Without a Peak In Sight: No Mountains, But Mountain Bikers Thrive

By Timothy Bolger
Long Island Press http://www.longislandpress.com/index...239&a_id=10226
November 9, 2006

Cautiously navigating the loose dirt trail atop a 100-plus-foot cliff, with train tracks below and more cliff above, Dave Bush pedals his mountain bike deftly through a jagged line of young oak trees. He’s sure not to look down and be reminded of the risk of falling, but when his back tire slips on an eroding strip of sand beneath him, he recovers quickly and continues pacing his descent.

“We look for rocks. It’s like finding an Easter egg,” says the 32-year-old Northport resident, reaching the bottom of the hill after hopping a section of large rocks and ducking a low tree branch before cutting a tight corner and arriving at ground level. Wiping the sweat off his brow and guzzling a gulp of Gatorade, Bush catches his breath and waits for his riding buddies before he rolls under the railroad overpass and picks up the next stretch of trail with a grunt. A long uphill climb lies ahead.

“I’d rather mountain bike than do anything else,” says Bush, who hits the trails four to five times weekly and frequents the racing circuit.

This isn’t Mount Snow in Vermont, where the skiers and snowboarders of winter are replaced by speeding, mud-caked downhill mountain bikers come summer. It’s not even the Adirondacks in Upstate New York, where the same scene unfolds after the snow melts. This is a part of Long Island seen only by adventurous souls who don’t mind the taste of dirt and sweat-seasoned PowerBars. It is a well-traveled path, worn from the elements as well as the passage of bikers. The only break from the sounds of nature is the clickety clack of the train to Port Jefferson passing through.

The spot Bush passes is where two trails converge: the loop at the Stillwell Woods Preserve and the Nassau/Suffolk Greenbelt Trail, which runs from Massapequa Preserve to Cold Spring Harbor. The intersection epitomizes everything that Concerned Long Island Mountain Bicyclists (CLIMB) fights for.

The advocacy group, formed in 1990, aims to educate the mountain-biking
community on environmentally sound and socially responsible trail use.

“Mountain biking is different than any other sport, [in that] a town will just give you a baseball field if you want to play baseball,” says Michael Vitti, president of CLIMB. Acquiring a bike trail requires that the group lobby, plan, build and maintain the trail, he says, a task that requires working closely with environmental groups and parks officials—not to mention the occasional battle with developers.

“We’re trying to create an exciting alternative to fast food and video games for kids,” says Vitti, a thin, salt-and-pepper-haired and goatee-sporting carpenter and biker. Despite the potential dangers involved in zooming through rough and jagged terrain, it is hearty exercise, and not all trails are designed to require expert skills.

Stillwell is the flagship trail of CLIMB, where local racers practice and where rookies can read detailed signage teaching trail etiquette on a beginner loop that opened last season. The Greenbelt Trail, however, is an achievement in multilayered governmental cooperation, as it passes through state, county and town parks in its approximately 22-mile journey across LI’s midsection. CLIMB spends about $10,000 annually to maintain the approximately 100 miles of dirt paths spread across eight trails on LI with the help of volunteers within the 500-plus-member organization.

Beyond LI, the International Mountain Bicycling Association (IMBA), a nonprofit umbrella group for CLIMB, lists New Yorkers as the third largest population of IMBA members in the country, following Colorado and California. Although strength comes in numbers, mountain bikers still face hurdles.

“A lot of times we get a bad rep,” says Vitti, a 49-year-old father of five from Plainview who rides to keep in shape for his true passion: surfing. “It’s really just cross country,” he says, pointing to the obvious lack of any actual mountains on LI. But to take on the expert path in Stillwell, parts of which are dubbed The Snake Pit and Log Flume, is to believe that hilly North Shore forests may be as challenging as navigating Gore Mountain Upstate.

“What we don’t have on LI we make up for by introducing obstacles,” says Kevin Moriarty, an IMBA representative for the region and former CLIMB president. “You can’t ride cross country on a mountain.”

Hilltoppers

Whether it’s the after-work 9-to-5 crowd, weekend warriors or a gang of hard-riding kids, the trails often beat with a pulse of their own. Although some are riding only for exercise, and take their time over the roots, rocks and rolling inclines, the paths are also training grounds for racers who compete in Tri-State- area contests.

“This trail never lets up,” says Danny Habig, who plans on racing for each weekend through the end of the quickly approaching season. The New Hyde Park sport class racer, a notch above beginner and below professional, races against his own time at Stillwell; a few bikers, alongside him on a recent sunny late afternoon, are simply there for the fun of a group ride.

With a mere posting on the CLIMB message board and 48 hours notice, Vitti was able to get about 10 riders together on a recent Friday afternoon. Along the way, he eagerly recalls the hundreds of volunteer hours spent building and rebuilding portions of the trail. “I come up with the ideas and these guys make it a reality,” Vitti says. He reveals a new “rock garden,” a 50-foot alternate stretch, comprised of several dozen tight-knit boulders. This route is strictly for the brave and the limber.

Habig and Bush are each CLIMB volunteers as well. Others on the ride sport the requisite garb: shorts, splashy jersey, sunglasses, a helmet with sun visor, and a camel pack, a backpack with a tube for easy access, to make hydrating while biking easier. Each bike is worth more than many used cars.

“When you play golf, you bring golf clubs. When you go mountain biking, you bring the accessories,” Bush says, as his justification. But this is a culture of its own, with clear lines between the “roadies,” the strictly spandex-clad bikers who stick to the streets. Mountain bikers paint roadies as elitist neurotics who patronize them. This joking ironically takes place after the ride, on the freshly paved parking lot at the Stillwell trailhead. Before today, the lot was the same as the trail: mud and dirt with plenty of ruts.

Another biker, Joe DiBernardo, reflects on daylong, 30-plus-mile childhood bike trips fueled by cheese-drenched 7-Eleven hot dogs. “If I ate that now I’d have a heart attack,” he says with a laugh, but tells a story the others can relate to: negotiating with his parents as a child to get a faster bike.

“When I first got into biking, my dad said, ‘You ride that bike a lot now, but when you get a car you’re going to put it in the shed and it’s going to rust,’” DiBernardo recalls now, more than 10 years later, riding the newer bike he’s lusted after for years. “But then it was the complete opposite: I started riding more because I could get to more trails.”

Have trail, will travel

Aside from the intertwining Greenbelt and Stillwell trails, there are more than a half dozen off-road biker byways on the Island, with new additions added regularly. From the south, the Greenbelt begins at Trail View State Park in Massapequa Preserve, continues into the trails at Bethpage State Park (where there are also many tangents) and connects with Stillwell in Syosset. Suffolk has much more to offer, however. To the east, there are enough routes to keep a biker busy for a week straight.

Cathedral Pines, a Suffolk County park with a 6-mile beginner loop and about 5 miles of optional, more challenging single-track (one-way) trails marked with a black diamond, is a popular spot in Yaphank. With the ride weaving through Pine Barrens, over 3-foot-tall log and dirt piles called “moguls” and over balance beams carved from fallen trees, parts of this path are designated as
intermediate.

Further east, some trails require that riders apply for a free permit to ride, on land managed by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC). Rocky Point is likely the most utilized of such trails, and is arguably one of the best on the Island. Although closed from Nov. 1 to Jan. 31 for hunting season, it has been expanded over the years to be nearly 13 miles long; parts are wide, two-way family friendly paths, while others are advanced, for riders who like challenges.

Jumps in certain stretches of this trail attract bicycle motocross (BMX) racers because the moguls are so steep and close together. All trails are broken down into segments and given a moniker reflecting their difficulty level. With labels like Half Pipe, Waterbottle Hill (for its tendency for bikers to lose their bottles), and Log Jam, even experienced riders should take caution.

Even further east are two more DEC trails: one in Eastport and one in Calverton. Each is more than 8 miles and designated beginner/intermediate, with Calverton having 1 1/2 miles of advanced hill climbs. These two aren’t as busy as Rocky Point, but when it closes, the two are used more, CLIMB leaders say.

There are additional trails in Hither Hills and Setauket that CLIMB isn’t as involved with, but when CLIMB opened a new intermediate-to-advanced single track at Glacial Ridge Nature Preserve in Brookhaven this past summer, options continued to grow.

Among the biggest news on new trails this year is the first-ever mountain bike facility in New York City, being built with the assistance of CLIMB and community groups in Queens. Cunningham Park had been dubbed a lost cause after its backwoods were overrun by riders on three- or four-wheeled all-terrain vehicles (ATVs), but work is now about 75 percent complete, Vitti says. After Bikes Belong Coalition, a national bike advocacy group, awarded CLIMB a $10,000 grant to build trails in Queens, additional not-for-profits such as GreenApple Corps, an AmeriCorps urban environmental initiative of the New York City parks department, volunteered to help build the trails.

On a recent weekend, aided by a legion of volunteers, Vitti directs the trailblazers. He carefully maps every inch of trail, getting approval by park biologists to be sure no endangered animals or fragile plant life is trampled. After flagging the course, workers come in with shovels and rakes to pave the way, so to speak. And all is funded by non-profits, at no cost to taxpayers.

“Without the Green Apple Corps, I would have been burned out on volunteers a long time ago,” Vitti adds. With their help, the course is becoming a reality, with about 600 feet of trail being built a day. After the trail is completed, he has to create signage, map the trail and finalize the route with the parks department legal department. But even before this stage there is a lot to consider.

Vitti and CLIMB are also helping to build a trail in Manhattan, at Highbridge Park in Washington Heights. It is only about 30 percent complete and will include a BMX track, but the task is a bit taller. So far, Vitti says, workers have cleaned up more than 1,300 hypodermic needles at the site.

holy rollers

“We learned a long time ago not to build trails that ATV riders like,” Vitti says. Paths get ripped up by the off-road vehicles and the ensuing erosion causes irreversible damage, making trails unbike-able.

That concern is ironic, considering the perception, which interests such as CLIMB are trying to shake, that it’s mountain bikers doing the damage. “Everyone looked at mountain bikers like they were motorcycle riders, and that’s not what we’re about,” says IMBA’s Moriarty, noting how little damage biking really does to trail environs compared to ATV riders.

Runoff can do a lot of damage, Vitti adds. “We also learned long ago not to build steep trails,” Vitti says, noting how the rain is also detrimental if the trail isn’t built with foresight.

Certain inclines may appear to be simply fun to ride, but on closer inspection, “rolling grade dips,” says Vitti, a strategic washout for water placed every 75 yards on a downslope, prevents erosion and puddles. Following the contours of the land, instead of building a trail straight up or down a hill, is important as well, Vitti says. Certain portions of older trails, like sandy stretches of the Greenbelt, are examples of what bad trail building can produce over time.

Trail maintenance can stave off larger ecological issues as well. CLIMB has partnered with The Nature Conservancy, an environmental preservation group, so that trail volunteers can now identify invasive plant species and alert parks authorities. Volunteers have since discovered both Mile-a-minute vine and Porcelain-berry along the Greenbelt. Each species smothers native plant life and disrupts the habitat.

All of these perks are a long time coming, however. Local advocates have been working for nearly two decades to gain credibility and garner support. “We’re trying to make Long Island a mountain-biking destination,” Vitti says.

While fishing, camping and beach-going may be the traditional ways to enjoy nature on LI, the call of the wild can also include biking through it. And for many preserve passageways, it’s the only way.

For more information on LI mountain biking trails, go to www.climbonline.org, www.visionmtb.com or for local races go to www.dirtyevents.com.