Rider & Words: Adam CraigPhoto & Video: Chris MillimanGiant ambassador Adam Craig recently took the opportunity to return to his roots, where the charms of riding the northern woods of Maine are alive and well. While there, Adam helped build a new trail that’s inspired by an old one.
Generally speaking, the further north you go the less you’ll see cycling woven into the culture. But that doesn't mean bikes aren't still present. Those who choose to overcome the challenges of these regions get rewarded—when they’re not shoveling snow or chipping ice.
I was fortunate to grow up in Maine in the 1990s, a time when MTB racing was young, healthy and on the rise. Our modest Maine Points Series had hundreds of cross-country riders slugging it out amongst the rocks, roots and muck. Beyond that, the New England regional Trail 66 series was contested at ski areas and also featured the gravity disciplines dual slalom and downhill. Each of these events required skill and optimism to be competitive. Sugarloaf’s stop on the Trail 66 circuit was called the Widowmaker Challenge with its namesake section of rocks and roots.
In those early years I was focused on XC racing, but I always loved downhill and dual slalom too. I learned so much between the tape. The downhill tracks hold some of my most vivid childhood memories. Flying down open ski runs, then bursting into the forest through piles of rocks and roots with many line options to choose from. These courses were usually cut just for the event, which made for a dynamic experience. Conditions were changing all the time, even more so with the inevitable wet weather. I learned so much about line selection and letting the bike find its way, guided by momentum and a positive spirit.
As my career developed, I earned a pro contract racing XC with Giant. I was fortunate to be able to lean on those skills when the going got tough. I considered it an advantage to be able to apply a creative lens to racecourses that some might call basic, even cyclocross events. Unique lines can save time and energy, and also motivate one’s pace through a feeling of cleverness.
With fewer events happening this year, I felt a pull back to Maine. I headed east from my current home in Oregon, enjoying time with my family, old friends, and the amazing riding, which in many cases is just as it was in the 90s. One area with notable change is Carrabassett Valley in the mountains of Western Maine. The Carrabassett chapter of New England Mountain Bike Association was founded in 2010 and immediately got to work building proper trail around the valley on Town, State and Penobscot Nation Land. Over the past decade they have maintained old trail and developed new trail to bring the total around the valley to over 75 miles.
The new trails are especially awesome—largely machine-built and artfully so. This enables new riders to develop skills on reasonable terrain. For experienced riders, it means beautifully sculpted flowing turns and rock features. It also offers an opportunity to link big, long rides on singletrack, 40 or 50 miles. This is unique for Maine, as most of the trail systems are smaller stacked loops. The pinnacle of this experience is the annual Carrabassett Backcountry Challenge, a 100km test that draws 500 participants, just like in the Maine Points Series days.
The success of Carrabassett NEMBA
has created such a strong mountain bike culture in the Sugarloaf region that the ski area is beginning to develop MTB resources on the mountain. Resort staff also happen to be passionate riders and they’re excited to create gravity-fueled riding in the western mountains of Maine. Having enjoyed the Widowmaker Challenge DH tracks and spent many days skiing the ’Loaf as a kid, I was thrilled at the opportunity to scout around on the mountain and help steer this development.
Once we started looking at the feasibility of cutting trail through beautifully gladed ski runs, it became apparent that, while not without challenges, it was certainly possible to rake in some turns and see what the riding might reveal. I’ve got a soft spot in my heart for simple turns in the woods, and this was the perfect canvas.
Considering that my favorite part of the Widowmaker Challenge was always that tech section, it seemed only fitting to work on extending that experience farther up the mountain. After appreciable research, we found a line and got to work. With a little help from some all-stars—namely Brenna from Sugarloaf, Giant Factory Off-Road Team manager Sebastian Boyington, and Zak, a die-hard trail volunteer from Belfast—we took this idea and quickly made it reality.
The tools of the job were, in order of use, a hedge trimmer to clear the low brush; leaf rake to clear the debris; McLeod and hoe to dig the shapes needed; a shovel to enhance natural jump lips or landings; and a rock bar to pry out a few stones that just had to go. In no time at all we were testing the turns and learning about the line.
And what a line it is. At 0.7 miles long with a modest 700 feet of descent, there is plenty of opportunity and inspiration amongst the turns of the new Widowmaker Extension. It will be fun watching this trail wear in over the years. Oftentimes, the 90s downhill racetracks were only used once and then reclaimed by the forest. Initial enthusiasm for this trail shows that it will get used. And it will certainly change as the outer coat of duff gets displaced and the earth reveals itself with a rock and root surface. Basically, it’s going to get rough and wide and awesome. Here’s to appreciating the aging process.
Many thanks to Sugarloaf
for the opportunity to realize this dream. Stay tuned to see what we might come up with in the future.