James Beckwourth was an American trapper and mountain man who had extraordinary adventures, which he famously chronicled in his book “The Life and Adventures of James P. Beckwourth, Mountaineer, Scout and Pioneer, and Chief of the Crow Nation of Indians”. Among the tales of his adventures, some more true than others, he wrote about the annual Rocky Mountain Rendezvous, an annual event that attracted trappers, frontiersmen, and the like from their remote realms for “mirth, songs, dancing, shouting, trading, and running, jumping, singing, racing, target shooting, yarns, and frolic with all sorts of extravagances that mountain men, trappers, and native Americans could invent.”
I’ve never been to such an event, but I did attend the New England Mountain Bike Festival a few weekends ago and kept thinking about that mountain man gathering, the Rocky Mountain Rendezvous. From all over New England and beyond, men, women, and children, who normally engage in cycling alone or in small groups riding through the woods, once a year gather to share their passion for mountain biking and participate in their beloved activity while checking out the latest in bikes and gear and quite possibly enjoying some mirth as well.
This was my first time at the NEMBA Fest, and my first time at the hosting venue, The Kingdom Trails, in East Burke, VT. I’ve been mountain biking for at least 10 years now, but just discovered over the last two how much I like being involved in the mountain bike “community”. As much fun as a ride alone is, I’ve started riding more with groups lately and I enjoy it.
I never really saw myself as someone who wanted to be part of a “community”. I like being independent, hate commitments, and despise crowds. I always saw festivals as a gatherings of yahoos and not something “cool” to be a part of. But, some of the guys from my group ride were going, so that made it sound kind of fun. Also, I’ve been thinking about getting a new bike at some point and this would be a great opportunity to test some, as something like 90 vendors were scheduled to attend, many with demo fleets.
The festival opened Friday, June 16 and closed up on Father’s Day, June 18. The all inclusive weekend pass includes camping, so I decided to pack up my tent and head up to East Burke, VT, a four hour drive from my Central CT home, despite the questionable weather forecast. Friday morning was a rain out but the ground must have been pretty dry prior to the storm as the riding when I arrived around 3:00 was pretty good. Before heading out on the trails, I set up my tent in the main camping area, which was a large pasture overlooking an austere yet captivating iconic Vermont landscape of rolling mountains, bucolic pastures, and green forests.
I met up with a couple of friends and we headed out for some riding. We found some windy singletrack and ended up on one of Kingdom Trails’ signature runs, Kitchel. It’s a downhill run that resembles something from a bike park with kickers and banks and a flowy design that turns you into a three year old crying “again, again, again”.
We ended our ride with a run down the Demo Loop area, a fund windy downhill, that led to a gradual zig zag path back uphill and out towards the festival area.
Back at the main fest area, the expo sprawls out from a large stage to the camping area a few or more hundred yards way. Near the stage, Pedro’s had a cool bike wash station where you could hose off your bike and vendor reps were on hand to help out cleaning and lubing your drivetrain using Pedro’s products. Among the expo area, from a distance, I spotted Phil Kmetz, the pro mountain biker who creates one of my favorite Youtube Channels, “Skills with Phil”, There were industry vendors of various sizes ranging from the mega brand Trek to Adirondack based Solace Cycles, whose web page I just visited, where I discovered they are working on a titanium internally geared carbon belt driven bike, which has totally hijacked my limited attention span. That looks awesome.
As the vendors closed up, the music started playing, which was interesting. I haven’t camped out for a festival since 1996 when Phish played the Clifford Ball in Plattsburg, NY. Camping at a festival is not at all like camping out in the woods, where you pitch a tent to capture a piece of a unspoiled nature. Instead, after dark, I kept hearing voices and seeing weird lights as people would pass by with their illuminated iPhones.
We really did luck out with the weather, with no rain after Friday morning and the temperature staying more in line with early than mid summer. In general, the crowd stoke was high, but respectful. A group of campers did decide that they knew what everyone else wanted to listen to and blasted music after the bands left the stage. “Into the Mystic” by Van Morrisson is not typically what you’d expect blaring out from huge speakers at 10 o’clock on a Friday night, but it was. I will admit I like that song a lot.
Tent camping inside the main fest area may be a younger man’s game. Actually, though, true to the music selection, the average age of the campers was probably about the same as mine. So, maybe age is only a number. Maybe I’m just a geezer at heart.
Saturday things started to get going at a reasonable hour for camping standards. There was a 7am Yoga class, which I did not attend, despite my intentions. Usually I’m up with the birds when I sleep in a tent, so I’ll count missing Yoga as a win.
The expo area opened at 9am and I headed out with determination to demo some bikes. I ended up talking with the guys at Surly for a while about my recently purchased Karate Monkey and picked up some useful tips on their Gnot Boost dropouts and 8 and 24 pack racks. After getting some love for my XT brakes from the Shimano tent, I went looking for a demo bike. Santa Cruz didn’t have a 29 inch wheeled Hightower and Pivot’s Switchblade 29er was out already. I couldn’t find a Trek Slash, and then it was getting close to 11:00, when I was going to meet up with some other riders. As I was leaving the expo area, my ears perked at a familiar voice and I finally looked back to realize another of my Youtube favorites, Nate Hills, was at the Maxxis booth. I think it was the Maxxis booth. Anyway, I didn’t get a chance to say hi but it was cool to see him there.
We ended up assembling a group of 8 bikers from CT, only 2 of which I knew previously. We set out on a 4 hour tour of some of Kingdom Trails’ finest. The organizers really had this event dialed with maps, guided rides, and shuttles. I will say riding on crowded trails was a new experience and certainly a once a year phenomenon at this huge venue. High stoke was to be had despite the unusual amount of close proximity passing.
After my group ride, I decided to give the expo area another go and was able to get on a Switchblade 29er. I’m trying to rule out bike categories before I decide what I’m ultimately going to buy and long travel 29er is a class I’ll probably cross off the list. The Switchblade is a phenomenal bike, but I’m not sure this class of bike fits my more mellow xc riding style.
The demo loop was a great test of any bike’s capabilities with a combination of flow, berms, and plenty of roots and rocks thrown in as well. That Switchblade is a demon downhill and handles better than my current 26 inch wheeled Giant Reign in the turns. Pedaling uphill it is very capable as well, but the long switchbacked trail back to the main trail makes you realize you’ve got some weight underneath you despite the awesome power transfer that the suspension provides.
Saturday night after dinner, a friend and I headed down to Rubylee’s for some Ice Cream in East Burke. Man, they’ve got some great options, including a VT Maple Sundae and a Ginger Apricot with Vanilla Ice Cream Sandwich. I went with a brownie sundae with mint chocolate chip ice cream and it was a tasty and efficient way to replace a bunch of the calories that were burned during Saturday’s ride.
We met up with the guys from earlier at their rented house about ¼ mile down the street. Apparently there are some great options for non tented accommodations in the area also and hung out for a while by their fire pit. Upon return to the tent city, we were greeted by the sounds of Kat Wright and the Indomitable Soul Band. As I again risk exposing my geezerdome, I was pleasantly content to listen to their awesome encore from the comfort of my air mattress as I was reading “The True Adventures of the Rolling Stones” by Stanley Booth on iBooks in my tent.
I may have been dreaming, but I swear I woke up in the middle of night to the sounds of the campers next door using a compressor to inflate tubeless tires while debating whether Stan’s Race or Orange Seal is the better sealant. I really wish I could remember their conclusion, as that would be good information to have.
Sunday morning I woke up to the sound of someone singing the Stephen Still’s hit “Southern Cross” in falsetto. Better than my alarm waking me up for work I guess. As the fest was ending on Father’s Day, and my son and father were 4 hours away in CT, I again opted to sleep in a little, and just pack up and get on the road Sunday morning.
Hopefully next year, I can bring my son, who will be six, with me, so he can join the swarm of other kids who attended this year’s fest. I think the amount of kids this year was a true testament to the awesome environment at the 2017 Nembafest. I’m glad I gave it a chance this year and look forward to returning in the future.