Wheel life

Island woodlands are your playground — just hop on a mountain bike.

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Mountain biking on Martha’s Vineyard has exploded over the past two years. It partially had to do with COVID forcing folks to find enjoyable activities they could take part in on their own or with the people in their circle, things we could enjoy apart from others. This brought Islanders out onto the trails and bike paths to escape the familiar-but-dull comfort of their own homes. The bike boom on the Vineyard was also precipitated by the incremental increase in availability and quality of the technology used to make today’s downhill, trail, and cross-country bikes.

Of course, there are some who have been riding pretty much their entire lives, and the only thing the pandemic did was give them a reason to ride more. Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School science teacher, Louis Hall, said Islanders are lucky to have such a unique and diverse expanse of wilderness at their recreational disposal. “Even as limited as we are here as far as trail infrastructure is concerned, we are so lucky compared to people who are stuck in flats and apartments in the inner city, where they are basically trapped in their houses,” Hall told The Times.

Hall said he took full advantage of some of the extra time he had during the pandemic by spending it outdoors with his family. This reaffirmed his belief in how important advocating for availability and maintenance of trails and woodlands is. As a mountain biker and longtime year-round Vineyard resident, when about 25 miles of new trails were cut in the Manuel F. Correllus State Forest by the Sheriff’s Meadow Foundation, Hall was looking forward to all the opportunities they could hold. “That option was just never there, and then it was,” Hall said. “The trails get old on the Island, and they do spread around a fair amount, but there definitely isn’t any continuous trail network here.”

The new trails were a relatively ephemeral experience for excited riders — Sheriff’s Meadow was forced to restore all blazed trails to their original state, due to concerns over rare species and fragile ecosystems. But Hall said he believes now is the time for mountain bikers to have a strong voice in the conservation sphere, and for the entire riding community to have more opportunities to get out together and have fun.

With hundreds of mountain bike enthusiasts (and a few professionals mixed in) living here, the Vineyard has just entered the New England Mountain Bike Association (NEMBA). That means the diverse and noncohesive group of local riders now has legitimate representation organized under one entity. This way, Hall hopes, riders will be able to host permitted trail cleanups and maintenance events funded by potential grants from NEMBA. He also said he wants to be able to go out on group rides together, and maybe even host some competition for the more experienced riders.

But the most important thing for Hall is being affiliated with an organization that will lend authority to the group, so they can have a seat at the table when there are active conversations happening among local governing bodies. Hall said a number of folks who like to mountain bike on the Island are interested in or experienced with matters of land use and conservation. Being a biology teacher, Hall said, he would appreciate having the ability to provide input and act as a representative for the group.

Hall listed some downhill spots up-Island that he loves to hit, along with Tisbury Meadows and some of the Black Pond trails. Even though there are still good places to ride, trail access here can be a contentious issue. The question of which trails should be permitted for mountain biking and which should be reserved for pedestrians dominates the conversation.

For Hall, doing everything possible to encourage people to get outside is essential for promoting a healthier (both physically and mentally) populace here on the Vineyard. But it’s a small Island, Hall said, and a lot of the trails are either totally worn down, or are totally boring because everyone’s ridden them so much already.

With a new mountain biking club at the high school (started by Hall and some passionate students), the opportunities for outdoor adventure are endless. The club hosts group rides, and will eventually head off-Island to mountain bike parks where riders take a chairlift to the top of a mountain and then bike down. Hall is also hoping to put together some race trips, where the club goes to different cross-country mountain bike events in the fall.

For the young kids who haven’t mastered bike-riding yet, Hall wants to start a “teach your kid to ride day” where instructors set up cones and do some skills and drills training.

This future effort stems from one of Hall’s greatest ambitions — to give kids opportunities to learn how to ride, and eventually turn it into a lifelong passion. “Biking is a great chance for young people to explore healthy activities and good challenges. They get to enjoy a little bit of excitement, and do it in a way that is safe and responsible, and is being guided by an adult who has experience,” Hall explained.

But in order to support a mountain biking community here, more trails will need to be created that encourage ecotourism, in order to get more people invested in trail infrastructure. “We’ve got a lot of bikes on Martha’s Vineyard, but there are lots of long, boring bike paths along the main roads, or we have bike paths and trails that are disconnected,” Hall continued.

Although Island project surveyor and firefighter Kara Shemeth considers herself a mountain biking novice, with plenty of technical skills left to develop, she just likes getting out on the trails, where the serenity separates her from the business of the day and allows her to escape.

“I bought my very first mountain bike from Frank Jennings at Edgartown Bikes in 1994, and I still have it to this day. He let me put half down on the bike, and I would go in every week and pay him another $25. It was my intro to bikes,” Shemeth said.

For years, Shemeth hardly touched the bike. After the birth of her second child put her out of commission for a while, she was looking for some low-impact exercises that weren’t in the form of a tedious elliptical or stationary bike. 

“I just really fell in love with mountain biking — I had a renewed appreciation for it. With everything in life, to get outside and away from the crowds and be able to do something active but also social, it checks all the boxes,” Shemeth explained.

There is a broad range of experiences available to mountain bikers, according to Shemeth. For those who are current and former athletes, adding an element of competition is one good way to get the heart pumping and push past any mental barriers. On the other hand, there are many who might just want to strengthen their legs and get out in the woods for some fresh air.

Shemeth said being a part of NEMBA will help the Island mountain biking community become more organized, and will allow them to be good representatives of the sport.

“I think the Island has an incredible amount of people who are committed to conservation and also to active lifestyles. We’ve never really had something that could join us all together like this,” Shemeth said. “You could be 7 years old or 70 doing this, which is why we are so lucky to have a group that is dedicated to getting everyone out there as often as possible.”

Chilmark Coffee founder Todd Christy said manufacturers couldn’t keep up with the demand for bikes when COVID first hit. Everyone was buying a mountain bike, and the trail systems were beginning to fill up.

More and more people are starting to get interested in the sport, Christy said, which invokes the question of how to fairly and responsibly share paths with each other. Christy stressed that although mountain bikers, walkers, horseback riders, and others who use the trails all have different needs and responsibilities, each group should hold a common obligation to maintaining our delicate woodlands, while also providing recreational opportunities. “It’s about changing the broad perception of the community toward the people who like to ride their bikes in the woods. Change versus no change — that is going to be our biggest challenge,” Christy said. 

He noted how team sports can play a beneficial role in a young person developing accountability, determination, and resilience early in life. But high school and middle school sports aren’t for everyone, and Christy said mountain biking could be a great alternative to the conventional. “Getting kids to ride every day is amazing, and if you can get together a team, it catches kids who fall through the cracks in other sports, who don’t love playing football or running or soccer — they can ride a bike,” Christy said. 

Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School sophomore Quinn Cathey said he got into mountain biking around age 7 or 8 when his dad taught him. At first, he didn’t quite take to it, and preferred a hike or a ride on the road. But once he turned 12, he started riding more with his friends out on the Land Bank trails. Soon after his interest was realized, Quinn’s parents bought him a hardtail mountain bike for Christmas. “After that I did a lot of trail riding on the Island. I got a lot better and just kept progressing,” Quinn said. “It was a great thing to do, whether I was alone or with friends.”

He voiced his appreciation for the trail system here, which he would often use in the summer to get from point A to point B without having to deal with fast-moving traffic on main roads and congestion (and the occasional aloof tourist) on roadside bike paths.During COVID, Quinn and his friends would meet up at a Land Bank trailhead and ride around all day. One day, during the summer of 2019, the group found a little jump course in the woods of Tisbury Meadows and started messing around with it. They fixed jumps, added terrain, and would meet there every other day to practice and have fun. 

As a member of the MVRHS mountain biking club, Quinn said he regularly ends his school days during the spring and fall with an hour-or-two ride with his buddies in the State Forest. It’s a time he cherishes, and encourages other people his age to hop on a mountain bike and try it out. 

“A lot of people today are inside more and more and aren’t doing extracurricular activities after school. Mountain biking gets you outside, it’s good for your health, and the more you do it, the more fun it becomes,” Quinn said. “It helps you make friends and feel like you are a part of something.”

For more information or to learn how you can join the group, email Louis Hall at lhall@nemba.org.

8 COMMENTS

  1. Confused here – all those players listed, especially Louis, knew the SF trails were illegal. He even stated he didn’t care about the legality, only trails. NEMBA continually advocates for illegal trails around the region. Why are we letting these people who don’t care about conservation, access to our public lands? They pay lip service to us so they can destroy the environment for their pleasure.

    • Hi John, I wanted to provide some clarification. The New England Mountain Bike Association does not advocate for illegal trails. NEMBA works with land owners, land managers, and decision makers to ensure people have access to trails throughout New England. We maintain thousands of miles of trails for all types of trail users. We provide tens of thousands of hours of volunteer labor that would not be possible if solely reliant on paid staff. The trails at the Correllus State Forest are a complex situation, where the proper approval processes were not provided or followed. This is NOT something NEMBA advocates for. In fact, we advocate for the opposite. We strive to provide a voice and formal organization that can work with land managers to ensure legitimate access is available, and be a partner to address concerns/challenges along the way. Part of our mission is to preserve open space and we recognize the importance of properly planned, designed, and maintained trail systems to minimize impacts. We are excited to welcome the Vineyard NEMBA chapter into NEMBA and look forward to working with the local leadership to identify opportunities to maintain Trails, engage in Advocacy, and build a Community. – Travis NEMBA Executive Director

      • Travis we saw what mountain bikers are all about already no need for you to try to sugar coat it. Those listed in the article were asked to stop riding illegal trails and shown the state coast and desist order, yet they continued.

      • Hi Travis, maybe your new club president didn’t tell you but some of us from the community reached out to ask that mountain bikers stop using the illegal trails. Instead they kept doing it, even after NHESP issued a cease and desist.

        Now we read that you gave those same individuals a title and club so they can seemingly “work with the community”. Sorry! We do NOT want to work them, you, or any other lying mountain bikers.

  2. Travis, clearly you are misinformed about rhe situation. NEMBA in fact made a public statement in support of the illegal trails. A quick internet search shows NEMBA involved in advocating for illegal trails in MA and CT most recently. Secondly the individuals in this article and now representing NEMBA knew the State Forest trails were illegal and they voiced their support for more trails regardless. They continued riding those trails even after the State asked everyone to stop. Even after community members asked them to stop. There is factual proof of this. You should get all the facts before making judgment. And all of this further proves NEMBA and mountain bikers do not care about rules, the environment, or their neighbors.

  3. Louis is a good guy, and I’m glad everyone’s gonna have fun. But I fear that this article is the tip of a charm offensive to rehabilitate the mountain bike tribe after the Berwind debacle and to renew pressure to establish a mountain bike park on public lands in the State Forest. The trauma of Berwind’s autocratic desecration of the forest is still fresh. I hope we don’t have to relive it again under the banner of “wholesome community building.” Bikers and hikers and riders of horses have access to all the existing trails. We should respectfully share them and leave it at that. No special pleading for one group or another.

    • Bill, I agree we had it good before and we can keep it good. The folks in the article are good people who were led astray. I too fear this NEMBA will ruin things or make them worse in our community. Having talked to friends on the Cape NEMBA has bulldozed their way over there. I do not trust Travis.

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