A Tale of Two Rides - Mountain Biking at Cochran’s
Aug 31, 2020 09:29PM
By Mark Aiken
The snowsports community has long known Cochran’s Ski Area as an incredible family resource; indeed, the nonprofit ski area’s mantra is “No child will be denied the opportunity to ski or ride.”
Conversely, Cochran’s biking center has never been known as family-friendly—or even as an official place to ride. Rather, you would only mountain bike at Cochran’s if you wanted to deal with steep, technical, rooty, and rocky climbs and precipitous sidehills. Trail signage was scarce; chances of getting lost probable. Descents were hair-raising. Some routes were rumored to be uphill both ways. In other words, Cochran’s was for advanced riders only—until now.
True to the nonprofit’s mission, Cochran’s unveiled a pump track and two beginner bike loops this spring. Families, kids, and beginning mountain bikers can gather at Cochran’s to learn on nonthreatening terrain. “We’re subbing bikes for skis,” says Jimmy Cochran, manager at the Ski Area and former alpine ski racer. The cost to ride at Cochran’s? Completely free.
A Tale of Two Rides
Mickey and Ginny Cochran founded the ski area when they moved to the farmhouse along the Winooski River a mile from Richmond’s Old Round Church. The family’s history and homemade rope tow, their World Cup and Olympic skiing accomplishments, their founding of America’s first nonprofit 501(c)(3) ski area, and their introduction of thousands of Vermonters to snowsports is well-documented. Undocumented are summer happenings at Cochran’s—mostly because they’ve been under the radar.
I recently rode at Cochran’s twice in a span of three days—the first ride with Jimmy on the main network and the second with my own kids (ages seven and five) on the pump track and beginner loops. It was a tale of two vastly different riding experiences.
“It’s always been a part of this place,” says Jimmy of trails and biking. I’m not sure why I felt qualified to follow Jimmy on the climb to Skully’s Mile. I bought my mountain bike last year; Jimmy, a two-time Olympian in alpine skiing, has been riding since not long after he learned to ski (that is, young). “We biked everywhere we could,” says Jimmy. “In the yard. In the driveway. In the basement!”
The Skully’s loop is new compared to the original trails built by Richmond biking gurus Tyler Merritt, Aaron Loomis, and others in the late 1990s—trails whose cryptic (and sometimes nonexistent) trail markers in some ways only added to the network’s mystique. (Note: now there’s a bike map at the ski area base and improved signage.) The climb to Skully’s Mile is steep and sustained but—by Cochran’s standards—straightforward. And the sculpted and banked downhill is thrilling. What I lack in biking experience I make up for in endurance built over years of distance running and a lifetime of skiing. Hopefully I didn’t hold Jimmy up too much.
Better Bikes, Better Trails
The sport of mountain biking has blown up since the spring of 2020—the era of COVID-19. “We’re seeing a significant uptick,” says Jimmy, noting that Vermonters have turned to outdoor recreation for their physical and mental health. According to Mike Donahue, Richmond rider and co-owner of Burlington’s Outdoor Gear Exchange, bike sales everywhere have been historic.
But mountain biking has been exploding for a decade. Why? Better bikes and better trails. “It’s hard to overstate how much better and more capable mountain bikes have become,” says Mike. Larger wheels, wider tires, wider handlebars, improved bike geometry and suspension, disc brakes, no front derailleurs (and therefore better shifting), and dropper seat posts give riders increased performance and confidence. “Bikes are substantially more capable and versatile,” says Mike. Meanwhile, volunteer-powered local mountain bike chapters and the Vermont Mountain Bike Association have fueled trail construction—at all ability levels. Grants and donations for the new Cochran’s features came from RiseVT, Outdoor Gear Exchange, Earl’s Cyclery, anonymous sources, and Cochran’s. Meanwhile, Jimmy’s brother Tom organized a GoFundMe campaign. “It’s a partnership of a lot of organizations, and there is a lot of community support,” says Jimmy, noting, in particular, neighbors on Cochran Road. “I hope the experience stays positive for them,” he says.
One young neighbor has been integral in Cochran’s biking evolution. A recent high school graduate, Dana Cabrera got into mountain biking in eighth grade. However, he soon tired of depending on his mom for transportation to novice mountain biking trails. “My buddy and I started riding Cochran’s,” Dana says. “We pretty much had to carry our bikes up.”
Eventually, Dana improved. Still driven by convenience, he longed for a trail connecting his house with the adjoining trail network. With his dad Andy, another avid rider, the two built AC/DC (note the initials)—which quickly became one of the most traveled trails on the network. Before long, Dana was finding work around Vermont as a trail builder to the point that he created his own company—Mountain Trailworx—while still in high school. His most famous trail? Skully’s, the downhill I rode with Jimmy. “We’ve put over 400 hours into building, improving, and maintaining that trail,” Dana says. Why? Because it’s his backyard.
The Second Ride
Cochran’s used two of Vermont’s finest professional trail builders. One was Dana, who built the beginner loop Rock ’n’ Roll (a riff on AC/DC?). The other was Brooke Scatchard, venerated trail builder (and mentor to Dana), who built Brookside.
“They are magicians,” says Jimmy. “They operate mini-excavators, they removed every stone and tree root, and they always keep the final goal in front of mind.” The challenge, says Dana, was building a trail with less than a five percent grade on the side of a mountain.
Which brings me to my second Cochran’s ride—the pump track visit with my kids. My seven-year-old son spent more time running over the bumps and rolls than he did riding. My five-year-old daughter was more enthusiastic about two-wheeling… provided I ran alongside her for moral support. She sang “Wheeeee!” over every roller.
As we headed towards Rock ’n’ Roll then Brookside, it occurred to me as my son carefully navigated the ups and downs and my daughter whooped and “whee”-ed, that we were the end goal Jimmy mentions—new riders. My son was getting a feel for biking independence while my daughter was feeling the exhilaration and adrenaline of trail riding for the first time. “Some of the families we see in winter are showing back up in summer,” Jimmy says with a satisfied smile. And that’s what the Cochran family, and their many supporters, ultimately want.
910 Cochran Road