Find East Burke, Vermont on a map… Found it? Great! You are now privy to one of the best places to ride a mountain bike in North America. This tiny Vermont town is home to The Kingdom Trails, a 120-mile-and-growing network of purpose-built trails that will keep riders of all abilities entertained. The network straddles Darling Hill, broken into the “River Side” and “Town Side,” allowing people to choose their own adventure and ease their way into the rabbit den of trails. After 23 years, what started as some illegally cut ribbons off of snowmobile trails has now turned into a conglomerate of 84 different private landowners who have given permission (and often request to be included) to host stretches of trail on their property.
Bike tourism has become the main source of revenue for the town, which has continued to grow by 30% annually – a staggering statistic that is equally as impressive as their 93,000 annual visitors as of the last count. If ever there was a “bike town,” East Burke could easily claim the title. Being that most businesses are small and privately held, the feel in town is more like a commune as everyone rides and is involved in the scene at some level. With a summer staff of ten full-time hands-on-deck for maintenance, the trails are immaculate (bordering on obsession), there is no litter to be seen, and all skill levels can enjoy the network. Trail markers are handmade and hung high, and roadside signage encourages polite interactions between cars and riders alike. For this reason, it’s easy to understand why CycleLogic decided to have their press camp here.
Arriving at the accommodation put on by Burke Property Rentals, it was at that point we knew this was going to be an awesome few days. Huge duplex condos filled with snacks, beer, and Clif products were our homes and it was mighty fine living! We showed up early to get a few extra miles in while the rest of the media folks flew in from all over.
The next morning, when the early light burned through the fog, the brand staffers from Novatec, Onza, and Smanie, our guides for the camp (Alex McAndrew and Ella Skalwold), and our chef (Amy Mansmann) all gathered for the first of several feasts. Excitement for the days ahead buzzed in equilibrium with the coffee stoke.
That afternoon was one of the hottest days of the summer, hitting 87-degrees with a little humidity on top. After a 14.5-mile “cruise” Ella mapped out for Vital, it was clear that the following day with the full crew of people out in the woods was going to be a properly good time. A welcome feast was held at the Burke Publick House much to everyone’s enjoyment. Our table was a four-person grouping, with the other three being Graham Agassiz, Kimmie Runner from Smanie Saddles, and Amos Horn from Bike Mag. We made sure to cover the important talking points as we dined, from Sasquatch and black holes to Rampage and the merit of holistic remedies. It was a nice pallet cleanse leading up to 48 hours of bike-only talk!
No one had a case of the Mondays as the first day of the camp officially arrived. The night before we’d been fed some top-notch food and drink, leading to a solid sleep, and Amy’s cooking brought us up to speed quickly in the morning. Jake Scott of Novatec and Alex took to explaining the day’s itinerary: “We’re aiming for about 10 miles before lunch, and then another 10 after for those who still want to ride some more.” Alex is a dialed guide – this is his fourth year running Vermont Mountain Bike Tours with his fiancé Ella, plus he has been an Onza and Novatec athlete for about the same amount of time. CycleLogic really found gold in the power duo of Alex and Ella. The plan was simple as stated, and we were all given our steeds for the next two days. We were instructed "to just ride" the components as Jake would be giving us the rundown on the products at lunch. As the thermometer once again started to climb rapidly and the blanket of humidity settled over us, the day got underway.
Looking old-school cool with skinwall Citius tires from Onza and Novatec's Diablo XL wheels, the ride started with an easy climb up to a trailhead called “Moose Alley” with Alex setting an eager pace. He hadn’t ridden in three days, but we were just as keen to put in another day of wicked riding after the previous day's prologue. With Neko Mulally and the other editors riding up front too, the group quickly picked up speed. Beginning down Moose Alley, all dropper posts got slammed and the smattering of skittles that were Smanie’s brand new n.spire seats took on a look of wildflowers in a field.
Smanie n.spire Saddle Highlights
- Designed and engineered in Italy for trail and enduro use
- Studied and put through pressure tests by bio engineers at Ohio State University
- Materials: EVA padding with microfiber cover Sizes: 136mm // 146mm // 156mm
- Colors: Black // White // Red // Blue // Green
- Chromoly rail: MSRP $79 // 215g
- Titanium rail: MSRP $110 // Weight TBA
- Carbon rail: MSRP $189 // 157g
- More info: www.smaniesaddles.com
Clearly not interested in showing us the other flora, Alex took off at a dead sprint down the trail – camp was off to a wicked start! Riding blind behind a local guide and Pro ripper quickly got wild, and product testing started immediately as side knobs got leaned to the max, wheels got hammered into corners, and seats became rudders as we all went sliding through the dusty turns and charging into roots. That was just in the first three minutes of the ride. Heck yes!
We connected over to the White School trail to take some photos and video clips with Jared Kleinberg and Henry Miles – because pics or it didn't happen, right? We played leapfrog with the actual media guys throughout the day, leading to a lot questionable riding and close calls – all in the name of testing, of course! “Skydive” trail had us death-gripping and putting a lot of trust in the equipment and each other, and after that it was up to “Farm Junk” where we descended past random vestiges of a bygone era. Some cruisy singletrack and open fields kept us underway to lunch at Village Sport’s The Hub, which is a great trailside barn turned into a shop and bar. Fistfuls of wraps and cookies were consumed, coffee was ingested, and water storage was topped off. Once blood sugar, sodium, and caffeine levels were balanced again, Jake gathered us in the shade of a giant maple tree to go over some Novatec wheel tech. A wide 30mm internal width, welded seams, and 3-degree engagement were what caught our attention. The mellow info session was capped off with ice cream sandwiches… camp indeed!
Novatec Diablo XL Wheelset Highlights
- Enduro/all-mountain wheelset with DH roots
- 27.5 and 29-inch sizes
- Hand built
- Tubeless ready micropeened rim profile
- Heat cured graphics
- 30mm internal rim width
- Sleeved rim joint
- Boost-only 15x110mm front and 12x148mm rear hub
- 3-degree engagement
- Shimano or SRAM cassette compatible
- Anti-bite guard
- Replaceable sealed bearings
- 32 stainless double butted j-hook spokes per rim with 3X lacing // 14mm DSN alloy spoke nipples
- Includes four spare spokes and nipples
- Weights: Rim - 546g // Front wheel - 950g // Rear wheel - 1,090g // 2,040g per pair (27.5)
- MSRP: $650
- More info: www.novatecusa.net
The heat was beating us down after our shaded education and calorie crush, but the stoke to ride pushed all the groaning of tired limbs out to pasture and we got the second half of the day underway. Those of us still wishing to ride followed Alex back out for another loop on the far river side of the forest. We blasted down “Troll Stroll” en route to our history lesson for the day: The loop was specifically to show us one of the original sections of trail that started the whole Kingdom Trails movement back in 1994. The original pirate track is called “Webs,” and it's a sandy pine forest track perfect for drifty insides and wild scandi-flicks. Onza's Citius tires bit and clawed, the Novatec Diablo XL wheels kept the whole show going in the correct direction, and the Smanie n.spire saddle provided a moment's rest on the straights.
Feeling learned and fired up, we put in a nice grind up a mellow set of switchbacks on “Burrington Bench.” The late day heat did its best to slow things down, but thankfully the rubber/wheel combo rolled like a treat. We crossed over Darling Hill Road to the town side before pedaling up to “Heaven’s Bench,” the peak of Darling Hill and a picturesque 360-degree view of the area. After a quick photo-op we were off again. Descending to finish the day we rode “Ridge,” “Pines,” and “Herbs,” finishing out at a swimming hole literally a stone’s throw from The Foggy Goggle Osteria, where tacos awaited for dinner.
The fun wasn’t over though. RC truck racing! Alex had built a track across the road and had four trucks from Horizon Hobby for us to race. We battled through qualifying heats and were seeded bracket-style for the Final the next day. To say that most of us are better at riding bikes would be a huge understatement, but what we lacked in skill we made up for through enthusiasm and heckling.
The next morning has us feeling like The Walking Dead – perhaps two big days in the heat wasn’t the best idea, but sometimes fun can’t wait! More tasty calories from Amy and endless coffee had our bleary eyes regaining their sparkle and tight legs found their bounce. With hive-like precision, everyone somehow managed to get kitted up and ready without prompting. When the door of the U-Haul was opened up and a ramp slid out, bikes rolled and feet shuffled over like a flock of weird sheep.
Riding bike park laps on trail bikes is almost the new norm, but the way Burke Mountain has been built a DH bike would have been overkill. The lower hill is fast, machine-built jump tracks and berm blasting runs. We were outfitted with Aaron Gwin's signature Onza Aquila tire and channeled some of his skill on the dusty hardpack. We started out on the jump trail, Jester, as a warm-up. For the second run we shredded down the more natural track of Black Forest. Finally, we topped off on a fresh track used for a recent local race – lead out this time by Ella.
Lunch was put on at the hotel on the mountain by Burke Mountain Resort, replete with air conditioning. A presentation was put on for the tires after lunch, where we covered the interesting history of Onza and tire design. The company’s rise back into the limelight was accelerated by joining forces with the YT MOB team, and the brand's position in the industry is now seemingly secure after rolling out a winning tire in the first year of the tire’s lifespan.
Onza Aqulia Tire Highlights
- 27.5 x 2.4-inches
- Uninterrupted vertical channel and refined edge knobs for maximum bite
- Aggressive braking edges with shallow sipes for added traction and feel
- Center and side knob aligned for maximum cornering predictability and increased feel through mid-lean angles
- DH versions: DHC casing with RC2 45a or VISCO GRP 40 rubber // 1,325g
- Trail version: FRC casing with dual compound RC2 55a/65a rubber // 940g (Coming Spring 2018)
- MSRP: $80
- More info: www.onza-tires.com // Interview with Gwin // New trail version
Onza Citius Tire Highlights
- 26 and 27.5 x 2.4-inches
- Designed for dry, shallow depth surfaces
- Densely packed knobs throughout center section for fast rolling performance
- DH versions: DHC casing with RC2 45a or VISCO GRP 40 rubber // 1,160-1,310g
- Enduro versions: EDC casing with dual compound RC2 65a/55a or 55a/45a rubber // 1,110-1,125g
- Trail versions: FRC casings with dual compound RC2 65a/55a rubber // 900-955g (Skinwall available)
- MSRP: $80
- More info: www.onza-tires.com
Full of food and knowledge, we all clambered back out to the bike rack and followed Dylan Conte, a local Pro racer and coach, down Roly Grail. Things stayed upright, but only just – unfortunately Aaron Gwin’s talent is not sold with the tires, which makes sense.
Eager to see one of the trails descending from the mountain's summit, we piled into the U-Haul once again. With the transmission smelling less than happy and radiating a lot of heat, we finally reached the top as the sun was hanging low atop the Green Mountains out to the west. As people took a few iPhone bangers for the ‘gram, Alex hollered to gather everyone around. A small description of the trail ahead was given, “Ride smart!” The trail that came at us was proper bedrock, tech corners, and sniper lines. It was a riot and everyone was fired up. At the midway point the main group went with Dylan down Roly Grail again while Alex held a few of us back for a special run. We aren’t at liberty to say much about what transpired, but know that the run was one of the most notable descents we’ve ridden in a while. It was the kind of run where you don’t remember much detail, just some Star Wars blur and a big grin, which was exactly the kind of bookend the camp deserved.
We rolled back to the parking lot and quickly hustled across town. The side quest was to a local brewery called Next Trick Brewing. They had pints, flights, and tastings available for the visit. It was a nice social cool-down. We arrived back to base to the smell of smoked meat, which was a real treat. Back Road BBQ is made up of three super nice dudes who like to cook tasty food. As one of them said, “Never trust a skinny chef!” These guys were the real deal and were excited to share their craft with us.
Fed and logy, we all sauntered over to the RC track for the day’s real main event, the RC truck finals! The track had been reshaped and refreshed, providing some new challenges and much, much bigger jumps. Things quickly got wild, and as the brackets got whittled down we had to retire two of the trucks which had succumbed to the bad driving of everyone in attendance. Head-to-head racing meant single-driver advancement, which was almost more exciting than four-truck heats. The semi-finalists were Vital, Bike Mag, Mountain Bike Action, and Alex representing Vermont Mountain Bike Tours. After some tight and reckless driving, it was Amos from Bike Mag who won the surprise trophy belt. The hand-crafted belt was made by Ella from old parts from the Village Sport Shop and spray painted gold for good measure.
The wheels and tires got the test they deserved on the final fall-line descent with high-speed loamy goodness and roots aplenty, finally putting the Aquila tires and Diablo XL wheels through the paces. The Aquila’s blocky side knobs have huge support with Onza's stouter DHC casing and RC2 45a rubber. Traction was very predictable and leaning into corners felt intuitive. The tire wants you to trust it. With a squarer-shaped center tread it stops in a hurry, which is surprising considering how fast it rolls. We're excited to put these to the test on more trails in the coming months.
Novatec's Diablo XL wheels proved to be properly compliant for their intended use, never laterally winding up in corners and maintaining straight-line accuracy despite the best attempts of the many rocks and roots. The hubs are also a treat thanks to quick engagement.
After two days in the saddle, the Smanie n.spire seat proved to be a sturdy perch from which to enjoy the Vermont countryside. We could have personally used a wider version, but from a standpoint of function, shape, and overall design, it certainly makes for a nice spot to sit.
We’d like to thank CycleLogic and BikeFettish, their US importer, for putting on a very different kind of press camp – one with character, friendly faces who live the sport, and general focus on having fun and experiencing the product through use instead of spreadsheets full of numbers. Alex and Ella provided us with a riding experience that we won’t ever forget, and it was their excellent knowledge of the trails and how to manage a group of 30 people which made the whole riding experience sublime. From where we stayed and ate to the locals we met and the scene we were immersed in, it felt more like a weekend getaway with new friends than it did a product testing session. Vermont's Kingdom Trails should be on everyone's must-ride list.
Listen in for some personal accounts from the experience:
Photos by Zach Faulkner, MadKats Productions and Backroads Creative