Summer School: How to build a mountain bike trail
Tom Lepesqueur’s commute to work often includes an off-road vehicle.
“It’s about three miles on this trail," he says, riding through some private land on Rochester Mountain, in central Vermont, on a recent August morning. "Which is a little far, but pretty nice trail all in all.”
Lepesqueur gets off on a remote hillside dense with foliage, bugs and fog. And all the equipment needed to dig out a new 1.5-mile section of the Velomont Trail.
“We’re probably a couple thousand feet of trail down from the summit where we started a couple weeks ago. Trying to find the good dirt, and trying to make a sustainable trail here," he says.
The Velomont Trail is a plan to connect nearly 500 miles of new and existing mountain bike routes from Vermont’s southern border up to Canada, with a series of huts along the way.
Think the Long Trail, but for bikes.
Velomont planners want to bring extra tourist traffic to the towns and villages located along the planned trail path. But a lot of sections still need to be completed.
Lepesqueuer’s built a handful of Velomont stretches over the last three years, and he’ll take on more after this one. Part of the reason why: he appreciates expanding access to the outdoors in the out-of-the-way parts of Vermont that the trail network passes through.
“One of the things that's so neat with Velomont is that it's bringing more people into riding areas where they wouldn't probably ever come if it weren't for this trail," Lepesqueur said.
He jokes that he selfishly took this job and others in the area because they’re basically in his backyard. Lepesqueur moved to Rochester five years ago, so he’ll get to enjoy these trails with his friends and family.
Step one before all that: getting approval, funding and surveying the land to figure out a loose route. Lepesqueur says a lot of his work happens before even breaking ground.
After settling on a plan, he clears brush from the route with a chainsaw.
Lepesqueur has been building trails professionally for 15 years, but his experience goes back even further.
He grew up on a rural New Hampshire farm with a twin brother. The “pretty unsupervised children" had free rein to use their neighbors’ tools, equipment and land to build trails.
On Rochester Mountain, Lepesqueur navigates a small excavator between some trees. That’s the next step: digging out the trail itself with the machine’s bucket.
Lepesqueur is careful to avoid driving over a tear on one of the excavator treads, which is being held together with a piece of repurposed metal while he waits for a new part.
Improvising is nothing new for him. As a kid, he became handy welding together bike parts salvaged from the dumpster.
As a trail builder, the land itself also encourages improvisation.
Like when Lepesqueur’s excavator runs into a rock ledge hidden beneath the soil.
“In order to not mess with that tree I’m going to have to really scratch at some ledge to get above that root system," he says scanning the ground.
So Lepesqueur grabs a metal pole to probe the earth for a potential path forward.
“I need one of those dowsing rods, for dirt. Or a radar system," he says.
Lepesqueur sees the hillside as a puzzle coming together very slowly — and it’s his job as the trail builder to figure out where the pieces go.
“What we're after is — almost like when you ride through a section, you almost have to stop and look back and be like, ‘What just happened there? That felt kind of magical,'" he says. "You know, on a more micro scale, that happens because of the decisions we make every inch of the way based on the grade that we're using, and the terrain that we have and all the little tricks we have in our arsenal.”
This trail will end up rugged, with steep, rocky sections.
But Lepesqueur says he’s not designing it purely to provide the best ride. He’s also trying to minimize his impact on the land.
“We're thinking about everything from where the water is flowing, and how to deal with it, as well as the trees that we are trying to avoid disrupting. And really, the end goal is to have that ribbon of trail behind you that almost looks like it just got sat there," he says.
That ties into another important part of building a trail: getting buy-in from the local community.
An economic impact study found that Rochester could see a notable bump in tourist spending as the Velomont network comes online.
Locals have already started noticing more out-of-state license plates in recent years – including at the town’s bike shop.
Doon Hinderyckx owns Green Mountain Bikes in Rochester, and is planning to open a nearby hostel for thru-bikers.
He says adventure tourism has become part of Rochester’s new identity in the wake of Hurricane Irene, and as manufacturing jobs have faded out of the area.
“On Saturdays, it gets very people-y in town now," he says,
To Lepesqueur, that means more money going to his friends’ businesses, and the schools his daughters attend. Which — along with his paycheck — helps make all the exhausting labor worthwhile.
After finishing up with the excavator on Rochester Mountain, Lepesqueuer removes rocks from the freshly-turned soil using a hand tool called a pulaski. Imagine a combination axe and hoe, something you’d find on a wildland firefighting job.
“I’m basically a human rototiller right now," he says, knocking rocks out of the trail.
Lepesqueur combs the same length of trail with a heavy-duty rake to get any leftover small debris.
With a smooth surface, this section of trail is just about ready to ride.
Lepesqueur says it can get monotonous picking rocks out of the dirt — he keeps an extensive podcast library to pass the time. But if he only clears 100 feet of earth by the end of the day, he says he can take pride in knowing the trail will outlast his aches and pains.
And Lepesqueur's keenly aware of his place within Vermont’s history of massive end-to-end trails.
“I really like the idea — even if nobody ever knows that it was our little company that built the trail — that so many people will get to use it and enjoy it for so many years to come," he says.
Lepesqueur will finish this job, and move on to another near Rochester and one by Killington.
He has to pack it in while he can, before it gets too cold to work outside. Winter is for all the paperwork he’s been putting off during the warm seasons.
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