A Sunday Ride in the Valley (Full Enduro)

The weather channel app on my iPhone had been indecisive at best about the forecast for the Vermont Mountain Bike Fest all week.  My experience with New England weather has taught me to take forecasts with a grain of salt, but as I pulled up to Mt Ellen’s sloped parking lot, Pandora picked “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall”, Bob Dylan’s dire song from the sixties in a honky tonkish version I’ve never heard before by Leon Russell.  This felt ominous.

The Monroe Skyline stretch of Vermont’s Green Mountains undulates in odd lobes of dark and light shades of green.  I want to spend days or however long it may take to match all of the appropriate shades and their names some day.  It would be time well spent.  Vermont’s third and fourth highest peaks occupy this range and one them is Mt Ellen.   Ellen unrolls from the peak covered in narrow and steep ski trails, offering a 2600’ vertical drop,  and keeps rolling down past the iconic ski lodge through the tiered parking lot.  

The number of cars in the lot when I arrived Saturday afternoon would be appropriate for a busy Saturday during ski season.  The sun hung fairly high in its July position,  and under gray clouds, tents were assembled and bikes whizzed down the access road.  

I had driven up from CT, about at 230 mile drive and was not feeling all that great.  The weekend before, I took a pretty hard crash after being thrown over my bike’s handlebars and onto a log,  and was still healing .  I was also recovering from a ride Thursday afternoon where I had met my match half way through my ride, losing to the heat and humidity which wouldn’t’ relent on my slow death march back to the parking lot.  I was excited for the fest, but also wanted to take it easy and wasn’t going to push myself too hard.  

I rode uphill to take a look at the fest.  I didn’t feel like doing a full guided ride.  I’ve ridden most of the trails in the area and wanted to save energy for Sunday.  I was hoping to demo a few bikes and then sign up for the Sunday “Enduro” Ride which included a lift ride up the Super Bravo Chair Lift at Lincoln Peak.  I looked around at the vendor booths.  A lot of bikes were out, which I expected.  I decided to take my own bike on the demo loop to see what it was like before paying the extra money for the full weekend pass.  The demo loop consisted of a dirt road up to a ski run on the Sunshine Double Lift Area.  A winding trail had been excavated down the ski run, either Riemergrasse or Snowflake, or maybe Sugar Run.  I can’t remember.  

And, before I continue, I have to disclose that I was in a really bad mood, and tired, and grumpy, and so my decision not to pay for the full festival was largely influenced by my general curmudgeonry.  I didn’t feel the demo loop was going to tell me much about the bikes I wanted to demo.  It looked like a lot of work went into plowing the dirt berms down the hill, but a combination of their design and my foul attitude couldn’t get a good rhythm started.  

I decided to buy my pass for Sunday, and call it a day.  Conveniently, the Festival offered the option to just buy a pass for Sunday, for about half the cost of the full weekend fee.  Sunday morning I arrived at the Group Ride sign up area at Mt Ellen at around 8:00 when the ride registration was beginning.  I got the 14th slot of 15 limited spaces on the Enduro ride, which were available for no extra charge.  There were additional slots that cost an extra $5.  

This was essential as I had forgotten my wallet, which I subsequently had to retrieve from my cabin, which was a 15 minute drive away.  Lincoln Peak is about a 20 minute drive from said cabin, and a I made it back there just in time for the 9:00 start of the Freeride Clinic.  John Atkinson, the Director of the Mad River Riders, who host the event, also blogs on Sugarbush’s Stoke Exchange, and does a lot of other Vermonty stuff in the area, among which on Sunday included the clinic.  The clinic was fun.  Well, pretty fun.  It was fun until I was riding down mountain biking’s equivalent of the bunny slope, down a curvy trail with small bermed turns, and while exiting a bunny bermy turn,  my front wheel washed out, I slid sideways, and twisted my right ankle.

I got up and my ankle did hurt.  However, after limping around for a couple minutes and some rough examination, I determined I still had a mostly full range of motion, and was not in need of medical attention.  

The clinic was a good warm up exercise, and despite my tweaked ankle, felt ready for the ride ahead.  We all gathered back at the Farmhouse, where lift tickets are dispensed, and I picked up a couple packets of Ibuprofen to reduce any inflammation in my ankle.

Riding the Super Bravo

Somehow the group had swelled to the limit of 15 to about 32 riders by the time we got off the Super Bravo chairlift and gathered down the hill at Allyn’s Lodge.  Sugarbush is my favorite New England Ski Area.  It’s one of those things in life you fall in love with, and you love it so much that even it’s faults become beautiful to you.   I don’t know that there is anything particularly special about Allyn’s Lodge, and it’s location seems a bit off, as there are colder and windier aspects where you’d want to seek shelter,  but it is so often just the right place at right time.

From Allyn’s lodge, the group split up in two.  One went behind the lodge to the trail Grandstand.  The other group headed down Gadd Peak towards the trail Snowball.  I chose the former, and picked a spot towards to middle of the group.  Grandstand is not the steepest trail, but it has big rocks and makes up for vertical elevation in steep and punchy drops.  Like many other things Sugarbush, this trail system is one of a kind.  Grandstand cuts and winds through dense pines and then drops you into the wide ski trail, “Ripcord” before taking you back under tree cover for “Wood Lot”.  

Somewhere on one of the curvy trails through the open ski trail, someone flatted a tire.  Further down the trail, another rider relayed a message to tell the rest of the group to go on without him.  I think that was the only flat or mechanical for the whole ride, which is amazing.  After all, this wasn’t a close knit troop who rides together every week.  It was a bunch of festival goers who signed up for an “Enduro Ride” on a clip board one Sunday.   At group rides, especially at big events, you can end up with over eager beginners or people with solid bike handling skills who lack optimal fitness joining race ready mashers.   I was less fit than most and very intermediately skilled, which is actually pretty much exactly where I fit in with the group  I ride with on Thursdays back home.  I will say, the gap between first and last didn’t seem to effect the overall pace in  a way that would make the ride too easy or hard for anyone there.  It was a great group.

Our group continued down more of the fast and technical descending terrain.   Ultimately we met down by the bottom of Super Bravo and regrouped with the others.  Some reloaded on water, and a couple more called it a day.  After a solid break, the new group headed out into the valley’s human powered trail system.  

And then things really got going.  I have ridden many of the trails in the valley before. I’ have also invested significant time studying the Mad River Riders trail map to distract myself from what I’m supposed to be focusing on during the work day.  What followed next was a guided ride that really linked up the Downhill Experience at Sugarbush with some of the Valley’s trails system’s gems harmoniously for a uniquely awesome experience.  In mountain biking circles, “Epic” is usually reserved for ultra endurance all day bike deployments, which this 12 mile tour from Allyn’s Lodge on Lincoln Peak to the Valley floor may not technically meet the criteria for, but in terms of an unforgettable adventure, ala the Odyssey, throw in a some Sirens and a little poetic license and Epic hovers within reason.

We steamrolled over pavement, ground gravel over dirt road, passed by the gleaming Eurich Pond, climbed up Hell Hill and suffered through Purgatory before entering the mysterious lost section of Camel’s Hump State Forest.   I don’t know, sounds kinda epic so far.  Eventually we rode into Race, Maple Twist, and then flushed out onto Tucker Hill Rd.  I felt like I was in the 12th round of a 10 round fight as we forged into the Enchanted Forest.  But the best was still to come, as we sampled the classic technically challenging trail, Clinic. Before there were smoothed out, rolled out, flow trails, there were trails like Clinic.  Actually, there aren’t any other trails quite like Clinic, with its punchy climbs and speedy drops through gnarled roots and bulbous and jagged rocks.

My memory is a bit blurry and the shaky footage of the jarring ride from my GoPro doesn’t add much clarity, but I think we traversed some newer routes which took us back to a fork that offered either Evolution or Lower Cyclone down the hill.  I’d never ridden Cyclone, so I went with a couple others that way.  Cyclone served more tech and more tight turns down to Revolution, a downhill thrill ride which widens your grin as you open up with more speed and flow before being spit out of the woods onto Lareau Farm, home of American Flatbread, where the ride ended.

It wouldn’t be Vermont without a swimming hole at the end, and though I didn’t take advantage, others did, riding down a path to a refreshing finale to a great ride.

Claiming to know the meaning of Bob Dylan’s lyrics may be as sophmoric as claiming to be able to predict New England weather.   According to wikipedia, the lyrics for “A Hard Rain’s A Gonna Fall” are taken from  lines of songs that Dylan “thought he would never have time to write” and not, according to popular beliefs,  about acid rain, nuclear fallout, or the Cuban Missile Crisis.  Sunday night, it began to rain lightly as I drove home to CT.  When I woke up Monday morning it was raining hard.  A cancelled appointment at work cut my day short Monday giving me the opportunity to elevate my bruised and swollen ankle and rest and recover from the mounting taxes my body has been paying to fund my mission  to squeeze this summer for every last bit of fun I can before its hasty departure.  And the rain came just at the right time, to give me a chance to rest and recover, and prepare for the next adventure  and also savor and enjoy the memories of the Sugarbush Sunday Enduro Ride.

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