A crowd stands at the base of a rock outcrop that juts out from the forest floor covered in human-sized ferns. A rider takes a rolling start up a sandstone slab then stalls, teetering on a hairpin turn between two boulders at the top. The spectators groan as she tips over, shakes her head, and resets at the bottom of the slope. In the restless hands of Andy Forron, the tattooed, denim-vested leader of this group ride, a sticker-covered megaphone gives a whoop-whoop of encouragement. A moment later, the rider races up the slab again, disappears into a crack just wide enough to accommodate her handlebars, and rolls out the other side to cheers. The group rides on in search of a suitable range for slingshot target practice to continue Forron’s bike biathlon. Welcome to Dirt Fest WV.
The Dirt Fest series of annual mountain bike festivals is organized by Dirt Rag Magazine, an independent outfit that’s been flouting convention and proudly promoting mountain biking counterculture for 30 years. The third-annual Dirt Fest WV took place July 11-14 at the Big Bear Lake Trail Center near Bruceton Mills and was the best attended Dirt Fest to date. The 982 participants included record numbers of women and kids: 23 percent of registrants were female and 11 percent of attendees were under age 16.
According to Trina Haynes, Events Coordinator for Dirt Rag, the underlying purpose of Dirt Fest is simply to encourage more people to get on bikes. “We know that in order to get people to try mountain biking, we need to offer them the opportunity,” Haynes said “By bringing in an event that offers demo bikes to trial for free, clinics that cover mountain bike basics, supported rides of different levels, and an inviting community, people will have that opportunity.”
This was Haynes’s first year in charge of the festival after eight years of assisting in other capacities. Specifically, Haynes is reaching out to people who’ve been underrepresented in the mountain biking community. “I want more women, kids, people of all ethnicities, and LGBTQ to feel welcome at our events and in our community as a whole,” Haynes said. “Since I’ve been with Dirt Rag, we have worked hard to try and be inclusive. These strong riders and communities deserve a visible seat on the chairlift, and a place in the industry where their stories are heard and validated.”
Haynes credits some of this year’s turnout and success to a new item on the agenda: women-specific riding clinics. “Shanna Powell from Endless Bikes came out, really connected with a lot of women, and gave them a fantastic experience,” Haynes said. Women’s clinic topics included beginner obstacle riding, descending and braking, fundamentals of cornering, and slow-rolling drops. Instruction was professional and entry-level appropriate, and the hour-long sessions were well-attended. There were also open clinics on the same topics available to all participants of all ages and dispositions.
Dirt Rag added other new events this year. “We partnered with Surly Bikes to offer a WTF (Women, Trans, and Femme) Ride,” Haynes said. “We added a lot of kids’ activities, too. We definitely had an increase in participation in these demographics, and hopefully, the word will spread and we will continue to see more and more of these folks come ride and have fun with us at Dirt Fest.”
In addition to the WTF Ride, this year’s programming included advanced rides (the Maxxis “Ride of Attrition” was an eye-catcher on the agenda), beginner rides, and rides specifically for kids, teens, and women. There were educational seminars for bikepacking and bike maintenance and a vintage mountain bike exhibit. Kids enjoyed scavenger hunts, a bike parade, and a race when they weren’t tearing up the skills park or toddling along in T-rex helmets. Evenings featured films, live music with a costume party, and a charcuterie social by bonfire. Friday night’s “Party in the Pines” took a surreal turn as riders passed under the spinning spray of light from a disco ball in the middle of a red pine stand.
Branding itself as “The MTB capital of Preston County,” Big Bear Lake Trail Center is the ideal venue for a mountain bike festival. Nearly 50 miles of single and double-track trails branch off in every direction from the festival grounds, meticulously designed and accurately designated from easy to most-difficult. Nested loops and gravel access roads ensure that riders are never far from a bailout point and trails are well-marked if your map gets shredded. Dirt Fest organizers provided abundant maps, snacks, water refill stations, and a shuttle for avoiding the long uphill grind back to camp.
Big Bear’s trails can keep a rider of any ability level entertained for days. The giant jumps and colossal natural features get all the publicity (look up footage of Crack Trail), and features on the most difficult trails will send expert riders walking uphill to try a tricky move again and again. Even so, beginners and novices should not be deterred. It’s easy to roll or walk around even the most technical features, and the trail system also supports miles of easy cruising through fragrant ferns and pines interspersed with entry-level root and rock features.
Some come for the party, but many attendees come to Dirt Fest to demo a cornucopia of top-of-the-line mountain bikes on some of the best trails in the region. “Don’t worry, it’s a demo,” was a common refrain among test riders as they ripped around the muddy trails.
Dirt Fest is a rider’s festival. Trails were busy, but not overly so. Groups stopped to mingle at every intersection or major feature, eager to talk shop or discuss the best way to run a drop. Mercifully cool alpine breezes pervaded the humid, verdant understory. Nighttime hardly curtailed trail activity, and a spectator could watch the reveal of the dark forest understory as a long line of riders set out with helmet-mounted lights.
This is the event for being playful, to be a big (or little) kid. It’s the scene to tell an epic crash story around the burn barrels at night. It’s the place to abandon seriousness, a place where fellow revelers goad you into doing a cartwheel or going off a makeshift ramp in the road on your way to your campsite. And it’s a place where I hope to see you next year. Check www.dirtragdirtfest.com for the earliest information on Dirt Fest WV 2020.
Abbe Hamilton is a freelance adventure writer based out of her car and whatever public library is currently open. She loves the trails, rivers, and caves of West-By-Gawd with every fiber of her heart. Follow her at www.avhamiltonblog.wordpress.com.