Blazing a (Bike) Trail
Jennifer Sutton


Dec. 1, 2017 — On the edge of campus next to NMH’s water tower, there’s a narrow trail leading into the woods. It loops back and forth, weaves among the trees, and — for NMH’s resident mountain bikers — it’s a DIY project to be pretty proud of.

“A dedicated mountain bike trail is something we’ve been hoping for, and we’re excited about the chance to build our own,” says Riley Humphrey ’19, a member of the outdoor team.

“We have miles of multi-use trails on campus, but they’re mostly geared toward walkers, runners, snowshoers, and skiers,” says Steve Allison, who runs NMH’s Outdoor Program and coaches the outdoor team. Mountain bikers prefer a different kind of trail — the more downed trees, steep slopes, and rock piles, the better. “These students are trying to use the landscape to play, not just to get from here to there,” Allison says.

The NMH bike trail is a work in progress. Allison started designing, raking, and shoveling last summer, and the outdoor team joined him for work sessions in the fall. They cleared out leaves and other organic material; dug down to the mineral soil, which makes a firmer riding surface than topsoil; and built features such as tabletops — flat-topped mini-hills — and long, rounded ridges called berms. “A mountain-bike trail should feel flowy and swooping, like you’re surfing the landscape with your bike,” Allison says.

The trail is currently less than a mile long, but the goal is to create a five-kilometer loop by next fall, so the outdoor team can use it for time trials as they prepare for bike races. Acting as builders as well as bikers provides valuable lessons for the students, according to Allison. Every step of the way, they have to consider not only what landscaping techniques will make the trail fun, but also what will make it sustainable. How, for example, will rainwater behave on the trail? What design techniques will help prevent washouts and erosion?

Outdoor team member Lars Andrews ’19 says he likes “learning about the physics of biking, like what turns would work best, and how big the jumps should be.” “We’ve made some really nice terrain,” adds Humphrey. “It’s a good basic trail that any mountain biker could ride.” But Andrews and Humphrey, both experienced bikers, agree: The trail needs more jumps. “That’s our priority,” Andrews says.

Allison takes a somewhat longer view, beyond biking. “The students are out in the woods, noticing things they don’t normally see,” such as trees and soil, he says. “They’re thinking, ‘What materials do we have, what can we make with them, and how will it hold up?’”

(Photo: David Warren)