Between you and me, I first visited Calhoun County with some friends while I was supposed to be working on a story about Chattanooga. To be fair, it's only 2 hours south of the Tennessee border, and I had a day to kill after having wrapped things up in "Gig City". Upon arriving in the mid-sized Alabama town of Anniston, I was immediately struck by the natural beauty of the region, the obvious care that went into both the initial design of the trail network, and what must be a logistically challenging effort in order to maintain the trails given the topography and distance between the trailheads. The day trip certainly did enough to whet the pallet, putting Anniston and the rest of Calhoun County on the to-do list for 2018 which brings us to where we are currently.
I think it's reasonable to assume that in order to fully understand the value mountain biking in these parts, it helps to have some understanding of the community's history and challenges faced over time, so let's go ahead and just rip the bandaid off: Anniston and Calhoun County have had some ups, and quite a few downs in the 175 or so years of its existence. The county itself was originally named Benton County, after pro-slavery senator Thomas Benton. It was later changed to Calhoun County as an objection to Benton rethinking his position on slavery while his senate colleague John Calhoun leveraged the impending secession for his pro-slavery stance. Anniston would replace its neighboring community of Jacksonville as the county seat in 1900 after years of controversy following the Civil War that included but were not limited to lynch mobs and widespread violence. Though economically rooted in the steel industry, Anniston was actually marketed to visitors as a wellness retreat due to the abundance of natural beauty and resources surrounding town, which led to many hotels opening up around the turn of the 20th century. The World Wars brought a bit of prosperity to the region, with Fort McClellan opening during the first World War, and the Anniston Army Depot opening across town during the second. The Civil Rights era saw an unprecedented amount of strife befall the city, most notably on Mother's Day of 1961 when two "freedom buses" carrying both black and white passengers in protest to the Jim Crow laws that plagued America were fire bombed outside of town. Fort McClellan was eventually incorporated into the city of Anniston in the 1990's only to see it close just a few years later, shutting down much of the region's economy as a result. The proverbial salt in the wound would come in 2002 during a 60 Minute
special when it was revealed that Anniston was considered to be one of the most polluted cities in the nation due to the negligence of the Monsanto Industrial Chemicals Company. Monsanto had been producing PCB's (a form of organic chlorine) for several decades throughout the 20th century, and had been dumping waste into the area's waterways for as long.
One paragraph might not do justice to the depth of the problems Anniston and Calhoun County have faced time and time again, but it certainly helps provide context for a mountain bike story, and it also offers a juxtaposition when you look at the progress made over the last decade. I knew after my very first visit that I wanted to return to Anniston to explore more of the trails, but I was caught off guard by how much hope the hills throughout Calhoun County have provided these people with. When your community's history is saturated with as much discord as Calhoun County's, it would be easy to throw in the cards and hang your heads collectively. What I learned firsthand was that Anniston, Jacksonville, and Oxford have a lot of great people who are marching towards a better future hand in hand, and the local mountain bike community is helping to lead the charge.
Anniston is the county seat for Calhoun, and has been at the center of some of the country's most prominent civil rights clashes.
Spring was beginning to sprung in early March this year.
Situated along the southern precipice of the Appalachian Mountains, Calhoun County is home to some of the Yellowhammer State's most impressive scenery, and many of its communities are tucked neatly into the declivities of the rolling hills and valleys on offer. The state's highest point, Cheaha Mountain, is surrounded by 613 square miles of Talladega National Forest wilderness and sits about 20 miles southeast of Oxford and Anniston. The national forest stretches over 100 miles in length from southwest to the northeast with Oxford, Anniston, and Jacksonville sandwiched between that and the final few ridges of the Appalachians that run parallel to the west. Calhoun County is also home to a hilly ridgeline separated by a small valley from the hills of the Talladega National Forest, and one of the more prominent features of that ridge is the centerpiece for the local mountain bike contingent, and by proxy the county itself.
// Local FlavorsAge:
Philadelphia, PA, USAIndustry affiliations:
Pivot Cycles, Maxxis Tires, Stans No Tubes, Kali Protectives, MRP, Julbo, Deity Components, EVOC, Shimano, 9point8, TopeakInstagram: @bricyclesFavorite Trail in Calhoun County:
Bomb DogRiding Style:
Mike Poe is an investment banker who has called Anniston home for over 20 years. A northeastern Alabama native, he has seen firsthand the transformative power of bikes in Calhoun County, and remembers sitting at his desk at work when the phone rang. What Mike didn't know at the time was that by answering the phone, he would forever be a part of Alabama mountain bike history.
"I got a call from the Forever Wilds Trust
land manager up at Coldwater Mountain," Mike tells me from the same corner office in downtown Anniston. "And he said 'I understand that you're in a local bike club and sort of a contact. Do you think you guys would be interested in mountain bike trails at Coldwater Mountain?' Of course, I was like 'Absolutely. What do we do?'"
Sitting squarely between Anniston and Oxford, Coldwater Mountain is a 4,100 acre tract owned by Alabama's Forever Wild Land Trust
. The trust is funded from interest earned off of deposits from offshore oil drilling in the Gulf. It's a decidedly green derivative from a decidedly un-green industry. Alabama has somewhere near 266,000 acres of land spread across 170 total Forever Wild
pieces of land, and Coldwater was one of the first purchased. The terrain here is incredibly rugged and rocky, with a mix of deciduous and pine forests covering its rolling topography.
Mike Poe and company began to build trails immediately after that first phone call from Forever Wild, and were almost just as immediately asked to pump the brakes. "The issue became where is the access on the mountain going to be?" he says. "They wanted to make sure that there was some sort of plan in place. At this point we were just a bike club. We had no partners. We were just a bunch of local guys and gals wanting to build some trails. We waited and kept talking with the State Lands division, who we developed a really good relationship with, and we were very professional in our conduct with them, and we developed a trust over the period of several years. Unfortunately it took several years."
Anniston would experience turnover among the city manager and other positions, which meant that the project wasn't really a priority for the county for some time. One thing the Calhoun County has consistently wanted for some time was an access point to the trails that was close to downtown Anniston, which would not only benefit trail users, but would also have a more profound impact on the city itself. Government usually moves at the speed of, well, government and despite the initial phone call from Forever Wild
in 2000, Mike told me that it wouldn't be until 2011 when things finally began to move forward once again on Coldwater Mountain.
"11 years later I got another phone call from Tom Surrett with IMBA. He was well aware of Coldwater Mountain, had been in contact with the State Lands Division already and had actually been on the mountain in a 4-wheel drive, and asked if we would be interested in working with IMBA to do something special at Coldwater. Of course I was like 'Absolutely, we have been wanting this for a long time.'
"We came back to the community (Anniston) with IMBA and the city with this new partnership and plan. They were much more open to it and put it pretty high up as a priority for the city. What ended up happening was us getting grants through the Alabama Department of Economic Community Affairs with the help of IMBA to build the miles of trail that we have presently. The city even ended up investing over $400,000 that went straight to trail construction because they believed in it. Anniston, even with change in leadership have bought into mountain biking and believe that it's a very positive thing for the community both in terms of quality of life as well as economically. There are just a lot of connections and things that are happening that Coldwater is a part of, and it was really our working with several different partners that made it all happen."
Calhoun County and its contingent of mountain bikers are certainly seeing firsthand just how fruitful many of the aforementioned partnerships truly are. While Coldwater has certainly proven to be a growing commodity for the region, the reality here is that a massive segment of Calhoun's population have no idea what a mountain bike is. While mountain biking appears to be a burgeoning economic asset for towns like Anniston and Oxford by bringing in visitors who will presumably spend money at local businesses, it should also be equally impactful on the quality of life of those who call this place home.
Coldwater has loads of flow, and loads of rocks. The law of averages say that you will eventually find yourself in this position here.
When Fort McClellan shut down in 1999, it was home to 10,000 American soldiers, half of which were permanently stationed. It also employed over 1,500 civilians. The economic impact of the closure was devastating, as was the impact on local morale. For the better part of nearly two decades, Anniston and the rest of Calhoun County have been looking for a reason to get excited after taking one lump after another. Without a doubt Coldwater proved to be more
than a step in the right direction, but lately it seems as though the very place that has represented so much negativity for the community might prove to be home to yet another crowning achievement in the very near future.
Freeman Fite grew up in Anniston before leaving for Tuscaloosa to play golf for Alabama. He would eventually pursue a law degree before moving back to Calhoun County in 2007. Over drinks, I asked him to describe his role in the mountain bike community here.
"Small?" he says, clearly uncomfortable with the idea of comparing his efforts with that of people like Mike Poe and others who have been at it for decades in the area.
"You think so?" I asked him, having already heard from a number of people leading up to this trip just how vital Freeman's work with the McClellan property has been for the future of mountain biking in the region.
"The guys that did Coldwater, Mike Poe and that group, I mean they really started it all. I just happened to find myself on the McClellan Development Authority, and had a good understanding of how we can get some money." he says, making sure to remove any semblance of boastfulness from his tone.
The reality is that without someone like Freeman Fite, who possesses not only a working knowledge of legalese, but who also speaks the language of the people and organizations with deep pockets, and has an intimate understanding of the power of a strong mountain bike community, the future for Calhoun County would likely be much less bright than it is today.
"We have some wealthy people that are from here, but no one's ever asked them to do anything." he explains over drinks with Stephen Kasacek of IMBA Trail Solutions and me. Stephen is there laying out the groundwork for IMBA on a new NICA course that is expected to be ready later this year. It's the NICA course and plethora of additional trail potential that has people like Freeman chomping at the bit when it comes to Fort McClellan.
"Something like a NICA event brings in a couple thousand people," Freeman continues. "And it'll be in the paper, it's a huge event, and it's on top of the we already have here. I think it has a chance at dominating the news for the region. Once people see the scale of this place and the turnout for a NICA event, it'll be easier for people to say, 'Okay. This is really a thing', and it will be easier to get everybody behind it. If everybody in the area pulled together, we could finish Coldwater in a similar fashion. We just need to get everyone on the same page.
"As far as what I'm doing, what the McClellan Development Authority is doing, we've got some money right now set aside, I'll have a good chunk (of money) after the NICA course is finished, and then we have some decisions to make. 'Hey, we're gonna divide this up into threes: $200,000 for NICA, $200,000 to start somewhere else on McClellan, and $200,000 for grants'. Of course after we voted on our budget allocations initially, the state doubled the size of the grants available, so now I need $500,000 instead of $200,000 to go after the Alabama Department of Economic and Community Affairs community development grant. If we hunt for the funding just so we can apply, it'll stall us for a year at the very least. We could also just say, 'Let's just keep going and worry about raising money in another way.' We're not Bentonville, and we certainly don't have the Waltins as neighbors, so we need to get creative and ask a lot of people for help."
Tom Nelson, president of Northeast Alabama Bicycle Association, or NEABA, is excited about the opportunity to introduce the sport of mountain biking to area youths. I popped my head into the future NEABA clubhouse in downtown Anniston, across the street from the legendary Peerless Grill, where he and his wife Brooke have been working tirelessly on the renovation process of the former meat packing facility. Prior to NEABA, I had never heard of a mountain bike association with a physical clubhouse, but there's a first time for everything, and the downtown Anniston clubhouse is a direct representation of mountain biking's place in Calhoun County life.
"We applied and were given a grant for the community foundation," Tom says during a break from sand blasting. "And we purchased 12 Specialized Rock Hoppers. We already had some hybrid Fujis, but we went out and got more to give kids the opportunity to get out and ride and see what mountain biking is about. I mean, they have mountains in their backyard. You're a cyclist. I mean, you can sit there and be good at sports when you're young, but how long do you play basketball, how long do you play football? But bikes? Those you can ride for a long time"
Tom and NEABA have been producing a number of fundraising events for years, events that not only drive traffic to the area, but also inject energy and a sense of ownership among the scores of locals who volunteer their time to these causes. The Cheaha Challenge and Alabama Cycling Classic are two races that are held in a very high regard across the country, but it's the Coldwater Fat Tire Festival that, while only a few years old, has helped to open up the eyes of non-riders in the region to the incredible natural resource and playground a place like Coldwater presents to the area.
"At first," he tells me. "People kept saying that they didn't want to do anything until we have the 65 miles of trail on the mountain. I pushed for the festival because I wanted to be able to show the community exactly what we've been up to on the mountain. A lot of them hadn't been up there. They were wondering what we had been doing with all of the money and resources. A big part of having the Fat Tire Festival was to show the rest of the county what we had been up to.
"Last year was our 3rd festival, with 220 people registering in advance. We had about another 30 people that were vendors, and 60% of everyone who came brought additional people with them. We brought in over 400 riders for a 3-day weekend. It turned out to have a $250,000 economic impact. The Cheaha Challenge
is something like $1.1 million. The Cycling Classic
brings in $500,000; so cycling events are worth over $2 million for the region."
The growth and development of Coldwater coupled with the emerging potential at McClellan, in addition to the various satellite trail networks throughout the region as well as the abundance of natural beauty and resources has proven to be more than enough motivation for the people who call this place home to march proudly towards the bright future staring Calhoun County right in the face. Patrick Wigley, owner of Wigs Wheels in downtown Anniston, can attest to this directly. For someone who doesn't consider himself to be a leader of the local mountain bike community, I left Anniston feeling like time spent with him was time spent with the heart and soul of cycling in Calhoun County. Patrick Wigley's role extends well beyond owner of the area's premier retail and repair shop. He has his finger on the pulse of local and visiting cyclists alike, and while he might not get out on the trails as much as he would prefer given his responsibility of keeping other riders rolling along smoothly, his presence is felt everywhere on and off of the mountain.
"Cycling is definitely putting a positive spin on an area that, historically speaking, has been blighted." Patrick, or Wig as he's affectionately called by locals, tells me in the middle of a very expensive road bike repair. "News today is always about bad stuff, rather it be directly in Anniston or somewhere else in the world. Anytime there's talk about cycling, at least locally, it's positive. It's good news, and there's never a negative spin on it. It's the one thing right now that Anniston can hang its hat on as far as positive press goes."
Wig is certainly excited about the ongoing work at Coldwater, including the trailhead that is scheduled to be put right next to the NEABA clubhouse 2 blocks from his own shop, as well as the NICA course at McClellan, and the bountiful road opportunities throughout the county. But it's the formative power of cycling, and the soulful dynamic that is very present nowadays thanks in large part to the work of Wig and his peers that elicits an emotional response from the man when asked what it is about this place that he feels is so special.
"I have loved watching it come to fruition." Wig tells me, fighting back a lump in his throat. "Seeing firsthand the healing that bikes can offer people. I mean, there's lots of good things about it. I'm not talking about just competitive riding and racing either, I'm talking about simply pedaling; riding bikes for the soul.
"For me, there's something special about being out in the woods and feeling rocks on your shins and hearing them on your down tube and you know, the noise the tires make, and all that kind of stuff, and to be able to start someone else off to experience that themselves is really special. So I'm going to continue to advocate to get more miles. The more miles we can get, the more people will come, the more we'll enjoy it here locally. Yeah, just to share the experience is just a really good thing. I want to open eyes, you know, and show as many people as I can."
In the beginning of this story, I mentioned that I was ripping off some sort of proverbial band aid, but that would imply that Calhoun County even has one on. The truth is that these people aren't really trying to cover anything up or protect any wounds beset by some false pretenses. The people here aren't hiding anything, and what might once have been considered a deep cut to the character of this community is now just a scar; a memory well healed by time and understanding. Their at times ugly history, while never forgotten, has been replaced by an honest-to-goodness hope for a brighter tomorrow. Driving through the region, you'll still see signs of the work ahead for the folks of Anniston, Oxford, and Jacksonville, but the beauty of this place cannot be denied, and is certainly being embraced by all walks of life here. Mountain biking is proving to be a commodity for both economic and social change, and every time that riders decide to pay this place a visit they're simply proving that bikes really can lead the way for a better future. Calhoun County is a tangible example of just how good mountain bikes can be for the world, and you can bet that I intend to do my part in making the world a better place by riding these trails as often as I possibly can.
Anniston mountain biking trails
Local KnowledgeBike Shops: Wigs Wheels
on the corner of Noble and 13th streets is all you need to know. Patrick Wigley represents the heart and soul of the mountain bike community here, and he's a damn good bike mechanic to boot.Favorite Eats:
Welcome to the south! There are a lot of great places to eat, many of which will pack enough calories into your meal to help fuel your adventures on two wheels. The cost of living here is pretty nominal, so you don't need to rely on chain restaurants to get by as many dine-in options are very affordable. A few of my personal favorites include Effina's
for some Italian, Classic Too
for some coffee in Anniston, Artisanal Baked Goods
for some carb loading, Thai One On
because all mountain bikers love Thai food, Hubbards Off Main
if you're looking to class it up a bit, Peerless Saloon
for great food and drink, Java Jolt
for top notch espresso in Jacksonville, and The Mellow Mushroom
for Pizza and a celebration of bikes.Area Digs:
Oxford has loads of lodging options for all budgets. Airbnb will yield quite a lot of options in the area as well. I actually stayed at two different B&B's during my week in town. The beds at a B&B are almost always going to be awesome, as is breakfast, and the owners are full of useful information about the area. The Parker House
is run by an awesome family of 5, has great wifi, and is a 2 minute walk from downtown. The Springwood Inn
is an amazing and historic building, a bit off the beaten path, and is run by two of the most gracious people you will ever meet. Local Mountain Bike Club:
The Northeast Alabama Bicycle Association
is doing some great things for mountain biking and the community in general in Calhoun County!Brice's Key Tips:
1: Listen, I understand that the PB demographic aren't typically hunting down B&B's during their travels, but I will say that if you can swing it, do it. You'll get a great night's sleep, a delicious breakfast is obviously included, the buildings are usually historic, and the owners are full of local knowledge. It's a rad way of getting to better know a town.
2: Bike choice: I only had my Firebird available during this trip, and while it was plenty of fun, particularly on Bomb Dog, it is more bike than I would normally suggest for Coldwater. If you have a mid-travel 29er, bring it.
3: Right now there are two trailheads for Coldwater, and depending on how you like to start and end your rides, you can choose where you park accordingly. If you prefer to warmup with a climb and finish with a descent, park at the 'Anniston' lot located 2 miles from downtown. If you'd rather let 'er rip from the start and don't mind a pedal at the end of the day, park at the 'Coldwater' lot 7 miles from downtown Anniston.