Great mountain biking just minutes away from downtown Worcester

It was an age when skinny racing-bikes reigned supreme.

In the shadow of Marin County’s Mt Tamalpais, a few guys dusted off and modified some old paper-route bikes and discovered fat tires were the key to freedom from the highways. Their early bikes and single-track trails became legendary. Twenty years later, continual improvements in shifting, braking and shock absorption have shaken the foundation of the bicycle business and made the off-road bike dominant. Regardless of how or where they’re used, the name reflects their original objective: the mountains..

Those early years were truly freewheeling. Once bicycling left the pavement, the quest was on to find the most challenging terrain. In the process, private land was trammeled; some wilderness areas scarred and clashes with hikers and horseback dudes took place. With trails closing behind them, mountain bikers, like Peter Parker, came to realize that “with power comes responsibility”, and a set of guidelines evolved to help minimize damage and personal injury:

  • Stay on trails open to bikers.
  • Ride in small groups (five or fewer).
  • Yield to hikers; anticipate and acknowledge their presence.
  • Don’t litter — keep your cranial tissue in its brainpan and wear a helmet.

Page through most biking mags and you’ll find photos of airborne riders in exotic wilderness settings. In real life, however, gravity is a constant nuisance; the weather is rarely perfect and, when subjected to the appropriate vector forces, clavicles can snap like cheap plastic forks. All of which makes biking so compelling. How else can an adult go exploring, get muddy, scratched up and dead-exhausted in one afternoon? As a bonus, on deep-woods rides, one may even slip the surly bonds of indoor plumbing.

The Worcester area has many back quiet back roads that are great for short rides. The city melts to suburb and exurb within minutes. It continues to surprise to me how easy it is to discover places where ‘Dueling Banjos’ is the theme music. Leave the lycra at home and wear baggy shorts on these rides.

Back in the center of town, not far from the courthouse, is George Street, a 500-foot climb with grade averaging eighteen percent. It’s a thrill ride in a car and tierra sagrada in bicycling history as training ground for Marshall ‘Major’ Taylor.

Major Taylor moved here from Indianapolis in 1899 in large part to escape Jim Crow segregation. He became known as the ‘Worcester Whirlwind’, breaking records and winning races in the early 20th century, a time when champion cyclists, in spite of skin color, could became rich and famous.

See for information about the George Street Bike Challenge, a time trial race held on the hill in July. If you should give it a try, bear in mind there’s no running start and as you grind down toward your granny gear, remember Major Taylor on his one-speed.

To get closer to the mountain biking ideal, it’s best to head for some of the state forests in the region. Not all of them are open to bikes and those that do have trails range greatly in technical challenge. Maps designed specifically for the sport are available at area bike shops (try Fritz’s or Bicycle Alley). I picked up the Rubel Central Massachusetts Bicycle Trail Map and found it crammed with information regarding trails, bike shops, ice cream stands and other advice. In giving bikeways precedence over highways, these guides are a kick for anyone who has fantasized about a world in which bicycles rule.

Although any time spent on a bike is better than wasted otherwise, an intermediate or advanced rider can be feared as a WOMD on paved rail trails overrun with tricycles tykes and people out walking their wiener dogs. At the other end of the technical spectrum are trails that involve rock climbing with a bike slung over your shoulder. It’s wise to purchase your map at a shop run by people willing to listen to what type of biking you’re interested in. In highlighting the parks best suited to your needs, their advice is worth far more than the price of the merchandise and is totally unavailable in the big stores. Also, make sure to get essentials such as water bottles and a helmet the fits correctly.

As to the quality of mountain biking in the area… There are racecourses through brooks and up inclines so steep they become mud hills. Other trails empty to blueberry barrens, loon-haunted cranberry coves and industrial revolution era ruins. Some trailheads are jammed with traffic; others are so quiet I’ve looked up from a snack break to realize I’m eye-to-eye with a deer, an owl or a rearing snake. This past year, on a stony outcropping, I felt able to reach out and touch the wing tip of a vulture silently soaring a thermal. Some might prefer touring forgotten graveyards; others raise dust at gravel pits and industrial brownfields. In Central Massachusetts, it’s your choice.