Mike Vitti on the Bouldergeist at Hempstead Harbor Woods

How Mountain Bikers Transformed Long Island

Photo: Victor Lopez

Mountain biking in Long Island almost never happened. These are the trail visionaries who kept fighting anyway.

When Mike Vitti started riding bikes, he was the guy that land managers hated. 

“Me and my friends, we were all motocross racers, and we were getting kicked off of trails with our motorcycles all the time,” he recalls. Today, Vitti is the president of CLIMB, Long Island’s biggest mountain biking nonprofit, but this was back in the 1970s and ’80s. Back then, motorcycles, ATVs, and dirt bikes were an epidemic on Long Island’s few green spaces. They caused massive erosion, scared off wildlife, and frightened away hikers and other users. 

Then, in the 1980s, Vitti and his friends decided to give mountain biking a try. Vitti thought it would be good cross-training for surfing (which he still considers his first love). But he didn’t expect to fall in love with biking. 
“I was like, ‘Holy cow this feels so fun it should be illegal,’” he says. The good news was that it wasn’t. The bad news was that, back then, popular opinion usually lumped in mountain bikers with motorcyclists. Hikers hated them, and mountain biking was prohibited on most trail systems. 
But Vitti and his friends loved riding, and they wanted to make sure they never got kicked off a trail with their mountain bikes the way they had on their motorcycles. So, in 1990, they incorporated as a nonprofit, the Concerned Long Island Mountain Bikers (CLIMB). Vitti, who has a background in design, construction, and landscaping, got involved with CLIMB a few years later. At first, he just promised to help out with some trail building and erosion management projects. Then, he got really into it. 

“I went to the International Mountain Biking Association summits every two years, and started going to these sustainable design classes,” Vitti says. He began to realize that trail designers had the ultimate control over trail use. They had the power to both protect the local environment and completely shape the character and use of a landscape. 

“The problem with our trails on Long Island was they were either made by wild animals that hunters would follow, or they were made by teenagers on motorcycles or ATVs,” he says. “So we basically had wild animals and teenagers designing our trails, which is pretty much the same thing.” 

Mike Vitti on the Bouldergeist at Hempstead Harbor Woods Photo: Victor Lopez

Shaping a Vision

Vitti, on the other hand, had a gift for totally reimagining a place. He could look at the rolls and lumps of the ground and picture a thousand possibilities. Instead of doing what most trail builders do—which is lay trail along the path of least resistance—his visions would ignore the trees and foliage altogether. 

“If you build a trail around the plants, it’s going to suck,” he says. “So, we make trails according to the topography, and try to make it as much of a rollercoaster as possible.” Over time, Vitti developed an eye for routes that wouldn’t just be fun, they’d be erosion-resistant even under heavy use. He channeled his experience as a surfer to design trails that would mimic the rolls and twists of the waves he loved. He also leveraged his time spent racing motocross events. 

Vitti knew from that experience the kinds of trails motorized users hated most. So, he built routes that were fun for mountain bikers but too undulating to pick up speed on a dirt bike or ATV. Those design specifics brought in flocks of responsible riders—and simultaneously pushed the riffraff out. Where CLIMB left its mark, incidences of littering, loitering, and other negative uses plummeted. The result was an era of transformed, reinvigorated green spaces all across Long Island. 

A Shifting Scene

Meanwhile, the community’s perception of mountain bikers was also transforming. 

“The funny thing is that we [at CLIMB] eventually became experts in trail design,” he says. “So where the hikers used to blame us for all the erosion on trails, now they were coming to us for advice on how to fix erosion.” 

That renewed perception had a lot to do with CLIMB’s clear skill with trail craft. But it was also due to Vitti’s other talent: He was a gifted politician, if an unconventional one. 

Especially in the beginning—when mountain bikers were getting kicked off trails and screamed out of council meetings—Vitti’s polite and dogged persistence was invaluable. In fact, it was the only way to get local officials and town council members to talk about mountain biking at all. 

“Even if I have to stalk somebody who’s not talking to me, I’ll do it,” Vitti says. “I’ll go to an event I know they’re going to be at, I’ll go into a room full of people with suits on, and I’m not wearing a suit, and I’ll walk up to this person and say, ‘Hey, howya doin’? Fancy seeing you here,’ and then I’ll start talking about trails.” 

“My wife kept saying, ‘Why do you keep doing this, they obviously don’t like you,’” Vitti laughs. “But to me it was a challenge. It’s like another extreme sport.” 

The Full Transition

Ultimately, Vitti’s approach worked. He convinced the land managers of Cunningham Park in Queens to lift a years-long ban on mountain biking. He got permission to build a mountain biking trail in New York’s Sterling Forest. The New York Department of Environmental Conservation let CLIMB add 16 miles of trails to the Edgewood Preserve, which put it on the map in a whole new way. Over the years, CLIMB has systematically transformed parcel after parcel, both improving public parks, and revitalizing abandoned lots—everything from an old paintball park, to old sewage pits, to an abandoned sand mine. 

“The hikers actually paid me a really good compliment the other day,” Vitti laughs. “Somebody was talking about me at their board meeting and they said, ‘That Mike Vitti could sell horse shit to a horse farm.’” 

Today, Long Island now has more than 175 miles of mountain biking trails. Sometimes, Vitti says, that number feels like a miracle. 

“We’ve been out here, trying to build mountain biking trails in a place with no mountains,” he says. “We’re all volunteers, and we’re trying to make the best of what we have. Long Island is no Colorado, but our trails are fast and swoop…so you’re getting exercise but you’re also having fun—at the end of the ride you feel good, and sometimes you don’t know why.” 

That elation, Vitti says, is a feeling worth sharing.

All articles are for general informational purposes.  Each individual’s needs, preferences, goals and abilities may vary.  Be sure to obtain all appropriate training, expert supervision and/or medical advice before engaging in strenuous or potentially hazardous activity.