Reinventing the wheel

Each spring, the highways leading into Western North Carolina become busier as outdoors enthusiasts roll into town, their trunks crammed with camping gear and their roofs topped with mountain bikes.

More and more, vacationers — and especially cyclists — are recognizing the Asheville area as a Southeastern oasis. (It’s a hard secret to keep when popular mountain-biking magazines keep bragging about the trails!)

Local bicycle shops have seen and felt the surge of tourists over the last five years. Liberty Bicycles co-owner Mike Nix reports that within a two-week period last month, he met cyclists from 13 different states and Canada.

“Asheville, for years, has been a spring-break [destination],” says Nix. “Especially during the mountain-bike boom in the 1990s — so it started to change then.”

The locals find their favorite mountain-biking trails in Dupont State Park, the Bent Creek Research Forest, Black Mountain, Mills River and the Pisgah National Forest. Local bike shops have detailed maps and offer group rides each week, both on and off the road.

“We have a huge variation of terrain, from paved country roads to the most technical single-track in the eastern U.S. — perhaps even nationwide,” boasts Pro Bikes owner Fred Schuldt.

Worth the work

Mount Mitchell, north of Asheville along the Blue Ridge Parkway, offers road bikers a 5,000-foot ascent — the longest extended climb in the Southeast. Each spring, cyclists come from all over the country to participate in “The Assault on Mt. Mitchell,” a 100-mile race up the mountain that’s obviously not for the faint-hearted.

“It’s the ideal place to be,” Schuldt says. “We can actually ride here yearlong, and we even have some of the most beautiful sunsets. I think that makes it altogether a wonderful place to live — and live on a bike.”

Along with great trails, beautiful views, stunning sunsets, fragrant wildflowers and abundant camping opportunities come the folks whose work supports this enticing way of life.

“We have a very close-knit cycling community,” Schuldt maintains. “Most of the shops work together, and it creates an atmosphere of fun, rather than business or political games that you might see elsewhere.”

Schuldt is spearheading a bicycle-awareness group made up of local bike-shop owners. The group is affiliated with the Blue Ridge Bicycle Club, which Nix directs. Each month, they get together to help create a bicycle-friendly community by planning events that will inspire people to get on their bikes more often.

“I think we’ve become a little too comfortable in our SUVs and our four-lane highways,” says Schuldt. “We’ve forgotten what it’s like to exercise, and it actually feels really good.”

A pack of about 20 mountain bikers rides through downtown Asheville every Friday night, their headlamp beams flitting through the streets like monster fireflies. Anyone can join them on the “Pub Crawl,” as they make their way across town beginning at Jack of the Wood around 7 p.m.

Eventually, the group moves on to places like Barley’s Taproom to shoot pool, Broadway’s for the pinball machines, Asheville Pizza & Brewing Company for a movie, or the Grey Eagle for outdoor patio seating and live music.

Every second Tuesday evening, road bikers serious about racing can be found at the former Asheville Motor Speedway property on Amboy Road. Cyclists now come from as far away as Morganton and Hickory to race in the challenging training series.

But retooling the speedway to serve the needs of cyclists is only one small facet of the multipurpose recreational facility being developed there by RiverLink.

For 15 years, the nonprofit has been working for the economic and environmental renewal of the entire French Broad River watershed, promoting the area as a place to live, work and play. And by July, reports Executive Director Karen Cragnolin, the Speedway property will also boast basketball courts, volleyball pits, lawn bowling and roller hockey, to complement the stunning new playground built by community volunteers earlier this month. RiverLink is also working on a greenway: So far, they’ve created one-and-a-half miles of trails along the French Broad River on Amboy Road, linking French Broad River Park with the Speedway property. Eventually, the greenway will extend all the way out to the Farmers Market.

“It’s the best place in town to teach your kid how to ride a bike,” Cragnolin notes.

A clear path

Last month, Schuldt’s group advertised an afternoon of free mountain-biking clinics at Alexander Park — a new mountain-bike park along the river a short distance past the Alexander post office on Hwy. 251. The morning was spent doing trail maintenance — another important aspect of mountain biking. Donning hiking boots, about 20 people made their way through the woods with shovels and pickaxes, clearing fallen debris and working to prevent trail erosion.

“Without people to do trail maintenance, there would be no mountain-biking trails,” Nix points out.

Many of the trails used for mountain biking, hiking and horseback riding are in the Pisgah National Forest. But although that land is protected by the U.S. Forest Service, there’s no budget for trail maintenance. (If erosion problems develop, however, the Forest Service has the authority to protect the woods by closing trails entirely, or else to certain kinds of users.)

In the 1960s, motocross bikes were banned from the Bent Creek Research and Demonstration Project when officials realized that overuse was irreparably damaging the trails. Many of today’s cycling trails run through research sites. But overuse widens trails and can contaminate the experiments; researchers are now once again evaluating the situation to determine which trails will be closed next.

In the meantime, a small group of local cyclists spends at least three weekends a month doing organized trail maintenance in various locations. “Trail maintenance requires a lot of people, and a lot of people use the trails, so it’s fair,” Nix observes. But, true to human nature, it’s been difficult to get more people involved.

“Trail maintenance is a hard torch to carry. Anyone who uses the forest should feel obligated to step up and offer to help,” Schuldt declares. “Hiking, cycling, horseback riding, rain — it all damages the trails. Just like our natural resources and our air, it needs to be managed, rather than used up.”

Hurts so good

Besides providing riding clinics, bike-repair classes, guided rides and bike rentals, local cycle shops are also doing their best to help more people move from the couch to the pedals.

“We have a serious health problem in this country with obesity and diabetes,” says Nix, who persuaded a group of teachers from Valley Springs Middle School to take high-risk kids out on the trails. The teachers came out first, so they could get familiar with the idea of being on a bike again.

“The first trip we had, we had to have two smoke breaks,” Nix recalls. But it wasn’t long before the teachers were ecstatic they could ride two miles. They were then able to share a healthier attitude with their students.

Schuldt also recommends teaching by example: “I try to be visible,” he says. “I try to be on my bike as much as I can. I try to encourage my staff to do the same.

“Get on your bike,” he urges. “It only hurts for a few minutes.”

Where to turn

Although cycling can be a solitary sport, it doesn’t have to be. All summer long, there are cycling events scheduled every week. Local bike shops include:
BioWheels Touring 76 Biltmore Ave, Asheville, (828) 232-0300;
Carolina Fatz Mountain Bike Center, 1240 Brevard Rd, Asheville, (828) 665-7744;
Epic Cycles, 108 Black Mountain Ave, Black Mountain, (828) 669-5969;
Hearn’s Cycling and Fitness 34 Broadway, Asheville, (828) 253-4800;
Liberty Bicycles 1987 Hendersonville Rd, Asheville, (828) 684-1085;
Pro Bikes 793 Merrimon Ave, Asheville, (828) 253-2800; and
Ski Country Sports 1000 Merrimon Ave, Asheville, (828) 254-2771.

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