Free Wheeling: Mount Washington Valley, North Conway

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Free Wheeling 2002 Pic E

Mount Washington Valley, North Conway

We're riding just west of North Conway, N.H., in the 780,000-acre White Mountain National Forest, when we spot an owl. I suppose it only makes sense, as we're on the trail to Owl's Cliff. After all, these high walls of stone certainly didn't earn their name due to a proliferation of crows. But still it takes us utterly by surprise, and we return the owl's unblinking gaze until he tires of the sight of three sweaty men in Lycra, and swoops down the trail, all wing and grace. We clip in and follow. Even though our flight down the narrow, rocky path would be an embarrassment to any self-respecting bird of prey, for a brief moment we transcend our earthly boundaries and feel freedom as rich as if we soared on wings.

Home to some of the finest skiing in the East, the White Mountain region is cloaked in snow only five or six months. The rest of the year, the name lies. The deception begins in late April, as the snowpack recedes, exposing the dusky hue of over-wintered earth. In May, shades of green wash the valleys and mountains, settling in until early September, when the first frost comes, and leaf-by-leaf the forest goes kaleidoscopic. With the exception of earliest spring, when the trails are often too muddy to ride the network of single- and doubletrack, this region provides some of the best off-road cycling in the Northeast.

Base yourself in North Conway, New Hampshire's outlet shopping capital. At first glance, the strip will make you think you're in the wrong place. But look just beyond the row of stores, and there it is: pristine wilderness. Even as you're shoved about by the hordes of bargain hunters, the cool mountain breeze that flows through town is a comforting reminder that you're never more than a short drive from solitude.

Winter visitors get their outdoor fix at Mt. Cranmore, Wildcat, Black Mountain, King Pine and Attitash Bear Peak ski areas. In summer, mountain bikers come for technical pearls such as the Lower Nanamocomuck Ski Trail, a seven-mile slice of twisty (but relatively flat) singletrack off Route 112 that shimmies along the Swift River and through the mixed hardwood and conifer forests. Like the vast majority of the trails in White Mountain National Forest, the Nanamocomuck is multiuse, which means you'll need to keep your speed in check as you approach the frequent blind corners, lest you flatten an unwitting hiker or an angler seeking a trout-infested pool. For a self-guided exploratory adventure, head to Rob Brook Road, a gated forest road at the side of Bear Notch Road (a magnificent and challenging road ride). Rob Brook is the entry point for a number of single- and doubletracks, such as the trails to Owl's Cliff and Sawyer Pond, with their granny-gear climbs, and butt-over-the-rear-tire descents. On the other side of the valley, the Red Tail Trail (so named for the red-tailed hawks frequently spotted high in the trees lining the path) gives you a chance to clear out your legs and lungs as it wends its way to the top of Black Cap Mountain. Most of the riding in the valley is either technical singletrack riddled with rain-slimed roots and rocks, or wide, graveled fire roads. Intermediate riders should check out the Thorn Pond Area, near Attitash Bear Peak Ski Resort (Route 302, Bartlett, 800-223-7669). If winter didn't satisfy your lift-served appetite, catch a ride to the top of the ski area and savor gravity's friendly side all the way down.

Self-guiding is easy with the aid of the detailed maps available at local cycling shops, including Red Jersey Cyclery (603-374-2700). Or join Red Jersey's group rides on Wednesday evenings and Saturday mornings, when locals and visitors gather to pay homage to the mountains. The residents of Mount Washington Valley offer the mountains both devotion and respect. In return, they get the sweet taste of freedom, like an owl in flight. ¿Ben Hewitt

Making Tracks
There's no shorrtage of lodging¿from rustic to regal¿in the North Conway area, though you should call ahead during foliage season. The Mount Washington Valley Chamber of Commerce (800-367-3364; can help you sift through the options. To commune with nature off the bike as well as on, grab a spot at one of the numerous National Forest Campgrounds in the region. Covered Bridge and Passaconaway are close to the action. For information and reservations, call 603-271-3628. Start every day at Gunthers (603-356-5200), a North Conway breakfast institution that offers tasty pancakes, omelets and wild-game sausage. The best caffeine fix happens at the Morning Dew (603-356-9366).