Happy trails

Never let it be said that mountain bikers don’t have a code of honor. While gracious and generous to a fault, nearly every bike enthusiast I spoke with for this piece clammed up when it came time to talk about his or her favorite trails. Simply put, no one wanted to publicize their most beloved rides. It’s easy to see why, of course: Less publicity means fewer riders … which helps preserve those precious trails.

That protective reticence is just one small indication that, if you’re into biking, Asheville is roughly equivalent to heaven, nirvana, Valhalla — take your pick. Even biking superstar Greg Lemond has said that Asheville is one of the best places he’s ever ridden. But with such a vibrant biking community, there’s bound to be a downside: sheer weight of numbers. With mountain biking in particular, that much traffic can create problems — overcrowding, trail damage, even an occasional stain on the sport’s reputation, when unruly, uncooperative bikers crowd out hikers and equestrians.

“A large part of the riders are ethical, but sometimes, you’ll have people who just don’t care,” concedes Bainon Coursey, the manager of Waynesville’s Blue Ridge Cycling Adventure. “The Pisgah National Forest is becoming a mountain-bike mecca — not unlike Moab, Utah, for instance — and you’ve got people from all over the East Coast, and farther, coming just to ride here. And if you’ve spent eight hours in the car, whether it’s raining or whatever, you’re gonna ride, dammit.”

Local biking enthusiast Art Schuster agrees: “I don’t want to overgeneralize, but occasionally there are younger, overenthused people who come here. They probably tend to go a little wild, at first. But I think, overall, people are more aware of how to ride responsibly. There are always bad apples, of course. You can have a hundred responsible riders, who’ll slow down and stop when they come across a group of hikers or equestrians, and you’ll have one wild man — or woman — who will come zipping by and not realize that a lot of horses aren’t used to bikes in the woods yet. It makes a bad impression, and it’s dangerous.”

The hot-doggers may be conspicuous, but it’s the cumulative impact of so many riders, courteous or not, that really tears up local trails. Once a certain trail (or even an area) catches on, it can get overburdened pretty quickly. The situation in Bent Creek, near Lake Powhatan, is a good example. Due in part to the area’s close proximity to Asheville, the bike traffic there has reportedly increased tenfold over the last six or seven years, making those trails prime candidates for crowding and erosion.

“Bent Creek is at the point where some trails are definitely gonna be closed within the year,” Coursey explains. “They just need time to repair. A lot of [them] are pretty technical trails — there’s a lot of elevation gain — which means they’re even more prone to erosion.”

Both Schuster and Coursey, however, are quick to point out that there is quite a bit of misinformation regarding the amount of damage bikes actually do to the landscape. “Under most circumstances,” Schuster asserts, “mountain bikes have a very minimal impact on the trails. In fact, a lot of the research shows that, on trails used by horses and bikes, bikes actually repair the damage that horses do, by packing down all the hoof prints. Horses tend to tear things up when they dig in, and loosen the terrain, and it washes [away] easier when it rains.”

While the Blue Ridge Bicycle Club has been helping maintain Bent Creek’s trails for more than 10 years — club representative Scott Hoffman believes the area’s trails are actually in better shape now than they were a decade ago — most local riders agree that such overcrowded sites could only benefit from reduced traffic. But the search for less-populated trails can create problems of its own … such as when some bikers take matters into their own hands, forging trails on private property.

There are probably as many opinions on that touchy matter as there are riders, ranging from a “who cares?” selfishness to a very responsible and courteous custodialism. But the fact is, private-property violations do happen — a lot. “It’s gotten to the point where land use is getting so tight, you pretty much have to go for the gusto,” one biker asserts. “But you have to be prepared to have a gun in your face, or get the cops called on you.”

Schuster, however — one of the area’s better-known cycling proponents (he also plays a mean mandolin in the String Beings, a local band) — remains firmly in the opposite camp. “Riding on private land is highly taboo,” he proclaims. “Occasionally, I’ll take a small group on private property, when I have permission. I swear them to secrecy, though, and make them promise to not come back without me. I’m real sensitive to it: I don’t want to be banned.”

So what’s the solution? How does Asheville become more bike-friendly, and attract still more bike-toting tourists, while remaining an exceptional place to ride?

For some, it’s a simple matter of spreading out the traffic, and finding other areas to explore. Schuster thinks more people should try the North Mills River area, for instance. “That area is underused,” he says. “There are a lot of great trails. There’s more water — more streams and waterfalls — and it’s a little more level. In Bent Creek, once you get out of the main area, it gets steep. But in Mills River, there’s more gentle terrain, trails that climb over smaller hills and mountains. There’s the Laurel Mountain Trail, which is an exceptional ride. It’s epic, it’s challenging, it’s got some high-altitude views. It doesn’t get much use, but it’s one of the best.”

Others point to the practice of designating certain trails as seasonal, which means they’re open only during the winter months. “I don’t want to see it happen,” Coursey admits, “but there should be a lot more seasonal closings than there are right now. Because the season is from October to April, only the locals get to ride it; but there’s still plenty of trails open during the summer, for all the tourism. The bike shops have to have the tourism, for the rentals and the repairs. As a businessman, if we want the bike shops to stay in business, the bottom line is that these trails need to be preserved.”

For more information about the BRBC’s Bent Creek trail-repair crews, call Scott Hoffman at 670-1755 — or just show up at 9 a.m. on the Saturday after the third Wednesday of the month, at Bent Creek’s Hard Times Trailhead, which is located in the parking lot on the left, before the campground.

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