"Nice bike. What brings you to the lovely town of Derby, Vermont today?"
"I'm on my way south to Killington to do some riding," I replied to the United States Customs agent with what surely looked like a nervous smile. For whatever reason, every single time I speak with an agent at the border, I feel like I am hiding something. For the record, I was definitely not hiding anything, and after a quick peek to make sure I wasn't stashing any Quebecois in the back of my car, he sent me on my way.
I was excited about this trip, as evidenced by my speedometer refusing to dip below 80mph (I was back in the States after almost a week in Quebec City, so au revoir kilometers per hour) at any point on 91 South. For me, the state of Vermont represents what might be my favorite part of the country to ride bikes in when the trails are primed. I like to think of it in these terms: take an amazing state from the Pacific Northwest, such as Oregon or Washington, and squish it up into an odd, carrot shaped territory that's maybe a tenth of its original size, whittle the cascades into more modest mountains that are half of their original size while still holding all of their glorious nooks and crannies, and here you have the Green Mountain State otherwise known as Vermont. Vermont is the country's second-least-populous state behind another outdoor paradise in Wyoming, and its largest "metropolitan" area, Burlington, has just a hair over 200,000 souls who call it home. With no significant population center, Vermont is instead loaded with quaint, small towns throughout its 9,600-ish square miles of modestly mountainous landscape. It's a place famous for its maple syrup, and kick-starting the ski industry in America. It's also well known for its dense population of Subarus, several amazing breweries, a plethora of farm to table options, cheddar cheese, and of course, Ben and Jerry's. I love Vermont for all of these reasons, to be sure; but without a doubt, there are two primary drivers behind my desire to be a Vermonter: the people here are as good as they make 'em, and riding bikes in the woods in this part of the world is absolutely amazing.
Killington Resort sits almost squarely in the center of the state, just a few miles south of its namesake village, and just west of Rutland, the region's largest city. I've raced and ridden here on a number of occasions, and its nearly 2,000 feet of vertical relief, featuring trails that start at the summit and work their way down steep chutes, rock gardens, greasy roots, incredible flow offerings, and plenty of natural features has always been a favorite among many of those who have ever stepped off of the K-1 Gondola. Killington is four years into a five-year agreement with Gravity Logic as well, which has resulted in a number of additions that have riders making the trip to the mountain in record numbers. The mountain now runs three high-speed lifts, has seen an explosion in beginner to intermediate trail offerings, and some much-needed improvements and additions to their larger flow and jump features.
To date, I've never visited a resort for an "East Bound and Down" story, largely because these narratives are typically community driven; and the word "resort" isn't always synonymous with community. As excited as I was to see some of the changes to the mountain this year, and to get back to riding down some of my favorite bike park trails (largely due to their raw, decidedly un-bike park nature), I was a bit unsure of what to expect from the week and what, if any, sense of community might lie in wait at such a prominent resort-based operation. I had been in town for less than half a day when it became abundantly clear that Killington Resort and its surrounding community were attached at the hip. "I was not aware of this originally because I'm not from here," Tony Accurso says during our chat at his local bike shop, Alpine Bike Works. "But a disconnect used to exist between the town and area around Killington, and the resort itself (Killington Resort). It no longer exists, and the fences have been mended due in large part to the resort’s attitude towards the community. They (Killington Resort) do a lot. They’ll help the local mountain bike clubs purchase hundreds of tee-shirts. They assist with marketing efforts for the local chamber of commerce. If you go to them with something that will support the local community, these guys are on board. They do more than help with marketing, they host the local chamber’s summer concert series at the resort. They host summer camps as well. It’s way less than the Woodward camps, and they give locals a discount. If you’re a Rutland County resident, I think you get the whole summer at the adventure center for the price of a single pass. There’s this symbiotic relationship at work here. The resort is engaged in the community in a number of ways. They have a bunch of great people working there. Anything that you have that you want to put together, these guys are on board."
Having been in Killington for a few years now, Tony's shop is seeing metro area numbers and is staying open year-round in what has up until this point, been a ski and winter season dominated region. Skiing might still take the cake, but cycling, and specifically mountain biking, is at the forefront of a cultural shift that sees the resort, the town, and other local business working with a reciprocity that was scarce in years past. Originally from Brooklyn, Tony enjoyed a great deal of success in the automotive industry before heading north for a change of pace, and some peace of mind.
"I would say that my motivations for moving here are different than my reasons for opening up a bike shop. I came here because I was at a time in my life where I needed some change. I was living in this big house by myself, and I had the resources to make a change, so I did. I had been in the car business my whole life, and it just wasn’t for me anymore. The reason people like myself live here is that you slow things down a bit, and focus on things that relate more to the quality of life, as opposed to the stresses and rigors that we deal with in other environments."
Tony and his team enjoy success as the closest year-round cycling retail operation to the mountain, no small feat in this winter recreation dominated the corner of Vermont.
I shared my week in Killington with some friends from around the country, who were in town preparing themselves for a wet and wild weekend of enduro racing.Vermonters certainly seem to share a "quality over quantity" mindset, but that's not to say they don't appreciate a lot of something good from time to time, which is appropriate in a place like Killington. The resort boasts the east coast's most expansive trail network, and some of the most vertical you can find at a lift-served bike park in the country. Trails like Foxy Roxy, Scarecrow, and Cable Trail have offered top to bottom fun from the K1 Gondola for several years now, but the resort isn't interested in resting on its reputation for top-to-bottom rowdiness. The truth is, brand loyalty is a vital part of their business model, and that not only includes a renewed dedication to the surrounding community, but a desire to introduce the joys of lift served riding to first timers and families as well. Easy Street, Wiggle, Step it Up and others are all trails designed to remove some of the anxieties associated with riding your bikes between trees and allow for a quick and comfortable sense of progression for those seeking it. Still, even with the efforts put forth to introduce new riders to downhill, the team here hasn't forgotten about its roots. The aforementioned Cable Trail, long a favorite among many who have spent time here over the years, myself included, has seen a refinement take place recently that adds an abundance of speed and style to the ride, and new trails altogether including the big hit flow offering known as Black Magic, and the properly rowdy DH race track, Goat Skull, which will see quite a bit of use in the coming years as the mountain plays host to national and international events. Satisfying the needs of first-timers and seasoned veterans alike isn't an easy task, but the trail crew, led by 20-plus year Killington veteran Jay Rosenbaum, is up to the challenge.
"A few years ago," Jay, who often goes by Rosey, tells me during the Eastern States Cup pre-race dinner. "We only really had the rough and rowdy stuff. We didn’t really do any excavating because it was too burly, and our property lines were limiters. But we have since opened up two additional lifts, and now we have all of this amazing dirt at our disposal, so we can meander all over the mountain as much as we want. With the Ramshead lift, we have the ability to crank out some proper DH runs and jump lines. We want to check the boxes for everyone."
Assisting in the effort to fully develop Killington Bike Park into a "Whistler of the East" is the renowned Whistler-based trail building enterprise, Gravity Logic. Gravity Logic is nearing the end of their 5-year agreement with Killington to help with the assessment and design of the bike park, and as Rosey tells it, their work has not been in vain.
"The best thing that Gravity Logic was able to do was going to the mountain and guaranteeing success." The Killington Bike Park trail crew leader tells me. "They have a proven model of reliability and are able to say that if you follow their plan, they can assure you of the success that will follow. Gravity Logic was able to present a vision and got a 3rd lift opened up for mountain biking, which was kind of unthinkable just a few years ago. They have this established history of success, so when they come to you with a plan, you can feel good about it moving forward. It’s been really good to work alongside them. Dave Kelly and I have spent a lot of time together mapping out this vision for the mountain. I’ll show him where we can and can’t go in terms of zones and property lines, and they, in turn, provide us a few operators every year and work for hand in hand with us on the trail design. We are putting all of the pieces together that we have mapped out for the next few years. We work year by year on this place, and right now we’re trying to make the mountain flow from trail to trail in the best way possible. We want you to be able to step off of the gondola and pick your way down the mountain on a massive network of world class trails. We want to continue to add to Ramshead as well, and add some more intermediate trails off of Snowshed."
Rosey and his trail crew have been delivering the goods for years and deserve a great of the credit owed for the growing success the resort and bike park are experiencing.
Tools of the trade.
High-speed gondola rides and a sasquatch. What's not to love about this place?Ben Colona, bike shop manager at Killington and president of the Killington Mountain Bike Club, gave Wall Street a shot for 3 full days after college before packing up and heading back to his roots in the mountains back in 2009. His perspective is especially valuable as someone who has a vested interest in the success of the resort and in the development of a mountain bike culture that extends beyond the bike park boundaries.
"I could not say this two years ago, but right now we have something for everyone at Killington. Young to old, beginner to expert; we have all of the bases covered. Early on, we only had the top of the pyramid covered, where only a small percentage of riders could come here and enjoy themselves. Now we have the entire spectrum taken care of. Trails like Wiggle and Easy Street have helped with that tremendously. It’s amazing how far we’ve come."
Ben has seen the rental fleet grow from 60 bikes in 2012 when he took over management duties, to 160 bikes and 5 different repair and rental locations located throughout the resort. Ben has also witnessed firsthand the growing relationship between Killington Resort, and the communities that surround it. As president of the KMBC, it's a direction that he's keen to continue to move in. His Wednesday night "Bike Bum" race series serves as an example of this powerful, bike driven coalition.
"The partnership between the town, the club, and the resort has really brought a lot of people together," he says. "There’s a really strong group dynamic that is shaping up as our bike culture grows as well. The Bike Bum series has helped with that a lot. We go after grants through VMBA. All of the money that we raise goes straight to trail building. We go through to the town for marketing dollars, as they have a budget specifically to promote our trails and our program. It’s great because we don’t need to dip into our trail fund. It feels good for folks who donate to know that the money goes right into the trails."
"Last year," Ben continues. "Was the first year of our Bike Bum series. It came from the same concept that our Ski Bum series came from, which is something that has been around forever. People love the Ski Bum series in the winter, so we decided to do something like that during the summer. The Ski Bum series doesn’t allow for racers under 21 years of age either. We really wanted to get the kids involved, so we based our classes off of traditional mountain bike age groups. We have a points system and at the end of the year, we do a big party at Long Trail Brewery, who is our main sponsor. Last year we did 7 races, and this year we’re doing 10. Every week we see an increase in the turnout. It’s a part of this great system we have between the club, the town, and the resort. We’re all feeding off of each other. There’s a strong cross-promotional dynamic between us. During the winter, there can be a bit of head butting going on here, but during the summer, we see everyone working together to promote the entire region."
Ben Colona has a lot on his plate between bike park management and KMBC presidential duties.
One of the best things about this place is the singletrack feel found on many of its trails, something not often associated with bike park experiences.It's refreshing to hear from so many during my time here just how strong a connection there is between the resort and the surrounding community. However, the truth is, that while Killington has made it clear they have every intention on being recognized as the "Whistler of the East", the development of a mountain bike culture in a region that has long seen winter activity as the primary economic commodity takes some time. Whistler, in all of its grandeur and allure, didn't become Whistler overnight. It's a lofty goal, but ultimately it's one that everyone from the top executives on down believe in.
"We offer everything, and that’s what makes us such a great destination." Mike Garceau, Youth Marketing and Action Sports Manager, tells me in his office. It's Wednesday and I'm itching to put a run down this afternoon at the Bike Bum series, but want to hear from one of the operation's key decision makers before heading out to Sideshow Bob for my attempt. "We have it all. Our goal is to be the Whistler of the East coast. Why wouldn’t it be? Everyone, even at the highest executive levels, feels like once we decided to really pump money into the mountain bike operations, our goal was to be known as the Whistler of the East. We’re already the largest ski resort in eastern North America, so we have the infrastructure here to do it. The Gravity Logic guys were a big part of getting Whistler to where it is, have come to Killington and told us that we have something special here."
Yes, the opportunities seem to be nearly endless when it comes to the actual bike park itself. The forest, the dirt, the terrain, three high-speed lifts; it's downright dreamy. However, as great as that may be, the main ingredient for any kind of a culture, mountain biking included, is people. Mike Garceau and the rest of the Killington team already know this.
You don't even need to bring a bike as you're covered here on or off of the trails."I think we’re already seeing a cultivation of a bike driven, summer culture. We don’t have a ton of established riders moving here right now, but there is this sense that the locals who came here for the 200-day ski and snowboard season are becoming multi-sport athletes. I know people who are coming up for our Wednesday night races from Boston regularly now. And even if the number of people moving to town just for the bikes is small, it does exist."
"We’re trying to keep up with our own growth. Our customers are super happy. Our own staff are stoked. Everyone here has completely bought into this culture. There’s no reason why we wouldn’t expect to see us trying to host a World Cup type of event here in mountain biking within the next five or so years. We’re always going to have and host huge events here. But it’s the time in between races and festivals that we’re excited to see growth with. We want to get more and more people involved with us, and we want beginners to experience their first time at a bike park here. We want to develop that relationship with our customers, while also giving everyone the aspirational value of having the absolute best athletes in the world here on a regular basis. Why not strive to be the best bike park on the planet, not just the east coast."