Hilltops, Hogbacks & Hollows: Mountain Biking in the Finger Lakes

Luke Mohlman rides in Hammond Hill State Forest on an old logging road.

Mark Schrader has chicken pox. Brown chicken pox, black chicken pox! His florescent orange jersey is covered in chicken pox, and it is impossible to tell what color his socks once were. Parts of bright green leaves are caught in his biking shoes. He is soaking wet. He wipes his face and the brown “pox” smear into the mud that formed them.

Despite his bedraggled appearance, he sports a huge smile and dancing eyes. “It was a sucker hole,” he said. “After the last few days of rain we needed to get out. We saw a little bit of blue sky and decided to go for it.” Mark ruefully looks up at the pouring rain and laughs. “I guess that’s why they call ’em sucker holes. Oh well, the only ones who mind getting wet are those that are dry. What trail should we do next?”

The Finger Lakes region has many secrets and hidden gems. Because mountain biking takes place in out of the way places – backwoods, ridge tops, hills and hollows – it is one of the best-kept secrets, tending to stay under the radar. Even many locals don’t realize what they have in their own backyard. However, the word is getting out. A 2002 article in Bike Magazine identified Ithaca as one of the top five biking towns in America. The magazine followed up by naming Letchworth State Park and surrounding Finger Lakes trails as one of the top 10 mountain biking areas in the country. Bikemag.com kept things rolling by christening the Finger Lakes area’s Hammond Hill and Shindagin Hollow as one of America’s top 10 places to ride.

Why is Mountain Biking in the Finger Lakes special?
Of course “top five” or “top 10” lists are at best arbitrary, and no doubt other regions claim similar superlatives. But there is no doubt the Finger Lakes region does boast outstanding mountain biking. The reasons for such superb biking are both many and varied.

Most of the special nature of Finger Lakes mountain biking is due to the underlying geology and land-use patterns. Combine significant elevation differences (up to almost 2,000 feet), rolling hills and hollows, beautiful deciduous forests, abandoned farmland and significant acreage in public lands, and the result is outstanding and accessible terrain for biking, and lots of it. This terrain is found particularly in the southern half of the Finger Lakes on and at the edge of the Allegheny Plateau.

According to longtime local rider Nathan Hunter, you won’t find exotic or grand viewpoints riding in the Finger Lakes. “We don’t need to be a big tourist attraction, we don’t have many breathtaking vistas, just plain, fun riding experiences. It’s simple: rolling terrain through great wooded forests.”

Mark Schrader, who returned to upstate New York after a long stint in the West, is obviously glad to be home when he soulfully describes “single track riding through deciduous forests and their deep greens of spring and summer and bright colors of fall.”

Laura Robert, a librarian who teaches mountain biking at Cornell, raves about how accessible the Finger Lakes area trails are. “There are five to seven viable venues at any particular time.”

Hunter adds, “There are four really good riding locations within 30 minutes of my house, and another six within a couple hours drive.”

Not only are the trails accessible, they are almost all free. Hunter notes that this is at least partially due to a “great community of outdoor enthusiasts who work hard to maintain public trail systems.”

Schrader also credits strong support from State Forests and the DEC (Department of Environmental Conservation, the land management agency responsible for many of the trail) and multi-use recreationalists, who “all share the trail unselfishly and pitch in to maintain the trails, too.”

Finally, there is the variety of the trails. Laura Robert notes that, “Every area is a different kind of riding, different challenges. One can ride year-round if you are willing to accept all conditions, even packed snow.”

There are old tow paths and still-in-use dirt roads, great for beginners and for warming up. There are old logging roads, a bit rougher, with rocks, mud and steeper sections. Then there are single tracks – narrow, fun ribbons through the forest – that can range from quite easy to very technical. Single track is the ultimate riding for most experienced mountain bikers.

At the extreme end of riding, the Finger Lakes region also boasts areas where artificial obstacles and challenges, like log piles, horizontal ladders and ramps, are created to add a bit of extra spice to a ride. From novice to expert, the Finger Lakes region has trails for everyone.

Getting Started
One of the nice things about mountain biking is that it can be as easy as, well, riding a bike! While a high-tech bike is nice, and it can make steep or extremely rough trails a bit easier, your old Schwinn or just about any sturdy kids’ bike will do fine for most of the beginner trails. In particular, if you are only going to be doing occasional off road or back road cycling, a “hybrid” bike—part touring bike and part mountain bike—might be perfect.

Mountain bikes are different than regular bikes in that their frame is a bit stronger, the rider sits more upright to better absorb shocks, they are geared lower (to allow going up steep backcountry hills), and they often have at least a front shock absorber to deal with rough trail conditions.

If you are going to go out and purchase a new bike, don’t get a cheap “big box store” version and expect it to last long. You are much better off investing a bit more money and getting a quality brand purchased from a reputable dealer, where you can get some expert advice about the purchase and where to ride locally.

Renting mountain bikes is increasingly difficult due mainly to liability concerns. The Outdoor Store (607-273-3891) in Ithaca rents mountain bikes, as does the Geneva Biycle Center (315-789-5922). Cayuga Ski and Cyclery in Ithaca (607-277-6821) offer free clinics and rides in the local area. Check out your local bicycle shop for availability of purchasing and renting mountain bikes.

Ride Safe and Follow the Rules
There are a few rules of the road (and trail!) that will make mountain biking safer for you, others and the environment. The International Mountain Biking Association (www.IMBA.com) has created a list of six rules to bike by.
• Ride on open trails only, avoiding trails on which bikes are not allowed.
• Leave no trace, stay on trails and be sensitive to trail conditions.
• Control your bicycle, keeping a reasonable speed, especially around others.
• Always yield the trail, letting others know you’re coming with a friendly greeting.
• Never scare animals, whether domestic (dogs, horses, farm animals) or wild.
• Plan ahead and know your equipment, ability and area in which you are riding.

In addition, be able to fix your bike or walk it out. Always wear a helmet and make sure it fits properly. Ride with a buddy. Be aware of hunting season and consider staying off single track or other areas in which you could be mistaken for game. During early spring (mud season) or after heavy rains, stay on graveled backroads, avoiding low-lying and muddy areas that can be damaged by heavy riding. Following these principles and using a little bit of common sense will allow you to safely enjoy the beauty and adventure of the Finger Lakes without harming the environment or others’ experiences.

Mountain biking can open up whole new areas of the Finger Lakes region. Whether it is an old tow path, a dirt road, a sinuous single track or an artificial ramp or jump, there is a huge variety of riding terrain. As Ernest Hemingway said, “It is by riding a bicycle that you learn the contours of a country best, since you have to sweat up the hills and coast down them. Thus you remember them as they actually are, while in a motor car only a high hill impresses you, and you have no such accurate remembrance of country you have driven through as you gain by riding a bicycle.” Let a mountain bike help you learn the beautiful contours of Finger Lakes country.


story and photos By Todd Miner
Todd Miner is the executive director of Cornell University Outdoor Education