By Tim Rowland
Those of us who are of a certain age and rural upbringing are no strangers to mountain biking. Except we didn’t call it mountain biking. We called it, if we called it anything, ripping down a forested hillside at truly stupid speeds, hopping logs, dodging white oaks and leaping off duff embankments after innocently telling our moms that we were “going for a bike ride” as she nodded her somber approval.
Nearly a half-century later, trail builder Eli Glesmann of Rock Solid Trail Contracting is arranging similar (although far more sophisticated and artistic) obstacles on the slopes of McCauley Mountain in Old Forge for the Adirondack Foothills Trails Association, a nascent organization whose accomplishments belie the fact that it’s only been in existence for about a year. In the time it takes most institutions to draw up their bylaws, AFTS has built miles of trails, and is planning many more, that have already started to put Old Forge on the map as a mountain biking destination.
Mountain biking as it’s currently understood began in the American West in the 1970s, as otherwise sane bicyclists modified balloon-tired Schwinns and descended mountain fire roads at such speeds that the grease in the coaster brake hub would burn up, forcing riders to repack the bearings mid-ride.
The sport has grown considerably in sophistication and following since then, and its popularity has spread to the East, where it’s blossomed in places both likely (Vermont) and unlikely (Bentonville, Ark., home of Walmart). Old Forge, located in what can be described as a generally more mechanized fringe of the Adirondacks, presents itself as an excellent fit for mountain bikes, and it has a ready-made hospitality infrastructure, with its hotels, restaurants, outfitters and bars.
The equipment has grown more sophisticated as well, and about two weeks earlier I’d sprung for a real mountain bike after unwisely trying to make do with my trusty hybrid. Modern mountain bikes are fascinating machines. The tires resemble flotation devices that look as if they would come in handy “in the unlikely event that plane goes down over water,” as they say in the airline business. Gone are the multiple chain rings up front (a truly blessed development) and new to the ensemble are seatposts that fluctuate in height for added control, particularly when descending sharp grades.
But my initial problem was going up.
As a devoted road biker I asked AFTA founder Chuck Schweitzer what the greatest difference was between the two disciplines. Instantly he said “cardio.” This was puzzling. Most road bikers can pull a grade all day long and have enough wind left over to sing the Major General’s song from the “Pirates of Penzance.” But the percentage of grade on the mountain’s climber trails is far greater than the steepest of paved roadways, and sure enough, halfway up my bloodstream was writing checks that my lungs couldn’t cash. It’s the climber trails that, like a ski lift, get you to the top, where you can enjoy the downhill flow trails.
Until you figure out proper weight distribution, those big, soft tires are kind of like riding on the moon, in that the front wheel tends to go floating off into space when it hits a bump. In my case the bike did a full 180 on the initial uphill pitch, sending me directly into the path of the Adirondack Explorer’s Mike Lynch, whose job description that day was supposed to be photographing the assignment, not dodging flying magazine correspondents. Long story short, for a dedicated road biker there is a learning curve, but it doesn’t take long to figure out. Once you do, mountain biking is wild fun.
Mountain biking has a strong toehold in the Adirondacks thanks in large part to the Barkeater Trails Alliance, a group that was founded in 2010 and is responsible for developing trail systems in Wilmington and Lake Placid. The Utica-based AFTA relied on the guidance of Barkeater and “we’ve been able to learn a lot from their experiences,” said Matt VanSlyke, a member of AFTA and CycleAdirondacks.
For eight or nine years, Schweitzer, armed with little more than a rake, had been scratching out trails at the McCauley Mountain Ski Center. He said he always knew Old Forge had potential as a mountain bike destination, but never thought it could come together so fast. The venerable McCauley Mountain is owned by the Town of Webb and has far exceeded the life expectancy of most North County ski resorts. But to keep the energy going, said David Etsen of the Central Adirondacks Association, the center needed to provide the experiences for which younger people are said to hunger.
“We were looking to provide a destination that would accentuate what we already have here,” Etsen said. Zip lines and rope walks are popular, but require more expensive infrastructure, so mountain biking seemed like a cost-effective alternative. Typically in these matters it’s the mountain bikers who ask the property owners for permission to build the trails, but in this case it was the other way around. “What made it so easy was that the town and CAA were on board,” Schweitzer said. “Then (Herkimer) County came on board too, and their support was really helpful.”
With everyone working toward the same goal, and no turf, agendas or egos to sort out, the project came together with remarkable speed.
AFTA volunteers flagged the trails, and Glesmann took a diminutive backhoe into the woods and carved out high-banked hairpin turns, jumps and rocky obstacles—some of which are quite memorable. “We were looking at this boulder one afternoon, trying to figure if (the trail) should go above it or below it,” Schweitzer said, gazing at a rock the size of a henhouse. “I came back the next weekend and saw that Eli had decided to go over it.”
Schweitzer says he lets Glesmann build whatever obstacle he chooses on the condition that there’s a safe ride-around for those who may be intimidated. The combination of trails that offer thrills and trails that offer calmer rides over hill has quickly become a mountain biker magnet. AFTA riders joke it took 10 years to become an overnight success—it was a decade of blueprinting that paid off immediately when the trails were formalized. Schweitzer said the trails’ GPS coordinates were plugged into the Trailforks mountain biking database “and riders started to come, from Vermont, Montreal, Virginia—we didn’t do any advertising whatsoever.”
Whether they’re easy or challenging, the trails are aesthetically pleasing. Of trail building, Glesmann said, “It’s moving lots of dirt in a fun, creative way that will shed water and be sustainable. I’m visual when I build things, and I like to incorporate a scenic aspect.”
“He makes any trail fun, even the climbers,” said Kelly Nugent, who may or may not be the president of AFTA—there is an egalitarian aura to mountain biking that dissuades the acknowledgement of formal titles. This is part of the appeal. Five individuals of varying skill levels can begin the day as total strangers and end it as fast, whooping-it-up friends.
If the faces of road bikers reflect seriousness and determination, mountain bikers treat their rides as one big, happy lark. And you can tell a lot about them simply by the names they choose to give their trails.
Mountain bike trails are color-coded, like ski trails, to reflect the degree of difficulty. And at McCauley Mountain they are named after scenes from the movie “Animal House.” As someone who had scarcely done any mountain biking at all in the modern era, I had mentioned that I felt comfortable doing beginner or intermediate trails, but I certainly was not about to try a black diamond or any foolishness like that.
Nugent, an English teacher by day, had been very gracious about staying with me and offering gentle riding advice and encouragement through the afternoon, and pretending not to notice when I was sucking wind or doing something stupid. And as we stood at the crest of the black diamond trail we were about to descend (my edict having been taken, apparently, as a mere suggestion) she assured me it was nothing really, just a more extreme version of what we had already done. Ahead of me I heard VanSlyke giving similar advice to his son—use both front and rear brakes evenly, stay loose and let “the bike goes where your eyes go.”
Much of mountain biking is about gaining confidence, and you go quite quickly from being scared to having a blast. VanSlyke noted that, unlike skiing, you have brakes and can slow down or stop if you feel yourself losing control. And those waterbed-like tires that had given me fits going uphill were a rubberized miracle going down, as they calmly absorbed any root or rock that was thrown at them. Counterintuitively, speed is your friend, because as long as you have a good head of steam, the bike will do much of the work for you.
Of course not all the 30 miles of trails in Old Forge are of the hell-bent-for-leather, howl-at-the-moon variety. Families and non-thrill seekers will be quite at home on many of them, including the level and well-graded Tobie Trail that runs 14 miles from Thendara to Inlet, an artery that is considered the spine of Old Forge mountain biking. “It’s not just one type of trail, and we’re really emphasizing that’s there’s something for the average person,” VanSlyke said, adding that the proximity of the trails to the village is a unique asset. “The whole trail system is accessible right from main street—you can ride it right from your hotel room.”
AFTA also has a good relationship with the Adirondack Scenic Railroad, which will carry riders and bikes to a drop-off point near Eagle Bay. “You can take the train to Carter Station and ride back, stopping for lunch on the water at Fourth Lake,” VanSlyke said.
And the trail building continues apace. Schweitzer said three more phases are penciled in for this year, including a climber and flow trail up and over Maple Ridge from Old Forge to the hub of the McCauley trail system, as well as a longer route meandering around the back of the mountain.
With an extensive trail network that can be accessed by bicycle from the heart of town, an enthusiastic and growing rider base and a full array of services accessible with a few pedal strokes, AFTA believes that Old Forge has the potential to rival any mountain biking destination in the East.
Looking back up from the bottom of the black diamond trail that I had gracelessly survived, I could see the fruits of Glesmann’s handiwork, including an artistically designed rock garden, and of course Eli’s Boulder, where my confidence had abandoned me, and I ended up straddling it like some cartoon gaucho.
But before that there had been good moments too. They included having enough speed to stay high on the bank of a hairpin berm, and going airborne over a few jumps (some intentionally, some not). And it recalled a time when, with my 24-inch bike with the banana seat and high-rise handlebars, we would careen down the hillsides spraying leaves, sticks and small animals in pursuit of joy and destruction.
Little did we know how ahead of our time we were.