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Mountain Biking in Rockland Preserve

The Singletracks of Madison’s Rockland Preserve is a pedaling paradise

When Jason Engelhardt first visited Jackson Hole, Wyoming, on a mountain biking trip, he was inspired by how outdoor culture motivated healthy lifestyles. He took that inspiration back to the beautiful Connecticut landscape he loves best.

Engelhardt first worked to bring together Madison Beach and Recreation and other town offices with the Central Connecticut arm of the New England Mountain Biking Association (NEMBA). What started as a community service experience for high school students is now widely regarded as the finest network of mountain biking trails in Connecticut, if not all of southern New England: the Singletracks of Rockland.

While plenty of youthful adrenaline junkies who hurtle over the “table-top jumps” and “skinnies” can be found at Rockland, be careful not to stereotype mountain bikers. The median age of a member of the International Mountain Bicycling Association is 43 years old. They tend to have a college degree and a household income of over $100,000 per year. This confirms what Engelhardt has been seeing over the years as Rockland has grown in popularity.

Engelhardt has noticed that while there are plenty of lone wolf cyclists, group ridership has been changing with the popularity of the sport. Whereas Rockland averaged 20-50 users a week when he started back in 2012, there are now approximately 500 weekly users.

“The groups are beginning to diversify,” he says. “If I see a group of five or six bikers, there are often cyclists of different ages, genders and abilities all in the same group. It is interesting to see the sport changing.”

One such group is the Novakowski family of Old Saybrook, Connecticut. Ted and Lauren picked up mountain biking only about two years ago but quickly got hooked.

“Mountain biking has grown to be a big part of our broader commitment to fitness and it is a big part of my social circle,” says Lauren Novakowski. “That is our social life. The time we spend with each other and friends keeps us connected. The activity is our glue.” Lauren, a former triathlete and champion aquabiker, was accustomed to the loneliness that can come with intense training rides. She now appreciates the social aspect of mountain biking. “I’ve met a lot of people through mountain biking. When we go out with our friends we are looking out for each other,” she says. “It’s sort of a ‘leave no man behind’ mentality. At the end it is fun to relive your ride sometimes even months later, and Rockland’s varied trails provide for a full day.”

Ted and Lauren figure they go mountain biking over 100 times per year.

To support the Novakowskis and other riders like them, Engelhardt and a group of like-minded enthusiasts initially walked the property to visualize the layout of what has grown to over twenty miles of crafted trails that are interconnected with Mt. Pisgah in Durham and other adjacent properties.

Construction really advanced in both quality and quantity after trail building legend Jon Peterson lent his wisdom and expertise to the effort. The trails in Rockland are not just paths meandering through the woods; they are “purpose built” for the enjoyment of bikers, trail runners and others who enjoy varied terrain and mixed challenges. Many of the zigzag climbs up hills for instance, allow for a steadier level of exertion, rather than an overwhelming climb that often requires walking.

Other considerations include highlighting the natural beauty of the landscape, maintaining a flowing ride experience, and environmental considerations such as preventing trail erosion. Whenever there are challenging obstacles there are also trail “arounds” for those who prefer to take a pass.

One Rockland Preserve enthusiast named Ted said this: “It is the custom designed obstacles that make the sport so rewarding, and Rockland is a nice place to ride. It is stimulating but not necessarily dangerous. You can ride to your limits. You can’t help but appreciate the trail designs, the commitment and the time that has been put in.” The result is a rewarding experience for everyone, and the outcomes have exceeded Engelhardt’s expectations. “Sometimes I hang out with my two year old son at the trailhead and chat with people so that he can see their excitement as they come off the trail,” he says.

When constructing the trails, Engelhardt, who is a teacher at Daniel Hand High School in Madison, enlisted the labor of many local organizations. Riders therefore not only enjoy nature’s beauty while on the trails, but the quirky fingerprints of the trailblazers. Riders pass the occasional piece of art carved into a log or stump and then navigate a unique arrangement of rocks placed by the workers. Although the Preserve is well marked with trail names and maps, riders often learn their way by remembering the location of old cars and other “artifacts” dug up during trail construction.

Trail names sometimes evoke the natural geography of the area, and also some local history. The trail “Mary’s Ghost“ for instance is named after the tragic victim of an enigmatic murder in Rockland village back in the nineteenth century that is unsolved to this day. It is the care of the trail design and their maintenance that makes Rockland a mountain biking destination and distinguishes it from other places to ride.

The Rockland trails have allowed Ted and Lauren to maintain the outdoor lifestyle Engelhardt hoped to cultivate here in his native state. For the Novakowskis mountain biking has represented a new sport at just the right time in their lives.

For Lauren, mountain biking provides the same high level of challenge as road biking, but in a vastly different way. “On the trails the big wins or achievements are the little things here and there. Sometimes you make it through a little faster by picking a better line. Improving on the obstacles are my victories now.” Ted adds, “Because mountain biking requires such mental focus, it makes me put everything else down. Business and a demanding schedule don’t creep into my head. It really keeps you in the moment. Putting down the weight of life is a welcome break.”

By spearheading the construction and maintenance of the trails, Engelhardt sought to encourage mountain biking as an entry point for active people to build appreciation for public space and wild outdoor places in all seasons. Ted explains how that has translated for his family and friends: “Mountain biking is so rewarding socially. Being in the presence of other people’s spirit, of other people’s vulnerability. It’s real. It is a shared experience, not virtual. That to me is living.”

Image Credits: Shutterstock

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