LINCOLN - There were happy whoops and speed-induced grins along the new lift-serviced downhill mountain biking trails at Loon Mountain last weekend, as the resort made its official return to downhill biking after a 17-year hiatus.
“This has been a long time coming,” said Loon President and General Manager Jay Scambio just prior to the official trail opening. “It’s been quite the endeavor.”
Reintroducing downhill mountain biking has been on Loon’s radar for a few years, and Scambio noted the resort’s location between two well-established and successful downhill biking venues at Burke Mountain in Vermont and at the Highland Mountain Bike Park in Northfield.
Loon first introduced downhill mountain biking in 1989, but Kevin Bell, the resort’s vice president of marketing, said the new trails are vastly different from that first version.
“It’s nothing like it was before,” he said, noting the downhill biking options of the 1990s consisted of descending from the summit of Loon Peak primarily along bumpy, gravel work roads. “That experience only lent itself to expert riders and did not offer beginners or intermediates a great experience.”
The new trails are designed to be fun for riders of various levels, and opening weekend saw families mixing in with expert riders to cruise three miles of double track with sweet rollers and banked turns — from tight to mellow — down the mountain.
The construction of Loon’s mountain biking trails is an ongoing endeavor, which Scambio said will ultimately lead to some 25 miles of downhill and cross-country trails across the resort.
The three trails open now — Mainline, Bandit, and Spur — are part of Phase One of the development. The trails are rated for difficulty in the same way as ski trails: green circle, blue square, or black diamond. All three initial trails are in the green range, with the 1.6-mile Mainline and the 0.4-mile Spur classified as “green freeride” trails and the 1-mile Bandit a “green technical” trail.
Rob Bevier, Loon’s director of snowsports and summer activities, likened the freeride trails to a groomed green circle ski trail – nice and smooth, not too steep.
The technical trail, he said, is like a green circle ski trail on powder day after the snow’s been chopped up and is more lumpy than smooth. The “technical” designation means a bike trail is slightly narrower and may retain some of the rocks and roots that have been groomed out of a “freeride” trail.
Phase One also includes a blue technical trail, Steam Punk, which is slated to open this month.
Phase Two, planned for next year, includes the addition of five or six more intermediate trails. Loon’s long-range plan calls for future expansion of the downhill trail network toward the high-speed Kanc Quad chairlift.
For now, downhillers may access the trails via the Seven Brothers Triple chair, adjacent to the gondola.
The addition of downhill mountain biking at Loon means visitors will have another recreational option during the non-snowy season. It also means more employees will make the shift from seasonal positions to year-round jobs.
Loon contracted with Highland Trails LLC, which built and maintains the Highland Mountain Bike Park in Northfield, to design and construct the downhill trails. To build Phase One of the project, Loon also engaged members of its Park Operations crew and other winter employees.
“This year, we were able to extend seven winter team members into year-round positions,” said Bell, adding that in the future, Loon would add year-round positions in departments to include patrol, lessons, and rentals.
Construction of Phase One began in May with crews flagging where the trails would be built and clearing trees along the route. Next, excavators churned up the ground along the route to put drainage in place where necessary, move large rocks, set berms, and lay the path for the trails.
During the final step of construction, the crew worked with shovels, rakes, and compactors to complete shaping of each trail and create a consistent firm surface.
Maintenance of the trails will be ongoing. “Daily maintenance is essential to keeping a photo-ready surface, which our winter terrain parks are known for,” said Bell. “This involves working with hand tools to smooth out bumps and imperfections in the surface. Trail surface and conditions are monitored throughout the day.”
Beginner to advanced fun
Mountain biking is enjoying a resurgence throughout the region. Trail networks in Franconia, Gorham, and Littleton are part of the fledgling tri-state, international Bike the Borderlands initiative. Other groups, like the Bethlehem Trails Association, are developing multi-use, non-motorized trails with strong support from bikers.
Scambio and Bell both said it was important for Loon to embrace beginner downhill riders from the start, which is why Phase One comprises beginner and intermediate trails. But those trails can also be fun and challenging for more experienced riders.
“I like going downhill. I like going fast,” said Scambio. “I have a family, too, and we can all be doing this.”
Opening weekend saw a variety of skill levels on the trails, and Bell said it was a successful launch of Loon’s newest outdoor recreational initiative.
“On opening day, I saw a family of five, with kids ages 8-12 roughly, arrive at 10 a.m. to ride,” said Bell. “And they were still riding up until last chair at 4:40 p.m.
“That was such a gratifying experience for me. It told me that we have hit our mark in creating an exhilarating mountain biking experience for all ages.”