Three city girls take on mountain biking at New Hampshire’s Waterville Valley.
The White Mountains cover the northernmost quarter of the state of New Hampshire and a small section of western Maine. Part of the Appalachian Trail, they contain the highest peak in the northeastern United States: Mount Washington, which stands over six thousand feet.
“Plus,” my friend Jenn intones as she reads from our guidebook, “they’re considered the ‘most rugged mountains in all of New England.’” We are making our way out of Boston in rush-hour traffic one Friday evening after work — three city girls heading into the wilderness for the weekend.
“I hope we see a moose,” I say. We have read that they are ungainly but majestic animals. In the backseat, crowded amongst our duffle bags and backpacks and food supplies (sesame crackers, sharp cheddar, a bag of kettle corn, a bottle of red wine), our third, Rebecca, laughs. The only one of us who grew up hiking in the woods and paddling a canoe through the marshes of Massachusetts’ South Shore, she is amused by our inexperience with the out of doors.
The next morning, waking up in our cozy suite at the Golden Eagle Lodge in Waterville Valley, near the entrance to the White Mountains, it is Rebecca who convinces us to try mountain biking. We have raised the window blinds to a fantastic view of the surrounding peaks, their rolling contours revealed in the full sunshine of early morning. It is late summer, and our lodging includes an array of warm-weather activities from which we can choose: nine holes of golf, canoe or kayak rental, clay-court tennis, or mountain biking. Jenn and I have never tried mountain biking before, but Rebecca assures us this is not a problem. “Just wear long pants,” she says, pointing a finger at my bare shins, “in case you fall off.”
Jenn raises an eyebrow in my direction. She is used to wearing suits and high heels everyday as a director at a big insurance company in the city. I am more of a jeans and flip-flops girl, myself, but I know that riding my bike to the farmer’s market in my neighborhood doesn’t exactly qualify me as an outdoorswoman.
Before breakfast, we check in with the guys at the Waterville Valley Adventure Center, who wear five o’clock shadows and are remarkably laid back about the adventure we are about to undertake. “We’ll get some bikes together for you,” one tells us. “Just come back in a little while.” He can tell what we’ll need just by looking at us, evidently, and sure enough, having fortified ourselves with coffee and biscuits from the Coffee Emporium upstairs, we return to find three bikes at the ready. The helmets we select from a shelf, and Rebecca shows us how to put them on. One of the guys gives us directions from the Adventure Center past the tennis courts and the golf course to the chairlift at Snow’s Mountain.
The bike park on this mountain contains more than thirty miles of trails — including parts of a cross-country ski trail network, along with old logging roads, fire roads and hiking paths. The pamphlet we’re given describes “gnarly singletrack” routes down the face of the mountain, but we opt for the “more relaxed” Livermore Road trail. The friendly man behind the counter at the lift traces the route for us on a map and offers to take our picture with our bikes. He can tell we’re not locals.
A small group of other bikers lines up for the lift, and one by one our bikes go up first, fastened onto the sides of empty seats by agile young staffers. I realize this is only the second time in my life I’ve ridden a chairlift (the first having been on an awkward school trip in junior high), so Jenn goes with me, and Rebecca gets a seat all to herself. As the lift brings us higher, we gain a better and better vantage on the stunning views of the seven 4,000-foot peaks that surround the valley. They look green and blue with fluffy white clouds that float above them in an azure sky. Improbably, we begin to hear strains of an operatic aria — being sung, it turns out, by the man who unfastens our bikes at the top of the mountain.
The trail starts off steep and rocky, and we work to control the bikes and keep from tipping over as we make our way single-file down this rather vertical stretch. But soon enough, the trail opens up, and though I have visions of running right into a large boulder and being tossed over my handlebars, it never happens. The terrain is varied, and despite warnings about mud from recent rainfall, it only materializes in low-lying areas that I maneuver through more slowly.
Mountain biking is a different way of being in the woods — rather than peering into the greenery as I would do while hiking, I am focused squarely on the ground in front of my front tire. It’s not the sound of animals scampering through the underbrush that I’m listening to but the whoosh of the wind in my ears and the ping of stones off my spokes. There is no way to look out for a moose.
Jenn is a good distance ahead of me, and Rebecca is out of sight by now at the head of our small pack. But soon we meet at a wooden bridge where we stop to lean our bikes against a railing and watch teenage boys jumping from a piece of earth that makes a platform above an icy stream, fed by water from the mountain. My chain has chewed a ragged hole in the left leg of my pants, and our backs are spattered with mud. But the air has that cool, crisp feel of late summer and early fall in New England, and the sun continues to shine.
Back on our bikes, the trail becomes a gently sloping path for a stretch and then picks us speed as we descend more vertically again. I realize that I’m gripping the brakes less, allowing myself to go faster, trusting the bike to carry me over bumpy patches, trusting myself to negotiate around bigger rocks. As we all gain confidence, we ride faster, letting out whoops of glee as the woods fly by in a blur. The final part of the trail takes us onto a paved road, and suddenly I miss the excitement of the dirt path.
By the time we return to Waterville Valley’s Town Center to turn in our rental bikes, we are as giddy with adventure and covered in dirt and sweat as good bikers should be — three city girls with fresh mountain air on our faces. Ж
For more information on mountain biking at Waterville, go towww.waterville.com, or call the Adventure Center at (603)-236-4666. Mountain biking season runs from the end of May through mid-October. Daily trail passes begin at $6, and adult bike rentals start at $25 for a half day.