The Charlottesville area is gaining traction as a premier mountain biking destination

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Current Charlottesville Area Mountain Biking Club President Sam Lindblom helped form Monticello High’s mountain biking club when his son started school there two years ago. Today, Western Albemarle, Albemarle and Charlottesville high schools have teams as well. Photo by Sanjay Suchak Current Charlottesville Area Mountain Biking Club President Sam Lindblom helped form Monticello High’s mountain biking club when his son started school there two years ago. Today, Western Albemarle, Albemarle and Charlottesville high schools have teams as well. Photo by Sanjay Suchak

As an avid mountain biker, Dave Stackhouse immediately started looking for like-minded riders when he relocated from Maine to Charlottesville in 2007. The search quickly led the 68-year-old veteran mountain biker to what was then a relatively new area organization, the Charlottesville Area Mountain Biking Club.

“The club had been formed in 2003 out of a growing necessity to create an organization that could integrate and represent the interests of the area’s mountain biking community,” says Stackhouse. “When I joined, it was just sort of getting its sea legs. We had about 40 members, and our activities were pretty limited.”

While the group had worked to construct a few trails at Walnut Creek and Panorama Farms—which is no longer open to mountain bikers—by Stackhouse’s estimation, most weren’t up to snuff. “At that point, we had no real background in trail-building, so those ‘legacy’ trails were installed in a way that we’d now call ‘not up to spec.’”

Furthermore, the efforts had largely been spearheaded by enthusiastic individuals or bike shops, and therefore lacked coherency. What was missing was a comprehensive, long-term vision, and a step-by-step strategy for implementation.

Stackhouse, a lifelong mountain biker who rode with several groups in Maine, landed a seat on the group’s board within a year. In 2010, he became president of the organization.

“I guess I sort of brought an outsider’s perspective to the table, which was probably attractive,” says Stackhouse.

Dave Stackhouse, a lifelong mountain biker, led the Charlottesville Area Mountain Biking Club to become involved in local trail building and maintenance. Photo by Sanjay Suchak

Upon joining the board, one of Stackhouse’s first moves was to advocate for acquiring chapter status through the International Mountain Biking Organization. Becoming a representative of the IMBA, the unifying body for mountain bikers worldwide, would instantaneously legitimize the organization. Additionally, having formed in 1988, the group would provide CAMBC with a wealth of resources, training and mentorship.

“They’ve been around for a long time and are very active in helping chapters implement sustainability standards for trail-building, as well as coaching them through developing the kind of local partnerships with city, county, public and sometimes private entities, which will allow for land use,” says Stackhouse. “They’re a huge advocate for the sport, and a conduit for putting that knowledge to use.”

After securing chapter status under Stackhouse’s leadership, CAMBC quickly adopted sustainability standards for trail-making. Members underwent training and learned how to create trail systems that would provide users with the most enjoyable ride, while having no adverse effect on the environment. Meanwhile, CAMBC beefed up its outreach. The group started emailing more newsletters, developed social media platforms and began hosting open rides and dinners on a weekly basis for riders of all skill-levels, beginners included.

A main goal was to get more kids riding, and to let families know how easy and fun the sport was. In short, all you need is a bike and a helmet. “A lot of people think that you need really fancy equipment and have to go blazing through the woods at breakneck speed, hitting jumps or something like that, but it really isn’t the case,” says Stackhouse. Mostly, it’s about getting into the woods, getting some exercise and enjoying nature. “If you want to buy a really nice bike and go fast, of course, there’s that option,” he adds. “But you certainly don’t have to. And that’s something we wanted people to know.”

Simultaneously, the organization launched a campaign to reach out to local nonprofits and organizations. Cultivating relationships with UVA, the City of Charlottesville, Albemarle County, Fluvanna County and elsewhere became a priority.

“The idea was to educate these organizations and the public at large, letting them know that we existed, were willing to do the legwork to create and maintain networks of sustainable trails and, in turn, how those trails would benefit the community at large,” says Stackhouse.

CAMBC volunteers compiled comparative data, created PowerPoints and verbal presentations, and met with a number of officials, ranging from folks at the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation and UVA, to various Parks & Recreation representatives and more. After four years of hardcore planning and legwork, their labor paid off. By 2012, CAMBC had procured numerous Memorandums of Understanding—which Stackhouse describes as a kind of legal handshake between organizations—wherein CAMBC was granted permission to modify, create and maintain trails on various properties.

But early in the summer of 2012, the derecho came through and more-or-less demolished the entire area trail system. “There were trees down everywhere, and the work required to get it all up and running again was tremendous,” says Stackhouse. In seeing the forest through the trees, so to speak, he saw the opportunity to create a community partnership with the Rivanna Trails Foundation. The mountain biking organization had amassed a hundreds-strong email list and could easily pull together 50 volunteers for a given day of work, Stackhouse says. So he offered help in fixing area trails and making them sustainable.

After RTF agreed, CAMBC members and associates attacked the project with vigilance. While removing the trees, they fixed trouble spots on the trail. “There were multiple sections that, due to erosion and poor planning, had become dangerous, and were yielding injuries,” says Stackhouse. “As we cleaned up, we rerouted and fixed these. Sometimes, it was a quarter-mile stretch, sometimes 100 yards. It took many, many hours, and a whole lot of patience.”

The end result was two-fold. On the one hand, erosion was put into check, and a more nature- and user-friendly trail system was created. On the other, impressed with CAMBC’s diligence and its offer to take over maintenance of the system, the RTF decided to allow biking on its trails.

“Before that, sure, people were riding out there, but they were doing it illegally,” says Stackhouse. “What that agreement did was establish a 35-mile network of pristine, perfectly sustainable trails for riders right here in the city. Now, you can commute, take the kids out or get off from a hard day of work and jump right on the trail. It gave us access to trail riding right outside our back doors, which is something not a lot of cities have. It’s unique, and very special.”

The partnership sent a message: Charlottesville was ready to define itself as a full-on bike-friendly community. With the Rivanna Trail serving as a pilot of sorts, it became much easier for CAMBC to secure rights to other properties. And as more and more trails were installed in parks throughout the area, more and more people began to ride, creating momentum in the biking community.

Interscholastic revolution

Simultaneous to Stackhouse’s taking the helm of CAMBC, other seeds for the area’s mountain biking future were being planted. In 2010, having accepted a post teaching English at the Miller School of Albemarle, 36-year-old UVA graduate Peter Hufnagel pitched a revolutionary idea.

“I’d ridden on the UVA cycling team throughout college and my wife, Andrea Dvorak, was racing professionally, both as a road cyclist and a mountain biker,” says Hufnagel. “So, I understood better than most the realities of a young person trying to become a top-tier cyclist—it’s very, very hard. Support is typically minimal, and that makes it tough to excel. Meanwhile, I was working at this small, very progressive school and thought, ‘Why don’t we try to develop the world’s premier high school cycling program?’”

In retrospect, he admits the idea was a bit ambitious, but at the time it seemed perfectly rational. “I’d traveled all around the world and ridden in so many races in so many great places, and I realized that, right here in Charlottesville, we have some of the best roads and trails in the world,” he says. “Given the school’s student-first approach, it seemed logical that we should create a team, and seek to really put the area on the map.”

Pulling several all-nighters, Hufnagel developed a presentation outlining a strategic 20-year plan, which he pitched to the school’s administrators. Essentially, he intended to create a niche program that would offer mountain bikers and cyclists from around the world a home at which to pursue their sport at the highest level, while still getting a quality education. “The notion was sort of like a Hogwarts for cyclists,” he says with a laugh. “I had this vision of building something for the kids that would feel that special. Anything less than that wouldn’t cut it.”

To Hufnagel’s surprise, the administration bought in. With the school’s small class size and hands-on teachers, the program seemed a perfect match.

Andy Guptil and retired professional cyclist Andrea Dvorak helped found MSA’s mountain biking and cycling program, with the goal of creating a nationally recognized racing series. MSA’s cycling program now includes 30 riders from the U.S. and other countries and has featured five national champion riders. Photo by Sanjay Suchak

Hufnagel began working with his wife and her then-coach, professional cyclist Andy Guptil, to develop the program. “We’d get together and talk about what we needed to do to make this a viable reality,” Hufnagel says. “At first, I’d sort of rope them into a hypothetical conversation and they’d play along, but, with time, they got invested.”

Helping matters was the fact that both Guptil and Dvorak were in the process of retiring. Additionally, Guptil was dating Hufnagel’s sister, and the two had decided to move to Charlottesville. Within a couple of years, both Guptil and Dvorak took coaching positions at MSA.

“In a lot of ways, it kind of felt like the stars were aligning to make this happen,” says Hufnagel. “Things were just falling into place. But there was still a lot to be done.”

For one thing, if MSA was going to have a legitimate racing team, it was going to need to develop a means of competing. Furthermore, that means had to have weight: To attract serious cyclists, they needed to provide a channel into the collegiate and professional ranks.

Hufnagel’s solution? To create a nationally recognized racing series.

In spring 2011, working with Guptil and Dvorak’s contacts, he helped found the first USA Cycling-sanctioned interscholastic mountain biking series in Virginia, the Virginia High School MTB Series. Allowing student-riders to earn points, gain standing and qualify to compete in national-level competitions, the series would serve as a conduit for professional and Olympic teams. 

Looking back, Hufnagel describes the first year as a major learning experience, and, starting with just three riders, as grassroots as it gets. “We featured six races and had four teams competing,” he says. “Blue Ridge School had a team, St. Christopher’s had a team, and there was a composite group from Harrisonburg. We’d pulled riders from the cross-country team and anyone else who was interested. There was no production value. While we had some protocols in place, we were basically making it up as we went along.”

Today, however, things are different. For the past two years, MSA has won the state championship. It routinely tops regional leaderboards, has graduated four riders with UCI professional contracts, has featured five national championship riders and had four riders selected to the UCI World Championship Team.

Next spring, if you attend a VAHS MTB Series race, you will encounter a scene reminiscent of a pro-level event. Only, it’s for kids. Riders tear through the woods, zipping around bank curves, navigating technical segments and hitting an occasional jump. “We’ve become hugely competitive, and offer events for elementary school kids on up to the high-schoolers,” says Hufnagel. “In 2018, we expect 32 teams will participate, which makes for something like 450 riders.”   

Meanwhile, MSA’s mountain biking and cycling program has grown to include 30 male and female riders hailing from all across the U.S., Brazil, Canada, the Czech Republic  and elsewhere. The team routinely includes athletes who compete in top-tier national and international events, and, last year, featured a rider who signed with Aevolo Cycling, one of the world’s premier U-23 teams.

Going public

Looking to expand MSA’s program to include a fall season, Dvorak spearheaded a partnership with the National Interscholastic Cycling Association in 2014. The organization, formed in 2009, had been instrumental in developing mountain biking as an official high school sport, mostly in the western U.S., in states such as Colorado, California, Oregon and New Mexico.

“The success at Miller proved to private schools across the state that having a mountain biking team was a viable investment,” says Dvorak. “But while we’d had a lot of success on that front, our goal was always to make the sport more mainstream. We wanted it to be viewed like basketball, soccer, football or whatever.”

For that to happen, they’d have to find a way to get mountain biking into public schools. Hence the partnership with NICA, which led to the formation of the Virginia Interscholastic Cycling League, a pilot league aimed at doing just that.

“The great thing about NICA is they provide a blueprint and resources for implementing programs that meet high school league standards,” says Dvorak. “They train, certify and vet the coaches. They provide insurance. They have standardized rule books. They supply trail-building information. You name it.”

When current Charlottesville Area Mountain Biking Club President Sam Lindblom, 45, learned about what was going on, he decided to take a chance.

“My son was going to be entering Monticello High School in the fall of 2015, and was really into mountain biking,” he says. “Considering what Andrea was doing, I decided to phone the athletic director and see if the school was interested in developing a program.”

When Monticello athletic director Matthew Pearman got Lindblom’s call, his immediate response was, “Why not?”

“Sam was really passionate about the idea and presented it in a manner that made perfect sense,” says Pearman. “As an AD, my goal is to enable as many students to participate in sporting activities and represent their school as I can. Basically, Sam said: ‘My son is really into mountain biking and he has enough friends to make a team. What can we do?’ It seemed like something we should try to make happen.”

Initially, the two decided it was best to form a club. As with MSA four years before, they were breaking new ground. “Normally, in my profession, when something comes up, I pick up the phone, call another AD and ask how they handled this or that situation,” says Pearman. “But in this case, there was no one to call. We were the first public school in the state to do this. So, there was a big learning curve. We had to take it step by step.”

Current Charlottesville Area Mountain Biking Club President Sam Lindblom helped form Monticello High’s mountain biking club when his son started school there two years ago. Today, Western Albemarle, Albemarle and Charlottesville high schools have teams as well. Photo by Sanjay Suchak

As luck would have it, each step of the way, Lindblom and Pearman were met with positive reception. Principals, superintendents, parents, school board members—they were all overwhelmingly supportive. “Of course, we had to do our due diligence and follow the process, but we didn’t meet with any opposition, and that made things a lot easier,” says Pearman.

Bit by bit, the two worked to develop a model that, they hoped, other public schools would be able to follow.

“That first year, I basically had no idea what I was doing,” laughs Lindblom. “We were kind of like the Bad News Bears. We had to figure things out and learn as we went along. We had to develop practice schedules, secure locations to ride, get funding for jerseys, cut trails, adopt mission statements. It was a lot to get thrown into.”

Naturally, Lindblom began consulting with his friends—many of who were adamant riders, and also parents. Seeing what he was doing at MHS, in spring 2016, a number of those friends sought to found teams of their own. Their efforts led to the formation of teams at Western Albemarle, Albemarle and Charlottesville high schools.

“It was really cool how it happened,” says Lindblom. “We were all getting together and talking about this, and maybe some people would come out and help at a practice, and they’d end up walking away saying, ‘Hey, I think I’d like to do this at my kid’s school.’ It was totally grassroots. We were all riding together at CAMBC, and our kids were racing on the Charlottesville Racing Club team, so it was neat to see this very public development blossom out of that community.”

Elsewhere across the state, other schools were taking notice as well. “I started getting a lot of calls,” says Pearman. “Athletic directors were phoning to ask me how we’d done it, what were the risks, how did it work, that sort of thing. Suddenly, we sort of found ourselves having achieved what we set out to do. We’ve basically become the go-to program for how you incorporate this sport in a high school setting.”

Riding into the future

The Miller School hosted the opening race of this fall’s Virginia Interscholastic Cycling League series on its student-built trails. The 3.3-mile course offers a 535-foot elevation gain and, according to official race info, “starts off with a challenging climb from the lower soccer field onto a gravel road before jumping into a short section of windy singletrack. Off the singletrack, riders will continue to climb up a doubletrack section of trail before riding over the flyover towards a fun, machine-built descent. A power climb under the flyover to the highest point on the course is followed by a fast and then twisty downhill before a final singletrack section into the finishing, opening field.”

Pearman says it’s phenomenal how far high school mountain biking has come in such a short period of time. “There were probably 600 spectators in attendance, with hundreds of riders from 30 different teams,” he says. “There were people lining the trails in the woods to cheer on the racers. It looked like a professional event. It blew me away. It was really incredible.”

In the last two years, Monticello High has grown its roster to 17 riders. It’s climbed the ranks to become the second-ranked public school team in the state, and sixth overall. In other words, it’s started to develop a healthy culture of competition.

“The most amazing thing is what happened when these kids started representing their various schools,” says Lindblom with a chuckle. “It was instantaneous rivalry. We ride together all the time and yet, they’re out here taking it really seriously in this super good-natured way. They talk trash, they watch the points standings, they want to get better. It’s cool to see that kind of investiture. They take pride in what they’re doing. And they’re being active and experiencing the outdoors in the process.”

Across town, senior Miller School standout Gus Myers, who wore the leader jersey until the last race of last spring’s VAHS MTB Series and rides for the Kelly Benefits U-23 professional development team in the summers, expresses similar sentiments. “This is a really, really special program—nothing like it exists anywhere else,” he says. “Before I came to MSA, I was this weird kid that spent all my time on a bike. People didn’t understand, and they didn’t really support me. But here, I’m surrounded by this amazing group of kids that are doing the same thing I am. Our coaches and teachers care deeply about what we’re doing. I have a support structure that allows me to thrive and push myself as hard as I can. It’s been pretty magical to find that.”

Myers grew up in Ivy, but moved to New Jersey with his parents two years ago. He has attended MSA since his freshman year in high school, and is now a boarding student, which he says lets him focus on cycling and mountain biking pretty much full-time. With competitive seasons in the fall, spring and summer, the only time he isn’t racing is for a couple of months in the winter—and even that time is chock-full of training (mostly long cardio-heavy rides in the mountains). At MSA, mornings get underway at 6, with riders meeting in the weight room for a workout. After that, they eat breakfast, and attend school from 8am to 3pm. Then it’s off to the bike room and practice, which runs until 5:30pm, at the school’s dirt track. Then they eat dinner and attend a mandatory study hall until around 9:30pm. Weekends are devoted to races, and the team is sometimes on the road for weeks at a time, traveling to places like California, Vermont or even Europe to compete.

It’s a grueling schedule, but Myers says it’s worth it. For most riders—Myers included—the end goal is to obtain a professional level contract, or to secure a spot on a strong collegiate team, which could yield an eventual pro contract.         

“To compete at this level means you have make a lot of sacrifices,” he says. “We have tutors on the road with us, and our teachers put in a lot of Skype and email sessions. We do everything together as a team, and our lives basically consist of schoolwork, sleeping and biking. It’s really demanding, but with the school’s help and support, you sort of get into a groove and it becomes a routine.”   

Looking to the future, Lindblom, Hufnagel, Dvorak and Stackhouse are all in agreement: As the sport goes more and more mainstream, and more and more kids get involved, things will continue to expand.

“I think what we’re seeing now is an intimation of the real growth to come,” says Stackhouse. “We still have a lot of work to do, but we started planting these seeds some years back, and we’re reaping the first big harvest of those results.”


GO-TO RIDES

Cor Carelsen

Owner of Crozet Bicycle Shop

Claudius Crozet Park. “For beginners on up to a seasoned rider looking for a good evening ride, I’d recommend starting at Claudius Crozet Park and following the trail down past the dog park along Licking Hole Creek. The trail starts out really easy going, so a beginner can ride until he or she feels uncomfortable with a hill or whatever, then turn around. If you want to go further, the loop is about seven miles total.”

Mint Springs Park

Mint Springs Park. “Located at the water reservoir within riding distance of Crozet, the park is maintained by Albemarle County and features various loop trails, about five to six miles in total. It’s very accessible and, with lots of elevation changes, you can really challenge yourself.”

Blue Ridge School Trail. The school is in St. George and has around 15 miles of trails of various difficulty levels, all of which are well marked and well maintained. The trails are very flowy, with not too many jumps, and feature some technical climbing and slow descending. Pro tip: “When you get there, go to the climbing tower at the trailhead, where you’ll need to register and sign an indemnity form.”

Daniel Sebring

Manager of Blue Ridge Cyclery, Charlottesville

Rivanna Trail

Rivanna Trail. “This is a perfect option for riders of all skill levels. It’s right here in the city, and you can hop on it and do anywhere from one to 35 miles. You can go to O-Hill and get technical stuff, or Carters Mountain and get some good climbs. Plus, it’s great for a car-free commute.”

Sherando Lake Recreational Area. “Located just outside of Waynesboro, for avid riders, this is a gold-mine of trails. The area is in the George Washington National Forest, and offers days worth of rides. Features lots of big climbs, 360-degree views and expert rides.” Pro tip: Pack a serious lunch and plan to be out there for the full day.

Dave Stackhouse

Former Charlottesville Area Mountain Biking Club president

Preddy Creek. For families and those getting into the sport, this is a great entry-level location. Situated on 571 acres of wilderness, it offers more than 8.6 miles of trails with plenty of easygoing beginner rides. In the future, look for an expert loop, which is currently being developed.

James Burris

Owner of Black Dog Bikes, Staunton

Montgomery Hall Park

Montgomery Hall Park, Staunton. A great option just outside of downtown Staunton. Features around six miles of loops, some of which overlap to create bigger rides.

Braley Pond Day Use Area. Located 15 minutes outside of Staunton in North River, this is part of the famous Shenandoah Mountain Trail, and is in the George Washington and Thomas Jefferson National Forest. There are some smaller loops, but I like the Road Hollow to Bridge Hollow ride, with a descent to Braley Pond. It’s about 25 miles total, is for avid riders, and takes about three hours to complete. Expect rock gardens, off-camber side slopes, fast descents—in other words, a little of everything.

Lift-serviced resort rides

Wintergreen Resort

As the first location of the lift-served mountain biking program in the Mid-Atlantic region, Wintergreen deserves special kudos. With miles of expert and intermediate trails designed by former pro mountain biker Brad Stone, the course is no joke. It features an array of full cross-country loops, and an event-worthy 5.2-mile expert route with 1,000 feet of vertical change.

Massanutten Resort

With 30 miles of trails on its western slopes and a sweet bike park, Massanutten offers days of riding fun. A lower lift services beginner and intermediate trails, while an upper lift provides access to advanced trails. Additionally, there’s the 70-mile-long Massanutten Trail, which offers tons of elevation change, mountain views and rocky single-track.

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