I’m flying down the hill, on a mountain-biking high, when boom! My tires skid and I tumble back to reality in a twisted heap of limbs and metal.
“Nothing like taking a soil sample,” Dave Taylor, my tour guide, jokes as he pulls me onto my feet. I take stock of my injuries — some reddening bruises, a scraped knee — but all in all, worth the exhilaration of soaring through Virginia’s George Washington National Forest at speeds perhaps slightly inadvisable for a beginning mountain biker. “You know what they say when you fall off a horse,” Taylor says, and I climb obligingly back into the saddle, a tad shaky but undaunted.
I’d been looking for a challenge when I signed up for a day of mountain biking with Shenandoah Mountain Touring, an outfitter based in nearby Harrisonburg. But this wasn’t just any mountain biking. I wanted to ride some of the Virginia Mountain Biking Trail, a relatively new 480-mile route that slices through some of the state’s 2 million acres of national forest, thousands of miles of which are open to bicyclists.
Chris Scott, a native Virginian and former professional mountain biker, came up with the idea for the VMBT in 1999. After completing a 350-mile race in southern Virginia, he wanted a way to “adventure over more of Virginia’s stunning mountainous terrain,” to go “bigger and longer,” he told me.
It wasn’t only that: “Connecting trails and communities [is] a concept that gives me purpose,” Scott said. It took him more than a decade to link up the existing trails on public lands that were needed to create the VMBT, and in 2011, he and colleague Matt Smith rode the trail in its entirety. They’re still the only two people to have done so. Before more bikers can follow in their treads, though, the VMBT’s trails need to be regularly maintained — a difficult task in remote areas, and part of the reason why the VMBT is not yet officially recognized by the U.S. Forest Service.
To this end, in April, Scott and his team held the first VMBT work day, recruiting volunteers to help clear debris on the trails — something he hopes will become an annual event. Scott also envisions a hut-to-hut system, similar to one along the Appalachian Trail, that would make it easier for bikers to do overnight trips on the VMBT, he said.
I’d been mountain biking only once, in New Zealand, so a day trip sounded ideal. On a cool Saturday in June, my boyfriend and I hit the VMBT with Taylor, an amiable college grad with a ponytail and a penchant for the word “gnarly.” We picked up our bike rentals at Scott’s Stokesville Lodge, where groups of mountain bikers often stay, and cycled to the Stokesville Market to sign the official VMBT logbook.
The first climb of our 15-mile ride, on a paved state road, was comfortably strenuous, the air fragrant with honeysuckle and the roadsides blooming with pinkish-white mountain laurel. At the Hankey Mountain trailhead, where we got onto the VMBT, Taylor had some advice: Take it slow, and don’t tackle the 1,800 feet of elevation gain “like an American” — only thinking about the top. Mountain bikers have their own lingo, and they call someone like that a “slummer,” since he or she ends up falling behind and complaining the rest of the ride.
Dutifully, we began pedaling steadily up the trail in the lowest gear, seeking out the smoothest path of least resistance. Even so, this was tough. Whenever I thought there was no way I could haul both my body and this bike up yet another switchback, I refocused on the power of my legs and on enjoying the forest in its summer regalia. Taylor, cycling seemingly effortlessly alongside Brian and me, offered encouraging statements like, “You picked a great day for a ride!” — to which we mustered up a few perfunctory grumbles. A few times, while trying to get momentum, my front tire unexpectedly lifted off the ground. “You popped your first wheelie!” Taylor shouted.
Finally we’d “paid the piper,” in Taylor’s words, and made it to the top, where we settled near the trail to eat lunch. Taylor gave me my “smushie” — the biker term for a backpack-squashed lunch. I hungrily tore into the pizza bagel, which I dropped into the dirt in my eagerness. “We call that ground spice,” Taylor said, as I looked at my soiled bagel in dismay.
While we were eating, a group of friendly horseback riders came along and stopped to talk to us. I petted one of the horses, a stallion with the awesome name of Undercover Brother. As we chatted, I got the impression that I’d stepped into a robust community of outdoorsy people who share and take pride in their national forest, a trail camaraderie that had inspired Scott to create the VMBT.
Back on the bikes we went, onto the singletrack Wild Oat Trail, a narrow path that runs along the ridge of Hankey Mountain. Our full-suspension bikes absorbed the shock of the bumpy ground as we sped through green tunnels, tall trees towering on either side, catching bits of air over small hills and valleys.
Energized and excited, we then turned onto Shaffer Hollow, the downhill singletrack portion of our ride. It didn’t take long for me to understand why this was called a “hand burner”: Gravity forces you to brace your weight on the handlebars, hurting your palms. Rumbling downhill, braced precariously over my seat, I felt the same sensation I do when downhill skiing — that rush of teetering on the edge of control, where one rock or root (or in this case, a pile of horse droppings from Undercover Brother and company) could send you completely off-kilter.
We regrouped at the bottom of Shaffer Hollow with broad smiles, our adrenaline pumping. Turning onto the easier fire road back to the lodge, we encountered two mountain bikers coming from the other direction. One of them was Jeremiah Bishop, a professional mountain bike racer and two-time U.S. national champion from Harrisonburg.
Bishop took a break to chat, telling us that he’s bicycled all over the world but is particularly fond of Virginia’s forests. Not only is the state home to one of the biggest roadless areas in the Mid-Atlantic, which we were biking through, but its wilderness also offers a lot of “flavors”— from “suffer fests” through muddy bogs to relaxed rides through colorful fall foliage, he said. I asked Bishop about the VMBT, and he told me about an expedition he’d taken on the trail in 2010, a “very wild” trip involving run-ins with coyotes, bears and snakes, and carrying bicycles along steep rock ledges. “I can’t wait to do it again,” he said.
Later, in an e-mail, he told me that he wants to be the first person to thru-pack— or take along the necessary gear and food — the VMBT nonstop. His goal is to raise the profile of the trail, which he calls a “diamond in the rough.”
I have to agree. Challenging though it was, I’d discovered a real gem.
Dell’Amore is a writer and editor for National Geographic. Her Web site is christinedellamore.com.