FORT KENT, Maine — I was forced to face the facts some time ago: While I may possess great pretensions to the sport, I am simply not cut out to be a mountain biker.
For one thing, I’m a speed-weenie. And then there’s my not-so-insignificant fear of hurtling at breakneck speeds down root-covered, sharp-turned, 20 percent grade single track while dodging tree limbs and boulders.
Don’t get me wrong, riding on dirt roads — nice, rolling relatively smooth dirt roads — is a great way to see some of Maine’s prettiest landscape.
This time of year wildflowers compete with potato blossoms for best in botanical show. The silence of a bicycle offers great opportunities for spotting wildlife and the only obstacles are dust and potholes.
Well, turns out I’m exactly the kind of wannabe mountain biker the folks at Maine Winter Sports Center are looking for.
That’s right. The crew that spends its time honing and coaching the skills of Maine’s elite biathletes and Nordic skiers have turned their sights to off-road cycling and all abilities are welcome.
“Biking is fun,” Mike Smith, MWSC community development director, said. “Some people are drawn to the road and are looking at mountain biking as another way to have fun [and] some people are scared of biking with traffic and never want to touch pavement.”
For all those wanting to answer cycling’s call of the wild, volunteers and workers with Maine Winter Sports are actively developing and improving a network of mountain biking trails across Aroostook County at its 10th Mountain Lodge in Fort Kent, the Four Seasons Lodge in Madawaska and at the Nordic Heritage Center in Presque Isle.
In summer the more than 20 miles of prime ski trails at the Nordic Heritage Center transform into winding single-track attracting individual riders and groups on weekly outings.
This past week club members were working at the lodge preparing for the annual Fat Tire Festival this weekend featuring mountain biking games, competitions and skills development.
Central to the venue and event is the club’s terrain park featuring cycling obstacles such as teeter-totters, log rides, stair-steps and dirt jumping.
“Our bike terrain park is the perfect place for riders to get comfortable with new skills,” said Chad McPherson, club rider. “We have features to play for every level of rider [and] all you need to improve is an open mind and willingness to try new things.”
Single track riding, Smith stressed, can include challenges and obstacles, but that is not the whole picture.
“Single track riding is really about riding along a narrow corridor trail that allows people to feel closer to nature,” he said.
With that in mind volunteers up at 10th Mountain are working this summer to build what Smith is calling “user-friendly” trails for the novice rider.
“There are a whole series of trails planned at 10th Mountain Lodge,” Smith said. “Hopefully this will be the start of an ever growing network of trails for people to bike, walk, snowshoe and ski.”
Smith is excited about that multiuse aspect of the trails and said planning with cycling in mind is key.
“With the cycling trails they need to keep the grade down so water will shed off and it will not become a mucky mess,” he said. “Those gentle grades help keep the speed of the cyclists down so they are not careening down hills or around corners in danger of having accidents with walkers.”
With all trail development, Smith said, they are following guidelines set forth by the International Mountain Biking Association.
“These are trails for sustainable and multiuse,” he said.
In Madawaska those guidelines are being used at the Four Seasons Lodge to transform a series of snowshoe trails into cycling paths where Smith recently spent some time flagging routes and trails for volunteers to follow.
For an international flair, Smith recommends checking out the network of cycling trails in Edmundston, New Brunswick.
“If you want a really good cycling experience and see what a well-designed trail looks like, head over to Edmundston,” he said. “You can easily spend four or five hours there and the views of the forest make you forget there is a town right behind you.”
The best way to access those trails, he said, is to check in with local bike shop Jessom’s, located across from the Edmundston Golf Club.
“I think we are going to see a lot more people traveling to Aroostook County to bike,” Smith said. “This is not a new sport but the trend is toward slower, better designed single track and not just something someone hacked out in their backyard.”
Already, Smith said, he’s met cyclists from around the state who have come to try out the Nordic Heritage trails.
“When people ride those trails they just rave about them,” he said. “They have these great trails with no crowds all to themselves.”
The idea behind the trail development, Smith said, is to design something for everyone.
“Some people want the real challenges and others want rails that just roll up and down,” he said. “We can do that and give people some good climbs but that are not leg-burning steep, the challenge is getting everybody into their groove.”
The bottom line, Smith said, is mountain biking is another way to get people outside and active.
“That’s a big part of my job,” he said. “A big component of Maine Winter Sports’ mission is the healthy hometowns and this is one more step toward that.”
With that attention now placed on kinder, gentler single track, Smith may even see me rolling down the trails.
Maps, cycling event and trail volunteer information are available on the Maine Winter Sports Center’s website at www.mainewsc.org.