2020 Season Recap: Along for the Ride

What a year 2020 turned out to be. Looking back now at what turned out to be Highland’s busiest season to date, it’s hard to believe that back in the spring we weren’t sure whether we’d be able to open at all. Between unprecedented highs and drastic lows, the Highland Family managed to pull off a season of riding we won’t soon forget. As the year comes to a close, we thought we’d take a moment to review the highlights of the Little Season That Could and the circumstances that set it apart:

WINTER

At the beginning of the winter, all of our plans for 2020 were still on track. We stayed busy, as we always do, with preparation for the upcoming season. We removed and replaced our old lift chairs, increasing our uphill capacity by 50%. We constructed the new Welcome Center. We knocked down a wall and expanded the bike shop. We played a lot of pond hockey. For a while, we were fairly confident that our 2020 timeline wouldn’t have to change.

In March, the State of NH issued a Stay At Home order that would be in effect until May 4th. At that point, opening at the end of April as scheduled was rendered impossible. All of our non-essential staff started working from home, while a small operations crew remained onsite to keep up with ongoing construction and some limited trail work. 

On May 5th, a few members of our team joined a video conference with representatives from other bike parks all around the Northeast. Together we broke down all of the different aspects of bike park operations that would be affected and traded notes and ideas for adapting to COVID-19. We hoped to unify the experience for riders as much as possible, so that no matter what park or parks you visited you’d know roughly what to expect. Though the sport has been growing exponentially in recent years, mountain biking is still a relatively small, tight-knit community. We knew a ‘best’ response would never be one-size-fits-all—guidelines and restrictions differed from state to state, and no two bike parks operate exactly the same—but everyone on that call shared a common goal: to do right by our fellow riders and get back outdoors. We left the call with few concrete answers, but a renewed energy fueled by the reminder that so many of us were in this together.

Every week leading up to our new opening day on May 27th, the Highland team met to prepare for a season that promised to be anything but ordinary. With limits on pass sales implemented, signage and six-foot spacing marked all around the mountain, and plenty of masks and sanitizer delivered, we were finally as ready as we could be. There was nothing left to do but huck and pray.

 

SPRING 

Opening Weekend is always a whirlwind of challenges. The first day of a new season is trial-by-fire for a fresh batch of new employees, and this year even the most seasoned members of our team had plenty of new procedures to adjust to. Normally we have a few days off after the weekend to decompress and regroup, but we’d already committed to opening up seven days a week from the get-go so that our season pass holders could make up for the early season weekends we’d lost. 

We’ve said it before but it bears repeating: we can’t thank you all enough for your patience, understanding, and cooperation as we grappled with opening the park under such unusual circumstances. The Highland Family really is something special.

The first true shock was Wednesduro. In previous years, we’d grown to expect the same relatively small group of familiar faces each week. On the first Wednesduro of the year, more than double the usual number of riders showed up to earn their turns. Okay, we thought. That’s a bit of a jump. We figured it was a fluke: after all, we’d all just spent months cooped up at home. Presumably this unprecedented enthusiasm for pedaling would fizzle out by the next week. Anyway, you may have heard about what happens when you assume. Surprise! We were wrong. The second Wednesduro of 2020 saw more than two hundred riders, a number so absurd it still kind of feels like we made it up. After a hasty meeting, the no-brainer decision was made: going forward there would be TWO nights of uphill traffic. 

  • “What should we name the second night?”
  • “Doesn’t matter; everyone’s going to call it Thursduro no matter what.”
  • “True. Okay, send it.”

And thus, Thursduro was born. For the remainder of the season, you all took full advantage. We won’t be looking back.

 

SUMMER

With spring riding cut short, summer showed up fast: and with it, The Great Dust Bowl of 2020. How long did we go without rain? Impossible to recall; we’ve blocked it from our memory. Trails were fast, they were fun, but they were dusty. Struck by a poorly timed coughing fit in the backyard? “Don’t worry, I’m not contagious: I just inhaled half of Happy Hour.” Trail Crew adjusted to the drought by setting up gravity-driven water systems around the mountain, keeping the dirt at least as hydrated as a lift attendant on his second Red Bull. Still, we all made the most of those long summer days, tearing up the hill from sunrise to sunset.

Enter the 2020 Friday Night Race Series. Revamped with a team racing format, weekly sponsors, a dedicated race crew and our new chip timing system, we were ready to crank up the competition and really get the good times rolling. Weekly prizing was raffled off, giving all race participants a chance to take home goods from Mutt Society, Athletic Brewing, POC, Shred, Rothrock Coffee, and the Highland Bike Shop. (Congratulations to the Payson family, who walked away with a raffle prize every week: share some good luck with the rest of us, would you?) Competition was steep, but it was also strategic: the breakaway winning team (self-titled, though appropriately, ‘Speed Team’) swept the top spots in five different demographic categories, giving them an untouchable point total week after week. Those top spots were well-earned: Speed Team member (and Highland Bike Shop mechanic) Matt Driscoll also took home the title of Eastern States Cup Pro Overall Champion at the end of the season.

One of the most exciting things about 2020 was the opening of Lower NE Style: our first new trail since the construction of Freedom Trail in 2017. Lower NE Style construction began at the end of last season, then took off in earnest earlier this year. New sections of trail were opened periodically throughout the summer as Trail Crew made their way steadily down the mountain. Watching their progress from the lift was a highlight of every run. (Work on the final feature is ongoing: stay tuned for more updates throughout the off season.)

Meanwhile, a few builders from Highland Trails were busy working on Phase Two of the downhill mountain biking trails at Loon Mountain, laying the groundwork for their new blue square trail Derailer. Ropes dropped on Derailer at the beginning of August. James, Zach, and Whitney deserve a special shoutout for putting in the work both at home and away this season.

This was definitely a summer of progression, and we loved watching it unfold. Coach Peter Spang became the first (and possibly only?) person to backflip the wooden roller on Bonesaw. Chad “Steak” DeLuca nailed a 360 off of the New Growth drop followed by a backflip, putting on a mind-blowing show for folks passing by on the chairlift. David Lieb kept doing his David Lieb thing, giving us something new to marvel at day after tireless day. On a random afternoon in August, we watched lady shredders Brooke Trine, Tania Lillak, Riley Miller, and Chelsea Read start picking their way down the slopestyle course, setting the stage for an explosion of women’s progression in the later half of the season. You truly love to see it.

 

FALL

If you thought the stoke might slow down in the fall, you’d be wrong. By September, progress on Lower NE Style had made it all the way to Tombstone, where Trail Crew dropped the ropes on our newest wooden feature: Stepping Stone. Running parallel to Tombstone, riders are able to use Stepping Stone as—you guessed it—a stepping stone as they progress from the popular drops on intermediate trails like Cats Paw and the much larger features around the mountain. This became a  popular session spot as more and more people crossed both drops off their bucket list and started mastering new tricks.

Speaking of tricks, this year’s (virtual) Brodown Showdown brought out the best of them. The online format gave participants plenty of time to dial in their lines and show off their style: the winning clips from Max Abrams, Riley Miller, Dareck Graham, Dustin Iverson, Peter Spang, James Angiulo, and Xavier Violette make that pretty clear. Hopefully next season we’ll be able to throw down in a crowd again, but for now it’s fun to revisit your creative responses to an unusual event.

Fall riding in New England is unlike anywhere else, and the crisp air and bright foliage definitely did not disappoint this year. So many people were still coming out to ride that we extended summer hours for the first time ever, staying open seven days a week through the end of September so we could all fit in as many laps as possible.

On Halloween, we broke out the timing system again for a festive race down Hellion. Course conditions ran the gamut from peanut butter mud to crisp frosted dirt: and of course, everyone was well-costumed. Highlights included a headless horseman who somehow managed to fit an actual pumpkin over his helmet, a Top Gun tandem bike, E.T., an elaborate chicken costume (‘mother clucker’, if you will), and just about every Mario Party character under the sun. With a campfire and s’mores in the backyard, mountain-wide pumpkin hunt, costume contest, and music provided by Red Bull, the whole day was packed with outdoor fun. The funds raised from race registration combined with those from the Accomplice screening earlier in the fall allowed for the Highland Family to make a donation of $4,000 to spinal cord research at Wings for Life this year.

And just like that, closing weekend was upon us. Obviously, circumstances did not allow for our annual S’Ender Bash (not really the year for a blowout party in the lodge) but don’t worry: when the time is right, we’ll be back and better than ever. Despite the mellow atmosphere it felt good to wrap up an unforgettable season among our Highland Family, which has grown exponentially in the last six months. 

We want to once again thank all of you who joined us out on the trails this year. Whether you’ve been riding with us since 2006 or didn’t catch the biking bug until the onset of the pandemic, we’re all looking forward to many more laps in the future. We’re already counting down the days until we open back up in April. In the meantime: stay safe, stay rad, and we’ll see you on the other side.

 

 

Catch up on the Highland Is Home video series:

Ep. 1: One Passion | Featuring Nick Guiod, Joe Kidder, Josh Moreau, and Cari Bernash
Ep. 2: Trail Crew | Featuring James Patterson, Jordan Kemerling, Whitney Poulin, Zach Hancock, and Justin Lagassey
Ep. 3: One-Stop Shop | Featuring Wayne DeVingo, Anthony Lombardi, Dustin Iverson, Kyle Matzke, and KaJay Rooke

Coming Soon:
Ep. 4: A Women’s Perspective | Featuring Chelsea Read, Brooke Trine, Dawn Bourque, and Tania Lillak