There is an ever evolving narrative
in mountain biking that has me excited: communities looking to our sport and community as an economic and social asset. It's a dynamic that we as mountain bikers should be proud of, as it's often a reflection of the countless hours spent trail building, advocating, and meeting with land managers that have really given our community of mountain cyclists so much leverage throughout the country. It's a theme I have written about and witnessed for many years now, and places such as East Burke, Vermont; Roanoke, Virginia; and Davis, West Virginia are but a few of the growing list of towns on the east coast alone that look to their riders and trails for inspiration and economic growth. It's a trend that I hope to see continue, as I love writing about these places and the critical thinkers who make them what they are today, and really enjoy the idea of a town "buying" in on mountain biking. Harrisonburg, Virginia, for the record, is not one of these places. The riding community that has been developed here isn't the result of, or the stimulus behind the city's growth. The town itself is doing just fine with or without bikes. No, Harrisonburg's brilliant, and dynamic cycling opportunities are homegrown, and it's one of my favorite things about this place.
When I am in planning mode
for this series of stories, I like to break potential locations down into three categories: "under the radar", "up and coming", and "no brainer". Harrisonburg has been a categorically "no brainer" location for East Bound & Down from the start. In fact, it's one of those places where my confidence is so high in it's ability to deliver the goods, I've made a concerted effort to seek out as many other locales as possible, instead of heading straight for the proverbial low hanging fruit. However, I'm on Interstate 81 virtually every time I head south to ride, and more often than not, I drive right past the many Harrisonburg exits that occupy that long, straight, and dull highway. Massanutten stands as a jutting beacon of glory to the east. The vast backcountry peaks of the George Washington National Forest catch the eye to the west. It's often difficult to justify the hours spent on that highway when I could just stop and play here. I fought. I resisted. I've had some incredible experiences well south of "The Valley". In the end, though, I had to give in. This place is just unbeatable.
The Friday night six-pack series runs from September through November, and celebrates some of the region's best descents, in the company of some of its best people.
"The Burg" is located in the heart of the Shenandoah Valley, flanked to the east by Shenandoah National Park, and to the west by the absolutely massive George Washington National Forest. The city is home roughly 53,000 people, of which 20,000 are students at James Madison University. It's a place I've long held near and dear to my heart, as much of my family comes from this part of the country. In fact, I was named after a nearby mountain resort about 40 miles to the north of town, which coincidentally, is now a bike park.
The mountain bike scene here is one of the oldest in the country, and has a long list of talented riders who call, or have called, this place home over the last few decades. When you get out on any of the hundreds of miles of trail here, the how's and why's of the technical proficiency, as well as the power and fitness of the local contingency, become immediately apparent. Outside of the Massanutten and Bryce bike parks, both of which are relatively new additions to the region, the thousands of feet of technical, picturesque, and legendary descending must first be climbed. Shuttling isn't necessarily frowned upon, it is simply just not a part of the local lexicon. In recent years, trail systems have sprouted up in downtown at the Hillendale trail system, as well as on the western slopes of Massanutten, both of which provide quick access to riding that suits a wider range of mountain bikers. But Harrisonburg's reputation was built by locals, for locals, and while its scene continues to grow and evolve, its origins remain intact and relevant even today.
Sandwiched between two massive ridgeline mountain ranges, the Shenandoah Valley has an abundance of fertile farmland, which helps explain why Harrisonburg and the rest of Rockingham County is the top agriculture-producing county in the state..
Shuttles aren't the most common occurrence in these here parts, but I was grateful to not have to haul 30lbs of camera gear up Reddish, as our 10-mile descent alone took the better part of four hours.
"You don’t really know what you’re doing early on when it comes to the development of a mountain bike culture." Chris Scott tells me from a swimming hole near the Stokesville Lodge and Campground. "There’s no end-game focus. Those of us who were a part of the community early on just wanted to figure out how we could get more folks out to ride. We came up with a “Dollar Downhill” idea, where we’d go around campus (James Madison), and place flyers on any somewhat nice looking bike we saw. We invited folks out to ride downhill with us. Everyone pitches in a dollar, and the winner takes all. It was awesome, and people really loved it. We added some trail work to the equation, and things along those lines, and it really helped us shape the community and bring people together."
Chris is the owner of the aforementioned Stokesville Lodge, which in addition to being perhaps the most appropriately named mountain bike business...ever, is located just outside of Harrisonburg in, you guessed it, Stokesville, Virginia. Chris has long been one of the most influential figures in mountain biking on the east coast, and is responsible for more shenanigans and stories then we have room for on the internet, as well as some of the world's most challenging endurance events including the Shenandoah Mountain 100, the Wilderness 101, and the Stoopid 50. He's in his 20th year of running Shenandoah Mountain Touring, and his relatively new venture, the Stokesville operation, sits on the edge of the George Washington National Forest. Just outside of his door lies hundreds of miles of big mountain, backcountry adventure waiting for you. Chris came to Harrisonburg in the early nineties to be a part of what was then an emerging scene. While he's had plenty of opportunities to travel around the world, racing and riding his bike all over Europe and North America, Harrisonburg and the surrounding area are too much a part of his DNA for him to consider calling anywhere else home.
Stokesville's dreamy nature is the result of a lot of hard work from this man.
Chris Scott might call Harrisonburg home, but the respect for what he's done for mountain biking is known around the world.
Sharing the forest isn't an issue in this part of the country.
"The bike riding, the mountains, and the emergence of a scene brought me to Harrisonburg many years ago." he says from the shores of the North River, which snakes its way through his property and the surrounding valley. "People like Mike Carpenter and Thomas Jenkins really shaped what has become a hotspot for riding on the east coast."
We're discussing the "early days" of the community here, and there's a grin that comes with any story or recollection Chris shares with me during this discussion.
"I loved the feeling that would come with following a dotted line on a map, and going out in search of that specific trailhead. There’s nothing like surfing down a mountain for the very first time. You never really knew what was in store for you, there were no pictures of it, no blogs about the trail; you were kind of adventuring. We began to find trails that weren’t even on the map. I loved that sense of adventure."
Reddish will leave you hankering for a sammy, and a cold one. Or two.
Chris isn't alone in that sentiment. Thomas Jenkins has been living in Harrisonburg since the early 90’s. He's the co-owner of the Shenandoah Bicycle Company, which opened its doors in 2000. He's played several roles in his community, which includes co-founding the mountain bike club, which would eventually become the Shenandoah Valley Bicycle Coalition, a step he was an integral component to. He also sat on the Harrisonburg City Bicycle and Pedestrian Committee, as well as the JMU Bicycle and Pedestrian Committee. During my time in town, Thomas' was typically the first name that would come up whenever the conversation went in the direction of people responsible for making Harrisonburg what it is today.
"It sends chills down my spine when I think back to this place in the early nineties." Thomas tells me. We were talking at his shop before the doors opened for the day's business. "Even the late eighties, when I first came to Harrisonburg to ride bikes. There weren’t many mountain bike scenes back in the late eighties, but I had a roommate who brought me up here to ride, and it opened my eyes to real mountain riding. I hadn’t seen it before. Bike riding was why I decided to move here in 1992. The people are really what caused me to stay.
It's clear that Thomas and the rest of this community value the opportunities that have come from building a trusting and meaningful relationship with local land managers, including the National Forest Service. It might have been a nebulous and fuzzy arrangement early on, but this crew was quick to recognize the gold mine they were sitting on, and weren't about to take that for granted.
Thomas' roots go deep in these here parts. Some say that enduro even got its start here. The truth is somewhere in those notes.
Massanutten's bike park offers up close to 1,100 vertical feet of classic, Virginia tech.
"In the early 90’s, it was all about exploring and building relationships." Thomas notes. "Now, there’s certainly a lot more information available, but that wasn't always the case. You used to have to pick people’s brains, or open up a poor quality map and go looking for trails. It was really huge to come across a trail with some friends, and we’d always say “Don’t tell anyone!”. You go to a party later, and someone is saying “Yeah, I heard about the new trail you guys found!”. Of course you couldn’t contain your excitement. Now, it’s now something we want to keep to ourselves. We love sharing it. We also love to share the community. We’re as much about the riding as we are about hanging out together. I want to see that continue to develop.
"Our riding opportunities have increased due to strong partnerships. Partnering with the city, and taking what was considered scrubbed woods and turning it into a really cool, in-town trail system. Our relationship with Massanutten has helped us develop the Western Slope trails from what was in the early nineties essentially off limits, to now this completely awesome trail system. The nearby resorts have seen our growth, and in turn have taken the opportunity to grow their own systems for some lift access riding. There’s still a very real backcountry experience here, and where I think most of the growth has occurred has been on what might be considered the front range. We want to create cyclists; people with a passion for riding bikes. I think one of the magical things about a bike is that you can connect with people that you might now have otherwise connected with.
"I don’t think that I was a part of the 'first layer
' of our mountain bike community here. There were people here before me discovering and exploring the trails on mountain bikes. We touched base with them. My generation of folks, myself, Chris Scott, Tim Richardson, Mike Carpenter, those are the people who were not just motivated to ride, but motivated to get stuff done. Now, Kyle is here and he’s a great leader for the community. I think the challenge now is trying to figure out how to build on what we’ve done up until this point."
Lower on the mountain you'll find plenty of fun, flowy options for those not looking to push their bikes and bodies to the limit.
There are three shops in the heart of downtown, and all of them work together to cultivate and build a strong cycling community, and often collaborate on projects and initiatives.
While the downtown area doesn't have much in terms of lodging currently, the Stonewall Jackson B&B is within walking distance to loads of restaurants and attractions, has plenty of room for you and your bikes, with fast wi-fi, and of course, some mouth watering breakfasts to fuel your days of adventure.
Harrisonburg has been a cornerstone of Kyle Lawrence's life for the better part of 15 years. Kyle attended JMU, where he met his wife. Like many riders in the area, Kyle fell in love with what Harrisonburg and the rest of the Valley offered, and he stayed put upon graduation. Kyle and his wife, Whitney, are now parents to a very charming baby boy, and are both incredibly active in the cycling community here. In fact, Kyle is the president of the Shenandoah Valley Bicycle Coalition, an organization that a few years back saw the convergence of both the local mountain bike association and the local road riding club. In a town with world class trail and road riding, it makes sense for the two disciplines to work together in order to more effectively weave cycling into the fabric of the community.
"The Coalition really is a special organization," Kyle says. "because it’s more than just a bike club. It represents everything biking
for Harrisonburg and the rest of the Shenandoah Valley. While mountain biking has always been a big emphasis from the coalition, we’re also focused on getting more kids on bikes, and people in general on them. Greenways around town, and better road riding opportunities are also big points of emphasis for us. This approach allows us to really cross pollinate different types of riding. Mountain biking happens to be one of the better gateway drugs to cycling. We get people hooked on it, and then they’re willing to try other things. We’re really lucky to have a community where everyone coalesces under one umbrella, and that really adds some legitimacy to our organization, and that’s the key to our success."
I could barely believe it when I found myself on flow in the GW National Forest. Short lived flow to be sure.
The truth is, flow comes in many forms, and sometimes you just need a bit of body english to find it.
I asked Kyle about the next step for the community, with such a storied history, and ever increasing opportunities for trail access, and a rapidly growing cycling infrastructure, his own role could easily become an overwhelming responsibility.
"We know that we’re at a crucial point where the Coalition has increased its reach exponentially over the past few years." he tells me with an unassuming confidence to his words. "We’re growing geographically, and have expanded into other counties. We’re leveraging our partnership with the national forest, and are now working with 1.2 million acres of forest. We’re involved with land use planning in the city and county, and we’re involved with national forest planning. We know that we’re going to need to increase our capacity. That’s going to come with paid staff. That staff will continue the work that we’re doing so that everyone is having fun, but also will take some of the load off of our volunteer base. There is a lot of behind the scenes work that isn’t always very fun, and we want to make sure that the volunteers don’t necessarily have to spend their after work hours dealing with those types of issues.
"Expanding our geographic reach is also a priority. More people under the umbrella of the Coalition means a stronger voice, and better resources. We also see a vision for the Shenandoah Valley to be a bike capital. Whether it’s for Virginia or the World, you have to dream big and we want to empower more people to be able to ride bikes. Whether it’s through our Bicycles for Refugees program, where recent refugees get bicycles, or whether it’s for a kid in school, or someone who picks up a mountain bike for the first time. We just want people to ride bikes more."
Make no mistake, the George Washington National Forest certainly presents its fair share of challenging terrain, but this place is like Disneyland for willing riders.
Harrisonburg is truly a cornerstone on the east coast for cyclists of any-and-all disciplines, and any-and-all ages.
It's always exciting to see opportunities arise because of mountain biking. I think it speaks to just how potent our sport is, and how empowering it can be for towns and cities, particularly as mountain bikes become more and more of a resource and commodity for a growing number of municipalities. I also think that it says something when a place like Harrisonburg can have a thriving mountain bike and cycling community, and it isn't seen as a tourism-based need. Instead, it is something that has been cultivated and developed to service and empower residents first, with visitation and tourism falling in line from there. A commodity can be many things to many people and places. For some, it's a resource that might be the primary economic driver for their respective region. For others such as Harrisonburg, it's very much a quality of life affair. Interestingly enough, it's this community-first approach that makes Harrisonburg such a profoundly brilliant place to visit and ride bikes. Kyle, who is now wrapping up his 7th straight year as the Coalition president, makes no bones about it.
"I think what is super cool about this place is that cycling and riding is a lifestyle here," he says. "It’s also a quality of life asset. Instead of tourism dollars per se, the Coalition here is focused on empowering people here with bikes. Whether it’s for fun, or work, or getting around town, it’s about providing a range of opportunities that for people in Harrisonburg. We’re intentional with what we do, and how we do it. We get to shape this community for ourselves; it’s not about a need for visitation. We still encourage people to come and check us out, and we love having people here, but we’re building this community for ourselves."
Harrisonburg mountain biking trails
The SVBC has worked hard to demystify all forms of cycling, whether its done in the backcountry or in downtown.