The gritty city of Barre might not seem like an ideal mountain-biking destination. Unlike the fat-tire fantasyland of Moab, Utah, where nature has fashioned arches and canyons from a maze of sandstone, this is a place where humankind has wreaked havoc on the land, scrabbling deep gashes into rock. Instead of gear shops and microbreweries, central Vermont's Granite City has a Family Dollar store and mechanical bull riding at Gusto's bar. The stock-car racing at Thunder Road belongs here. But mountain biking?
Absolutely, says Pete Richardson, the Barre native and mountain biker who spent last spring designing a new, 20-mile system of trails in the hills of Barre's southeast quadrant. "Obviously man made this mess, but Mother Nature's cleaning it up" he says, pausing in the middle of an early October ride along the Millstone Hill trails to point out two quarries filled with Caribbean-blue water. "I've long thought this place would make a hell of a mountain-biking Mecca."
Since the Millstone Hill Touring Center opened in June, a steady procession of Spandex-wearing pilgrims has pedaled through the woods along narrow, birch-lined veins that skirt more than 40 abandoned quarries, past the granite industry's detritus of boom derricks and brick foundations.
"All around here is littered with trails," says Richardson, who grew up horsing around the old railroad beds, quarries and overgrown roads before working for the granite biz for 20 years. In the spring of 2004, he was hoping to cut a small trail through a piece of private property, only to discover the land belonged to fellow Barre native Pierre Couture. It turned out Couture had also envisioned a new use for the once-barren hills.
Couture's family had farmed land near the Barre quarries for decades; he and his father had also worked in the granite industry. When Rock of Ages began selling off chunks of land, Couture began acquiring them. "When I first started buying the old quarry lands," he says, "people were always scratching their heads and saying, 'What are you buying that crap for?'"
But, like Richardson, Couture had discovered the deep pools, tumbled rocks and thick woods as a child. "I used to think, God, this is really cool," he says. "But then I also thought, is it just because I grew up here? Is it my heart or my head that's telling me [this is] something people will enjoy?"
Couture had briefly run a cross-country ski operation on his 350 acres, but without a central lodge or accommodations, it wasn't much of a draw for anyone outside the local area. After Richardson knocked on Couture's door in 2004, the two decided to collaborate on a more permanent recreational project. Richardson founded the nonprofit Millstone Trails Association and, last April, quit the granite industry. With the permission of Couture and another nearby landowner, he began scouting trails on 1600 acres of terrain.
"I pretty much hand-mapped all the trails myself," Richardson says. "I've got a hell of a memory when I'm in the woods, and with all the quarries around, you can orient yourself so well."
For a model, he looked to the Kingdom Trails Association, which manages more than 100 miles of trails across the properties of 42 Northeast Kingdom landowners. For trail-building volunteers, he rounded up buddies from his quarry-exploring days and recruited folks affiliated with the Vermont Mountain Bike Association (VMBA). With only a small fraction of the Green Mountain National Forest open to mountain biking, plenty of avid riders were ready to help cut new trails exactly as they liked them: tight and twisty.
As a result, 80 percent of the Millstone Hill trails are single-track; the rest are wider double-track. Because of the way they wind around for miles, Richardson calls them "intestinal trails," and he seems happy to take newcomers on a tour. With his black lab, Bear, loping along beside him, he pedals through an open field near a bed-and-breakfast, which Couture owns, and into the woods. Each of the quarries is labeled with a sign, hand-painted by Couture. Richardson points to the water-filled Lorenzini quarry, and then leads the way up a moss-covered granite gravel road to a promontory overlooking what's called the Number 6 quarry.
The scene looks like the Earth smashed into the moon. There are jumbled piles of rock slabs with a thin coat of lichen; a few hundred yards away, trees are incongruously growing from mountains of stone. Richardson offers a brief lesson on the terminology of granite, on the immigrants who made all these holes and hills, and on the city dwellers who would take rail tours around the quarries. Exuding characteristic enthusiasm, he claims, "Up until the Shelburne Museum came along, this was the biggest tourist attraction east of the Rockies."
Both Richardson and Couture seem eager to preserve, even expand upon, the history of the quarries. While hardwood forests have now softened the landscape, the jagged granite gives it character. "I'm a wicked dreamer, but see how there's another road over there?" says Richardson, pointing to a hidden doubletrack across a chasm. "I can envision an old trestle bridge from here to there, just like in the fashion of the old bridges they had."
Mounting his bike again, he peels down the hill; the terrain is rolling, studded with rocks, and has just enough uphill and downhill to both burn the thighs and deliver a jolt of adrenaline. Overheating from exertion is rarely an issue: The breezes off the water-filled quarries cause temperature drops of up to 20 degrees in certain spots. In summer, some of the deep holes are swimmable.
The most enticing pits are the Wells-Lamson quarries, which twinkle beneath the high point of the trail at the Grand Lookout. Another promontory created by discarded rocks, the Grand Lookout offers panoramic views of Camel's Hump, barn-studded farmlands and the Knox Mountains. "It's like you're on top of the world up here," says Richardson, looking across at the mountains and then down at the quarries below. "Can you imagine the guys who set that thing?"
"Yes, they were my relatives," says a voice -- a seventysomething woman who suddenly appears and explains her link to the Lorenzini family. She and a companion have hiked up here, a reminder that these trails belong to more than just mountain bikers; they're open to any non-motorized traffic. Once the snow flies, Millstone Hill will become a cross-country skiing and snowshoe center. An amazingly low membership rate of $25 buys you unlimited access through the winter.
After chatting with the couple, Richardson rides on to some technical singletrack that VMBA members helped build during their late September meeting at Millstone Hill. It's as narrow as a phone booth and leads to a brick foundation that drops 4 feet to the forest floor. "The intermediate and advanced riders love this stuff," he says. "I've got a very hardcore group of followers."
Might they be too hardcore for Couture? After all, his five-bedroom B&B is the type of place that draws people with pressed chinos and manicured nails. Millstone Hill also has "economy" rooms above its bike shop, as well as a slew of campsites in the surrounding fields. At some recreational centers this could cause a culture clash.
But back at the bike shop at the end of the ride, Couture insists, "Mountain bikers are great. They're enthusiastic and clean."
Richardson interjects, "Well, not necessarily personally clean."
"Well, they're green," clarifies Couture, "as far as respecting the land, keeping it, improving it, really. And the energy level of the volunteers has been really admirable."
Millstone Hill has more than 150 members so far, and Richardson guesses that between 700 and 1000 bikers have bought day passes for $6 each. He says he plans to double the network's mileage every year, with at least 100 miles finished over the next decade. And unlike the granite industry, which could only dig down, he believes the future of the Millstone Trails Association is going in the opposite direction. "How much trail are we going to build?" he asks rhetorically. "Oh, the sky's the limit."