Get Outside: Mountain biking by the Brook
The ridges in the rugged hill country south of Buffalo are the millennia-old work of glaciers, peaks and valleys forming as those icy teeth bit into sympathetic soil. Where they dug deepest, the Finger Lakes remain. Where the bedrock proved more stubborn, we are blessed with the Boston Hills. The passages through these hills are just as varied: driving along US 219 in the summer, the country below appears endless, but turn into the crest via any narrow country road, into the pine and ash canopy, down to the creek bottoms full of last night’s rain, and you’ll discover ski slopes rising above and mountain bike trails beckoning below—a maze of paths, hidden from the highway driver, all within Sprague Brook Park.
“You’re really taking the newb up Skunk Ridge?” asked Greg Culver from the bike behind me.
“The newb” would be me, huffing and puffing after only ten minutes of crashing through the apt-named Creekside trail. My three riding companions gracefully glided between tree trunks and around slopes, while I—grunting—pedaled the short ups, skidded sideways on my back brakes on the pinched downs, and barreled across the rock-bottomed creek through sheer force of will. Now we were headed up and up, climbing out of the small valley cut by the park’s namesake.
“Oh, yeah, he’ll be fine. No better way to introduce him to it,” answered Ben Clauss from the front of the line. His voice showed not a hint of effort, though his legs pumped in a blurring cadence.
No matter what, I’m not going to get off the bike to walk. Not yet, I thought, as we climbed a hundred and twenty feet up the knob. I had enough road bike experience—plugging away on Buffalo’s bike paths and area rail trails—that pride would not let me dismount so soon, less than a mile into our trek. And though I came in last, with my thighs and lungs on fire, I succeeded in that.
“Good job,” Clauss cheered as I pulled up to the group—I noticed no one else was out of breath—who had stopped in a meadow of goldenrod and wild raspberry on the ridge’s summit “Ready to go back down?”
I eventually had to walk my bike, but only after my tour guides from the Western New York Mountain Biking Association (WNYMBA) had shown me much more of the park. Sprague Brook is WNYMBA’s crowning achievement, a testament to what can be accomplished when expert enthusiasts and government work together for public benefit. Taking me on a tour that mild summer day were three of the men who maintain this achievement: Ben Clauss and TJ Zydel, the president and vice president of WNYMBA, and Greg Culver, proprietor of Sliders Snow Skate Bike in Colden and WNYMBA’s summer festival organizer.
Culver brought me a single-cog bike (increasing in popularity, even among experienced bikers) so I wouldn’t be distracted by changing gears as I tried to manage the sensory overload of speeding through the narrow forest confines. He provided not just my bike, but also advice on adjusting my road style to the much different terrain of root staircase singletrack: continuously feather the front brake with the tip of the finger, brake while pedaling to maintain control, stand to use your legs as the best shock absorber.
In “real life,” Clauss is a dentist and Zydel a salesman, but it quickly became clear that those functions serve primarily as means to more biking adventures. The four of us spent the day taking in a little more than half of Sprague Brook’s twelve miles of gnarly mountain biking trails, and chatting about the state of the sport in Western New York.
“We may not be Moab or Crested Butte,” says Clauss, naming two national mountain biking destinations, “but we have extremely well-engineered trails. In fact, from a design perspective, ours may be better, because ours are newer and incorporate a lot of best-practice guidelines.”
Sprague Brook is a county park, and so the Erie County Department of Parks, Recreation, and Forestry has the final say on what is allowed there. In 2002, the county government’s master plan for park use added mountain biking and, in working together through the decade that followed, WNYMBA and the county have developed a relationship of mutual trust.
“When we put in a new trail, there are rules,” Clauss says. “You don’t just ride through the woods. There are slope requirements; a trail has to be angled to shed water and prevent erosion. All of these things ensure we have minimal impact on the environment. Done properly, mountain biking does no more damage than hiking.”
Looking at the condition of Sprague Brook, it’s clear that the 150-member WNYMBA is more than a riding club. As a sub-chapter of the International Mountain Biking Association, WNYMBA sponsors trail-building workshops put on by national experts, provides maps of local mountain bike areas (including Sprague Brook, Hunter’s Creek, and Ellicottville), hosts a summer festival and evening race series, puts on clinics for beginners and new members, and organizes trail maintenance days. Clauss estimates that last year, his organization put in a thousand volunteer hours in trail upkeep alone. “If it’s nice weather, we ride,” he admits. “But in the spring and fall, when it’s too wet to ride, we do the maintenance.”
That maintenance pays off in safer, better biking experiences; no matter how narrow the openings between tree trunks may have seemed, I knew that my handle bars would fit. That’s a problem rarely encountered when road biking, and is emblematic of how different an experience mountain biking is. Think whitewater kayaking versus flatwater, or skiing back country moguls instead of a sedate bunny hill. The more intense experience has its own rewards, but how does the average bicyclist make the transition?
“There are two scheduled group rides over the summer and more are in the works,” Clauss says. “In addition, there are usually a lot of people just riding at Sprague Brook on Wednesday evenings. This is not a club event or organized in any way, just a lot of people of different ages at different ability levels. There is always someone to ride with.”
It worked on me. By the time we were done, I had learned how to pull out of a skid (keep pedaling), how to trust myself not to careen over the bluff lip, and the joys of feelings the leaves whip past your ears as you stand on the pedals and bounce downhill from root to rock. I was sold by the end of the trip: I need to buy a new bike to hit the singletrack, but an active community of like-minded bikers awaits me when I do.
Brian Castner is the author of The Long Walk, available in bookstores. Learn more at www.briancastner.com.