Off the Beaten Path

The regulars at this weekly Sunday off-road ride have fun and get a great workout traveling the lesser-known pathways around the Vineyard. But the fellowship and camaraderie are also what keep them coming back week after week.

As I pull into the Grange Hall parking lot in West Tisbury five minutes before nine, I see Ashley Hunter eyeing the cyclists assembled for the weekly Vineyard Off-Road Bicycling Association (VORBA) ride. It’s a cold, but not frigid, early winter morning, and the half-dozen riders are regulars, which simplifies Ashley’s task: gauging the abilities of the group and deciding on the skeleton of a route – though the ride’s path always changes once we’re underway. Though Ashley, who lives in West Tisbury and has led this ride for about fifteen years, knows today’s riders, mostly men over forty, it’s not always so easy. “You can’t judge a rider by his bike,” Ashley says. “On several occasions I’ve been very surprised.” He has marveled at the hardiness of folks who show up in button-down dress shirts and long trousers on warm summer days.

The ride happens every Sunday, and that means every Sunday. Ashley figures he’s missed a dozen or so in close to twenty years, and the ride has gone on anyway in his absence. The hardiest riders have ridden in six inches of snow, torrential rains, and mud described as “thick and slick as what you find in a diaper.” Snow, rain, searing heat, buffeting winds, brutal cold, and even minor illness do not deter the hard core, though they do thin the ranks. I joined the ride soon after moving to the Vineyard in the fall of 2006, and while it’s become a regular part of my off-season Sundays, I stay snug under the covers when I wake to rain.

But I’m an exception; the only ride Ashley can remember being canceled was during a blizzard, “only because no one could get out of their driveway.”

After some greetings, small talk, and last-minute pumping of tires and lubing of chains, the group is about to set off when someone asks, “Where’s David?”

“He told me he would be here.”

David Whitmon, of Oak Bluffs, is the ride’s founder, and he chooses that moment to rumble into sight in his 1940s jeep. He’s ready quickly, and the group heads off like ducklings behind Ashley, down Music Street and onto Middle Road a bit, before ducking into the woods.

Thomas Wolfe famously wrote that “only the dead know Brooklyn” – the point being that the borough is so complex that it takes a lifetime to learn, and once you spend a lifetime at something, you’re dead.

I posit that only the dead know the Vineyard, since guys who’ve been exploring its dirt roads and deer paths on their mountain bikes every Sunday for almost two decades still routinely get lost, if only for a minute. It’s a morning of adventure as well as exercise, and soon we’re embroiled in a ten-minute bushwhack through knee-high thorns, up hills and down dales with our bikes on our shoulders. I’m wishing for a little less adventure, but no one has the poor taste to whine. A sense of exploration is an essential part of the VORBA ride, especially in the off-season.

The ride, like much on-Island, differs between the seasons, with the summer ride tending to be larger, up to twenty people, and generally with less exploration. “In summer, I feel more responsible to provide a ‘regular’ ride,” Ashley says.

But off-season rides like today’s, full of veteran riders Ashley knows pretty well, are more prone to exploration and escapades; since the leaves are off the trees, visibility is improved, as trails and vistas obscured by summer foliage come into view. Ashley will pause now and again to evaluate an opening in the woods, piecing together the day’s course, and stowing away possibilities for the future. “I do have a fairly good sense of where I am on the Island,” Ashley says.

While second nature to Ashley, the twists can be disorienting even to those familiar with the Vineyard. On my first ride, I got so turned around that you could have told me I was anywhere from Tisbury to Aquinnah and I would have believed you (we probably never left West Tisbury). Since then, my sense of location has improved, but I’m only sure of my whereabouts maybe half the time. Ashley notes, “I’ve heard many people say, ‘I’ve been here for years and I’ve never seen this part of the Island.’”

While improvisation provides the spice of the ride, anyone who assumes (perhaps during a prolonged bushwhack) that there is no method to Ashley’s mad leadership has not seen his bound volumes full of eleven-by-seventeen color printouts of every ride from the last four years. He downloads the ride info from his GPS, and overlays it onto U.S. Geological Survey maps, with elevation changes charted at the bottom.

No two rides are alike, as Ashley’s GPS data prove, and Ashley is constantly scouting new routes or rediscovering old ones. A month’s worth of rides will likely take one to every Island town save Aquinnah. And once or twice a year, the ride is on Chappaquiddick, a day typically long and memorable. “People always ask ‘Where are we going today?’ I don’t know. But if I can mix it up and get even Richard [Toole] confused, that’s fun.”

Richard, who lives in Oak Bluffs and has been riding with VORBA since the beginning, agrees. “I have to give a great big ‘thank you’ to Ashley. He always puts together a ride that is fun, challenging, and he can still get me lost after all these years.”

Our bushwhack is past, and we’ve rediscovered the trail.

“Haven’t we been here before?”

“I think it was about ten years ago, wasn’t it?”

Though I’m slightly amazed that one can ride this Island every Sunday and not return to a trail for ten years, my thoughts are secondary to pedaling. The pace of the ride, often moderate enough for conversation, picks up for a while on the up-and-down up-Island terrain. While the ride always features a mix of trails and dirt roads, the majority is on single-track, the cycling term for a narrow trail where users must travel single file. Sometimes we’re riding along little more than deer paths, but it’s the only way to get to the Vineyard’s most remote corners.

We come to a largish log in the trail, and Ashley dismounts to walk over it. Those behind him bunny-hop it or walk over according to their mood and skill. I walk it, but Kevin Begley, of Tisbury, is more daring and attempts the hurdle, with mixed results: He made it over, but he’s on the ground. Undeterred, he backs up and tries again, clearing it cleanly. Falls and abrasions are common on the ride, but largely optional; actual injuries are extremely rare.

The pace and terrain have strung out the riders, and we come to an intersection of trails. Ashley heads to the right, and as the second rider in line, I’m obliged to wait and make sure all the others make the turn. This is Ashley’s simple yet brilliant method of keeping cyclists of differing abilities together, developed early in the ride’s history when large crowds and disparate skills threatened to divide VORBA. Now, at any fork in the path the second rider directs and counts the rest. As you move up through the line, every rider becomes accountable for the others, and all are part of the ride without everyone repeatedly having to stop and wait at once.

All the riders have passed through, and I now bring up the rear as we begin a rollicking downhill; I pause at the top and watch the guys in front of me sending upsprays of leaves and whoops of excitement.

It’s nearing eleven o’clock, and Ashley brings us to the top of a particularly steep hill for “cookies.” Gasping riders lean bikes against wind-stunted trees and pull energy bars and the like from their pockets or small backpacks. The snack break provides opportunity for discussion and respite for the weary. Bike gear is discussed, but the topic strays, as usual, into political and social issues, with opinions offered freely. The VORBA veterans veer into tales from rides long ago, which inevitably leads to retellings of other escapades.

The core group of Ashley, David Whitmon, and Richard Toole have been riding together since the early nineties, and many others have come and gone, though the friendships endure. The year-round riders have even come to know smiling summer vacationers who return year after year. “I’ve had people tell me this ride is the high point of their summer vacation every year,” says Ashley.

Jay Lagemann, of Chilmark, began riding with the group about five years ago and says, “This ride was my inspiration to get back in shape after surgery. And the fact that I was in good shape helped me recover.”

Reflecting on what keeps him coming back every Sunday, Richard notes “riding a bike is really a very independent activity, but having a leader and a group to push your limits and share the pain and the laughs motivates me.”

David adds, “These guys to me are an extended family.”

Gazing at a miles-long view of a wind-swept coastline, with a trickle of sweat down my back, the good feelings are contagious, and I forget my scratched shins.

On the trail again, the ride heads back toward West Tisbury when someone calls out that he has a flat. The abundant cat brier and other assorted up-Island thorns have struck again, and he begins pumping to see if the puncture is serious.

The ride used to be maddening with tube-change delays, including one memorable pit stop when fourteen flats were fixed at once. Now, inner tubes containing a sealant such as Slime have become essential equipment, helping reduce the need for stops to fix flats. After a typical ride, I pull two or three large thorns from my tires, usually accompanied by a hiss of air and a small spurt of bright green sealant that then clogs the leak and hardens into a patch. When a tube is eventually replaced, it’s not uncommon to see twenty healed punctures or more – each one saved a stop out on the trail.

But the occasional mechanical breakdown or pause to debate direction provides another chance for conversation, when Ashley explains the ownership history of the land we’re riding on, from farm to estate to conservation land. Adventure and minor adversity aside, the Sunday VORBA ride “brings you closer to the Island,” Ashley says. He enjoys finding and sharing historical or geological landmarks; ancient ways and ruins or artifacts are rarely passed without comment. “It’s cool realizing that King’s Highway [in Chilmark] was once a major thoroughfare.”

The consensus is that the VORBA ride has improved over the years, with access to more and more routes. Ashley has discovered some and negotiated access to others, and everyone specifically lauds the Martha’s Vineyard Land Bank for providing access to its properties and maintaining the trails.

Conscious of the value of the wide-ranging liberty they enjoy, the VORBA riders are careful to be friendly and respectful to other trail users, and to the trails themselves, often stopping to clear debris or pick up a bit of trash. Ashley himself takes time to stop and greet every dog the ride encounters. Canine or human, almost every interaction on the trail is positive. “There’s kind of an off-road spirit,” Jay notes. “Almost everyone you meet is smiling.”

It’s past noon, as usual, when the ride ends at Alley’s General Store. Coffee and snacks are procured, and the exchange of ideas continues as we sit in the warm winter sun on Alley’s back porch. I’ve learned much Vineyard lore (and some gossip) while sitting on that bench, and today is no different. The ride is rehashed, and inevitably declared successful.

Shortly after one o’clock, the riders have drifted away, and as I strap my bike to my car, I feel lucky to have hooked onto this ride. Richard Toole says it best: “We live in a beautiful place and this is a wonderful way to enjoy it and remember why we live here.”