In this episode of Underexposed, Brice Shirbach travels to the western reaches of Maine to explore the mountain biking opportunities in the Carrabassett Valley around Sugarloaf Mountain in the Bigelow Preserve. Maine may sit in a far corner of the country but it shouldn’t be overlooked—the local mtb community is thriving!
A long time ago I came to the realization that most of the stories I end up telling from the trails inevitably revolve around the people responsible for them. There are so many good trails in seemingly every pocket of the planet, and at some point discussing the trail itself can simply be a matter of whether or not it was a good ride. Of course, it’s always better to unpack the details and nuances of the terrain, but in truth, stories about trails are really just stories about the people behind them.
“We’ve had a great group right from the beginning.” Josh Tauses tells me. We’re discussing the role of mountain bike advocacy in his home of Carrabassett Valley, ME and it’s clear that this resort community near the western edge of New England’s largest and northeasternmost state has had buy-in from every level.
“Deb Bowker, the recreation director in Carrabassett Valley, has been a huge supporter of the mountain bike club and all of the development we’ve been a part of. She works with all recreational groups around town because we do have this strong, recreational movement happening. When the club got started and the trails committee got formed, Maine Huts and Trails came with a lot of volunteers, the CRNEMBA brought a lot of volunteers, and the town itself did as well. And it was a lot of advocacy work at first. Phone calls, emails, etc. People understood that there was a lot of that kind of stuff that needed to be done before we got to the digging part.”
I was in Maine three weeks ahead of the Enduro World Series event that would bring hundreds of racers, including dozens of the fastest in the sport, and thousands more of spectators, team personnel, family members, and more to this quiet yet staggeringly beautiful part of the world. The EWS would spend its weekend racing down the steep, rough hewn, and loamy tracks that drop down nearly 3,000 vertical feet along the northern aspect of Maine’s third tallest mountain and its largest ski resort: Sugarloaf Mountain.
Once standing an estimated 15,000 feet above sea level, Sugarloaf and the mountains of Western Maine have long since been eroded down to the much more modest heights we see today, covered by a dense layer of beech, maple, birch and hemlock forests, with fir, pine and even spruce popping up in certain parts as well. The landscape in the valleys between the mountains and ridges are peppered with lakes and ponds, all of which make for optimal dwelling for many species of wildlife. In fact, Maine has the most forest cover by percentage in all of the US, with over 80% of its total land area being covered by forest. There’s a wildness and rawness to the state that is incredibly appealing, and those traits can certainly carry over onto the trails as well.
The riding in Carrabassett Valley is split into two distinct categories: trails in the valley, and trails up on Sugarloaf itself. The valley trails span over 70 miles between the base of Sugarloaf and Mount Bigelow to the north, climbing and descending the nooks, crannies, and knolls throughout. CRNEMBA, or the Carrabassett Region chapter of the New England Mountain Bike Association, are largely responsible for these along with the work of Josh, the trails director for the town, as well as Maine Huts and Trails. Over a span of decades, they have invested hundreds of thousands of dollars into their trails, resulting in a huge variety for riders of all abilities, ranging from technical and rough, to fast and flowy, to scenic and adventurous.
The trails on Sugarloaf are a horse of a very different color. The terrain here is much steeper, much loamier, with a decidedly rake-and-ride feel to them. Though situated on a ski resort mountainside, the lifts are not currently spinning for trail access, which means that the trails are free to ride. It also means that you’re going to need to work hard to get to them, which ends up being an appropriate filter as not everyone is likely to feel comfy on those trails. Built by American enduro legend, olympian, and Mainer, Adam Craig, it was these trails that captured my imagination while racing here during the 2021 Trans New England Enduro and they were certainly top of mind when planning my return. Adam spent time working for the EWS as their North American Series continental representative, and was able to connect with right people in order to bring events, including the EWS, to the Carrabassett Valley.
“There was a long hiatus for Sugarloaf in terms of hosting events on the mountain in the summer.” Adam tells me after wrapping up a day of digging and building on Sugarloaf. “The mountain bike community here is so healthy and awesome, and I think they’ve been looking to the mountain for some more diverse experiences and it’s awesome to see Sugarloaf respond in this way. It’ll be even better once we get the lifts spinning and are able to build more beginner and intermediate-friendly trails on the mountain and not just these super gnarly race tracks that we have at the moment. I think that’ll really tie it into the fabric of the community even more.”
Every time I leave Maine, I immediately begin to plan for my next visit. It has such an untamed, rustic, and wild vastness to it and I find those traits to be pretty intoxicating. The same can be said about many of its trails. I think that because it’s tucked away in this far-flung corner of the country, there’s this inherent filter built into the journey there, with places like Vermont, New Hampshire, and other New England states offering their own amazing trails and communities to passersby, so I should be crystal clear here: Maine is worth the extra effort. Yes, it’s beautiful and it has amazing trails but those aren’t qualities exclusive to America’s 23rd state, though those alone are also worth the extra effort. But as is the case with every place I love to ride and spend time at, it’s the people here that truly set it apart, and the folks in Carrabassett Valley love their home, and they love sharing it with others.