I'll admit it: I had my doubts. Up until this point, 2015 had been loaded with adventures to some of the country's most iconic mountain biking destinations. I was looking forward to the Mayhem Enduro, as I had heard nothing but great things about that race for the past few years, but I really wasn't sure what to expect from the rest of my trip to the Buckeye State. Almost half of the year so far had been spent between Pisgah, Sedona, the western slopes of Colorado, and Oregon, so a journey to the center of Ohio simply didn't inspire the same level of stoke I'd experienced up until that point. Which, to be honest, wasn't exactly fair to the folks in Ohio and I knew that. I had been juggling so many projects and stories, plus with a new addition to the family imminent, I just wasn't giving the greater Zanesville region a fair shake. After the 6 hour long drive that included most of the tunnel vision-inducing PA Turnpike, and a bevy of West Virginia and Ohio highways and country roads, my bug splattered truck rolled to a dusty stop just outside of Zanesville where Heath Boedeker was waiting for me with an ear-to-ear grin on his face. With about an hour and a half of sunlight remaining, I quickly threw on some riding gear and set off to explore some of what I'd be spending the weekend riding and racing on and to see for myself what had Heath so excited. I had time enough to check out the fifth and final stage of the Mayhem Enduro to see what I should be prepared for during the weekend. This year I finally had the window and opportunity to see for myself what all of the buzz had been about, and it took all of one lap of just one stage to see why.
Heath Boedeker is excited about what the Wilds offers up to riders already, and even more excited about the potential for what it might offer up in the near future.
Heath Boedeker and Rae Gandolf would be my hosts for the 5 days I was in town, and they were also the ones responsible for organizing the Mayhem enduro. Heath was one of the founding members of the local trail advocacy group, Appalachia Outdoor Adventures, and the primary builder and designer of the trails they oversee, alongside friend and fellow A.O.A. member Jim Crowley. Rae has been the A.O.A. president for 6 years running, in addition to racing downhill professionally and following the Pro GRT series. Both have full time jobs in addition to their A.O.A. responsibilities, with Rae handling chief veterinarian duties at the Animal Shelter Society Inc., and Heath running a local bike shop and tool sharpening business in Zanesville. But the two of them haven't let life's responsibilities diminish their passion for the sport or their desire to grow and enhance the local mountain bike scene. The Mayhem is their single largest fundraising event annually, and it gave me a good opportunity to experience the local mountain bike culture. As it turns out, "middle of nowhere" Ohio is a pretty awesome place to ride your bike.
The evening prior to the race was full of life well into the early morning hours.
Jumping is big in the Buckeye State, on and off of the trail.
The Wilds is located in Cumberland, roughly 20 miles south of Zanesville, the town Rae and Heath call home. The Columbus Zoo now owns the massive parcel of land where the Wilds is located, known primarily for its private animal conservation center which is spread across nearly 10,000 acres of reclaimed mine land in rural southeastern Ohio. For over 40 years, much of this part of the state was surfaced mined for coal, leaving the land with an interesting, rolling topography. Restoration efforts were done to try and essentially "put the hills back together" and now this corner of the state has a very shire-esque quality to it. Across route 146 from the conservation center, you'll find 16 miles of trail developed by A.O.A, a network that shares the name of the tourist attraction that brings in over 100,000 visitors per year: The Wilds. These trails are also located on land that is owned by the Columbus Zoo, but is also protected by a "no development" clause that has helped to maintain a tangible sense of wilderness for the region. If trails could be considered over achievers, these would fall squarely into that category. Somehow, Heath and Jim managed to take what most might see as land with nothing more than cross country aspirations, and create something that will blow your mind.
Mini dual slalom madness dominated the afternoon prior to the main event.
The mountain bike culture is alive and doing very well in Ohio.
The Mayhem Enduro was a kind of a "best-of" tour of the network, with each of the five segments fully loaded from start to finish with jumps, drops, doubles and triples and plenty of pedaling in between. It was an amazing combination that required a lot of fitness and jumping skills if you wanted to do respectably, and it's no surprise that this area produces riders like Yeti's Gus Michaels, or Sram's Jason Blodgett, or several other fast and fit riders from the region. When you weren't busy sending it off of a 6 ft. tall by 12 ft.-to-the-knuckle road gap, or threading a 14' long double between some pines, or styling it off of a 17' wide creek gap at the race's finish (among dozens of other features), you were busy trying to keep your cadence high and in my case, cursing yourself out for not building a recovery week into your schedule. It was a hot and hard race, but would ultimately prove to be among the most fun I'd ever competed in. I wasn't alone in that sentiment, as riders from across the state and up and down the east coast had massive, ear-to-ear grins on their faces afterwards while gobbling up some BBQ and downing a few cold ones. Locals and veterans of the Mayhem already knew this, but for myself and the others who had come here for the first time, the experience on these trails was among the most pleasant surprises I'd ever had on a mountain bike.
Across the street and a day after the enduro, I was hanging with this guy.
The course was a blast, but certainly full of risk. Just ask local legend, Mike Colonna.
"All of these trails were originally built in 2000 and everyone was riding an XC bike at the time." Heath says of The Wilds. "There were no long-travel trail bikes we could ride at the time. In 2006, we grabbed some proper bikes and began exploring Mohican, which is a little DH spot we have down the road. We’d go out to Snowshoe all of the time and I really neglected the trails we had in the Wilds, but it was good for us to see other places. In 2010, the carbon Nomad came out and that really changed the way we looked at the trails we had nearby. We took our XC trails and began to put in some jumps here and there. I purchased a mini excavator in 2008 just before the construction crash. I took out a home equity loan and paid it off within 5 years. But, for those first couple of years, Rae would remind me that I needed to use it or why did I buy it in the first place? But when the bikes got more badass, we needed to make our trails more badass and it eventually would get plenty of use."
Believe it or not, there are places in Ohio where your squishiest bike will be the preferred sled of choice.
Rae and Heath have put together a number of playgrounds for mountain bikers, including one in their own backyard.
Rae and Heath are at the center of the riding culture in southeastern Ohio, and their home is a perfect example of where their priorities lay. Their backyard consists of 3 acres of forested hillside, with a pumptrack, some dirt jumps and a few ladder drops to play around on. Their garage is dedicated to several dirt bikes and half of their basement space is dedicated to a shop space that would put many retail bike operations to shame. Their dog Timber, along with a cat named Tribble, three ferrets, and some fish round out their clan. Their Zanesville location is centrally located between the five different trail networks A.O.A. is responsible for, including The Wilds, McGraw Park, Conesville Coal Lands, Horns Hill Park, and the other major trail network they spend much of their time riding and working on, Dillon State Park. "We have another trail system called Dillon." Heath tells me. "For so long, the people who were “maintaining” those trails were only clearing enough space for the tread line, and not the full trail. So eventually it got so tight that your line options went away and you’d be forced to ride lines that maybe weren’t as fun, or at least weren’t the ones you’d prefer to be on. There were no sight lines. It was rough. It took us a while to clear these trails out."
Sunset over Dillon State Park.
Gus Michaels flying over a road gap at Mohican Wilderness, run by the Malabar Bike Club.
"We’ve always wanted to do more for beginners at Dillon." Rae says of their other main trail network. "We don’t need to have jumps everywhere. Dillon isn’t really the place for that. It would be a great place for a pumptrack, because there are campgrounds here and they’re always full. There’s a sled hill as well, where we put in a grass slalom. In the winter, there were some kids sledding while I was practicing my slalom in the snow and they were totally fixated on what I was doing. We’re in the right direction when it comes to exposure and introducing our sport to new people, especially locals."
Heath agrees. "Dillon is a State Park that is close to town and gets a lot of people who want to camp. It’s pretty mellow, so you really have to watch what you do in there. You can’t take what we have in The Wilds and put them in Dillon, or you’d be carting people out all of the time."
Jim Crowley, the other half of the two-man, trail building machine (alongside Heath), enjoys the fruits of his labor in Dillon State Park.
The two of them have a massive amount of responsibilities when it comes to A.O.A. and the management of their various trail networks and events, but have somehow managed to balance those along with a strenuous race schedule and their professional lives. Rae's duties as chief veterinarian make for early mornings and busy days at her no-kill shelter in town. Heath runs his two businesses on his own, with no other employees available, his phone is constantly chirping and buzzing and reminding him of his endless duties as a small business owner. Despite their busy schedules, the two of them remain steadfast in their cultivation of the local trail community. "Instead of just digging and talking about projects," says Rae. "...we had our first ever strategic planning meeting last year and have really engaged everyone and got them to take on more responsibility. We wanted our members to take on their own initiatives. I work hard at making people more aware of what we’re doing in and around our community."
Rae is a beast on the bike, which stands in stark contrast to the measured delicacy required by her profession.
Adopt a pet and save a life!
Heath helped found A.O.A.15 years ago and now sits on the board of directors, but it's trail building that demands most of his time with the organization. Alongside his good friend and fellow A.O.A. member Jim Crowley, the two of them are the primary designers and builders for the area. "I think that machined trails can be pretty boring sometimes, but there are pretty much just two of us doing the work there, so we use machines to get a lot of work done." he says. "You could never have hand built the fun stuff that we did in there, especially with only two people doing the work. It’s cool to see some of the machine work that we did three years ago doesn’t look like machine work anymore; it’s looking like it’s been a little bit reclaimed by nature. It’s a tricky line to walk now; making the trails fun for those who are looking for a real challenge but still something that beginners can come and check out. We’d love to make all of the jumps even bigger, but we’re pushing the limits of the XC trail rider right now. The trails will evolve as the bikes and riders continue to evolve."
Heath Boedeker wears many hats, including small business(es) owner, trail builder, race organizer, etc...
Heath and Rae don't have to travel far for some fun on their bikes.
Rae leads Jim and Heath through the flowy and scenic trails of Dillon State Park.
This is what I love about the east coast: the surprises that are nestled in between the nooks and crannies. There aren't really any mountains to mountain bike on in Ohio, but we all know that they're are a commodity that frankly many of us don't have the luxury of being in close proximity to. What Heath, Rae, Jim and the others who are a part of the Appalachia Outdoor Adventure organization have done is let the stoke they experience in other parts of the world carry over to what they have in their own backyard. The east coast is massive and all too often is thought of as the stretch of land between Pisgah and Vermont. The truth is, there's a lot of land between those two regions, and there are a lot of people who are working hard to create a little trail magic in their own neck of the woods. Ohio may not be on the radars of riders around the world, but the example that has been set here is one that more of us should look to follow.
I am most certainly looking forward to my next trip back to the Buckeye State.
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