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Posted: May 20, 2014

Learn to mountain bike: Gear, lessons & extensive trails at Highland Mountain Bike Park, NH

Written by: mainetoday freelancer
On trail at Highland Mountain Bike Park in New Hampshire. Dave Smutok photo

On trail at Highland Mountain Bike Park in New Hampshire. Dave Smutok photo

By Darcy Cahill, freelancer

Knobby tires are taking over trails where skis and snowboards have reigned all winter. But at Highland Mountain Bike Park in Northfield, New Hampshire, the trails were made for mountain bikes – and mountain bikes only.

Now in its eighth season, Highland Mountain is a dedicated bike park that has convenient lift access, much like its ski mountain cousins. Experienced riders will certainly be challenged here, but the mountain is accessible to novices, too. In fact, they’re hoping the whole family will come out.

Recently they’ve added cross-country trails, a jump park, an “Ayr Bag,” and an indoor training center. Not sure what an Ayr Bag is? Check out this video.

The Ayr Bag. Ryan Thibault photo.

The Ayr Bag. Ryan Thibault photo.

If you’ve wanted to give mountain biking a try, but the potential for personal disaster has you hesitating, Highland Mountain offers classes and one-on-one lessons to get you started safely. And there are plenty of trails for the new mountain biker to tackle.

The bike shop in the main lodge is a good place to start your adventure. They have a line of super-sturdy full-suspension mountain bikes for rent, and these bikes are built for punishment. The guys in the shop – all experienced riders themselves – will fit you to a bike and tell you anything you want to know about trail conditions, lessons and what local beer is on tap in the bar upstairs.

While some people prefer to learn from their own experience, mountain biking newcomers can always sign up for Highland’s “Find your Ride” package, which includes a day pass, bike rental, protective gear, a one-hour lesson to learn fundamentals, and a top-to-bottom, one-on-one run with an instructor. The lesson focuses on five fundamentals that are important for beginners, but that can also help advanced riders develop their technique. The idea is that safety and control equates to fun on the trails.

Dave Smutok photo

Dave Smutok photo

Highland has easy green-square trails like Cat’s Paw, with it smooth, flowy ride, big wide berms and easy-to-negotiate obstacles. No need to jump on a black diamond trail before you’re ready (seriously, don’t do it until you’re ready).

Over the past three years, Highland has added more beginner trails and eight miles of cross-country single track. For these trails, riding a full-suspension bike with a lighter frame that can be peddled up and down hills is the way to go. Many prefer the cross-country workout and the challenges of riding single track to the challenges of downhilling. Spending some time on the newly constructed pump track – the smooth berms, tabletops and gap jumps – gives riders a place to practice their skills.

Ryan Thibault photo

Ryan Thibault photo

Highland also has a training center that allows riders to learn new tricks, like a full 360, without being hurt by wipeouts on hard ground. The training center has a massive foam pit with both a trick lip and a drop. Kara Chase, Highland’s marketing and promotions manager, says that the foam pit is the first step.

“Once a rider has practiced their new trick in the foam pit, they can then move to the Rezi Jump, which is made from hard foam. This is a great middle step before they take it to the dirt. The entire progression is meant to help riders gain the confidence and experience they need to develop their skills.”

Highland offers camps and events all summer long. They hold day long kids camps for the littlest shredders, four week-long Ayr Academy summer sessions (ages 12-18), an adult Ayer Academy, and a Women’s Freeride Festival. Instructors are all pro riders who teach at Highland between competitions.

Ryan Thibault photo

Ryan Thibault photo

There are also a number of sanctioned events at Highland, where you can sit on the deck of the main lodge and watch the pros while enjoying a cold beer: The Backyard Barbeque Jump Jam, the Big Jump Competition Finals and an Over Mountain Enduro Race, part of the Triple Crown East Coast Enduro race series. These races draw pro riders from across the country and spectators from all over New England.

Highland’s cafe serves a pretty mean pizza, breakfast burritos, salads and sandwiches, and smoothies. The bar offers a dozen beers on tap, bottled beers and a good selection of wine. (In town, two favorites of the staff are Green Ginger, which serves sushi and Chinese, and the Tilton House of Pizza, which will deliver pizza right to the Highland parking lot.)

So go ahead, shred that mountain. Or at least hit the trails, work up some dirt, and revel in your new-found mountain sport.

The Find Your Ride package (lift ticket, gear, bike and a lesson) is $99. If you have a bike, a lift ticket for the day is $40.

For more details on Highland Mountain Bike Park: highlandmountain.com

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