The Velomont is Live!

By Katy Savage/Photo courtesy Tom Lepesqueur

In mid-July, Rochester trailbuilder Tom Lepesqueur was cursing the rain but he kept plugging away at what he calls the toughest trail he has built in 15 years: the first 6 ½-mile leg of a grand vision: the Velomont Trail. 

The total trail could run 485 miles and cost an estimated $50-$120 million to build over about 10 years. The project could involve hundreds of acres of state and federal land and 12 mountain bike chapters. And there are plans for 30 or more huts located along the way. Those are ambitious goals. But the trail is starting to happen.

Now, Lepesqueur, owner of Lepesqueur & Daughters LLC, hopes to have the first segment rideable in the next few weeks. The bonus: there’s already a reservation-ready hut, Chittenden Brook Cabin, situated along the way. 

Lepesqueur spent 20 days just walking the woods of the steep, ledgy area this past spring and flagging where he thought the trail could go. “I’d think I had a good line laid out and then I’d run into a ledge and have to start over,”  he said. “It’s a constant battle for me finding a trail to build that’s feasible but making it cool.” 

“We’re trying to make this trail as accessible as possible at it goes through some pretty inaccessible terrain,” he said.  Lepesqueur  knew construction would be hard going into it. He started to walk the wooded area back in 2017 to get a “loosey goosey” idea of where the Velomont could go. Back then, it seemed like just a pipe dream.  “It was very unrealistic to me,” he said.  Now, as Lepesqueur is completing this first segment of the trail, he’s in awe. “It’s amazing and shocking,” he said.  

The First Miles

Velomont began as a brainchild of Angus McCusker and Zac Freeman, founders of the Ridgeline Outdoor Collective (formerly known as RASTA) and the powers that helped shape Brandon Gap as a backcountry ski destination. McCusker remains as a volunteer in the executive director’s role while the board president is Caitrin Maloney, a partner in Sustainable Trail Works. Freeman has been busy building trails in the Randolph and Braintree areas. 

“We can’t tell you exactly where the trail will go. We are still very much in the planning stages,” cautions Maloney. But for a rough idea, an interactive map on the Velomonttrail.org website traces nubs of existing networks. If you follow those, the trail heads north from the Massachusetts border on the first four sections of the existing Catamount Trail to Grout Pond, then links trail networks along the Deerfield Valley, including Hoot, Toot, and Whistle and the Southern Vermont Trails Association.  “We’d love to then connect to the Merk Forest and Farmland Center and its huts, Slate Valley Trails and Pine Hill, making use of the D&H Rail Trail, too,” muses Maloney, cautioning that all of this is still in the early planning stage. 

From there, the trail could head to Killington, up to Pittsfield on trails that area groups are already working on, connect to the segment Lepesqueur is working on that runs east of Route 100, up to Chittenden Brook Campground then over to Rochester. Then, the goal is to route it to Randolph and Braintree’s trails, cross Roxbury Gap to Warren, connect the Mad River Valley network to the Waterbury area trails, then, via Cottonbrook to Stowe and Morrisville. 

“The next segment we will have ready will use the Lamoille Valley Rail Trail to get from Morrisville to St. Johnsbury,” Maloney says. And from there, with any luck, the trail could connect up to Kingdom Trails. “Any number of chapters have expressed an interest in creating connector trails, too,” she says. 

Perhaps the biggest challenge is mapping and gaining access to private and public land. The trail could cross about 210 miles of private land and be an opportunity to conserve 84,000 acres surrounding the trail. 

The trail will provide a unique insight into Vermont’s terrain and will cross into towns, potentially boosting local businesses. “It takes all the great things Vermont has and connects them,” McCusker said. According to a study by Quantified Ventures, the trail could attract 65,000 visitors annually, 26,000 stays in the huts, and generate $31 million in new spending in the state. 

“It directly benefits our local communities,” said McCusker  who has long realized there was a need for a trail like this. “The majority of trail networks in Vermont are loops — you can’t really travel,” he said. 

McCusker grew up just over the Vermont border in Massachusetts. He came to Vermont to attend Stratton Mountain School, where he was a Nordic ski racer.  “I got into mountain biking because you’ve got to do something in the summer,” he said. McCusker rode the length of Vermont in high school, biking about 200 miles on the road from Canada to the Massachusetts border.  

McCusker is part of Vermont’s 251 Club, for those who have visited all of Vermont’s 251 towns and has also lived in the southern, northern and central parts of Vermont.  “It’s handy to have that understanding of the terrain and the communities and find a way to bring that together in a way that makes sense,” McCusker said. That, combined with his  experience working for the state as a GIS expert and his own mapping and trail design business, Maple Ridge Solutions, have made McCusker a uniquely qualified point person for the project. 

It also helps that McCusker’s brother-in-law, Peter Fellows, is the map manager of Two Rivers Ottauquechee Regional Planning Commission, which has helped obtain grants. Fellows said McCusker has always been committed to ambitious projects. “It’s in the blood as his dad was race director of this big road race in Massachusetts for decades,” Fellows said. McCusker’s father ran the Bridge of Flowers Race in Massachusetts, which sees more than 1,000 runners each year.  

“For a vision like this you have to think big,” Fellows said. “In order to get momentum and build at scale for a project like this, you need bigger federal and private grants.”  The first phase of the Velomont is underway with the help of a $355,000 grant from the Northern Borders Regional Commission, which will help fund four different segments of the Velomont.  

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A Backcountry Gateway 

Mountain bikers share a collective enthusiasm for what the Velomont trail could bring to the state.  “It’s a unique way for people to see and experience Vermont that has not existed before,” said Silvia Cassano, the program manager of Slate Valley Trails, one of the networks the Velomont will link up. 

“It just makes me smile. People are hearing about this, they’re excited about the momentum,” said Holly Knox, the recreation program manager for the Rochester and Middlebury Ranger Districts of the Green Mountain National Forest. This first Rochester segment runs through about 15 miles of federal land of the Green Mountain National Forest.

Maloney said they want the trail to be 70% single track.  “We want it to have a nice backcountry feel,” Maloney said.  “There are a lot of unknowns about how to bring the concept into reality,” she added. “It’s a very ambitious project.”

But it’s not unprecedented.  The Long Trail extends 273 miles through Vermont, from the Massachusetts border to the Canadian border. It is the oldest long distance hiking trail in the United States, constructed between 1910 and 1930 by the Green Mountain Club. And the state’s 300-mile Catamount Trail (the longest backcountry ski trail in North America) was completed in 2002. 

Mountain bike trekking is growing in popularity along with the sport itself. The Kokopelli Trail, called the “most visionary MTB trail in the West,” is a series of dirt roads and doubletrack extending 142 miles from Loma, Colorado to Moab, Utah, featuring huts along the way.  

Nick Bennette, who has ridden the Kokopelli Trail, became the new president of the Vermont Mountain Bike Association in March, after moving to Vermont from Washington state. He said he was drawn to the role because of the Velomont.

 “It’s a legacy project — that’s what really stuck with me,” he said.  When he first heard of it, however, “it was awe and a little bit of shock knowing what the project is — how is this going to be tenable?” Bennette remembered thinking.  

Bennette, who has ridden extensively in other states, sees the potential of bringing a project like the Velomont to Vermont and thinks it could become one of the top trails in the nation. “It could elevate [the state’s] profile,” he says. 

While the Velomont is underway, RJ Thompson, the director of the Vermont Huts Association, is on a similar mission to build a network of huts throughout the state. The Vermont Huts Association was formed around five years ago and now features 10 huts along trail systems. “We started out of necessity,” Thompson said. “There wasn’t a nonprofit in Vermont that was focused on backcountry huts.” Thompson and McCusker quickly joined forces.  “From the get-go we knew we wanted to create a partnership to make sure if there were these new trail locations popping up we could put up a hut that made sense,” Thompson said. 

The plan is for 30 to 45 huts to be situated along the Velomont Trail, with more huts in other areas. A new hut similar to the one that was built at Chittenden Brook costs about $230,000 to build and the hope is to build 10 of these over the next three years—all off-grid with no plumbing. Each would have mattresses, a propane stovetop, a kitchenette and a wood stove. 

Thompson, who grew up in New Jersey, moved to Vermont after attending college at the University of Vermont. Outside of mountain biking, Thompson is a hiker and ultra runner.   

For Thompson, the Velomont Trail is exciting because it’s led by people who simply like the outdoors.  “That’s what’s cool, it’s not any kind of top down directive, it’s bottom up, and that’s what I think makes it one of the more compelling projects in Vermont,” he said. The extensive building of the huts will also provide job opportunities for young people. 

The Vermont Youth Conservation Corps is providing some of the labor on the trails and huts. According to the Quantified Ventures study, the Velomont project could provide jobs for over 330 young people ages 15 to 26 and generate more than $1 million in wages over 2,400 weeks of work. 

“Vermont is in the moment where we need to generate a pipeline of talented, trained carpenters and tradespeople,” VYCC’s Breck Knauft said. “This is a great opportunity to do two things — offer meaningful employment to young adults and provide for an economic need.”  

Each segment of the trail will be unique to the town, providing the rider insight to each community. “When I think of the Velomont, the first thing I think of is the communities across the state,” McCusker said. 

While it’s unclear where the Velomont Trail will start in Canada, McCusker knows where it will end in Massachusetts — at Thunder Mountain Bike Park in Charlemont, Massachusetts — where he grew up. 

“It’s a very ambitious project,” McCusker admits. “But you have to start somewhere.” 

 

 

A variation of this article also appeared in Grip,`

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