Wheel life

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

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 we are lucky to have such a unique and diverse expanse of wilderness at our recreational disposal. 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.

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.

“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.

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