Photo: Will Niccolls Photography
Photo: Will Niccolls Photography

Mountain Biking the DMV

On an early summer Saturday at Rosaryville State Park in Upper Marlboro, Maryland, a half-dozen early risers congregate in a parking lot, stretch their limbs, and strap on helmets and gloves before climbing onto brightly colored mountain bikes.

Moments later, excited hoots and hollers pierce the muggy morning air, followed by a whoosh of kinetic energy as the group drops single file into a dense forest trail under a cooling canopy of hardwood trees surrounded by fragrant wildflowers. The 80-minute ride around a 10-mile loop – just a half-hour from downtown Washington – sends these riders hurtling down ravines, chugging up hills, blasting through creek beds, and hopping over occasional logs and rocks. It will also leave them flecked with mud, covered in sweat and grinning from ear to ear.

It’s a scene that plays out hundreds of times each week throughout the Mid-Atlantic region, which over the past decade or so has become one of the nation’s premier mountain biking locales. Northern Virginia and Southern Maryland offer dozens of excellent trail riding options an hour or less from DC, a fact that surprises some considering the region’s relatively low altitude and urban setting.

Martin Fernandez, who has written three outstanding books about biking in the DMV area – including Mountain Biking Virginia and Mountain Biking the Washington, D.C./Baltimore Area – told On Tap that the region is “a virtual mecca for mountain biking.”

“We’re lucky,” Fernandez said. “In Virginia, coupled with the riding trails available in Maryland and bordering Pennsylvania and West Virginia, you could spend several years and not ride all of what is available.”

A big chunk of the credit for the sport’s growth in the area can be attributed to the Mid-Atlantic Off-Road Enthusiasts (MORE). Now celebrating its 25th anniversary, the nonprofit recreational organization started out as a club of about 30 mountain bikers; it now boasts more than 1,500 members and is steadily growing. Ernie Rodriguez, who has served as MORE’s president for the past four years, said the group’s mission is reflected in its slogan: “Riding bikes and building trails since 1992.”

“Everything goes under that – the social experience, the advocacy effort, the communication with public land managers, and the building and maintenance of trails,” Rodriguez explained over hamburgers and beers at MORE’s annual summer celebration at Seneca Creek State Park in Maryland last month.

As we talked, about a hundred people of all ages were heading out for, or returning from, trail rides in the lush green park. They milled about – chatting and laughing, swapping bike and trail tips, and professing their love for the sport. Local bike shops and national bike manufacturers showed up to provide free bike swag, bike maintenance and demo rides on fancy new models.

MORE’s work is entirely volunteer-based, and its members don’t just ride bikes and rock cookouts – they get to work. MORE volunteers devoted more than 6,000 hours of labor on area trails last year alone. The group maintains more than 400 miles of natural-surface trails in 41 state and county parks throughout the region, and has constructed nearly 100 miles of new, sustainable trails. The club also leads hundreds of rides each year at area parks, ranging from beginner to intermediate to advanced.

While men often seem to outnumber women on area trails, that could be changing. Anne Mader, owner of The Bike Lane – a full-service bike shop with locations in Reston and Springfield – said she is selling more mountain bikes to women than ever before, and that manufacturers are making bikes specifically designed for them. Mader sometimes teams up with MORE to offer riding clinics for women.

“Twenty years ago, when I started mountain biking, there were very few women,” she said. “And now I go to some trailheads and there are almost more women than guys. The sport is definitely growing for women. A lot of women are coming to it in their 30s and 40s, getting into it later in life – maybe because they’re not running anymore but want to be out in nature.”

Mader also said there is a misperception of the sport as death-defying and dangerous. It can be that, certainly – but it doesn’t have to be.

“Mountain biking can be as easy as going on a nice single-track trail and riding just to be outside,” she said. “There really is a trail for every ability level.”

Rodriguez encouraged anyone interested in the sport to check out MORE’s website at www.more-mtb.org. He said even if you don’t have a bike, the group could help you find a loaner for an initial ride and then a good deal on something used if you take to the sport.

“It’s a good way to meet some really great people,” he said. “It’s really exhilarating to ride, and you get to be out in nature. What more could you ask for?”


Must-ride local trails

Fountainhead
One of the most revered mountain biking destinations in the region, Fountainhead, near Fairfax Station, Virginia, has a little something for everyone: easy, flowing single-track, moderately difficult technical areas and an expert section that will put even the most skilled of riders to the test.

Patapsco
Located in a big valley near Ellicott City, Maryland, Patapsco features an appealing mix of fast-flowing trails, rock gardens, bridges, and switchback curves with well-maintained berms and trails. This park also features a pump track where riders can practice their jumps.

Rosaryville
Rosaryville in Upper Marlboro, Maryland is an excellent trail for beginners and intermediates, featuring a 10-mile perimeter loop through a beautiful forest with a fun, easy flow, a few moderate ascents and a generally mellow vibe. Be careful to look for equestrian riders who share the park.

Learn more about all three tracks at www.singletracks.com