Last Friday, Paul L and I hit a brand new trail network over in Charlemont, MA. Some riders may be familiar with this area as being part of the Hilltowns road race or D2R2 randonnee. The terrain is steep. Charlemont Trails will be hosting a grand opening next weekend, and you can learn more about it on their Facebook page (scroll down for hi-rez maps).
I knew of the efforts at Charlemont for some time from NEMBA's Singletracks magazine. When Paul suggested we check it out on my off-Friday, I jump at the chance despite forecasted oppressive heat. Armed with maps and some play-by-play directions from Harold G, we headed off into the woods.
I kind of chuckled at the average pace of some of the Strava tracks I looked at from these trails. I think none of them averaged over 5mph. Plus Harold's estimated times for various loops and segments seemed extremely generous for "advanced" riders such as Paul and I. I figured we could cover the whole system in three hours.
It didn't take long to realize we were in for a hard day. Did I say the terrain was steep out there? Climbing was rarely less than double-digit grade. The tight trails partially benchcut into extremely steep slopes forced you to 100% concentrate on the trail. There wasn't fear of death exposure, but you'd certainly go for a long slide or tumble if you slipped off in many places. It seemed like for the first hour we did nothing but climb and we hadn't even rode five miles yet!
Many of you may be familiar with the phase "on the rivet." Way back, saddles were covered with leather riveted to the base. There was often a rivet at the nose of the saddle. When a rider was said to be "on the rivet", it meant they were head down, in time-trail position, forward on the saddle, going all-out. Well, climbing steep-ass grades puts you "on the rivet" for a different reason. If you don't keep your weight low enough and far enough forward, you end up wheelying over or losing steering control. Thus you must slide so far ahead on the saddle that it violates your nether regions. I must say the persistent, steep climbing at Charlemont left me with some taint damage.
Navigation was challenging even though the map was awesome. The only problem was there were not enough markings on the ground to orient one's self. Plus, there were more paths on the ground than on the map, thus you never knew if you were taking the right one or not. I'm sure it is obvious to the locals which path not to take, but to first timers, not obvious at all. We were constantly stopping to look at the map, back track, forward track, backtrack, then try another way. After a while, we just rode our freakin bikes.
One thing that is very easy to implement and provides huge navigational aid is to put waypoint markers at junctions. It only takes a small number on a tree and the map to do this. This would be more beneficial than the smattering of trail name signs in place now. Unique numbers provide absolute position on a map. That with a slight sense of direction goes a long way in allowing one to navigate.
After reaching the height of land on the north side of Rt 2, we were hopefully in for some real treats heading back down. The trails we planned to hit were Red Zone, TV Tower, West Side and more. Some of these trails are unidirectional. The descending was good, but it wasn't the kind of fast, flowy descent you would hope for after methodically picking your way up for over an hour. The trail tread quite literally follows the nap of the earth. The undulations were quite fierce and required great focus to not get pitched over the bars. It was definitely a different kind of riding style than what I'm accustomed to.
Then there were the switchbacks. I pretty much suck at them. Paul was on a 29er dualie with a much longer wheel base than my 26" bike. Yeah, that pretty much made up for my suckiness. After Paul went "wide" on one particularly tight 180, I managed to stay ahead of him for the next dozen turns or so. This section was fun. You still couldn't let speed run out, but the every present risk of slipping over the edge, clipping a tree, or botching a switchback created a nice adrenaline factor. I bet we rode over a hundred 180-degree switchbacks while there that day.
After topping off water at the Zoar Outdoor Center where we parked (get permission to park there), we headed across Rt 2 to ride the Berkshire East trails. Route following looked easier, but I was quickly imploding due to heat and intervals workout earlier in the week. Plan was to head up Bozrah and Hawks, then down E. Stranged Moose and Billy's World. Didn't look like this loop got much traffic. The climb nearly killed me, but the descent was quite sweet, around 800ft drop on very narrow singletrack with tons of switchbacks. It was a pretty good way to cap off the ride.
So my GPS showed about 21mi in 3.8hrs moving time. That is the slowest MTB ride I think I ever engaged in. And it kicked my butt. So what's my overall impression of the Charlemont Trails? The area has huge potential. We did not ride everything there despite riding nearly 4hrs and spending well over 5hrs out on the trails. Marking needs improvement and may be a work in progress. Grand opening isn't until this weekend, after all. The trails could use some more buffing out too, to achieve more flow. There is a trend towards flow these days, although that can take great effort to achieve in New England terrain. Would I go back? Yeah, probably, armed with solid GPS track and more victims in tow. You have to bring your A-game climbing legs to really enjoy Charlemont. I haven't ridden anything quite like Charlemont in New England, so check it out if you want to try something unique.