Once rolling in a glistening metallic, two-tone silver-and-black outer shell, today the 15-passenger Ford Club Wagon van's exterior is dull with cloudy paint cataracts from the harsh East Coast elements. Born in the late '80s, it wears the scars from the few hundred thousand odometer-documented treks across the United States as a badge of honor, like the crows feet on a sun-hardened cowboy's face. Each dent, scratch, faded sticker and paint chip is embedded with memories of bike races and road trips past. A web of phone-charging cables is unintentionally woven with electrical-tape-infused USB hubs and cassette player adapters, appearing as though a blindfolded person hotwired the vehicle from the backseat. However, after a 14-hour-long day of airport hopscotch from California to Boston, the rambling Ford was a welcomed curbside visual at Logan International Airport. Indeed, it would prove a suitable toy and people hauler for our mission to ride five East Coast bike parks in five days.
"I've been planning to sell 'Supervan,'" Alex says. "But, I recently had it inspected and the mechanic told me the it's in perfect running shape." Alex McAndrew and his girlfriend, Ella Skalwold, race professionally and run Vermont Mountain Bike Tours, and would be our guides through a diverse cross-section of East Coast bike parks: Highland in New Hampshire, Vermont's iconic Mount Snow, the freshly built Thunder Mountain Park in Massachusetts, New York's legendary Plattekill Mountain and New Jersey's renowned Mountain Creek Resort. Alex, Ella, Bike's photo editor, Anthony Smith, and I Rubik's Cubed a half-dozen bikes and all of our gear into the seasoned battlewagon and said, "Siri, take us to New Hampsha."
NOTORIOUS B.I.G. > 2PAC
In mountain biking, the West Coast gets a lot of attention. Year-round riding is common, and numerous high-profile riders and personalities in the sport have risen from California. Several media outlets, plus many bike and component manufacturers also call the Golden State home. However, anyone with an ear to the ground in mountain biking will acknowledge the East Coast has owned the downhill scene for at least a decade and it's easy to understand why.
"In just a few-hour drive from where we live, there are probably 14 lift-accessible bike parks," Alex says.
To his point, while holding down the backseat in 'Supervan' I counted 23 bike parks on the map between Pittsburgh and New Hampshire. Surprisingly, the total driving distance between those two points is about 170 miles shorter than driving from San Diego to the border town and riding destination of Ashland, Oregon. Considering there are maybe five lift-access bike parks in the entire state of California, the number and proximity of the East Coast options is jaw- dropping.
I hadn't visited New Hampshire's mountain biking jewel, Highland Bike Park, since 2010. Leaving Boston's congestion in our wake, the déjá vu kicked as we passed the lush forest and changing fall colors lining our highway route. Approaching our first stop, Highland, I thought about its unique inception story, parts of which I remembered from my last visit.
The park's founder, Mark Hayes, filled in the gaps when we arrived.
"Highland Mountain was originally a hiking and ski trail area in the 1930s," Mark says. "By the late '60s, The Highlands Ski Area was established and lifts were installed."
But after several seasons of economic struggle, the ski resort was abandoned.
"Starting in 1996, vandals and squatters had their way with the place until I purchased the mountain in 2003–officially establishing Highland Mountain Bike Park."
Highland Bike Park was born from Hayes' passion for riding. In the summer of 2000, he and his family sold a fiber optic business they founded in the late 1980s, allowing Mark to match his love for riding with the resources required to develop a mountain bike-only resort.
"I have seen Highland Mountain Bike Park go from just an idea to a world-class bike park in 15 years," explains Mark. "We have made our park accessible to families, schools and scouting organizations. It's no longer a park for just the hardcore or advanced rider–we've put a lot of effort into creating something for everybody."
The moment we pulled into the Highland lot it became clear why it is a special place. The parking lot was packed with pop-up tents, work stands, coolers, barbecue setups and exuded friendly and welcoming vibes. Although the bike park's total vertical of 627 feet won't cause any nosebleeds, its network of well-designed, technical trails impressively weaves along the mountainside. We pounded out lap after lap, switching between flowy, jump-oriented trails with healthy man-made drops, and tighter, more technically demanding terrain. The hard-packed berms were blue-grooved from thousands of tires beating down the main line, while the pinging tones from our drivetrains reverberated as our eight-wheeled quartet rallied down the rougher and rowdier trails. As our day on the hill wound to an end, we turned our attention to the indoor Highland Training Center (HTC). The HTC features a massive foam pit, resi box and many other features, all designed to provide a place for riders to hone tricks and skills before taking them to the mountain, or to Highland's pro-built slopestyle course.
"We've boiled the park down into two main focuses: training and trails," says Highland marketing manager, Richard Patty. "This means building progressive trails for advanced riders, while putting in programs to welcome new riders into the sport."
Back at the lodge, seemingly every rider from the lift line had gathered at the pub. Mark, Richard and their crew joined us for a farewell beverage and a rehashing of the day's trail stories.
"The east coast riding community is a tight group of passionate people," says Mark. "Riding is simply just a big part of our lives."
"We always talk about the Highland family," Richard adds. "Anyone who's been to Highland understands how much the vibe makes it so unique. The vision Mark and the rest of the team have for not only the park, but the future of the sport, is really inspiring."
BERNIE, BEN & JERRY'S, AND BIKES
The sound resembled a pencil snapping, immediately followed by a stinging sensation in my left hand. Yet, my focus remained on the slimy rocks and roots ahead. At the bottom of the trail, I glanced down and realized the little finger on my left hand now resembled the number seven. All things considered, punching a massive Vermont Maple at speed could've led to a high-speed, over-the-bars tomahawk onto the notoriously rugged Mount Snow terrain rather than the glancing blow I'd sustained. Fortunately, this inconvenience occurred on our last run of the day.
Thirty years ago, the Mount Snow Ski Resort in Vermont began carrying mountain bikers up its chairlift. Before long, this picturesque venue, relatively isolated among the rural Vermont mountain-scape, became a staple on the national mountain bike race scene, evolving into a rider and fan favorite along the way.
Thinking back, my last visit to Mount Snow likely coincided with the death rattle of a once-newsworthy U.S. national race series. The stunningly peaceful and scenic drive through the turning-fall leaves of the Thomas Kinkade-like countryside was a harsh contrast to some of the rowdy terrain in Mount Snow's bike park.
The park is known for its raw, natural and technical terrain, but new flow trails have opened the park up to a broader range of riders. While we're aboard the chairlift, several of these new trails reveal themselves. Their bermed, pumptrack-style features serpentine down grassy ski runs, while the majority of the advanced terrain resides in, or near, the forest sections. It doesn't take many laps down the troublemaking, rock-strewn slabs before the terrain's reputation spoke for itself by puncturing tires and disarming unsuspecting chain guides. Alex, a veteran of the East Coast downhill scene, led us through a variety Mount Snow's greatest hits, including the infamous Yardsale boulderfield, and, for me, each trail junction resurrected memories of races past.
In two days, we had hit one of the country's most progressive bike parks, and some iconic terrain in the sport's history, but it was time to point the Supervan south. The next stop would be a new experience for everyone.
At the time of our trip, Alex and Ella were sitting near the top in points in the Eastern States Cup Downhill Series and they were in the hunt for the overall championship. Coincidentally, our next stop, the newly developed Thunder Mountain Bike Park at Berkshire East Resort in Massachusetts, was hosting one of the final rounds of the series the same weekend we visited. Thunder Mountain is about two hours from Boston and around four hours from New York City.
According to the walk-in clinic I visited after riding in Vermont, my left hand had an avulsion fracture at a knuckle. Meaning my finger dislocated, and in the process a ligament yanked off a chunk of the bone from where it was attached. This would certainly cramp my 'shaka' game, but with a little athletic tape I'd be back in business. Although, taking one day off the bike to ice my eggplant-sized hand down to a recognizable body part, plus catch a little race action was an acceptable parting gift.
"This is a completely new bike park," Alex says. "They just put it in earlier this year and after a few runs this morning, I'm blown away."
Walking the track during practice, I noticed the near-perfect pitch of the terrain for bike trails, and how malleable the coffee-ground-like dirt appeared. My observations were elaborated on by Berkshire East general manager, Jon Schaefer.
"We brought in Gravity Logic out of Whistler to put in the foundation for the park, but what makes it truly unique are the people who have built, maintained and run the park on a daily basis: Dave Kelly, Chris Conrad, Harold Green, Tyler Conrad and many others.
"At the moment we have 13 trails, with many in development. Hawleywood is our new black jump line, while beginners will enjoy the 3.5-mile long Sugar Line, which meanders through the park. In addition to building and refining the current terrain, for 2016, we plan to double the number of chairlift bike carriers and open a second lift on the weekends."
When the dust settled on Thunder Mountain, Alex finished in third place on the day, while Ella also finished as the pro women's runner-up, keeping them both in the hunt for their series championships.
DAY AT THE ROXBURY
Day four of our quest found us winding through the Catskill Mountains en route to the Godfather of East Coast downhill: Plattekill Mountain. I've heard about this place since before 'bike park' was even a term, and its 60-some miles of lift-accessed terrain has been on my riding radar for the better part of two decades.
Back at Thunder Mountain, East Coast pro downhillers, Jason Memmelaar and Leif Lorenzen, decided to join us at Plattekill.
"This place is so sweet and has a ton of history," Leif says. "It's got an old-school ski resort vibe and is really hidden away in the heart of the Catskills."
"Over the years racing at Plattekill, I'd just sleep in my van at the mountain," Jason says. "Roxbury is a really small town with only a couple of motels, so during race weekends most people just camped in the mountain parking lot. We'd sit around campfires and tell stories about the day."
Upon arriving, we were greeted by Plattekill regular Paul La Barbera, who would help us find the best variety of terrain during our day in the park. While we were unpacking our bikes and making final adjustments, Plattekill Mountain owners, Laszlo and Danielle Vajtay, introduced themselves. It doesn't take much investigation to discover the venue's cheerful disposition resonates from its friendly, accommodating and proud ownership.
"All of these big resort bike parks are putting in these 'flow' trails as smooth as sidewalks," says Laszlo. "Well, at Plattekill we don't really pay outside people to build trails on our mountain. We do have a nice, new meandering trail loop, Greenhorn, designed for newer riders, but most of our trails started as downhill race tracks so they can be pretty demanding."
After signing the liability waivers, we had the pleasure of watching the Plattekill bike safety and instructional video or, more accurately, a "Hot Tub Time Machine" style portal back to 1996 mountain biking. Air in the tires, check. Helmet, check. Fingerless gloves, check. Let's ride!
"Platty' is one of the true great downhill parks," Jason says, as we rumble along in the distinguished chairlift. "The trails are steep, really rough and loose, but also don't require much pedaling."
'Rough and loose' is an understatement. The first trails we ride dart quickly through narrow tree passageways, some barely wide enough for a modern handlebar, before linking up massive rock drops and steep chutes. Our 2.5-inch-wide tires surfed on the thin shale rock quivering beneath our wheels. Even the 'smooth' sections of trails were pitted with partially embedded rocks, patiently waiting for an unsuspecting single-ply tire to destroy.
From atop the chairlift, we watched dusk fall on the sleepy town below, before putting down one final run. Back at the lodge, Laszlo and company had the barbecue fired up and beverages on ice. We bellied up to the bar, dug into the generously provided refreshments and rehashed our day at this special bike park.
"There's so much history on this mountain," says Alex. "The trails are covered in sketchy shale, which create an incredibly fun and thrilling ride. From the wild, good times camping in the lot, to the loose and rowdy terrain, Plattekill is just governed by its own set of unique rules.
"One thing is for sure, you never know what’s going to happen at Plattekill–sooner or later, everyone has a crazy story from this place."
THE TOTAL PACKAGE
Vernon, New Jersey, is home to one of America's most popular riding destinations: Mountain Creek Bike Park. The venue–once known as Diablo Freeride Park–gained worldwide recognition in the mid to late 2000s by hosting the U.S. Open of Mountain Biking.
Fewer than 50 miles from New York City and offering 45 downhill trails, 10 miles of cross-country terrain, a 50-foot airbag, two deluxe lodging resorts, a water park and zip lines, Mountain Creek has all of the amenities for the standard family vacation. Yet, the true gem is the diversity within its pro-built bike park. After five days of wandering the lush East Coast countryside, the posh Mountain Creek resort accommodations were a welcomed final destination.
"It's tough to get bored here," says Mountain Creek operations manager, Marc Tremain. "Our trails cover the entire spectrum of mountain biking. From the gnarly, steep, rock-filled ones, to meticulously built jump-lines, to flowy beginner-oriented cruiser runs, we've got a world-class terrain menu."
For 13 years, Marc has seen Mountain Creek evolve from its humble beginnings to a premier riding destination.
"Most of the original trails at Mountain Creek were built with a weed whacker and a leaf blower," Marc says. "Today, trails and features are built with thought and purpose. Safety and environmental sustainability are huge factors and weigh heavily on what we build. Additionally, there is a new market out there–a bike park can't grow without understanding the importance of the beginner segment. Although costly, a properly built beginner trail will ensure guests have a great first experience on the hill and naturally get them hooked on downhill."
Despite all of the activities Mountain Creek offers, we had one mission: Get in a bunch of laps on one of America's top bike parks. Pro racer and all-around ripper George Ryan heads up the Mountain Creek Trail Crüe as lead trail designer and feature builder.
"One of the most unique things about Mountain Creek is the Cabriolet lift," he says. "Every cab can hold four bikes and four people, making it an extremely efficient lift ride to the top of the mountain. Combine that with the short amount of time it takes to get to the top, riders can easily get more runs here in than at most other parks. I think the record by one of the locals is 51 laps in a day."
We jumped into the gondola and headed to the recent U.S. National Downhill Championship race tracks to start racking up as many laps as we could. Following George and Alex was the cheat code to getting acquainted with these new trails. George effortlessly links up many of the sections and features he helped create. In doing so, he reveals the ninja lines we'd likely not pick up on our own while exploring the park for only one day. As to be expected, the advanced terrain is packed with high-speed rock sections, waterfall-like boulder fields, a good number of tabletops and step-downs, wooden drop features and plenty of g-force pulling berms.
"Mountain Creek is only one part of the great East Coast scene," George says. "It's really one big, friendly family. Even the dudes who've found success on the world stage still come around to the local events and hang out with everyone, and they certainly don't expect any special treatment. The great vibe of our scene, plus the sheer number of bike parks we have out here is crazy."
As the final day of our East Coast downhill tour winds to an end, we stop for a bite on the Mountain Creek patio and rehash the remarkable terrain we covered in just a few days. The impressive range of skill-building features at Highland; wide-open ruggedness of Mount Snow; friendly confines and rowdy rocks at Plattekill; freshly built and impressive trails of Thunder Mountain; and Mountain Creek's all-inclusive atmosphere. After meeting so many great people and riding such impressive terrain, we're faced with the bittersweet moment of packing our crew and equipment into Supervan for one last time stop.
"Siri, take us to Logan International Airport."