Tired of biking along the road with cars whizzing past?
Summer is a good time to try mountain biking, with less mud than spring and none of winter’s snow or ice. There are places to ride fat-tire bikes suitable for every skill level and interest, from dirt-and-gravel state forest roads to boulder-strewn trails that challenge the best riders, and even some ski areas where you and your bike can hitch a ride to the top of a hill on a chairlift.
But there are considerations of safety and practicality involved in mountain biking. So The Gazette asked an array of local experts on the sport what advice they’d offer the beginner.
Drew Roginski, vice president of the Saratoga Mountain Bike Association, said an ideal scenario is for the newbie to ride with other bikers with a similar level of skill, whom he or she can learn from.
“The absolutely best thing is, find your tribe -- people that ride at about your level,” he said.
The SMBA maintains the trail network at Daniels Road State Forest in Greenfield. Roginski does not recommend it for a first-time rider.
“You’ll note that there is no beginner trail. This is kind of the Mad River Glen of mountain biking,” he said, referring the famously challenging Vermont ski area.
The trail system at Moreau Lake State Park is another one best suited to experienced riders.
“We have a group that rides there every Wednesday night,” Roginski said. “It is as technically challenging as any place I've ever ridden.”
Instead, Central Park in Schenectady is a good place to start, he said. “It also has features that are challenging but for the most part you can sit and pedal.”
Farther north, Luther Forest is also beginner-friendly, he added, with some intermediate-level riding as well.
The Kalabus Perry Preserve in Wilton is another good place to go. “For a beginner, it’s really good riding,” Roginski said. “The only bike I ever take there is the rigid single-speed. (By which he means it’s smooth enough to be ridden with a rigid-framed bike with no shock absorbers and flat enough to be ridden with a bike that has no selection of hill-climbing gears.)
Finally, the town of Queensbury has a nice network of trails at its Quarry Lane Recreation Area. “It’s not a huge system, but it’s a lot of machine-built, super-smooth, flowing trails.”
Veteran bicycle dealer Les Plaine at Plaine and Son in Schenectady said safety gear is an important consideration.
“Helmet foremost,” he said. “Gloves are probably the next thing you should wear for safety.”
Beyond that, elbow and knee pads are useful, and then torso armor.
That’s the progression that follows the style of riding: Everyone should wear a helmet, and progressively add gloves, pads and armor the harder and faster they ride.
He also suggests not taking thin-tire bikes off-road.
“There’s a lot in between a road bike and a mountain bike these days,” he said. “A hybrid is not really suited for off-road use.”
There’s actually not a single bike for every purpose. Thin-tire road bikes ride harshly off-road and sink into soft surfaces. Knobby-tired mountain bikes are slower and require more effort to pedal on paved surfaces than road bikes do. Fat bikes and plus bikes -- with supersized tires ranging from 3 to 5 inches wide -- can roll right through snow and mud that would bog down thinner tires. But the fat bike that’s so stable off-road can feel sluggish on pavement.
Plaine said most of his fat bike buyers already have regular mountain bikes (those with 2 inch-wide tires) and want something to ride in winter and spring.
Don Rice makes his way through some of the hilliest terrain in Schenectady's Central Park in December 2015. (Marc Schultz)
He said Schenectady-area mountain bikers have a good place to ride right in the city -- Central Park.
Andrew Rizzi, a teacher in the Niskayuna Central School District and coach of its Middle School and High School mountain bike teams, said a local bike shop is a good place for aspiring mountain bike riders to start. The technicians can make sure everything on a bike is tight and suited for the intended ride and can point people toward the best place to ride and groups to ride with.
He likes Central Park and the North Bethlehem Town Park for beginners.The Albany Pine Bush Preserve is a mixed bag in his opinion: There are some good bike trails but some are illegal to ride, because of bikes’ impact on the ecologically sensitive area.
“It’s really sandy in there,” he said. “In the dry part of the season, it’s not ideal. There’s a lot of ticks, too.”
Andrew Rizzi of Niskayuna is shown at a bike clinic he organized in October 2015 in Niskayuna. (Michael Kelly)
Rizzi suggests new mountain bikers connect with Capital MTB, which hosts weekly rides.
“There’s a spot for everybody. Usually in those rides there is someone that will lead the group.”
He and his wife, Heather, both help advance the sport by helping young riders get into mountain biking.
“We teach the kids a lot of skills like bike-body separation,” he said.
Most mountain biking riding options are free, aside from the cost of the bike and helmet.
Those willing to shell out for a chairlift ticket can help their local ski area stay busy during the summer.
Downhill mountain biking is available during summer months at several ski areas in the region, including Gore Mountain, Jiminy Peak and Windham Mountain. Ticket holders can ride the chairlift up the mountain and ride their bikes down the mountain as often as they like.
Some of the resorts offer bike rentals and demos.
All of them require riders to wear helmets, and all of them recommend body armor, as well. There's also a waiver of liability to be signed before participating in what is a potentially dangerous sport.
Katie Fogel, the marketing director at Jiminy, said there are no beginner trails on the mountain, and only a few intermediate runs. Most of the bike trails are rated for experts. “We recommend that anybody who bikes here already [be] experienced,” she said.
The bike trails follow a different route than the ski trails, she said, and some are steeper and narrower than skiers might expect. It’s easy to pick up speed, and the consequences of missing a turn while going fast can be serious.
The newest arrival on the downhill scene is West Mountain in Queensbury, which cut its first downhill bike trail last year, and is cutting more this year. The crew is also putting in some fairly level trails at the top of the slope that can be ridden by beginners.
General manager Sara Montgomery spoke to The Gazette by cellphone on a sunny May afternoon from the top of the hill as she mapped them out.
“West Mountain plateaus at the top and it’s perfect for cross-country biking,” she said.
The plan is to offer 10 miles of downhill trails and three to five miles of cross-country trails this year, then add more in the future.
“Our goal is to open July 1 with the trails we have mapped out and cleared,” Montgomery said.
Another goal is to offer bike rentals and demos, and she was planning to meet with bike shops to work that out before July 1.
The downhill trail unveiled last year, Big Easy, is suitable for all skill levels, but the bulk of the downhill trails will be for intermediate to expert riders. To reinforce the point, West will be showing a video tutorial featuring basic riding skills and safety measures.
The cross-country trails up top target a different audience.
“We made sure we had a variety of beginner, intermediate and advanced loops because we want to appeal to families,” Montgomery said. “We will have everything very clearly marked, as well.”
There are lots of options for bikes and places to ride them. Plaine offered some simple advice for the would-be off-road rider:
“Get out there, enjoy the weather and go mountain biking.”
At a glance
Some notable Capital Region mountain biking trails:
- Daniels Road State Forest, Greenfield: Large network of trails mostly suited for intermediate to advanced riders
- Albany Pine Bush Preserve, in some places
- Moreau Lake State Park, better suited for more skilled riders
- Luther Forest, good for beginners
- Colonie Town Park, south of the paved bike trail
- North Bethlehem Park, good for beginners
- Thacher State Park, to the south and west of the visitor center
- Schenectady’s Central Park, a nice mix of terrain