Off-road cyclists hit a different route each Sunday

Vineyard beaches are often on the route of the Sunday off-road cyclists.The group rode the North Neck highlands on Chappaquiddick in 2006. — Photo courtesy Ashley Hunter

The riders looked lean and ageless standing next to their mountain bikes in the parking lot at the Grange Hall in West Tisbury on Sunday. Outfitted in sleek gear, helmets and glasses on, a passerby might find it difficult to guess the rider’s ages, but for the grey hair, only visible on closer inspection. Ashley Hunter of West Tisbury, Richard Toole of Oak Bluffs, and Kevin Begley of Vineyard Haven, all in their sixties, meet most every Sunday morning at 9 am for a two- to three-hour ride around the off-road trails of Martha’s Vineyard.

The three are among the most stalwart members of a loosely organized group that goes by the name of the Vineyard Off-Road Bicycle Association (VORBA). Mr. Hunter and Mr. Toole have been riding the many off-road trails on Martha’s Vineyard for close to 30 years — rain or shine, regardless of the temperature or snow or ice on the ground. Mr. Begley, a regular for only about five years, is a relative newcomer.

Only illness or travel off-Island keeps them from riding. Mr. Hunter said that the only time he remembers canceling a ride was when the snow was so deep he couldn’t get out of his driveway.

By 9:15 am they hit the trail, always a different route and never pre-determined. The rides end around noon at Alley’s General Store where the riders reminisce with coffee in hand and, in the words of Mr. Toole, “watch the world pass by.”

Mr. Hunter’s best guess is the group has made somewhere around 1,300 rides. He has GPS generated maps of over 650 of the Sunday rides, just about every ride they have taken for the last 12 years. Mr. Hunter drew many of the maps from the earlier years by hand from the GPS generated coordinates.

The group usually consists of five or six riders in the winter including a rider or two who prefer riding on the road but who find it’s warmer on the off-road trails during the cold months. The group swells during the summer to as many as 20 riders. They welcome anyone over 18 years old, both sexes.

Mr. Hunter maintains a website for the group,, where a calendar lists planned rides and photographs are posted. He also maintains a long email list of what is referred to as the irregular regulars, the seasonal riders.

Occasionally the group will plan an all-day ride or the ride may have a different starting location. Most Sundays, the Grange Hall is the start point.

David Whitmon of Oak Bluffs founded the group sometime in the 1980s. For years he could be identified as the guy riding with multiple feathers in his helmet. He seldom rides with the group now, preferring to ride his velomobile, a yellow banana-shaped cycle. The default ride leader has always been Mr. Hunter.

The group seldom repeats a route. “I try to get a sense of how the riders want to ride each Sunday,” Mr. Hunter said. “I take into consideration the skill levels of the riders on each ride.” The rides range from 13 to 25 miles with the occasional longer ones up to 30 miles.

“There are so many great trails on the Vineyard, the Martha’s Vineyard Land Bank properties in particular,” said Mr. Hunter. The recent widening of many of the Land Bank trails is disappointing, he added. The group prefers what are called single-track trails, deer and animal trails only wide enough for one bike at a time. “The wider trails lack the immediacy and the thrill of the narrower trails. They can be like riding on a dirt road.”

The group counts the number of riders at the beginning of each ride. At each intersection the second person is asked to stop and count all the riders through. This helps gauge the group’s overall speed and prevents lost riders.

Mr. Hunter is a former marine mechanic who now works in all phases of construction. He has done stage lighting for many Island theater and dance productions.

He also rides a road bike and has ridden many “century rides,” 100-mile rides. His longest one-day road ride was 150 miles. “I have actually mapped a full century on the Island without redoing any roads,” Mr. Hunter said.

One of the newer members of the group, Mr. Begley, a carpenter, said his most memorable rides with the group were his first two or three. “I thought I was gonna die,” he said. “Then you start to get your legs. It’s always a challenge but survivable. I had not ridden since grammar school days with neighborhood kids. You know, with baseball cards clothes-pinned to the spokes for a motorcycle effect.”

Longtime rider Mr. Toole is a carpenter and caretaker, president of the Vineyard Conservation Society and a Land Bank advisory board member for Oak Bluffs. “I ride about a half hour every day just to remind me what a great place we live in and to keep me in shape for the Sunday rides,” he said. “I sometimes think the Sunday ride is the most important part of my week. What I like best about the Sunday rides is it is always something different. Either a new trail or an old trail in the opposite direction or combined with new sections.”

A favorite part of the ride is the coffee at Alley’s. “I thinks its Ashley’s favorite part,” he said. “We talk about the ride or life in general, watch the people going into Alley’s or complain about how poorly they park in the lot.”

Mr. Toole remembered a particularly cold winter years ago when all the great ponds froze. “We rode across all the great ponds on the south side of the Island. It was remarkable because we could do it and because we could see the different quality of the ice dependent on how much salt and fresh water there was. Each pond had a different feel to it. We did that for two or three weeks. It was great.”

“I plan to keep riding until I can’t do it anymore,” he said. “The challenge isn’t necessarily the ride. It’s sometimes the riders. Either there’s too much conversation or the conversation is going where I don’t want it to go. Sometimes I just drift back to the back where no one can see how slow I ride and I can be alone with my thoughts.”