electrician.

Reflections of Barre’s past as the granite capital of the world.

Reigner is a different animal altogether. He’s an environmental consultant for the National Park Service who moved to Barre a few years ago after he grew tired of Burlington’s pace and real-estate prices. He rides in purple socks and a roadie kit, while his dog, North, chases his back wheel. His dog receives regular acupuncture treatments. Reigner’s beard is a spectacular force of its own. This is the beauty of Vermont’s blend of blue-collar mountain culture that borders on redneck and left-leaning, “Feel the Bern” progressives. Pickup trucks and Priuses, and the two disparate elements intersect beautifully at Millstone Trails.

The highlight of the older cross-country network is The New Trail, which was actually built several years ago, but the name stuck. ‘TNT’ is a 2-mile juggernaut of roots, boulders and granite slabs–brutal in the most enjoyable way. I move through the trail slowly, picking my line carefully through tight switchbacks littered with roots. There are a couple of full-body moves where I have to muscle my bike up steep granite slabs, then I’m dropping fast over granite into a wild turn that carves a slot through the trees just wide enough to squeeze my handlebars through. Green ferns pop out of the dark-chocolate soil as I pedal into a sustained climb that’s a constant barrage of switchbacks, curling around trees and more granite until I’m at an intersection with two other trails. TNT, with its classic East Coast gnar, stands as a monument to Millstone’s DIY ethos.

But if TNT is Millstone’s past, then Gnome Man’s Land is the future.

Lawson’s General Store is a Millstone mainstay.

Illegal Three-Wheeler

When we pedal across a paved road between Barre Town Forest and the quarry land that holds Gnome Man’s Land, we skirt around a residential street where a teenage kid is ripping hot laps around his house on a three-wheeler that’s been illegal for at least a decade. He guns it up the slope in his backyard, pulling his front tire off the ground and carrying the wheelie until he reaches the top of his property. At the crest of the hill, he slams his front tire down, then corners hard on two wheels and starts over. A large hound dog sits in one spot and howls every time the three-wheeler comes around the house.

The kid is nervous when we pedal up because he thinks we’re going to yell at him, but I just want to know if he ever rides bikes. He doesn’t. He’s maybe 16, and has never ridden the trails that start 100 yards from the back of his house.

Kevin (left) and Jason Jacques are responsible for much of the trail building that has given Millstone its stellar reputation.

“That’s the biggest roadblock that Millstone faces,” Reigner says. “We used Kingdom Trails as a huge model for our development–that notion of community involvement and ownership. But the advantage Kingdom Trails has is they have the locals behind them. That’s the difference between mountain biking in a ski town and mountain biking in a working-class town. There aren’t a lot of locals here that ride.”

Barre doesn’t even have a bike shop. They had a co-op that was open a couple days a month, called the Magic Wheel, but even that has been shuttered for the last year. There’s talk of a shop opening downtown, but some are skeptical that it could stay in business.

There probably shouldn’t be any good mountain biking in Barre. The town sits on top of one of the largest seams of granite in the country, an estimated 4 miles long, 2 miles wide and 10 miles deep. In its heyday, Barre was the granite capital of the world. Cobblestones from these quarries paved the roads of New York City and Boston. There are more than 80 quarries surrounding Barre, but only five of them are active now. The rest have been filled with water. If the town is known for anything these days, it’s for having the only strip club in the state. Or the unusually high number of heroin cases tried at the courthouse. Towns like Burlington and Montpelier have given Vermont a granola-eating, Prius-driving reputation, but there are also blue-collar towns like Barre, rooted in logging or mining, that have had a hard time finding a new identity after their predominant industry went bust. New Englanders have dubbed the town “Scary Barre,” but Reigner thinks it’s an unfair distinction.

Three wheels are more appealing than two for many people in Barre.

“It’s blue collar, but not dangerous,” he says, adding that the town is at the beginning of a transition. A few trendy restaurants have opened, a health food co-op is emerging and the development of the town forest gives Barre something a lot of Vermont cities don’t have: public land. He’s hoping the Millstone trail system can play a key role in helping Barre find its new identity beyond the “granite capital of the world,” but right now there’s a cultural disconnect between the trail system and the town.

“For the most part, people around here think riding bikes is for kids,” Reigner says.

Gnome Man’s Land

The entrance to Gnome Man’s Land is intimidating. We pedal around the edge of a former quarry on a granite ledge about 20 feet above the water. The lake surface is calm and glassy, and surrounded by smooth, gray cliffs that rise 100 feet from the opposite end of the lake. The scene is incredibly peaceful, like a poor-man’s version of Mirror Lake in Yosemite National Park. Jason points to a knob, maybe 40 feet above the water line on the other side of the cliff, and says that’s where local kids like to jump.

“Looks dangerous,” I say.

He shrugs. “Yeah. But there’s not a lot to do around here, so …”

We ride 25 yards of sloping bridgework that curls over a mound of chunky granite piled up to dam the lake. The rock spreads out on either side of the woodwork like giant cubes. The Jacqueses built the bridges in sections, then pieced them together so you have to complete a small drop from one bridge to the next. The woodwork is plenty wide, but when you put the line together–the elevated bridges, the drops, the jagged cubes of unforgiving stone on either side–it can give you pause.

Kevin leads the way through Angry Gnome, followed closely by Jason and Reigner, while I do my best to keep up. The Gnome is three minutes of downhill with lots of elevated bridgework. There’s more speed to be had compared to the older trails, but you have to be on your game. There’s no room for error on the bridges, which seem to get skinnier as you progress down the mountain. The woodwork hangs above the dark soil below, winding through the trees, only to be broken up by sticky, granite slabs, so you go from wood to rock to wood to rock and travel for 50 yards without ever setting your tires on the ground. It’s intimidating, but once you commit, most of the features are more fun than death defying. As soon as I get out of my own way and begin to trust myself and my bike, I find speed in the swooping wood berms and roll cautiously through the skinniest bridges toward the bottom.

It took the Jacques brothers more than three years to build Angry Gnome, working nights and weekends, and using lumber leftover from construction jobs. There’s a hell of a lot of wood in this forest now. While the original trails at Millstone have heaps of rugged East Coast charm, there’s no doubt that the new trails have become the area’s biggest draw. Everybody I talked to earlier in the morning in the parking lot was there to ride Angry Gnome and the handful of Jacqueses-built trails that descend the side of the mountain in Gnome Man’s Land.

Even gnomes need to relieve themselves.

“We just build stuff we want to ride,” Jason tells me. “I like drops. I like riding fast. I like bridges. It’s cool to know other people like it too.”

We cross an active quarry road at the bottom of Angry Gnome and pick up Vortex, which has an entirely different feel to it. There’s some bridgework, but the star of this trail is the granite. The soil throughout the entire Barre forest is only a few inches thick, so for Vortex, the brothers scraped the soil back to expose skinny veins of granite, giving riders an extensive path of grippy slickrock to ride through the forest.

We ride through some chunky sections, then gain speed on narrow slickrock that leads into swooping granite berms that switch back into more slickrock and more speed until we carve along another granite berm. A 50-foot-long elevated bridge carries us over to a skinny ridge of granite that runs like the back of a dragon sticking 4 feet off the ground. The trick is to keep your momentum and ride the peak of the ridgeback like a granite skinny until you hit dirt on the other end. The trail is surrounded by a thick carpet of moss, while a couple of creek crossings have been armored with century-old cobblestones.

It’s more technical than Angry Gnome–you have to find the right line through the granite–but Vortex has incredible flow if you know where to point your front wheel.

The trail plays out over the next mile or so in a cornucopia of wood bridges and sloping granite until we loop back around to that quarry road, where a hike-a-bike leads back to the entrance of Gnome Man’s Land. From there, we can choose from a half-dozen ways back down the mountain. Roller Coaster is mostly fast dirt with a few optional bridge jumps and drops. Screaming Demon is more demanding, with super-skinny bridgework and extended boulder sections that you can roll or huck.

There’s a lot of imagination at play in the trails the Jacques brothers are building, from the creative mix of wood and stone on Angry Gnome to the natural flow that they found in the granite on Vortex. We do a couple of laps before beelining it to Lawson’s, a general store on the edge of Millstone that serves as a hub for people living in these outlying neighborhoods. It’s the kind of place where you can get a Gatorade, buy a snow shovel and rent a copy of “Adventures in Babysitting.” Leaning our bikes against the cracking white paint on the side of the building, we go inside to buy beef jerky and a six-pack of beer. Mr. and Mrs. Lawson are behind the counter, older but spry. The Jacqueses know them well, and get into the sort of short, but intimate conversation you can only have with someone you’ve known all your life.

“I love the fact that I’ve been riding my bike to Lawson’s since I was a kid,” Kevin says as we exit through the store’s squeaky front door. “It’s stuff like this that makes me think I’m never gonna leave Barre.”

The old quarry still has rock for ages.

Sapping Energy

Everyone is standing in the trailhead parking lot talking about maple syrup. Specifically, how to get maple syrup out of a flask. The trick is to use really hot water. The things you learn when you grow up in Vermont. It’s the end of the day and we’ve ridden for hours, hitting most of Millstone’s highlights. Tomorrow, I’ll head out alone to Canyonlands, where the biggest quarries and more remote singletrack can be found. But for now, there’s just beer and maple syrup. Instead of carrying gels on long rides, they carry flasks of Vermont’s finest sap.

I’m suspicious, but one by one, random strangers in the parking lot of Millstone show me the maple syrup that they stash in their packs and pockets. One long-haired guy flashes his packet of Untapped, made down the road in Stowe, as he rides by for one more lap before the sun sets. “This is how we ride up here,” he says. “We’re Vermonters.”

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