On July 5, 2024

Mountain biking’s evolution has changed the sport — and summers in Vermont

Improvements in equipment and trails over the past decade have made the sport more fun for more people

By Polly Mikula

Mountain biking even just a few decades ago was a very different sport than it has evolved to be today. Mountain bikes “back in the day” were only slightly different than their road counterparts in that they had slightly wider tires and a bit more tread. They still had small wheels, narrow bars, center-pull brakes and fixed seat-post. And mountain bike “trails” were often just Class 4 roads, logging and farm roads, cross-country ski trails and lower angle hiking trails.

The modern era of mountain biking is said to have begun in the 1980s, but real changes to the sport didn’t occur until the ‘90s, according to most “historians” writing on the matter. Specific mountain bike trails began to be built in earnest in the early 1990s, mostly in recreation-friendly areas like the ski towns of Killington, Ascutney, the Mad River Valley and Stowe. But since they were built on ski slopes, they were almost all expert routes. 

Killington was among the earliest adopters. It began lift-serve mountain biking in 1991 with trails straight off Killington Peak — a 1,700 foot vertical from the top of K-1 to the base.

“Typically bike parks at ski areas don’t offer the right product, there is just too much vertical,”explained said Dave Kelly, co-founder of Gravity Logic, the consulting company Killington hired to design and build a 5-year plan to improve its mountain bike trail systems.

“Most of what they had was comparable to a ski mountain that offers only double black diamonds with no grooming so there are 10-foot moguls to contend with… it only caters to a very small percentage of riders,” Kelly explained.

In the fall of 2014, Gravity Logic projected that Killington could see 50,000 bikers annually, if its master plan was followed to completion — up from about 2,000 riders per year prior to Gravity Logic’s engagement.

“There is nowhere in the East that has the potential that Killington has,” said Kelly in 2014.

The resort hit that target in 2021, one year after the five-year buildout was complete. Growth has continued since, albeit not quite as exponentially with ridership leveling off in the 50,000-55,000 range.

Although perhaps most famous for building up the bike park in Whistler, British Columbia, Gravity Logic was not new to Vermont. Starting in 2007, VMBA brought in Gravity Logic for several annual conferences for ski resorts to share and learn about the development of mountain bike trails as part of summer operations. Their trail building advice applied to non-lift-served networks too and these conferences were instrumental in educating many riders and trail-builders throughout the state’s mountain bike community. 

Today, VMBA boasts more members per capita than any other state, a strong foundation of support with 30 local chapters and collectively manages over 1,400 miles of public access multi-use trails.

Bikes themselves have changed significantly, too, of course. Now standard are full suspension, 29-inch wheels, powerful hydraulic brakes, adaptable “dropper” seatposts and fat, grippy, tubeless tires — all of which radically improve the mountain bike experience. 

“The technology improvements upgraded my attitude. Mountain biking transformed from an activity I felt I ought to enjoy into a sport I really, really want to do every day,” wrote Stephen Shankland, a journalist who covered the tech industry for more than 25 years. “That’s good news for a middle-aged man who spends an awful lot of time parked behind a computer screen.”

Improvements in equipment and trails over the past decade have made the sport more fun for more people. Biking in Vermont may never be quite as popular as skiing (to be fair, the season is much shorter with much more rival options for recreation) but its growth has brought tens of thousands of more people to the state to enjoy the sport and its events. 

Businesses in ski towns like Killington a short decade ago, struggled to stay open during the summer month (and many didn’t), now nearly all are open. Restaurants offer outdoor seating (a positive outcome of the pandemic) and new bike shops are opening every year. The dream of Vermont becoming the “Moab of the East” was first idealized by Rochester in the ‘90s, then adopted by the Kingdom Trails in the Northeast Kingdom; but today Killington may have the best claim to that title with its worldclass lift-serve offerings, plus over 250 cross-country trails within a half hour’s drive. As a destination for riders of all abilities, it’s simply hard to beat.

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