Mountain biking is big business in parts of the Northeast Kingdom. But what started out as a way to promote tourism has turned into a way of life for some residents.
Kingdom Trails has an international reputation among mountain bikers. Over the past quarter century the trail network has expanded to more than 100 miles, involving nearly that many private landowners.
"It connects to Burke Mountain and it connects to multiple towns – Kirby, Lyndonville, Burke and now East Haven," said Kingdom Trails executive director Abby Long. "And the economic impact that we’re seeing nowadays with that flush of visitors is about $10 million coming into the community."
Long said the organization has come a long way since it started under a pop-up tent in the parking lot of East Burke Sports.
"Twenty-five years later, Kingdom Trails is seeing 115,000 visitors a year," she said.
Mountain biking is making its mark on the local culture as well. While it’s typically a male-dominated sport, local women’s rides and school programs have lured a diverse group of locals out onto the trails.
"It's just what people do here," commented local middle school teacher Morgan Moore. "And I feel like it's made me have such [an] active lifestyle because it's what we do after work, or when I want to meet up with a friend. Everybody just asks if you want to go biking."
Moore also coordinates an outdoor club for students. She said she never pictured herself as a mountain biker, until she came to Burke. She was introduced to the sport through a free weekly women’s ride coordinated by the Village Sports Shop, in Lyndonville.
"The women’s ride was pretty important to my development as a mountain biker," Moore said. "Being able to come in in the beginner level and, like, work my way up really was reassuring."
Now Moore is passing those skills along to students at Burke Town School.
Meanwhile, high schoolers in Lyndon Institute’s Mountain Bike Club hosted their first race last year, according to Des Hertz, a school district literacy coach. Hertz added that mountain bikes have also made their way into the curriculum for the coming school year.
"This year they’re offering a class in maintenance, bike maintenance and repair, to teach kids how to fix their bikes — which I think could be a really growing profession, especially in this area," Hertz said.
Keara Kresser grew up riding the Kingdom Trails. Now she leads tours and coaches local camps; She’s proof that Kingdom Trails is providing career opportunities for young Vermonters.
"As a recent college graduate, I have decided to stay in Burke, because I’ve been sharing my love for the trails with other children through working at multiple camps," Kresser explained. "And it’s really cool to see local kids and kids from all over the country coming to enjoy these trails. And I think a lot of them don’t realize that they’re here, so it’s pretty cool to open their eyes and show them what’s available."
In addition to camps and school clubs, young residents are also joining teams and competing in cross-country, downhill and enduro races.
Viv Buckley is a women’s ride leader, who also teaches at Burke Mountain Academy, an elite ski academy. She said she’s impressed with the level of training available to local kids.
"For kids to be practicing — to have mountain bike practice, like other kids going to soccer practice — it’s amazing," Buckley said.
Some of those kids are practicing with Ella Skalwold, a local coach and professional mountain bike racer.
"I have been racing at a professional level for the last three years," said Skalwold. "I just, this year, attempted my first two World Cups, which is the highest level in downhill mountain biking. They’re not in the Olympics so the World Cup series is the highest level you can go at."
A mechanical issue followed by an injury kept her from competing at the highest level, but Skalwold said she'll be back.
Now that more local families are being introduced to the network of trails and opportunities in their own backyard, the Northeast Kingdom may someday be known as a mountain biking World Cup training ground.