It was an idyllic Vermont view from halfway up Burke Mountain. A patchwork of forest and pasture rolled westward to a distant mountain ridge...

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It was an idyllic Vermont view from halfway up Burke Mountain. A patchwork of forest and pasture rolled westward to a distant mountain ridge. Puffy white clouds hung in a blue sky. But I was focused on a brown ribbon that plunged down the slope like a dirt bobsled track, nervously clenching the handlebars of a hulking bicycle that resembled a motocross motorcycle.

“Try to relax,” my instructor, Lilias Ide, was saying to me and six other middle-aged mountain bikers.

I had come to Vermont’s northeast corner on the advice of a friend who had heard me complaining about the roots and rocks that make many New England mountain bike trails so jarring. In this area, known as the Northeast Kingdom, instead of teeth-rattling boulders, glaciers had deposited a massive ridge of sand known as Darling Hill.

Local die-hard mountain bikers knew a good thing when they saw it. Over the last 20 years — first as an impromptu group of bike fanatics, later as the nonprofit Kingdom Trail Association — they adopted defunct cross-country ski trails and carved new ones. The result is the Kingdom Trails, a network of more than 100 miles. Bike Magazine declared it the best trail system in North America for 2008.

Cashing in on the enthusiasm, two years ago the local Burke Mountain Resort opened a chairlift in the summer to ferry mountain bikers to the top of a ski run, charging them $30 for a day pass. Last year the trail association started offering downhill classes, dubbed “Gravity School,” aimed squarely at people like me.

Though cross-country mountain biking is my preferred niche, I had watched downhill riding — in which cyclists plunge down precipitous mountains, cliffs or, in this case, ski runs — from afar, half awed and half mystified at the sport’s allure. Now, with an instructor and rental gear, including bikes with huge shock absorbers, extra-wide tires and hefty disc brakes, this was my chance to see what it was all about.

As we prepared to descend, Ide offered some advice in a casual, matter-of-fact way that mirrored both her expertise and her outfit. While we all wore white plastic armor that had us resembling riot police, she was on a pink bike bearing the brand name Sinister, wearing baggy shorts and kneepads. Huge silver hoop earrings poked out from under her helmet.

Look down the trail to see what’s coming, not directly in front of your wheel, she told us. Look where you want to go, because that’s where you will steer. Don’t sit down. Standing on the pedals keeps you nimble.

We opened with an appetizer of sorts. With Ide in the lead, we rolled single file over little humps and through sweeping turns for several hundred yards. No problem. Ide stopped and previewed the section ahead. It was a set of downhill snaking curves with high, banked sides, one right after the other. I set off with a tightening in my gut. Nearly shooting straight into dirt walls as I twisted and turned around the course, I found myself locking up the brakes and staring at my front wheel, willing it to not fly off the uphill lip of the trail. Somehow, I arrived at the bottom unscathed and jittery with adrenaline.

Forty-five minutes and several runs later, we steered toward Knightslayer, the area’s premier downhill run. The map showed two black diamonds on it: experts only. It was a slender trail snaking through a forest of maple trees and studded with jumps built from mounds of dirt. The most ubiquitous were “tabletops” — steep six-foot-tall ramps, topped with a plateau and ending in another plunging slope. The best riders zip up the ramp, fly over the top and land on the far side. The less brave jump onto the plateau and roll down. At the first tabletop, I barely worked up enough nerve and speed to creep up and onto the top. At that moment my biggest fear was losing so much speed that I would stop on the ramp and fall over backward — an embarrassment I narrowly avoided.

But halfway down the hill, something clicked as I approached another tabletop. The pressure of decelerating as I started into the jump gave way to a brief moment of weightlessness as I became airborne, ending with a satisfying thud as I landed on top and rolled down the far side. I repeated the maneuver on another tabletop, then sped behind Ide off a four-foot drop, landing with surprising softness.

An hour and a half after class began, she declared us graduates of “Gravity 101.”

We had 45 minutes before the deadline to return our bicycles. I tagged along with a group from Ottawa as we raced to the chairlift like elementary school students rushing to recess. The next few runs down Knightslayer were a blur of whoops and cheers.

“I feel like a kid,” said Luc Chabot, a 44-year-old librarian, as he peeled off his body armor in the rental shop, where we arrived five minutes late after squeezing in one last trip down the mountain.

I rode my own, decidedly less souped up mountain bike into East Burke, a tiny village in the trails area. Cars bristling with rooftop bikes filled dirt parking lots. Packs of Lycra-clad cyclists lounged in front of the general store or stood in line outside Chappy’s Ice Cream. Families splashed in the east branch of the Passumpsic River just behind East Burke Sports, the village bike shop. A sign next to the swimming hole read “Please Do Not Wash Bikes in River.” French was as common as English, adding an international flavor. With the Canadian border just 40 miles away, Canadians — many from French-speaking Quebec — accounted for nearly half of the 51,000 visits to the trails in 2011.

The rise of biking has been an economic boon in this remote, hardscrabble part of Vermont. Once largely dependent on fall-foliage watchers and the modest Burke Mountain Resort ski area, inns and campgrounds now advertise mountain biking packages. East Burke’s population of several hundred can swell to over a thousand on a summer weekend.

At Willy’s, an upscale restaurant in the village, I dined on pan-seared halibut with my wife, Shala Erlich, who had gone on her own mountain bike ride during my lesson. Around us, guests chatted about the day’s adventures. Shala was less thrilled about her day. A novice mountain biker, she acquired several bruises after making a wrong turn on a steep expert trail.

The next morning, after breakfast at the Inn at Mountain View Farm — a grand farmhouse and dairy converted to a spacious 14-room inn — we made a quick circuit of a beginners’ biking loop. The trail started on the inn’s property, behind a red barn dating to 1890. We rode through a field of knee-high grass and down a gently sloping trail shaded by maples and beech trees. Ferns carpeted the forest floor, and the calls of robins, wood thrushes and blue jays filled the trees. It was a serene contrast to the previous day.

Afterward, Shala opted for a 1.7-mile solo hike up Mount Pisgah, above Lake Willoughby, and I met up with three friends, all biking enthusiasts, who offered to take me on a greatest-hits tour of the Kingdom Trails.

We spent the next two hours picking the best of dozens of interlocking routes. We would ride up Darling Hill, then plunge back down on twisting trails with names like Tap & Die and Troll Stroll. We pedaled through dimly lit forests, sunny meadows and forests of cedar and balsam fir, pausing for lunch at the Market Cafe, a shack in the woods that had been converted into a sandwich shop.

Near the end of the ride, we stopped at a final downhill. One of my group, Jennie, described the route ahead — some tabletops, followed by tight turns. You can just ride around the tabletops if you want to, she said to me. Buoyed by my newfound downhill knowledge, I told her I could probably handle it. We started the descent, with me trailing behind. I rose up the first ramp and then I was flying in the air, earning a “Whoa!” from some kids who were watching from the sidelines. Music to a middle-aged man’s ears. Then we swooped into turns, shooting through gaps in the trees.

I recalled a scene from a Star Wars movie that I had watched as a child, when the characters had chased each other through a forest on what amounted to airborne jet skis. It was thrilling to watch, but this, I thought, is as close as you can get in real life.