From Lehigh Valley Magazine, September/October 2011
Text and photography by Jadrian Klinger
THROUGH THE FOREST ON 2 WHEELS
THERE'S A TURNING POINT IN THE LIFE OF JUST ABOUT every kid - a defining moment that, at the time, seems like the most important obstacle to overcome. Through the lens of childhood, it's a rite of passage that guarantees an escape from the oppression of mere walking. It's a skill earned through the relentless practice of shrugging off the fear of falling. And once the shackles of training wheels break loose, the world seems so much larger. To pedal and glide on two wheels, cutting through the air, alongside friends or by yourself, represents the first great freedom of youth.
As an adult, it's easy to forget the importance of learning to ride a bicycle or even the simple pleasure of it. But there are those who remember well that initial spark of childhood joy, and, in some small way, they are able to recapture that feeling of freedom each time they grasp the handlebars and pedal away. Sure, a leisurely lap around the neighborhood on a cruising bike is nice and certainly an all-out speed test - complete with a skin-hugging, endorsement advertising, Lance Armstrong-like uniform - on a racing bike can be rewarding, but there's nothing quite as youthful and freeing as hurtling down a forest path, over rocks and around trees, on a mountain bike. And with the help, generosity and loaner bike provided by the Lehigh Valley's largest mountain biking club, Valley Mountain Bikers (VMB), I did just that. Re-experiencing a small taste of the moment I graduated from Big Wheel to bicycle was just a natural byproduct of my evening with the accomplished mountain bikers and, as I quickly learned, expert trail builders of VMB.
At the Walking Purchase Park Multi-Use Trail System in Salisbury, during a recent Wednesday Ride (one of VMB's most popular reoccurring club functions), the members of VMB took me on a tour through the world of cross-country mountain biking on the more than 10 miles of trail they built and maintain themselves. They were even kind enough to indulge my serious lack of mountain-biking skills.
So, without much hesitation, I strapped on a helmet (a wise club rule), hopped on a borrowed bike and did my best to remain upright. Over rocks, across small wooden bridges, around trees and down sloped dirt paths, I would like to say I raced, but it was closer to meandered, through the beautiful forest trail system. With a inner mantra of "front brake on the left, back brake on the right" running through my head to ensure that I wouldn't cause myself to go flying over the handlebars, I quickly realized just how much fun cross-country mountain biking is. I also quickly realized how out of shape I am. But the burning in my legs and the heavy breathing did not blind me to the undeniable appeal and adventure of mountain biking. Aside from my awkward pedaling and incessant braking, the stress-relief of absorbing the serene forest surroundings combined with physical exertion and the. adrenaline rush created a palpable wave of release from the worries and concerns of everyday life among the club's riders. By sharing this almost Zen-like weekly experience, the bond of camaraderie among the club's members stood out and seemed just as impressive as the trails running through the forest they constructed themselves.
Doug Pinkerton, who has been with VMB since its inception 12 years ago, knows well the powerful appeal and benefits of mountain biking. "The nature aspect, just being in the woods makes the difference," explains the 43-year-old former president of the club, now the project coordinator. "There is the adrenaline rush, there is the nature aspect, but I think having to pick your way through rocks or obstacles, it forces you to not think about what happened at work that day. It forces you to focus. In that way, people sort of compare it to meditation. And I'd be lying if I said that all the friends I have now are not the result of the people I met through riding. I can get sappy here, but the best people that I've met through the club - all my best friends - always come through for you when you need them to."
Current VMB president, Scott Stortz, shares the same sentiments for the club and for mountain biking. "It's just the thing that I look forward to the most," says the 39-year-old Bethlehem resident. "Wednesday is my favorite day of the week because of the Wednesday night rides. It also gives me something to look forward to on the weekends. The best people you're going to meet are here mountain biking, and they are all willing to help you - no matter what you want or need."
In all, VMB boasts about 160 paid club members. Dedicated to promoting mountain biking in the Lehigh Valley area through organizing rides and building and maintaining trails, VMB hosts weekly rides, destination trips, an annual club party and the Take a Kid Mountain Biking Day event.
For VMB, the same passion that fuels their desire to ride extends to their commitment to building and maintaining sustainable trails. With more than 6,000 total man hours and at zero cost to any municipality or other organization, from 2004 to 2009, VMB transformed the Walking Purchase Park in Salisbury Township. Thanks to VMB, what was once known as a haven for trash dumping and a beacon for illicit activity is now a safe and vibrant park filled with 10 miles of trails for all to enjoy.
"It's funny, there's a birding book that references the exotic species that you can view here [at Walking Purchase Park]," says Pinkerton. "This goes back several years, but it says to be aware that the park is a little dicey. So it had a history prior to our presence. Honestly, if this had been seven years ago, you would have seen trash dumped all along the road. Now, there's females running here by themselves - I see that all the time. What does that tell you? It's a dramatic difference. The neighbors see it, and at the township meetings about the park, they say, 'You guys are the best thing
that's ever happened to the park.' We made this a reputable place now. People come here for the right reasons. When they leave here, they're going in to town - getting dinner, getting lunch. They're frequenting local bike shops. That's a big part of the untold story here: the effect it has on the local economy. I think some local officials get it, and I think more will. Eco-tourism is a big thing, and there's no reason why we can't have that here in the Lehigh Valley."
Stortz adds, "It's really rewarding. It really is. It's really great to add trails to the area. People ride them, and we get a lot of compliments - not just from mountain bikers. All the trails that we build are for hikers, walking, trail running and dog walking - stuff like that. We get tremendous compliments from those groups of people. In fact, we almost get more compliments from them."
To VMB, mountain biking is much more than just about pedaling and gliding through the forest for fun; it's about community and camaraderie, adrenaline and adventure, exercise and mental wellbeing, the beauty of nature and the notion of leaving something better off than you found it. And underneath it all lives the flashes of freedom and the sparks of youth that were born when they first learned to ride a bicycle.
"Mountain biking is like life," explains VMB club member Mike Venturini. "With enough speed and momentum and focus on what's in front of you - despite what you can do or what you can't - you can roll over and roll through everything."