Cycling has always been a favorite activity for my family – I’ve ridden with my children in seats, trailers, and on a tandem behind me. Both of my boys could ride their own bikes without training wheels by the time they were in kindergarten and we’ve diligently hauled our bicycles with us on every summer vacation we’ve taken in Vermont.
We’ve ridden dirt and paved roads, along the shores of Lake Champlain, and up and down hills in the Mad River Valley. The Stowe Recreation Path has also been a longtime haunt. So when we were offered a chance to try a complimentary family mountain biking clinic at Smuggler’s Notch Resort – or Smuggs as it is more familiarly known – I thought we’d get a few pointers and be off to the (mountainous) races.
Let’s just say that I got my bike helmet handed to me in the best possible way.
Back to biking basics
We met Rick, our guide, at 3 Mountain Equipment near the resort’s Village Center. A former president of the Stowe Mountain Bike Club, he told us that he helped to develop the many miles of mountain biking trails in the Stowe area, all of which are for more advanced riders. His new mission, with the help of Smuggs, is to develop beginner terrain and offer lessons and guided tours that help riders develop the skills they need to tackle the more advanced routes.
The first order of business was to get Matt and I situated on rental bicycles because our own – hybrid commuter bikes – lacked the tires and shocks called for in trail riding. The shop experts had us outfitted on perfectly sized bikes in no time.
Rick then walked us step-by-step through the different aspects of mountain biking we need to understand (if not completely master) before we headed out into the woods. We reviewed how and when to shift – in the case of downshifting, before you need to so you don’t put too much strain on the bike. We practiced braking with one finger so that we could keep our hands firmly on the handlebars. Rick talked about “feathering” our brakes rather than squeezing them suddenly, which can cause you to slow or stop too quickly.
He also got my behind off my bike seat, showing us the proper, more aggressive stance for trail riding and talking about using our hips and shifting our weight.
Then he had us practice some turns. This was a bit more complicated as it involves a variety of techniques – angling the bike, using your hips to move in the direction you want to go, and looking through the turn for where you are hopefully headed instead of straight ahead and off the trail. There was more in Rick’s explanation about turning that involved what to do with our legs and arms during turns but I’ll admit it went by me as I tried to focus on the absolute necessities. Even turning around a cone on a relatively flat lawn was hard for me, although my twelve-year-old son Tommy seemed to have no trouble at all picking it up.
Mountain biking shares some of the same characteristics with downhill skiing. You want your weight to be leaning down and not up the hill, your shoulders square and facing downhill, your feet to be parallel on the pedals – a very similar position and feeling to a skiing stance. The mechanics of turning are similar as well. I was much less confident doing this on a bike than on skis, but definitely felt like Rick gave me a great primer on what I was supposed to be doing with my body, even if it didn’t come naturally to me.
Picking up speed on the pump track
After we practiced with the cones for a while it was time to put all of the techniques together. We weren’t quite ready to head out on the trail so Rick brought us over to the new pump track he helped design and construct. This offered a great opportunity to handle some uneven ground, trees, and most importantly, turns.
Tommy loved it and almost immediately was zipping around the track as if he’d done it every day of his life. Riding on the track was challenging for me. It was hard to make the turns with any kind of speed and I psyched myself out more than once. But I was grateful for the chance to get a feel for what a trail ride would be like.
In the interest of total honesty I will share that my nine-year-old son Teddy, a less physically aggressive and athletic soul, had a hardest time of all of us picking up on Rick’s pointers. In fairness to him, we spent three hours that morning challenging ourselves on the Arbortrek Treetop Obstacle Course, which he did with great enthusiasm and skill. But at this point in the day he was clearly tired and went from zero to frustrated almost instantaneously.
Rick was fantastic with Teddy, showing no signs of impatience when he immediately grew discouraged and helping him get the feel for the pump track by walking it. He made sure to keep including Teddy and quizzed him to see if he had retained all the information about technique even if he wasn’t quite ready to put it all together yet.
Eventually we all took a spin around the track, even Teddy. It was really fun and made us feel confident.
Mountain biking for the whole family
Although Rick was prepared to take us out on one of the beginner trails that Smuggs is developing in the woods, we decided to save something for our next visit. Even without a trail ride, our clinic was really fun and thanks to Rick’s enthusiasm, experience, and teaching skills we all got a great grasp of what we need to do when we do decide to head for the woods.
Whether or not you and your family are experienced road cyclists, I definitely recommend a clinic or guided ride at Smuggler’s Notch Resort for your first mountain biking experience. It may not be quite as easy as riding a bicycle, but it’s definitely worth the effort.
Fall is a great time to try mountain biking, with cooler temperatures and all the glory of Vermont’s foliage. Smuggs offers daily guided rides and mountain biking lessons for reasonable rates (for example, a four-hour guided ride for up to six people is $200). Individual and family lessons are available. Because guides are limited, it’s a good idea to call ahead for a reservation – (800) 419-4615.
Mara Gorman may live at sea level now, but she’s a native New Englander and mountain aficionado who grew up skiing in Vermont. She spends as many days each winter as she can chasing her two teen boys through glades and across mogul fields and regularly journeys far and wide to get on the slopes. Mara blogs about her family’s many travel adventures at The Mother of all Trips. She is also the author of The Family Traveler’s Handbook and an award-winning freelance writer whose work has appeared in various USA Today print publications as well as on websites such as BBC Travel. When there’s no snow, Mara and her family can be found hiking, biking and eating around the United States and Europe.