High Standards

There’s nothing that’s more satisfying than a smooth-running drivetrain. A little bit of mid-winter maintenance keeps the excitement high and the bike fresh for Tom Stuessy. Photo: Brooks Curran

High Standards Tom Stuessy's Vision for Vermont

When Tom Stuessy took the job as executive director of the Vermont Mountain Bike Association (VMBA), the organization’s bank account had only $3,800 in it.

The previous executive director had just moved to Arizona to work for IMBA, most trails weren’t mapped, clubs were competing for sponsors and a lot of the riding was a backyard rake-and-ride affair.

Stuessy inherited the awesomeness of the Vermont trail network, as well as the problems inherent in trails built primarily on private land. That small chunk of change could have funded a few batches of T-shirts or bought a decent collection of trailbuilding tools, but it wasn’t going to pay his salary or buy statewide insurance for clubs. To do that, Stuessy would have to reimagine how VMBA functioned.

Today, my house in Richmond, Vermont, has seven hours of singletrack behind it—all on private land— where I can ride my bike whenever I want. I refer to the network as “my trails,” but they aren’t private: They’re part of a mapped, multi-use network made possible by private landowners who’ve allowed the trails to exist. They’re built and maintained by volunteers. And there are about a thousand miles of these trails crosshatching Vermont. That’s a lot of singletrack in a state that’s 159 miles long and only 89 miles at its widest.

Landowners allow the trails to exist, volunteers build them, but it’s Tom Stuessy who really deserves credit for the health and growth of Vermont riding.

Stuessy, 45, grew up in Monroe, Wisconsin, playing baseball, drums and wanting to be the Green Bay Packers’ quarterback. Instead, he landed in Vermont, where he took up mountain biking, and taught adventure education at Green Mountain College.

“When I told my wife, Mary, I wanted to take the job,” Stuessy says, “she thought I was crazy. But there was so much potential, so much rider interest in more trails and more access. There was a desire to shift the culture, a readiness and willingness paired with a fear of getting swept up and losing control, and we started to look at what we could do if we all worked together.”

Stuessy formulated a pipe-dream vision in which mountain bikers would help grow Vermont’s economy with a world-class trail network that would bring visitors from Boston, New York, Montreal and other areas. Local control was critical. Under his plan, no one would demand that private networks go public. But VMBA would identify and grow a trail network that could be shared and promoted in Vermont and beyond.

Stuessy schemed to entice Vermont mountain bikers and visiting riders to join one or more VMBA chapters, and he channeled that money back into clubs for trail-building. He postulated that if VMBA took on administrative duties, like managing memberships, securing nonprofit status and arranging insurance, then local chapters would be able to focus on what they do best—building trails. He saw the opportunity to support rural economies by connecting small towns and villages by trail, and through a digital-information hub directing riders to trail- and bike-friendly businesses. In his vision, mountain bikers became stewards of the land, as well as partners with state and local land-management agencies. He didn’t just want more riding; he wanted trails that benefitted riders, businesses, and the state’s economy and ecology.

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