When the Fellowship of the Wheel started, it was a loose association of friends who would mountain bike and build trails – unsanctioned, rogue trails.
Now the organization is responsible for over 130 miles of mountain biking trails around Chittenden County.
They were the one of the first mountain biking clubs to join the Vermont Mountain Biking Association. Now, the Fellowship of the Wheel is the largest mountain biking chapter in the state and the Vermont Mountain Biking Association is second-largest state mountain biking club in the United States, behind Washington State, said former president Steve Fischer.
Program director Rosy Metcalfe said that the Fellowship of the Wheel had 1,400 members last year.
“When I started doing this, it was rare to see a mountain bike on a car,” said Hans Jenny, the founder of Fellowship of the Wheel. “Now Catamount’s Wednesday Mountain Bike Race Series is the longest standing race series in the country.”
These days, mountain biking is the fastest growing sport in Vermont and the Fellowship of the Wheel is getting membership growth of 20 percent a year, said Fischer.
All of this probably wouldn’t have happened if Jenny’s son Jade hadn’t started pestering Jenny in the early 1990s when Jade was 8 years old and wanted to go mountain biking. Jenny said that when Jade was 9, he finally relented and they went to Catamount Outdoor Family Center and rented a couple of bikes.
“I had never even heard about mountain biking,” Jenny said. “We rode for a couple of hours.”
Before they went home, they stopped at Earl’s Cyclery and Hans bought a couple of mountain bikes.
“After that, it was game over. I was mountain biking every spare moment,” he said.
Founding of Bliss Racing
Jenny didn’t like seeing his sons playing video games, so he started a mountain bike racing club, Bliss Racing, a team for kids from 10 years old through high school.
Bliss Racing spawned a number of top-ranked junior racing champions in cross country and downhill mountain bike racing, including Lea Davison, Jenny said. Davison was in the last two Olympics in mountain biking and has been on the world cup circuit for around eight years.
“Back then, the only place to ride was Catamount and the kids had ridden there so much. And at some races the kids were faced with more challenging tails,” Hans said.
So, Hans and the team got into the business of building trails.
“We didn’t really move any earth. We just cleared a path and whatever presented itself was what was there.”
Which meant some of the trails were risky to ride.
Now, Jenny had discovered another passion.
“I became so obsessed with trail building that it cut into my mountain biking,” he said. “I’d get up a 4 a.m. I did it relentlessly from sun-up to 8 or 11 in the morning, four or five days a week.”
One day, Jenny was riding in the Hinesburg Town Forest and he ran into Mickey Stone, who was running. They got to talking, and Stone mentioned that he was a landscape designer.
Stone had a background in hydrology, geology, ecology and education. He seemed like a perfect person to help with trail building.
That was in 2000, when Stone started working on trails with the Fellowship of the Wheel, and he believes they had five or six miles of trails.
Recruited for the Hinesburg Town Forest
On another day, Stone and Jenny were mountain biking and met Stephen Russell, who was steward of the Hinesburg Town Forest for 55 years.
Russell told them how upset he was with four wheelers tearing up the forest, creating bogs to run their vehicles through.
“We said, ‘We’re mountain bikers and we’ll help.’ And he said, ‘You can build trails and help steward the forest and help keep these engines off the forest,” said Stone.
“We looked at each other. We had about 1,200 acres where we could go in and build trails. At that time nobody really knew what trail building was about. We called it ‘rake and ride.’ Now, we look at which way water is running, the soil type and structure, the forest structure,” said Stone, who is now the Fellowship of the Wheel’s trail director. “We look at local flora and fauna. We don’t want to upset certain habitats.”
And they move some earth and shape trails. During the summer, they even rent an excavator for a week or so.
Fellowship of the Wheel has a small paid staff. Besides Metcalfe and Stone, there is a trail crew of Eric Winter and Walt Silbernangle, who work part-time and seasonally. But all of the organization’s growth and progress is made possible by an army of volunteers.
“A little over 300 people a year volunteer with us on trail work days and put in about 2,500 hours,” said Stone.
After 12 years at the helm of Fellowship of the Wheel, Jenny turned it over to Fischer.
“That was my baby and it as hard to walk away from, but it was time to turn over to a fresh generation and make way for the paid trail crew,” Jenny said.
“Hans is the visionary guy. He did everything out of his house. He got trail work organized and got volunteers,” said Fischer. “He did an awesome job and got it to its first plateau. I joined, got a diverse board and I can’t take a lot of the credit.
During his Fischer’s tenure, the organization joined VMBA, the membership more than quadrupled and the budget doubled.
In her year as program director, Metcalfe said that most of her best memories are group rides. Of particular note was a women’s group ride last summer at Mud Pond in Williston.
“We had a ton of women show up and they were all different abilities. Some of them were really good riders; some were pretty new to the sport,” she said. “One of the great things about Mud Pond is you don’t have to climb real high to get to the cool stuff. There’s a lot of cool rock features and bridges that are right there.”
So, as a group they could gather together. She loved how the beginners could try the obstacles and the experts were there to coach them.
“It’s just so cool when you get group of people together and how you can see people learn so quickly,” Metcalfe said. “Some of the women who showed up for this ride are now coming to our rides regularly, and they’ve met friends that they’re hanging out with outside of the rides. I use this hashtag a lot: #trailsbuildcommunity. And it’s great to see that happen in person.”
One of the things she wants Fellowship of the Wheel to focus on is diversity. She said that “the stereotype is a 25-35 year-old white dude.” She wants to have more women’s rides, family rides and rides for kids. She wants to expand the participation to include “any kind of people that you might not be used to seeing on mountain bikes, that might not necessarily feel like they’re welcome, to make them feel more included regardless of race, ability, social or economic status.”
One of the things that everyone with Fellowship of the Wheel talked about is their work on adaptive mountain bike trails. Part of their excitement is fueled by a grant the group received to fund making a trails system at Sunny Hollow in Colchester more accessible to adaptive mountain bikes, for people who don’t have the use of their legs.
Adaptive mountain bikes usually have three wheels – two in front and one in back. The rider can either sit with their feet forward or their hands forward and hand-crank the peddles.
“The only hitch,” said Metcalfe, “is the width of the bike, sometimes manmade bridges, usually it’s manmade stuff, that stops them from getting where they need to go.”
So, the grant will help widen the trails, the bridges and structures.
“This is sort of a new thing that mountain bike organizations in the United States and around the world are starting to realize that we can do this because adaptive mountain bikes are getting better and more accessible,” said Metcalfe. “That’s a really exciting thing that’s happening this summer.”
Part of Fellowship of the Wheel’s goal of is not only to introduce a wider diversity of riders to the sport, but to make the actual trails more diverse and working on both ends of the skill level spectrum. She said that their trail network has a lot of good trails for riders on the intermediate skill level.
“We don’t have as many trails that are great for beginners and families, or people on adaptive mountain bikes,” said Metcalfe. And they are also working “on the opposite end of the spectrum, on some more technical, downhill-focused trails.”
To that end is a new trail in Sleepy Hollow trail system, where all of the trails have Star Wars names. She said the newest trail is “a more technical, steeper, rockier trail.”
And it’s sanctioned.