This article first appeared in the September/October 2023 issue of Adventure Cyclist magazine.
In 2020, I went for a mountain bike group ride in one of Vermont’s town forests. Greg Durso, an adaptive rider on a mountain trike, was on the ride. I didn’t know what that would mean; I had never ridden with an adaptive rider. Durso is paralyzed from the nipples down and as adventurous as anyone I know.
The group hammered from the parking lot, and it was immediately clear that if someone held up the group, it wouldn’t be Durso. We rode technical rocky terrain, steep climbs, and slippery descents. Durso kept pace easily … until we got to the first bridge. It was too narrow for Durso’s 29-inch-wide trike. We stopped, carried Durso and his bike across, and resumed riding until the next bridge.
It was a raucous and fun afternoon that ended with high-fives and laughter in the parking lot. But I left that ride thinking how dumb it was that a bridge was the obstacle that interrupted the experience for Durso and for all of us, and how easy that would be to fix, and what other ways trails are or aren’t adaptive. When Richmond Mountain Trails (RMT), a grassroots nonprofit trail club I cofounded in 2017 that I am now president of, had the opportunity to build a new trail network on private land in Bolton, Vermont, the board made the bold commitment to make the entire network adaptive optimized.
Adaptive means passable by a trail-ready trike. It doesn’t mean ADA-compliant, which is wheelchair accessible. Adaptive cycles let people with spinal cord injuries and other physical restrictions ride.
“People get confused with the term adaptive-friendly,” said Durso. “They underestimate what that means. Adaptive trails don’t have to be dumbed down; they just need to be a little wider, without bermed turns on the climbs.”
Equipment for adaptive athletes used to be much harder to access. Although most adaptive mountain bikes (aMTBs) are still custom ordered, these days adaptive sports organizations provide demos, instruction, and support, and adaptive-friendly trails are helping the sport of adaptive mountain biking thrive. One such organization, the Kelly Bush Foundation (KBF) has raised and granted over $6 million to adaptive athletes for sports equipment, from bikes to sit skis and more.
“It’s a really cool time to be involved with adaptive riding,” said RMT Board Member and Level 2 adaptive mountain bike instructor Rob Galloway. “Adaptive mountain biking is really just hitting its stride. Bikes are more capable than they’ve ever been, and it’s really satisfying to be able to build trails to help adaptive mountain biking reach its potential.”
“People are often really surprised by what our bikes can go down and what they can actually handle,” said Durso. “I’ve done trail assessments, and a lot of times trails work better than people realize. It’s often [only] small changes that need to be made to make a trail more inclusive.”
The Driving Range, the first fully-adaptive trail network in the East and one of the first in the U.S., is built on a 256-acre parcel of land shared with a maple sugaring operation. When it opens on August 3, 2023, it will be the first fully adaptive trail network in Vermont, the first in the East, and one of the few in the U.S. It’s being built by community volunteers who put more than 3,000 hours into the project so far. When complete, the seven miles of trails will have been built by professional trail builders and volunteers, some of whom have worked on this project weekly for two seasons.
When it opens, riders will be able to climb a switchbacking, conversational-pace, fern-lined ascent two miles deep into the leafy hardwood forest, and descend loamy catch berms, bare schist slabs, through massive boulders and cliff faces, through the muted solitude of pine forest, and up and over bridges that are plenty wide. The hybrid machine- and hand-built flow trail descends to a landing where riders can take a break and watch people hit a sizeable rock gap jump, or drop immediately into a progressive tabletop jump trail, a hand-built technical trail that rolls and curves down and around rock faces that sparkle with shiny mica, or a third flow and jump trail being built by YouTube personality and former downhill pro rider, Phil “Skills with Phil” Kmetz. In fall 2024, the network will be complete.
The terrain is steep and the trails are progressive, with green, blue, blue +, black, and double-black options. Every trail has an adaptive-rideable line, which is the main line. Some trails have optional non-adaptive features.
Our goal was to build a new riding zone with the same rugged character and challenge as neighboring zones, one that’s adaptive-friendly and fun for everyone. We wanted to show that trails can be inclusive without compromise. If you’re not an adaptive rider, you’d probably never realize this network is designed for three-wheeled aMTBs piloted by differently abled thrill seekers unless you read the kiosk. The trails require skill and concentration. They’re fun on any type of bike.
RMT’s all-volunteer board treated this project like a second job to get it done in record time. When we started this build, there was no manual for how to construct adaptive trails without a massive budget. The network came to life through the passion, curiosity, and stubbornness of RMT’s board. Before the first shovel of dirt was moved, we asked professional trail builders to scout with us and give us a quote for building. The first one said that the zone “didn’t go,” that it was too steep and loose to build there. So we figured it out ourselves, eventually hiring that builder to come back and make the trail.
“Trail building satisfies a part of my brain, a problem-solving part,” said civil engineer and RMT board member Merrick Gillies. “Getting to tackle a new form, looking at the woods in a different way, has been super engaging and fulfilling. Having a new set of guidelines, while also incorporating old skills and habits, allows for a fun blend of sensibilities that works for all-wheel configuration. Working to integrate uphill corners into the landscape, progressing from having to constantly build and revise to being able to visualize those corners and how they should flow when we’re flagging before we start digging is a really satisfying feeling.”
So many individuals, business, and foundations recognized the value of what we’re doing, from Vermont to Colorado and California. We’re a grassroots nonprofit with a $20,000 annual budget, not a ski resort or massive trails organization like Trailblazers in northwest Arkansas, which manages 500 miles of trails and is primarily funded by the Walmart Waltons. OnX, Yeti Cycles, Fox Shocks, Velocio, Suncommon, VMBA, Bivo, Burlington Beer Company, local foundations, other nonprofits, and many community partners and RMT members made this project possible. Now we have paid staff too: a director who works 10 hours a week and accomplishes herculean feats. She helped us raise more than $160,000 last year to pay for trails and a 53-car parking lot we built at the base of the network by request of the town and to be good neighbors. RMT’s executive director, Bec Wojtecki, says that the feeling of community and camaraderie of this project has changed her perspective on what’s possible.
“I haven’t been part of a new trail build before,” said Wojtecki. “Because of the blur created by my own privilege, I didn’t recognize the absence of accessible trails. Now I do. And it’s floored me to be a part of this amazing project. The dedication, the heart, the soul that volunteers have invested is unlike anything I’ve seen before.”
Durso agrees that community involvement is what makes the Driving Range project special. “There are other projects in the U.S. and Canada that are doing a good job and have really large nonprofit organizations backing them. That’s really different from Richmond, where every stakeholder engaged is really excited about this and wants it to succeed. For me, it’s indescribable to get to be with volunteers as they’re working. I always tell them thank you. I don’t think they realize that to feel so much support and so included is an experience that brings tears to my eyes. It inspires me to want to help make sure that this isn’t a singular trail network but a template for how things can be done. When I am here, I feel like this is my community, like these are my trails. I don’t feel like an outsider; I feel like I’m home.”
When you live in a place like Vermont, where mountain biking abounds and the sport is front and center in the outdoor recreation scene, it’s easy to take trail access for granted — unless you’re a mountain biker riding an adaptive bike and you can’t join your posse for the ride.
There are more than a million people in the U.S. with injuries requiring adaptive sports equipment and more than 300,000 people with spinal cord injuries (SCIs). An SCI can happen to anyone in a blink. One second you’re blasting down a gravel road, slithering through tight trees at Stowe Mountain Resort, then you’re in a car accident, hurt on the job, you take a bad fall, or survive an act of violence and you can’t feel your legs anymore, and it’s permanent.
“Mountain biking has been one of the fastest-growing sports in the country over the last five years,” said Durso. “But adaptive athletes have not had the ability to adventure. Adaptive bikes give us the physical ability to access the outdoors, but we need trails to use them on so that we can cover ground and travel through a landscape and have experiences we haven’t been able to have in the past. Being a part of a community that cares, a community that is psyched to build a trail network to support you — and everyone — is a feeling that I can’t really put into words. If you have a disability, you often feel excluded. So to feel included is very overwhelming in one of the best ways imaginable.”
“Visibility is key,” said Bruce Downes, KBF’s senior director of marketing and digital programs. “It’s hugely important for people to see that people are out there making mountain biking work for them regardless of disability and that an inclusive/accessible/universal trail system isn’t boring. An adaptive network can be intense, highly technical terrain. To normalize building adaptive is possible, it’s doable, and it doesn’t detract from anyone’s experience.”
When it comes to building adaptive trails, we’re all still figuring it out. “RMT is creating a model project and showing that the model works,” said Downes. “More and more grassroots organizations want to do this, and they’re either scared it’s too expensive or that it will dumb down the experience. To show that this can be done, done right, and done efficiently will influence other places. A little network in Richmond, Vermont, could be the start of something massive.”
Adaptive cycles are usually three-wheeled, so trails need to be 40 to 42 inches wide. Bridges need to be as wide as trails, or wider in zones with consequence. Trails shouldn’t have must-ride rocks, pinch points, or big features that will stop adaptive bikes from getting through. And trail builders need to keep an eye on the camber. If an adaptive rider tumbles down an embankment because a bridge was tilted toward the slope, or if they blow a berm, they can’t just climb out of the hole like an able-bodied rider. Trails that are too off-camber lead to adaptive bikes flipping or rolling, particularly on climbs. Bench cuts need to be wider to control camber. Corners need to be made more bulbous, and it’s helpful to build rest spots and pull-offs big enough to accommodate an adaptive bike’s long wheelbase plus one or two spotters.
Trails aren’t the only thing you need to think about if you want to build adaptive. Riders need appropriate parking where they can exit a car into a wheelchair, assemble a bike, and then transition from wheelchair to bike. Consider having porta-potties and a changing area that can accommodate a wheelchair. And provide detailed trail descriptions and signage, both at the trailhead and on Trailforks.
You should never claim a trail is adaptive until you’ve had a skilled adaptive rider vet it so modifications can be made before you open it to the public. Greg Durso came out for trail nights every week he could. He’d ride what we built, and we’d spray paint where a corner wasn’t wide enough, or where we needed to tweak an angle. After professional trail builders took their excavators home, we vetted again and had to rebuild bridges and change trail flow. The bridges were wide enough, but an entrance was blind, and one was too gnarly. Six of us spent 30 minutes with Durso just looking at a steep berm to figure out the sweeping exit in a limited real estate zone and if we could make it broad enough.
If you want to build adaptive trails, you need patience, a willingness to learn, and an optimistic outlook. It takes time to relearn how to look at a trail. Two years in, we’re still students.
RMT is one of 29 chapters of the Vermont Mountain Bike Association (VMBA), which leads mountain bike advocacy statewide and provides administrative and financial support to chapters. VMBA has a focused initiative underway to enhance the quality and quantity of adaptive trails throughout the state. They’re partnering with chapters, KBF, and Vermont Adaptive to conduct adaptive assessments statewide. They’re working on universal signage and growing the resource for adaptive athletes.
“We visit networks with the host chapters and take a ride to identify specific changes that need to be made, like improving space for turning radii or widening bridges, and we develop detailed trail descriptions so that adaptive athletes have a clear understanding of what they’re getting themselves into before they start rolling,” said Nick Bennette, VMBA’s executive director.
VMBA is working toward an accessibility inventory of all 1,000-plus miles of Vermont singletrack trails so that they can help adaptive athletes understand the difficulty, and what goes. “The more information we can provide to everybody the better,” said Bennette. “We’re moving away from binary thinking of accessibility and recognizing the spectrum of what an accessible trail can be. Progression is important. We want to create opportunities for beginner, intermediate, and advanced riders and for folks to be able to move through those challenges and progress to harder trails if that’s what they desire. We strive to provide opportunities for all riders to challenge themselves, and to provide places where beginners can dip a toe into a new sport.”
VMBA is positioning Vermont as a hub for adaptive riding. The state has a fair number of adaptive trails, but they’re not publicized as such. Bennette is also chair of the Vermont Trails and Greenways Council (VTGC), a collection of all trail associations in Vermont. Through VTGC, he’s working with state legislators to understand how Vermont can advance accessibility statewide. To help other grassroots clubs that want to build adaptive, I’m working with Bennette and VMBA to lay out guidelines and a summary of what RMT and other clubs in the VMBA network have learned doing adaptive assessments, retrofitting existing trails to be adaptive, and building new ones. The guidelines will be available to all at vmba.org by spring 2024.
I’ve built a lot of trails, but I’ve never built a network from scratch. I’m nervous and a little emotional about the first ride. A posse of volunteers, board members, and Durso pedals to the top. The excitement is palpable. At the bottom, the grins and laughter and teary eyes, and the immediate departure to go do it again are everything I hoped for.
Adaptive trails can feel like the chicken and the egg. I’m asked all the time how many adaptive riders there are in the U.S., and I don’t know. No one does. We’re not the first people building adaptive trails. The Driving Range is just one project that is happening right now.
“The Driving Range project is ahead of the curve,” said Durso. “Other people are trying to do this in other states, but the trails are few and far between. Manufacturers have helped enable access with bikes that can handle technical terrain, organizations like KBF break down the financial barrier for people to get the equipment, but adaptive riders need groups like RMT to help build universal trails to drive the growth of adaptive riding.”
People seem hungry for new riding opportunities, especially adaptive ones. KBF and Vermont Adaptive regularly sell out their adaptive trail clinics. “When we first started to post content on the finished trails showing test runs, the energy and response were outstanding,” said Aiken. “The volume of interest is a clear indication that this type of trail is desired and supported. It’s eye-opening to realize what you can do outside of your nine-to-five to achieve something this big. And it’s inspiring to work to bring a landowner’s property to life and give functional access to beautiful places for all.”
It’s the right thing to do, yet it has still been been a surprisingly rewarding pursuit. “I ride all the time, and I have my choice of limitless combinations of trails,” said Gillies. “Adaptive riders don’t have that. They have a trail here and one there. Being able to provide choices and options for fun, which to me is a critical part of riding, we’re doing that for people on adaptive bikes. It’s awesome.”
Durso, who travels around North America to teach adaptive riding, said that the Driving Range is what he talks about with trail builders in other states. “This is helping us build momentum nationally for adaptive trails. We can have the equipment for adaptive riding, but if there’s nowhere to go, what's the point? Creating universal trails is a big deal.”
I’m humbled to be part of building something great. The blisters, the long hours, the awkward asks for money — it’s worth it to me if it will make someone’s life better. And hopefully, this trail network does just that. I’m looking forward to seeing Durso tonight. Now that we have trails to ride and critique, he’s at trail night to test ride, give feedback, brainstorm, and hang out. I share the sentiment when he said, “To have a firsthand role in building trails — I mean, it really couldn’t be any better.”
“Local projects like the Driving Range are absolutely critical, but just as critical is getting the word out and connecting all the people that want to participate in them,” said Downes.
That’s why KBF created the Active Project — the first online community by and for people with mobility restrictions who want to participate in adaptive sports. Friends, family, caregivers, and physical and occupational therapists are also welcome. In addition to being a place where adaptive sports participants can interact and learn from each other, it’s a portal for information on injury-specific gear compatibility. The site hosts an adaptive sports equipment marketplace and connects people seeking adaptive sports equipment with potential funding sources. The Active Project now has 1,200 users, and KBF is continuing to see that number go up! More than 50 adaptive sports programs are onboarding or have onboarded onto the platform, and KBF is working with United Spinal Association and others to increase adoption across the country.