The mighty Tennessee River cuts right through the heart of downtown Knoxville.
As I drove north out of town, I was struck by a sense of sadness. It wasn't the fact that I was going home, as I'm always happy to get back to my family after any amount of time away. Instead, it was having to say goodbye that was surprisingly difficult. The people I had gotten to know over the course of my time here were so profoundly excited to show off their trails and community, and the sense of family and familiarity was palpable almost immediately. There's something to be said about the people of a particular place making it a destination. Yes, the trails here are a lot of fun, and they have a lot of them. I'll get to that. But man, I'd only been in town for a week and I felt as if I had known these folks for years. I still don't really know how they did it, but I'm most certainly glad they did. Maybe there's something in the water.
Knoxville is Tennessee's 3rd largest city, behind Nashville and Memphis respectively, and is perhaps most famous for The University of Tennessee, which calls this place home. The French Broad and Holston rivers converge here to form the headwaters of the Tennessee River, which slices through the rolling landscape of the city itself, and the surrounding county on its way to the Ohio River, over 650 miles away in Kentucky. While the Smoky Mountains garner some well-deserved attention and flank the town just a few miles to the east, the Cumberland Mountains rise up west of the city, making for a veritable sandwich of hilly and mountainous fun in any direction. Knoxville is also home to 7 lakes, which help to round it out into one of the more comprehensive adventure-oriented cities anywhere in the United States, so yeah, it's got to be the water.
Paddle boarding on the Tennessee.
The Tennessee Theatre is one of downtown Knoxville's most alluring attractions.
Last light over Mead's Quarry Lake, a favorite post-ride meeting spot for the AMBC.
Smoky Mountains National Park is 45 minutes outside of the city limits and is one of several attractive notches on Knoxville's belt. The city hosted the World's Fair in 1982, which would prove to be one of the world's most popular events ever of its kind. While Knoxville actually suffered for a few years due to a budgetary crisis stemming from the fair (Google: Jake Butcher), the city has a few interesting remnants from the event including the Sunsphere, a 261 foot tall steel tower that tops out with a 5-story golden sphere, and is a centerpiece for the city's skyline. Knoxville has more than a few vibrant streets and neighborhoods, including Gay Street, Main Street, and Market Square among others. The rivers, lakes, quarries, and cliffs have proven to be a huge draw for outdoor enthusiasts as well, with top-notch hiking, paddling and climbing opportunities within the boundary of the town, and plenty more in surrounding Knox County.
There's certainly no shortage of things here to keep you off of the bike, which would prove to be a rather fun challenge during my time in Knoxville, as my days were filled with trail rides, backyard BBQ's, nights out on the town, paddle boarding on the river, and even a nighttime swim under the Harvest Moon. However, whether you want to credit this trip to my introduction to two of Knoxville's more venerable dignitaries in Rich Kidd and Missy Petty in the spring of 2015; or from firsthand accounts of the insane potential Knoxville has directly from Knight Ide, the man responsible for a few trails at throughout the region, including Barn Burner, Knight Fall, and a portion of the Devil's Racetrack; or Sean Leader's mouth watering content pool from within city limits; or even all of the attention that came from being awarded the Bell Built Grant in 2015; Knoxville had been on my mind for some time leading up to the inevitable 9 hour drive south from Philadelphia.
Kelly Brown of Bower Bird Sculpture put together this apropos masterpiece overlooking downtown.
Expect plenty of creative energy and culture when you venture into the city.
The Harvest Moon may mark the end of the summer, but fret not, as you can ride dirt year round in these here parts.
Generally speaking, expectations for any mountain bike adventure are filled with hopes of some fun trails and solid people. I usually expect to learn a bit more about the challenges and processes unique to any given region as well, and always look forward to seeing how people employ creative and critical thinking to provide solutions. I'm not going to say that Knoxville hasn't had it's fair share of challenges; in fact, I'd say the city has faced plenty of them in just the last couple of decades alone. But I will say that I don't know of another city I have seen that has so clearly made mountain biking an integral part of its solution, and is so willing to look to the trails for continued prosperity. Quite honestly, I've never seen anything like it.
Kaysee Armstrong and Missy Petty enjoying a Dirty South rock garden.
Retired surgeon Kevin Zirkle is about as passionate and authentic as they make 'em.
Sean Leader working up an appetite.
Backyard barbecue jump session. Who's in?
"Randy Conner got the club fired back up in 2007," Brian Hann says. Brian is giving me the lowdown on the history of Knoxville's mountain bike club, the A.M.B.C. (Appalachian Mountain Bike Club). "He and I were looking to do something with the land, and I presented the Hastie Natural Area as our first project. So we began to work on that in 2007. Right around then, my wife Mary Beth and I moved to the farm and we began to cut a trail over there as well. I realized that we have a bunch of property, and there’s this wildlife management area across the street, and Hastie Park is right there as well, so we began to connect the dots ourselves. I remember the first trail I built I basically just pushed through with a 4-wheeler. My wife bought me the IMBA Trail Solutions book, and told me to read it because I needed to do a better job building trail."
Brian and the others would get the hang of it soon enough. "We learned a lot during those first couple of years. We really learned how to talk to land managers, and IMBA was a huge help with the Trail Solutions guide. Their Trail Care Crew would help us communicate with land managers, and better explain sustainable trail design. It really got us rolling for those first few years."
Brian was the A.M.B.C. vice president in 2007 and 2008, before assuming presidential duties from 2009-2014. He's now the vice president of S.O.R.B.A., (Southern Off-Road Bicycle Association), which is comprised of 41 different chapters throughout the southeastern United States including the A.M.B.C.. In the nearly 10 years since the rebirth of A.M.B.C., one quality, in particular, has stood out above the rest: the fervent volunteerism seen regularly on work days. The club has such a wealth of manpower at its disposal, that it has developed a bit of a hard and fast rule for trail work days: you work from 9 until noon, and you can expect some food and beverages afterward.
Brian's backyard is home to the aforementioned jumps and also houses several miles of singletrack thanks to a private land easement.
Brian's more than willing to kick the rear wheel out whenever it's necessary.
Brian is among many private landowners who granted the A.M.B.C. with a trail easement, allowing for many miles of trail to flow through his property.
"There’s not as much of an emphasis put on goals," Brian notes. "...or linear quotas for any given day; we just get a lot done by having a good time. If we don’t get something done, it’s going to be there the next weekend. We try to be very conscious of people’s time and effort. It’s first about fun, and second about trail digging. It’s not like we’re lazy, we just get a lot done and we don’t emphasize having to finish something by a certain time. It’s more of a work party, and not a work day."
"I came to the club from a standpoint of not knowing where any of this trail came from." current A.M.B.C. president Matthew Kellogg tells me. "I wanted to learn more about trail building and wanted to be involved. I just started hanging out with Brian at the coffee shop in Old City. I figured out that they were having this Fall Fest coming up, so I pretty much inserted myself into this volunteer role there with the club early on. I went from being a volunteer to being in charge of event coordination and fundraising. Brian eventually coerced me into taking on the presidential role, which I’ve been doing for a few years now."
Former A.M.B.C., and future S.O.R.B.A. president, Brian Hann.
Matt Kellogg has every reason to feel great about the future of mountain biking in Knoxville.
Brian's farm has played host to the annual Fall Fest for years, but the event has since outgrown his property and this year they're hosting the event at Baker Creek Preserve.
Matt is just a few months away from stepping down as president, as he helps to prepare his friend and next in line, Wes Soward, for the role moving forward. "I have some really good relationships with some land managers and city officials, and Brian has other strong relationships, and really as a club, we take all of our strengths and use them the best way we can and leverage them. Wes has been involved in the club for long enough and he certainly understands the direction and how we work on a project-by-project basis."
Matt, like Brian and virtually everyone else who rides bikes in Knoxville, has a great appreciation for the various strengths and skill sets that so many in this community are able to bring to the table in terms of trail building and access. It's a collaborative effort that may very well be unrivaled in a city this sized anywhere else in the States.
"The Bell Grant was one of the things that helped us become more of a household name." he says. "There is no way in hell that we would have been able to rally those 26,000 people who voted for us without making an impression upon them. We’re not just mountain bikers out there. It was Carol Evans who really helped me understand that. She’s very savvy about how things are perceived by others, and she imparted upon us that we don’t always have to hang our hats on mountain biking."
Matt enjoying some time on one of the original sections of Knoxville singletrack found in Hastie Park.
If these two hadn't hit it off so well years ago, who knows how things would have turned out.
Carol Evans is a power player, and one of Knoxville mountain biking's greatest assets. Carol is in charge of Legacy Parks, a non-profit that handles land acquisitions, trail easements, conservation easements, and are responsible for getting ahold of land for future projects. "When we acquire land," she tells me over lunch following a small group ride. "...it is initially privately held until we release it. The very first donation of land we had was an acre and a half of property to build a skatepark in Fountain City. This guy needed to donate it, and he was going to donate it to the city. Our mayor at the time insisted he to donate it to Legacy, and that the city would work with us to get the property. Our mayor was just very trusting of the process; we just did what we said we were going to do. When we set ourselves up we had a really strong sense of legitimacy. From the beginning, there was this sense that Legacy can be more nimble than a lot of other organizations."
It's that trust in Legacy Parks that has enabled the A.M.B.C. to operate and build with very little red tape. "We try to lead collaboratively." Carol explains. "Sometimes we’re given land, and sometimes we raise the money to purchase it. The A.M.B.C. are sort of the 'boots on the ground' guys. They’re the trail experts. They know why and how we need to do things. We are often behind the scenes orchestrating how it happens. We’ll hold land for a while and raise money, and so far everything we’ve done has eventually become city, county or state property. Our relationship with them is pretty seamless and I think that we established our roles pretty quickly. These guys have always been the trail experts. They’ve never been an outlier as a group. They built trails in the city park right from the start. We have yet to have multi-use conflict. I do believe that there was a mindset of not promoting conflict. We just aren’t going to go there. Without the number of volunteers that the A.M.B.C. brings to the table, there’s no way we could continue to build what we’re building and acquire the land we’re getting."
Carol Evans of Legacy Parks has played a major role in the growth of the mountain bike community throughout Knoxville.
Kim Bumpas of Visit Knoxville is excited for more and more riders to visit the city and spread the word.
The Devil's Racetrack is proving to be a major draw for riders around the country.
What Knoxville has now as a direct result of this well supported and effective effort is a process designed not only to build upon and enhance the trail experience, but to build upon and enhance the city as a whole. It's something that the local Convention and Visitor's Bureau is all too happy to embrace as well. Kim Bumpas and Erin Donovan are both riders and had been my points of contact leading up to this trip, with Erin having the less than thrilling responsibility of hauling me and my gear all over town. Kim is the C.V.B. president and is describing some of the value the city sees in bringing more riders into town.
"We have these great partnerships with A.M.B.C., Legacy Parks, Outdoor Knoxville...the list goes on and on. The A.M.B.C. in particular is filled with open-minded people who have this innate ability to market themselves, and we’re able to piggyback on that and partner with them."
"We want to bring mountain bikers to Knoxville for a lot of reasons." she continues. "First, we can deliver on their high expectations. We can also provide that travel experience that so many people are looking for in terms of connectivity, having some options for a bite and drink after a ride, and Knoxville delivers them in ways that other communities can’t. Knoxville has really developed itself into an optimal adventure destination. Mountain bikers might come here initially for the Devil’s Racetrack, but they might come back to check out other trails. Or, maybe they missed out on exploring Market Square, so they’ll be back. That’s what is important to us: that after people come here, they return and bring their friends."
Kaysee Armstrong with a mean lean at Ijams Nature Preserve.
The South Loop Trails were at one point better known as The Dirty South due to dumping and overgrowth. Sure does clean up nice.
Where Kaysee Armstrong, Emily Parker, Missy Petty, and Dani Huff are going, they won't need roads.
Emily Parker flying through the late summer green tunnel.
Missy Petty chases the sunset down the Devil's Racetrack.
Dani Huff is among the growing number of top-notch riders who call Knoxville home.
Missy Petty can speak firsthand to the growth of the trails, and the tangible improvements that can be directly attributed to them. Missy, a former professional road cyclist, and currently a fish biologist, was selected as 1 of 6 recipients in the United States as a Bell Helmets Joyride ambassador last year in order to provide the southeast with structured, fun, and social rides for all levels of female mountain bikers. Missy has been involved with the A.M.B.C. since 2011, and her latest endeavor as a Joyride ambassador has provided her with a unique and valuable perspective when it comes to Knoxville.
"So many of the parks we ride in and love now used to be so shady." Missy says following our ride at Ijams Nature Center, which accounts for roughly 1/3 of the 42 miles of trail known as the South Loop Trails. "Not a lot of people visited them because they were so sketchy. So Legacy Parks and the A.M.B.C. began to work on them and connect them, and now we have these amazing trails thanks to that movement. There are a lot of people who don’t even ride bikes who love to visit these parks. When we get people to care about South Knoxville, then it becomes something more than just 'the other side of the river'."
Missy, Kaysee, and Erin share a laugh and a beer following a ride at Baker Creek.
Sean Leader leads Travis Davis down a Knight Ide creation at Baker Creek.
Missy is now looked at as a community leader by men and women alike, but it's her focus on cultivating and enabling a stronger contingent of women riders that drives much of her passion currently. "There are a lot of people in Knoxville who are inspirational, but for me it was important as a woman to connect with people like Kaysee, or Liz McCalley; there are a lot of incredible women in town who can really ride mountain bikes. I started moving away from racing and towards getting other women in our community out on bikes. What I see now with all of these ladies coming out, sometimes almost 100, to our events riding bikes because they see so many other women out doing the same thing...it’s just been really cool. I still race, but I’m mostly interested in just getting out there and meeting other people."
While the area hangs it's hat on community growth and trail building, it has also produced a number of high profile, elite riders. In 2016 alone, Kaysee Armstrong has amassed an impressive collection of stage race results, including an overall win at the Trans-Sylvania Epic, 2nd overall at the Trans Andes, 3rd overall at the B.C. Bike Race, and 4th overall at the Breck Epic. Kaysee began racing mountain bikes while in college about 90 minutes up the road in Bristol, and when she's not traveling around the world racing bikes, she can be found in Knoxville where she works for an accounting firm, and where she also recently purchased her first home which is, of course, right next to a trailhead. Both her riding pedigree and accounting profession have allowed her to witness firsthand the growth and development of the trails, and the financial growth of the organizations that have helped to make Knoxville what it is today.
Kaysee Armstrong has accomplished a lot in a short amount of time and credits the continued development of Knoxville for some of that success.
Missy knows these trails well and is typically setting a blistering pace in either direction.
Many of the trails throughout South Knoxville contain remnants of old mining and quarry efforts throughout the region.
"A year ago if you would have asked me if I was going to live here permanently, I would have said I'm thinking about a move to Pisgah." Kaysee admits. "There are a lot of places with some really awesome trails, but here I just feel like a part of the family. I have great friends over in Brevard and Asheville, and they have a great community, but every time we get together (in Knoxville) for a ride or BBQ, it just feels like a family reunion. I might go 2 months without being able to see anyone because I’m traveling or racing, but no matter what, whenever we get together it just feels like home. Everybody has the common goal of wanting to see Knoxville grow into a better place. If you were to compare Knoxville today to Knoxville from 4 or 5 years ago, the difference is just night and day."
Kaysee's friend and former roommate, Sean Leader, has called Knoxville home his entire life. Before Sean was a well known Pivot Factory rider, he began riding bikes as a young kid at nearby Windrock Mountain, 45 minutes west of downtown in Oakridge. "My parents basically saw mountain biking as a form of daycare, and they’d drop me and my brother off at Haw Ridge. It was probably the most established mountain bike area around Knoxville early on."
Sean Leader making use of some properly big bike terrain just outside of town.
Windrock has a growing network of trail bike appropriate terrain, despite its decidedly burly reputation.
Like Kaysee, Sean has made a name for himself traveling around the world, racing at various EWS and North American enduro stops, but this year he kept much of his efforts close to home so he could focus on content production. Sean has had the opportunity to visit and ride some of the planet's most enviable destinations, but his passion for eastern Tennessee and Knoxville, in particular, is abundantly clear when you get to know him.
"Something that I’ve always wanted to convey to others whenever I travel is just how big the mountains are in this part of the country." he says. "We share the same mountain range as the folks in Pisgah. It’s really an impressive mountain range, and we have the potential to rival any Rocky Mountain region as well. We have the terrain to host excellent mountain bike trails. There's good moisture, lots of roots and rocks, and we don’t have a lot of red tape here. People are just willing to make things happen. They’re able to get the land that we need to build trails. We don’t have to deal with a lot of the bureaucratic issues that other parts of the world might have to. People are embracing it. We use the land we have, and the builders here make it happen however they can. They pool their resources and put people to work."
The Cumberland Mountains are home to Windrock, which utilizes over 2200 vertical feet of relief for its trails.
Sean just recently teamed up with World Cup racer Neko Mulally to lease over 400 acres of Windrock, and has big plans for the mountainous playground just west of town, which will serve to enhance the already abundant riding opportunities for the region. "You can see Windrock Mountain from almost anywhere in and around the city." Sean says, making no effort to hide his enthusiasm. "It’s the most vertical in the area for trails as well. The Smokies are bigger, but it’s National Forest land and you can’t build there. The Windrock range is the tallest mountain that we have access to. It’s going to be a great opportunity for the area to have some proper downhill trails. They saw an opportunity with Neko and I to operate a shuttle serviced bike park on their land. We’ll be running from the fall through the spring as an off-season destination. We think that’s kind of the ideal time to be riding there with the conditions we get."
Sean skies one out at Windrock.
No egos with these ladies, just good fun, lots of speed, and a willingness to session things over and over again.
There's no such thing as bad backyard vibes.
I mentioned in the beginning that I had never seen anything like this. Just so we're clear, I wasn't talking about the trails themselves, or even the community. Knoxville does have top notch trails and people, but that's obviously not a quality unique to eastern Tennessee's largest city. Nor was I alluding to the idea of mountain biking being viewed as a top commercial commodity for the region, as there is a growing contingent of towns throughout the world that are utilizing a similar approach. However, it's the scale of not only the city itself, but the cooperation from so many different entities utilizing their respective strengths, and working together towards a common goal that dropped my proverbial jaw.
That's not an indictment on small towns like East Burke, or Davis, or any other place that sees the trails as a form of lifeblood for their communities. Not at all. Those places are held near and dear to the hearts of any rider who has ever put rubber to dirt on their trails. However, Knoxville's size brings with it a host of logistical challenges that most small towns and communities don't have to deal with, and yet they have somehow not only made it work in spite of said challenges, but the mountain bikers are actually seen as leaders in the community for riders and non-riders alike. It's actually quite stunning to witness this process firsthand, and a virtue that will inevitably lead to even better trails, and a lot more of them. It certainly helps to explain my sudden interest in Knoxville real estate.
Click here to see the full gallery of photos from this trip.