Fat Times in East Burke

What could possibly draw 500 cyclists to Kingdom Trails in February? Winterbike, for one.

BY BENJAMIN HALL | PHOTOS BY RYAN THIBAULT

As I stepped out of my van on Darling Hill in East Burke one Saturday last March, the cold air bit my checks and the moisture in my nostrils froze. But the anticipation of the adventure was already warming my body as my internal engine started to rev up.

I pulled my fat bike out of the back of my van as more riders started to show up.  As the sun rose higher in the sky, it helped to keep both spirits and energy high. Bikes and their owners were beginning to gather at the group ride launching area for the eighth annual Winterbike.

A collaboration between Ryan Thibault’s MBTVT and Kingdom Trails, Winterbike has become to fatbiking what June’s NEMBAFest is to mountain biking: a chance for group rides, games, vendors, beer, bonfires and more beer. It’s a scene—a who’s who of New England’s bike clan. And in 2019, it drew more than 500 people to East Burke to ride, the biggest crew yet.

Kingdom Trails’ trail crew puts the same level of meteorlogical wizardry and science into grooming its trails as ski areas do, looking for perfect grippy conditions for riders.

A whole variety of group rides offered something for riders of every skill level and any desired adventure. There were dozens of pros, and ride leaders included Olympian and former national champion cross-country mountain bike racer Georgia Gould and Ted King, the former pro road racer. They offered up longer rides for those who wanted the challenge of keeping up with a former pro across the more than 30 miles of groomed singletrack.

But there were also beginners and those who had rented a bike for the weekend in the ranks. And it didn’t matter: all group rides converged at a mid-ride aid station where we were met with an assortment of the finest Vermont beverages, cheeses and crackers. There were even maple energy products from UnTapped (Ted King is an owner).

I hopped into the Intermellow ride, a fun three-hour ride on intermediate to advanced singletrack, and we pedaled along at a conversational pace. It was the perfect ride to enjoy both the day and the company of some fellow riders, soon to be new friends.

For 8 Fatbike Weekends Not to Miss in 2019, head here.

As we dropped into the first singletrack off of Heaven’s Bench we found ourselves cascading down a ribbon of switchbacks, the laughter and the fun factor increasing as we descended. The new snow had yet to firm up on this steep slope in the woods. These conditions made drifting around corners interesting, and a fall meant being whitewashed in powder.

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Each of us took turns digging ourselves out of the soft snow along the side of the trail, laughing along with the other riders who had witnessed the whole thing. This happened multiple times throughout the first stretch of trail, and really set the tone for the day. The energy and excitement were contagious.

As we dropped down into the valley the conditions quickly firmed up where the snow had the time to settle. Trails became the true frozen white highway that makes any fat biker grin from ear to ear. CJ Scott, Trails Manager for Kingdom Trails Association, and his team dedicate themselves to ensuring the conditions on the trails are top notch all winter long. And that’s no small task, for sure.

With multiple weather stations reporting current weather patterns on Darling Hill, CJ and his team are able to wait for optimal conditions  before breaking out the groomers and hitting the trails. It became quite clear that there is a science behind the craft. They look at when, why, and how the snow crystal forms, hardening into the perfect snow for grooming. This all equates to a firm surface with good grip for our wide knobby tires.

We continued along the singletrack rolling up and over little climbs and weaving through the forests of East Burke, revelling in how good the conditions

Fat tires and happy hounds love grippy snow.

were. Then, all of a sudden we were in a clearing,  surrounded by maple trees. A bonfire was set as the centerpiece to a spread of Vermont cheese, veggies, and fruit, complemented by hot maple syrup from UnTapped and crisp brews from Lawson’s Finest Liquids and Moat Mountain Brewery. But what truly set off the remote aid station was the gathering of several hundred of the coolest cyclists around.

People had come from all across the Northeast, from Philadelphia to Ottawa. As I made my way throughout the group, sparking up conversations, one common theme kept coming up. Everyone was there because, well, everyone was there. I know that sounds strange but let me explain: There is a certain culture shared among fat bikers, different from any other culture felt in the outdoor recreation world. It takes all the best parts of winter outdoor sports—overcoming the elements, enjoying the beautiful silence of the winter woods, finding harmony and balance between machine, body and conditions. That’s all there, but in the winter, that’s usually experienced alone, or with a small group. Fatbiking events bring all of that but they also throw on top the party-like atmosphere of mountain bike festivals, cyclocross races, and spring skiing events.

No place was this more evident than at the apres party held at the vendor village back on Darling Hill. As we made our way back up Heaven’s Bench and then back down to the Darling Hill event area, we could hear the music and smell the food cooking, all of which seemed to flatten the climb up as each pedal stroke got us closer to the festival finish.

Fatbikers hit the track at Kingdom Trails.

Winterbike doesn’t just come to an end, it comes to a grand finale, complete with a 6X fat bike race, which pits six riders racing against each other down a groomed slope with jumps, berms, and choke points. The beautiful carnage brought many of us back to the first section of singletrack where we, much like the racers, were tossed from our bikes into the soft snow along the edge, only to get up laughing and clamoring for more. As the 6X race came to a chaotic conclusion, the games began. A slow ride contest had riders, surrounded by the crowd in a tight circle, moving as slowly as possible, only to face elimination as soon as the rider put a foot down. This was followed by a limbo contest, which has to be one of the funniest things I’ve seen. Watching riders attempt to get their bike and themselves as low as they can on a parking area filled with slippery wet gravel, mud, snow and ice is like watching football players figure skating.

After all the laughs, high fives, good food and brews, I loaded my bike back into the van, threw on a warm sweatshirt and started my drive back home to New Hampshire. As the miles rolled past, I replayed all the fun in my mind’s eye, sparking grins again.

Winterbike is already on the calendar for 2020, for February 22nd. Come join me and 500 of the closest friends you’ve yet to meet.

Benjamin Hall, a.k.a, MTBBen, is the host of the podcast New England Dirt, which covers the trails, the culture, and the local flavor of life on, in, and around New England dirt riding.

Featured Photo Caption: Kingdom Trails’ 30 miles of groomed track took cyclists (and a few runners) across the open fields and past old barns of the Northeast Kingdom.

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