Trailblazers: Mountain biking on Cape Cod
More and more riders are embarking on the Cape’s impressive trails, with one local organization paving the way
Shards of splintered sunlight sparkle against oaks, bayberry bushes and tangles of forest undergrowth in the West Barnstable Conservation Area. As you pedal your bike forward, downward, and east, you don’t exactly feel the sun at your back, but from the slant of its rays, the time is undoubtedly dusk. Perhaps an eight-point buck watches your progress from a clearing in a thicket; as you lean into a corner, maybe you’ll see him wave his white flag tail and bound off deeper into the woods. The trail unspools through the beech and oak that stands before you—firm dirt dusted with a fine sheen of silvery sand, a winding rope seemingly woven of moonbeams. When a garden of rocks breaks the earth ahead, you choose your line and shift your weight back slightly in order to glide over this uneven surface.
Now, as the trail curves in a wide “S”, you hug its outer edge, knowing you can catch a few feet of flight by popping off a half-embedded rock. Soon the trail turns sharply downward. You whip past the “Pine Corner” trail, which branches off to the right. The oaks have given way to pines, while the moonbeam sand is strewn with red, brown and tawny needles that seem to provide your already ample tires even more cushion. The sunlight nearly vanishes in this virtual tunnel of trees, then reappears after you’ve climbed up and around another rock garden. You push harder on the pedals as you near the hill’s summit, anticipation of the upcoming descent powering your legs. Oaks dominate the landscape once more, and the trail leads down to the jump, a rock that rises about a foot from the surface that you know will launch you nearly to the loose corner below. You corner hard, hop off another rock, then crank your way on a smooth slalom stretch to the dirt access road before you, where your riding friends wait—refueling with snacks and water, chatting about the latest greatest bikes, and spinning riding yarns.
This is the last section of “North Ridge,” an intermediate trail that rolls about one mile from Chase Road in Sandwich to Crooked Cartway, a fireroad in West Barnstable. It is one of the finest, “flowiest,” and most venerable trails on Cape Cod, a testament to the skills and countless work hours of a dedicated group of mountain bikers who, since the early 1990s, have been building, improving and maintaining multi-use trails in parks and public lands from Bourne to Provincetown. In the West Barnstable Conservation Area alone, behind the Cape Cod Airfield and wedged between exits 4 and 5 off Route 6, bikers of every riding ability can ride for hours on over 30 miles of trails. Visitors are often surprised to discover that our arm of sand and glacial drift contains so many riding opportunities. Questions such as “But there are no mountains here; where do you ride?” have contributed to a fog that for years enshrouded the sport in this area. Recently, however, through organizational developments on the parts of riding groups, the local mountain biking community has widened, and more riders are enjoying the trails.
Before exploring the reasons for the resurgence of mountain biking on Cape Cod, it’s important to better understand the sport itself. Mountain biking shares many commonalities with skiing—such as the thrill of speed, the bonds among aficionados, an appreciation for nature, the need for focus, and the never-ending quest to improve one’s performance. Add to these the endurance challenges of Nordic skiing and, often, the satisfaction of shared accomplishment that sailors enjoy. Perhaps most defining, however, is the innate, childlike joy that mountain biking reignites.
The driving force for development amongst Cape groups and trail systems has been the New England Mountain Bike Association, or NEMBA, “a community of mountain bikers committed to creating epic riding experiences, preserving open space, and guiding the future of mountain biking in New England.” This educational nonprofit organization boasts over 6,000 members dispersed throughout 27 chapters. While Cape riders have maintained a chapter since the 1990s, official Cape Cod NEMBA activity fell somewhat dormant for a while; by 2013, its membership had dwindled to less than 30. Over the past five years, however, the chapter has been booming, and there are currently 130 members of CC NEMBA. In addition, its Facebook group page counts 1,176 riders.
Bill Boles of Sandwich, the “Outreach Coordinator” for all of NEMBA, explains how the increase in members has helped lead to improvements in Cape trail systems. “It has allowed CC NEMBA to do a lot more volunteer trail maintenance as well as lead a lot more rides,” he says. “More rides lead to even more members. Right now, there is a lot more enthusiasm for riding and volunteering than there was in the past.” Boles also notes that the Cape Cod Chamber of Commerce commissioned the group to produce trail maps of the best riding areas. He says, “Their goal is to have the Cape recognized as a great mountain biking destination all year-round. These maps are on the chamber’s website as well as on our own.” Currently, maps of 12 areas are available to view or download, from Beebe Woods in Falmouth to Nickerson State Park in Brewster. (These areas are also great for hiking, running and dog walking.)
CC NEMBA officers Perry and Kris Ermi of Marstons Mills serve as vice president and secretary, respectively, and both have been riding Cape trails for over 20 years. They started out riding mostly with True Wheels, the now legendary shop that used to operate in Bourne, near the Otis Air National Guard Base. Perry recalls that shop owner Mitch McCullough would ride trails every day on his commute to and from work, and he would lead bikers through those early networks. Kris, a school teacher, also worked at True Wheels in the summer. Early mountain bikes were fairly simple, and many lacked modern comforts such as shocks and suspension forks, so riders were somewhat limited. “Then, about 15 years ago,” Perry says, “there seemed to be a transformation in bike equipment and in the structure of the rides. People started building features like wooden ramps, and we’d go out on rock rides.”
Despite early enthusiasm for mountain biking, most of Cape riding was insular; individual groups would tend their own gardens of trails with little in the way of cross-pollination—but this has changed dramatically. “Since Mike Dube became president of Cape Cod NEMBA in 2013, we’ve become far more organized,” says Perry. “We hold monthly meetings, regularly contribute to SingleTracks Magazine, and now the involvement and participation is Cape-wide.” Mike Dube, in turn, credits Bill Boles, saying, “All of this really started when Bill moved down to Sandwich. He’s one of the original NEMBA guys, and he put the heat on me. Since then, it has barrel-rolled.” As the overall group has grown, so too has the community of women riders. Kris says, “We initially had just a handful, but now there’s a good core of women across the Cape. We often ride with a group of 8-10 women.”
CC NEMBA also sponsors members to attend events such as the recent Women’s Leadership Retreat at Kingdom Trails, in East Burke, Vermont. The group has also hosted two “adventure series” rides and two mountain bike summits with expert speakers on topics such as sustainable trail building and advocacy. To promote mountain biking as a family pastime, CC NEMBA treasurer Frank Merola of Marstons Mills has been leading kids’ rides during the summer. “I started the Friday Nite kids’ ‘Flip-Out’ rides three years ago,” he says. “It began with my two kids and me along with a fellow rider and her two kids just going out for a casual ride on a Friday evening, but soon this became an official ride on Friday nights at 5:30 from mid-May to Labor Day at the West Barnstable Conservation Area.” The Flip-Out ride also coincides with adult rides and a cookout. The ride is free and open to the public and to CC NEMBA members alike. “We have had as many as 20 kids on some of these rides,” says Merola. Chapter president Mike Dube concludes, “The stuff we’re doing on Friday night with kids and families is our real focus right now. We’re trying hard to get the younger generation involved.”
Although the highest “mountains” on Cape Cod rise only about 300 feet above sea level, the area has become a destination for riders from all over New England. What really sets the Cape apart from most of New England is its relatively mild climate. Kris Ermi explains that “We might lose a week to a crazy snow storm, but otherwise we ride all winter.” Riders from the north, whose trails become unrideable, will journey to the Cape. Fat bikes, which have even wider tires than normal mountain bikes, allow for riding on packed snow and ice, as well as on some of the Cape’s beaches, though the National Seashore no longer permits this activity. A few groups even make an annual pilgrimage from the Montreal area. Dube says, “I like the camaraderie, everyone getting together, riding different areas all year-round.”
All of the trails that CC NEMBA maintains are free to use and open for hikers and trail runners as well. Many are even open to horses. The amount of hours that CC NEMBA members spend to keep these trails clear is staggering. “Especially this March,” says Kris Ermi, “when we had a nor’easter every week.” Volunteers cleared hundreds of downed trees, and the use of social media, such as Strava and Facebook, has allowed riders to alert others about trail blockages. Currently, organized rides take place at various trail systems nearly every day, often supported by local bike shops. Sailworld, for instance, hosts a Wednesday ride in North Falmouth, while Sea Sports sponsors a Monday “mellow/beginner” ride in Hyannis. Dan Bergquist, owner of Wheelhouse Bike Co. in Chatham, says, “The great thing about riding out here on the Cape is that there are so many choices. From Wellfleet to Otis, you go from peaches-and-cream smooth to rocky chunk as you go west back up the Cape.”
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