ADDISON COUNTY — Flowing down lush green mountains in Addison County’s backyard lies a state-of-the-art mountain bike trail that’s just begging to be ridden. In the works for more than three years, this nine-mile loop around Silver Lake and the Moosalamoo National Recreation Area is the first of its kind in Vermont: a point-to-point loop that traverses a significant distance of the Green Mountain National Forest.
With $154,000 in federal economic stimulus funds and help from the Vermont Youth Conservation Corps, Patrick Kell, executive director of the Vermont Mountain Bike Association (VMBA), is leading the charge to complete the trail, which stretches up Chandler Ridge and through Leicester Hollow.
With unparalleled land resources, a knack for adventure activities and the infrastructure to support increased flows of tourism, Vermont is proving itself a northeastern pioneer for one of the nation’s fastest growing sports. Addison County now sits atop this burgeoning trend and could ride it into an economic boon.
“Mountain bike tourism is the perfect fit for … Vermont,” Vermont Tourism Commissioner Megan Smith said in a recent press release. “It encompasses the use of our natural landscape while promoting good health and family fun.”
That fun could also boost business in and around Middlebury and Brandon. If other towns like Bristol and Vergennes catch on, it could turn into a major economic stimulator for the county.
“I see mountain biking as the biggest thing that we can do for summer tourism dollars in our state,” added Smith in an Tuesday interview.
The loop is about 80-90 percent done, said Kell, and it offers stunning vistas along the way.
“You have a marvelous view on the Chandler Ridge trail because you’re overlooking Lake Dunmore on one side and Silver Lake on the other,” said Scott Mallory, president of the Middlebury Bike Club.
Leicester Hollow, which features rainforest-esque foliage, was ruined by a previous flood, dealing the team of builders the laborious task of reconstructing the trail from scratch by dragging large pieces of rock into place and laying down bridges. The portions of the trail that remain unfinished run along this section and will require riders to walk short distances until the trail is completed later this fall.
Although mountain bike trails have dealt with erosion issues in the past, new techniques and trail designs have been crafted to preserve the integrity of trails. In 2009, the International Mountain Bike Association (IMBA) Trail Care Crew held workshops for local trail builders and the Green Mountain National Forest to provide instruction for designing long-lasting trails.
One technique that the trail builders used on this new loop is called “bench cutting,” which is when a shelf is cut into the hillside to create a hard surface that drains well. These trails run across the contours of the mountain and allow water to run over rather than down them.
“We build trails along the contour so they’re not too steep. But if you make them kind of flow up and down, people have a blast with them,” said Kell.
“We bench cut trails that are sustainable and they don’t get eroded,” said Mallory. “There has been some concern in past decades where mountain bikers picked routes for trails that went right down a fall line of a hill and that caused water to roll right down the hill, which created erosion.”
Kell is aiming to finish the project this fall with the help of volunteers and another team of youth conservation corps workers. Although the trail is geared toward intermediate and advanced riders, Kell and Mallory would like to expand the trail system to offer more alternatives for younger kids and beginners to allow families to ride together.
“If you have a good network of trails and some accommodations that can support it — places to stay and eat — you can gain a lot of tourism here,” said Mallory.
According to IMBA there are 50 million mountain bikers in America and adventure tourism is the fastest growing sector of the tourism industry. Vermont reflects this trend as VMBA has expanded to 20 chapters in recent years, which includes the county’s own Middlebury Bike Club.
The potential to develop mountain biking in Vermont, said Kell, is huge.
Take Kingdom Trails in East Burke as an example.
The 100-mile trail network is the town’s primary economic turbine in the summer. The number of rider visits has increased from 16,000 in 2005 to well over 60,000 this year, said trail manager C.J. Scott. Furthermore, a 2010 study conducted by Lyndon State College found that the trail network brings in $4 million annually to surrounding businesses, and that number continues to climb each year, said Scott.
“Every weekend there are thousands of people there on the trails,” said Tourism Commissioner Smith. “The town’s bed and breakfasts are full, their restaurants are busy and the convenience stores and other businesses are just reaping the benefits.”
Strong community support was requisite to building a trail network of such magnitude. More than 50 private landowners agreed to let Kingdom Trails use portions of their land for free.
“They see what it does to the town and what it brings in,” said Scott about the cooperating landowners. “It certainly helps for real estate sales around here. People are exploring buying land around here because of Kingdom Trails. They just want to be close to the trail system.”
Although Kingdom Trails is a nonprofit that charges a small fee, similar to the Rikert Ski Touring Center in Ripton, the trails have stimulated an enormous financial lift for the Northeast Kingdom.
“It’s pretty great that one business can bring in $4 million (a year) to the most poverty stricken part of the state,” said Scott.
Bringing that lesson closer to home, Vermont’s tourism commissioner said that in addition to expanding trails in Addison County, inns and businesses around Middlebury and Brandon should take advantage of the huge customer potential of the new Moosalamoo loop by providing vacation packages and advertising this resource.
“You take an area like Middlebury or Brandon, 10 percent occupancy (in an inn) is often the difference between a place making it or not,” she said. “Certainly there’s great business for weddings, (college visits) and all that to put heads in beds sometimes. But we need something all the time. Mountain bikers start as soon as the snow is gone and they go until the snow falls again. They’ll even come in May or November when you don’t have your traditional tourists.
“With the dense population of New England — the 80 million people in our driving market — I just see our mountain bike scene growing and growing,” Smith said.
Editor’s note: This is the first in an occasional series of stories on the potential of mountain biking in Addison County. Reporter Andrew Stein is at firstname.lastname@example.org.