On October 29th and 30th of 2017, the northeastern United States experienced what weather geeks call a bombogenesis
, which is defined as a "rapid deepening of pressures in a storm, which rapidly increases winds near the center of the storm." Over a million people were left without power as a result of this somewhat surprising weather event, from as far south as Pennsylvania to as far north as Maine. In Vermont, wind gusts of over 70 mph were reported, and in the small mountain village of Stowe, a localized monster tore through the one of the town's venerable forests in a way that would leave locals sick to their stomachs. Dozens of acres of Cady Hill Forest had been leveled by the violent tantrum thrown by nature, and the subsequent survey of the land that followed the following morning was initially met with a mix of shock and sadness. Those were quickly followed with a very different emotion.
A week after the storm I was in town attending the Green Mountain Showdown, an annual celebration of mountain bike media with a mostly Vermont-centric tone. The event is organized by Ryan Thibault, founder of MTBVT, and has been held in Stowe for several years. By way of social media, I was aware of the damage done to Cady Hill following the storm, but it wasn't until I saw things firsthand that the scale and scope of the damage hit me. People in town were understandably less than thrilled with the current state of their trails, but I was caught off guard by the almost casual resolve everyone I spoke with seemed to display when it came to the work ahead of them. Truth be told, it was far too early for there to be any semblance of a plan in place, but everyone ultimately seemed to have an understated confidence in their ability to come together to tackle the sizable task at hand. I've known for a while that Stowe was more than your average, "run of the mill" New England ski town, but I had no idea how deeply rooted the collective mountain bike conviction went. A friend of mine from Stowe told me that every skier has a mountain biker deep down just waiting to come out. It seems to me that the same can be said about actual ski towns as well, and Stowe appears to have recognized that many years ago.
Stowe is very much a ski town first and foremost, with a tourism-based economy that supports many of the 4,300 or so people who call this place home throughout the year. Interestingly enough, only 35% of the current population of Stowe are Vermont born. It's reasonable to assume that the influx has something to do with allure of Mount Mansfield and the Green Mountain Range, which flank the village to the northwest. Directly east of town is another amazing mountain playground in the form of CC Putnam State Forest and the Worcester Range. The two ridge lines sandwich Stowe, with exits to the north or south of the valley offering recreational opportunities on a variety of rivers and lakes left behind by the previous glacial period.
Stowe is positioned in the center of the aforementioned Green Mountains, home to some of the oldest hills on the planet. It is estimated that close to a billion years ago, the summits of these mountains reach upwards of 20,000 feet above sea level in what would have then been a tropical setting. Nowadays while it might get into the 80's during the summer, Stowe is most certainly not a tropical climate, and the once towering mountains are now much eroded, with time and nature having had their way as time and nature inevitably will. While the topography of Stowe has long been shaped and refined by ancient forces, last year's windstorm stands as a much more modern example of how nature continues to play a key role in the ever-changing landscape of this beautiful corner of the country.
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Vermont is a small state, which means that a trip here can often lead to easy access to a variety of communities and trail networks. Stowe certainly does stand as a fantastic hub to base yourself out of if you were interested in exploring more of the state. For such a small town, it has an abundance of restaurants, lodging options, camping, and bike shops. Roadies, runners, and even people on those roller skate-looking-nordic-ski things alike enjoy the roads here as well as the nearly 6 mile long greenway that runs from downtown to the base of Mount Mansfield. It is also close to 1 of 2 total interstate highways that pass through Vermont, although many of the state roads that weave in and out of town are well maintained and get you where you need to go reasonably quickly. But Stowe is also home to several different and diverse trail networks in and around town, including Sterling Forest, Adam's Camp, Trapp Family Lodge, and of course Cady Hill Forest. While Cady Hill and Adam's Camp feature plenty high-speed flow and purpose built fun, these are ancient forests, and it's not hard to find yourself surfing on a loamer between maples, moss, and hemlocks. There is a lot of quintessential, Vermont-branded fun to have in Stowe, and the locals here know it.
Most of the Vermont essentials are here. Not included: the 32 ounces of Maple Syrup I purchased on my way out of town.
"You know they say Stowe is nice because it's so close to Vermont," Ryan Thibault tells me over lunch at The Ranch Camp. "Which is kind of a joke because it's its own bubble. It's pretty unique. Prosperity is high here. You have all the symptoms of a rural Vermont town except this place has a pulse, and there are people passing through all of the time. I won't say there is a nightlife, but there's definitely a distinct culture here with great food, great times, great beer; all of these things."
Thibault moved to Stowe from Vermont's Northeast Kingdom when he was 16, and began riding bikes in the woods 2 years later. He founded MTBVT after being inspired by a friend of his from British Columbia who had just published a rock climbing guide. Ryan thought it would be worthwhile to try and put together a mountain biking guide specifically for Vermont. After a few years of traveling and documenting various trails and the people responsible for them, Ryan realized that he hadn't put together much in terms of a guide, but he did end up bridging many communities in his attempt and decided to launch MTBVT.com, a site devoted to sharing his travels around the state, riding, meeting the characters that had invested themselves in the early edition of Vermont's modern mountain bike community. Nowadays MTBVT branded gear and events can be found scattered, yet prevalent, throughout the state. It's less a rallying cry, and more a nod of appreciation among those who call this place home. Ryan has spent the better part of two decades devoted to the cultivation of a vibrant and growing community of riders who call Vermont home, and to him, Stowe represents an epicenter of the lifestyle and sensibilities that many around the country associate with the state. Interestingly enough, for Ryan, the model of proficiency for Stowe and surrounding communities actually stems from his time spent in BC.
"My formative experience in mountain biking," Ryan continues. "Was actually going and living in British Columbia, first the interior and then on the coast. I saw how codified the community was there, and a robust community of locals out mountain biking for the sake of mountain biking, trail building, being very pro-active with stewardship. There was also an industry of that that had taken root, and so I saw that happening out there and I thought, This would be really interesting to apply to Vermont
"I think the reason Vermont is unique is because, we've applied the same logic to mountain biking that we have to the rest of life and living here, where it's sort of community first. We really have tight knit communities rallying around cycling and so that's true of Vermont towns. Town meeting days, where people still come out en masse to vote in their local elections, and the people here are very much energized around community. So I think that applies to the mountain bike scene. The woodwork tends to run really deep. In that, you can go and explore little corners of the state, two miles from home that you didn't know existed, right? So there's always that sense of adventure. We have the topography to support it, there are of all these weird little dirt road dead ends up into the hollows. Those happen to be trailheads a lot of the time, and for me, I think that is one of the most exciting things; we have these great public trail networks, and we have a ton of clandestine stuff still happening out in the woods, and a ton of people rallying around both."
Looking around the state of Vermont, it's hard to ignore the burgeoning talent among its youths on bikes. I have spent the last few years preparing anyone willing to listen (see: no one) for the onslaught of World Cup and Fest Series riders that are about to explode from the Green Mountain State, and Stowe is looking to get in on that action as well, which in truth speaks to something more important than race results on Saturdays. It speaks to the continued health and development of mountain biking here for generations to come.
"Vermont is a very outdoor centric community," he tells me as we polish off our beers. "Stowe is one of the biggest examples in the state of that. I see our community becoming an incubator for youth riders, and not only youth riders, but prolific, progressive youth riders that are going to dominate the future. The same way that we have Winter Olympians and super high concentration of quality athletes now in Vermont; mountain biking is following suit. We're going to have a dominating collection youth riders in no time. Part and parcel to that would be the development of a cycling academy here. Something that follows suit to what they've done with the ski academy in East Burke. I think that's an inevitability and is in line with our industry pursuit. The industry wants to have more youth engaged from grade school level to high school and beyond, so I just see that as an inevitability. Vermont might not be capable of supporting a bunch of brands because the manufacturing industry here is a bygone era, but on the culture and the participatory side of the industry, we can 100%."
That participation has proven to be an invaluable asset. Immediately after last year's Halloween windstorm, volunteers from Stowe Trails Partnership were assessing the damage. A month later, Tom Lepesqueur, owner of Rochester, Vermont-based trail building outfit Lepesqueur & Daughters LLC, was in town making his first assessments as well. Stowe Trails Partnership along with scores of additional volunteers had spent hundreds of hours during the winter and spring months clearing debris and coordinating the harvesting of wood with the local logging company, so that when Tom returned to Cady Hill in late spring he would have a much clearer idea of what he was up against. Tom and company, including a few builders from another company, Sinuosity Trails, spent the better part of 3 months rebuilding, reworking, and revamping the devastated network, oftentimes from scratch due to the extensive damage. Still, many locals saw this as an opportunity to reshape the trails in a way that would actually improve upon their quality prior to the storm. In many places, a storm of this magnitude might break a community, or set it back several years at the very least. What they've done in Stowe is use the storm as a launch pad. Nature flattened the forest, and instead of whining about it, Stowe took the opportunity to move forward with a staggering amount of momentum.
"We recovered from the storm." Erik Timmerman says. "Rebuilt Florence. As much as it was a great trail before, I think it's better now. The alignment of it was perfect. Tom didn't have to change anything. He just rebuilt it bigger and faster. We've fixed all of the Cady Hill stuff. We've got two new trails going in right now. We're already booking contractors to build stuff in 2019, and looking beyond that, I want to go big. When I've seen the stuff that they do out at Whistler, I think I mentioned that article to you that I saw about the trail called Lord of the Squirrels, which is like thousands of vertical feet of riding. We can do big rides here, but it would be really something else to be able to do a ride that feels like a back country British Columbia type of experience. You know? I've never been to British Columbia, but what I picture British Columbia experience being. We're kind of moving in that direction. As we get better at these smaller projects and learn how to do bigger ones, we want to go really big."
Erik is a ski instructor at Stowe Mountain Resort, and moved to Vermont from North Carolina to pursue that 17 years ago. He described his initial impressions of Stowe as an insular bike community, struggling to find trails, and getting dropped frequently during shop rides. Nowadays, Erik ain't getting dropped, and he's part of a community that is much more willing to share their goods, and much more ready to collaborate with whomever is needed to get trails built. He came here for the skiing, but finds himself struggling more and more every winter to put the bike away. Remember when I told you about my friend who thinks that most skiers, even if they don't know it, have a mountain biker inside them?
"As the trails have gotten better," he tells me smiling. "Those mountain bikers have been released from inside all the skiers. It's nice to be able to help them spread their wings, right?
"I don't think I'm the only person in this town that, as it starts to get to be this time of year, I don't think about skiing as much as I used to. When it happens, I'm pretty glad that it's here. I'm always hoping for a really long fall and then a quick changeover to winter. I don't wanna stop riding. We sure would like to see things start to happen up on the mountain. That would be insane. That would be so awesome to be able to just go up and ride DH for a couple of hours. I can't even imagine how good the kids here would get at riding. I've seen the kids in Burke. They are unbelievable. It would be pretty awesome for us to have access to that here. There's a huge difference when you have a pass and you live in town. There are a lot of people that do what they call 10x10
during the winter. They head up to the mountain for 8:00 opening. They try to get 10 runs in by 10:00, then head into work. Now imagine that on your DH bike."
The mountain is big and beautiful, and I cannot help but scratch my head and ask Erik to give me his thoughts on why the resort hasn't jumped at the opportunity.
"Well, when AIG owned the mountain they had Gravity Logic come in," he says. "They did all the trail design and they got the permits. The park is ready to go. Unfortunately, AIG was also up for sale during this process. I guess when you're for sale you're not really going to spend millions of dollars on creating a new asset that you're never going to get to take advantage of. It's understandable why they didn't do it. Whether Vail's going to do it or not, I don't know. I hope they do. I have the sense that sometimes they feel like the horse is already out of the barn; that maybe it's too late for them to catch up with everybody else.
"My rebuttal to that argument would be that Stowe people are Stowe people. You have all the second home owners that come down from Montreal or someplace like that. They ski in Stowe. If there was a bike park here, they'd be riding the bike park in Stowe. What they're not going to do is drive down Friday night from Montreal and then put their bike on the roof Saturday morning and go down to Killington to ride downhill down there. That's just not the way that's going to work. I think that the management maybe needs to understand what a bike park can be. Just because you can't build Whistler in Stowe, doesn't mean that you don't bother building a bike park. Whistler does millions of skiers visits. We do 400,000 skier visits. It's not like we just say, Oh well, we're never going to be as big as Whistler and close the mountain down
, you know? We need to just let Stowe be Stowe."
Sections along 'Charlies' trail that were especially damaged by the Halloween Storm of 2017 are now up and running better than they were previously.
Local rider and trail builder, Nate Ringquist, has been hard at work on adding quality miles at Adam's Camp, a network of side country trails at the base of Mansfield.
Drew Clymer moved to Stowe from Berks County, PA 10 years ago with his family and joined the Stowe Mountain Bike Association board immediately. The consultant by trade was also quick to join the Stowe Education Fund Board, the School Board, the town's Development Review Board, and the Stowe Mountain Rescue Team. Drew's a self-described "both feet guy", which makes sense given he and his business partner took all of 30 minutes over dinner to convince each of their wives to make the move to town a decade ago. He's spent the past 4 years as president of Stowe Trails Partnership, and while he'd love to see membership hit 1,000 members (as I write this they're currently at 99
, he has a real appreciation for the work people have put into the trails and community here, regardless of their membership status.
"There are people here that are sort of like OG
riders, meaning they've been here forever. We went through a period of time where they weren't buying into everything we (STP) were doing. There was a sense of territoriality among some folks, which to be honest, I totally understand. So it took time. We have people on our board who all move in different circles, and fortunately we were able to bring those people on board. Not always as members, but at least philosophically. The input was reciprocal; there was a lot of constructive dialogue between people. Ultimately, I don't really care if you're a member or not. Being a member is the most obvious way to show support for what we're doing, but I know a lot of guys who want to keep a low profile and don't want recognition. They literally just go out and work on trails every night. I love that."
I asked him how the windstorm affected membership and morale.
"Our membership went up," he tells me. "People understood we needed their support."
"On October 31st, I couldn't even fight my way in there. I literally stopped 20 yards in the woods, I couldn't go any further. It was just that bad. Just as many other people did. On November 1st, that community was there, and I am not just talking about STP. People were itching to play a role. What can I do? How can I help? Where do I send the check? What do you guys need?
It was more difficult to hold people back so that we could make a plan. We were galvanized. And that's what we've been working on building since the storm. What we're seeing is there's always been a rider demographic, but we're seeing an uptick in families riding together
. We've got a Stowe Mountain Bike team. We've got a kids program where we have 80 kids show up on Wednesday nights and volunteers who show up to run it. It's driven by people who just care a great deal about what we're doing here in Stowe. We build trails. We do what we say we're going to do. We get shit done."
If you were to take a look at Mount Mansfield from afar, you would probably consider it to be one of the more underwhelming high points in the northeast, with summits like Mount Washington in New Hampshire, Mount Katahdin in Maine, or Mount Marcy in New York all relatively close by and with much more prominent peaks. Even within the state itself you can find many other mountains with a more dramatic appearance. Indeed, there's less of a summit on Mansfield and more of an oddly arranged profile of a "face" along an alpine ridge. But in my estimation, Mansfield is emblematic of at least part of the allure of the region: the sense that you are in a corner of the planet with a unique flavor all its own, due in large part to forces of nature, both ancient and new, forces that have sculpted a landscape in a way that has helped Stowe become one of the single most prolific natural playgrounds in the country.
Stowe is, quite simply, a work of art. Nature has done a lot of heavy lifting during the creation of this beautiful and abstract wonderland, chipping and carving away at this block of mountainous, loamy, and densely covered forest landscape. Oftentimes those efforts can leave a coating of dust, perhaps thicker in some spots than others, and on rare occasion appearing to have self-destructive tendencies. But riders in Stowe understand that when the mountains and forests act as a canvas, it's up to the mountain bike community to refine what nature has provided. If Stowe is a work of art, then that must mean that the people who call this place home are, in a sense, artists. They're sculpting, they're shaping, and they're adapting to changes in their canvas brilliantly. It's not always easy to step back to take a look at progress when you're in the thick of it, but what they're putting together here in Stowe is nothing short of a masterpiece.
Stowe Trails Partnership has been working well with Vail Resorts on a handful of initiatives in recent years. Here's hoping that relationship blossoms into a lift-served romance sometime soon!Stowe mountain biking trails
Local KnowledgeBike Shops:
There are quite a few shops for a town of less than 5,000 people. Ranch Camp is way more than a bike shop, but they do have some great technicians, great beer, and amazing food.Favorite Eats:
Ranch Camp eats aside, Stowe has an absurd amount of really good dining options. Sushi Yoshi is a staple and must stop. Piecasso, Sunset Grille, Tres Amigos, Stowe Bee Bakery, the list goes on and on. McCarthy's for breakfast is a must as well.Area Digs:
This is a very tourism-driven economy, and as a result there are almost as many lodging options as there are residents in town. AirBnB will yield several results as well. I stayed just outside of town at Mountain View RV Campground
.Local Mountain Bike Club:
The Stowe Trails Partnership has been working their tails off in town, and the dividends are ample. STP is currently working on the next several phases of trail at Adam's Camp, and could use some help. You can read more about it here
.Brice's Key Tips:
1: Be a tourist. Just swallow your pride, and indulge yourself. There's an especially amazing mile long stretch of road on RT. 100 between Stowe and Waterbury where you can stop at the Cold Hollow Cider Mill, before moving on to Cabot's Farmer Store, and finally finish your caloric tour de force with a tour of the Ben & Jerry's factory. Then go ride your bike. A lot.
2: The riding season in Stowe typically runs from mid-Spring through the Autumn, but do yourself a favor and make a point to ride during peak foliage. The terrain is already top notch, but when the green tunnel turns to gold, it's otherworldly.
3: Stowe Mountain Resort was really close to opening a bike park a couple of years ago, and then they were bought out by Vail Resorts. Most locals still want it, and everyone else should too. Let them know.