This is a really great time to be a mountain biker. While we collectively love to make a sport of complaining about the industry, in my estimation, we have a lot of things working in our favor on several fronts. Just about every manufacturer is making really, really good bikes. The differences between brands and their respective models is fairly nuanced, and certainly comes down to subjectivity from one rider to another. There might be an occasional design element that raises some eyebrows, and the discussion of "standards" will never cease to make me chuckle, but if you've purchased a mountain bike within the last 4-5 years, you're probably pretty pumped on it. There's a proliferation of top notch, free mountain bike content for us to consume online now that parallels the quality that used to be reserved for print publications. We have access to hundreds of thousands of miles of trail information and mapping, literally at our fingertips. The level of progression and parity throughout elite competition makes for exciting spectating week in and week out. People can now make a really good living building trails. I know I'm forgetting some things, but the point is that playing on our bicycles outside has lead to some really great things for millions of people.
Perhaps no other dynamic clearly illustrates the health of our sport than that of the trails themselves. You can find really good trails virtually anywhere. Mountains
are no longer a requisite in order to have a good time on your mountain
bike. Have a look at what they're doing in Bentonville. Granted, it helps to have a billionaire handy to fuel the level of growth they're experiencing, but while Northwest Arkansas has some fun topography to play around on, they most certainly don't have anything categorically mountainous. A look at the vertical relief available isn't especially inspiring in and of itself, but that hasn't stopped them from loading up on professional trail builders and creativity to add loads of miles of top notch mountain bike trails throughout the city. Hell, even pancake flat states like Florida and Delaware have a few nooks and crannies that will leave anyone who enjoys rolling around on two wheels in the woods smiling. I've actually heard that Kansas City has been piling up the rad trails in recent years. Kansas City? Wait, Missouri? Indeed, as we get better at building trails, we see more opportunities for those trails to find homes in places that we might not expect to. Pump some resources and creativity into a place, and you can have yourself a time nary a foot above sea level. It’s important to establish all of that because I want to be very clear about something I was reminded of during a recent trip to Roanoke and Virginia's Blue Ridge region: Yes, mountains are no longer a necessary part of the equation for mountain biking, but mountain biking in the mountains
remains paramount for the vast majority of us.
The mountains that call Virginia's Blue Ridge home form several ridge lines that run in a southwest to northeast course, with Roanoke, Blacksburg and other cities in the region sandwiched between them in small pockets. While the summits of the peaks in the area don't really stack up to the highest peaks in other parts of Appalachia, typically topping out between 3,000 - 4,000 feet, they do offer plenty of vertical relief as they often bottom out at below 1,000 feet above sea level, which can lead to upwards of 3,000 vertical feet of elevation loss from top to bottom. Within the actual city limits of Roanoke itself is Mill Mountain, which rises over 1,000 feet above downtown, and atop which sit the Roanoke Star, the city's most recognizable and iconic landmark.
Virginia's Blue Ridge encompasses a number of cities and counties throughout the southwestern region of Virginia, and includes Blacksburg, home to Virginia Tech University; Bedford which sits on the eastern edge of the region; as well as Salem, which is home to Roanoke College. The City of Roanoke is without question both the cultural center to the area as well as its financial hub. Roanoke is home to nearly 100,000 people, with a metropolitan population of over 300,000. Originally chartered in 1874 as the town of "Big Lick", it was changed a decade later to Roanoke and was initially built upon an economic foundation that included railways, coal mining, and manufacturing. In recent years, the city has seen an explosion in gentrification, with craft breweries, restaurants, and distilleries taking root, as well a variety of ethnic fare and a growing selection of retail operations. While the railroad and coal industry have long been in decline, Roanoke has a burgeoning healthcare and financial sector, and has been actively looking to draw in as many young professionals and families as possible in recent years.
// Local FlavorsAge:
Wilmington, DE, USAIndustry affiliations:
Pivot Cycles, Maxxis Tires, Stans No Tubes, Kali Protectives, MRP, Julbo, Deity Components, EVOC, Shimano, 9point8, Topeak, Dialed Health, Handup GlovesInstagram: @bricyclesFavorite Trail in Virginia's Blue Ridge:
Elevator ShaftRiding Style:
Star City brings some proper flavors to the table these days.
It's called Star City for a reason.
Brushy Mountain, a.k.a. Carvin's Cove from downtown, downtown from Carvin's Cove.
Roanoke is not only the cultural and economic center of the VBR universe, it's also at the center of its mountain bike scene. Mill Mountain is home to a handful of trails just above downtown, but the real centerpiece here is on Brushy Mountain, otherwise known as Carvin's Cove. Carvin's is the first thing many people think of whenever Roanoke comes up in mountain bike circles, and for good reason: the sizable protuberance just a few miles from downtown is home to over 60 miles of trails, some purpose built and full of jumps and flow, while most of it sticks to its roots. And rocks. Other opportunities nearby include North Mountain, home to some of the southeast's most revered backcountry, Spec Mines/Dody Ridge which make for some great riding right off of the Blue Ridge Parkway, and Fort Lewis Mountain where you'll find perhaps my favorite legal descent on the east coast: Elevator Shaft. I'm well aware of and truly love the bevy of riding opportunities exist throughout VBR, but my first day in town for this particular trip began and ended with a visit to Carvin's, as did my discussion with Kyle Inman, one of the area's founding fathers for mountain biking, and certainly one of its most memorable personalities. Kyle was among those who were here to help usher in mountain biking for the region, and was a part of the group of riders laying the foundation for one of the east coast's most venerated scenes.
"When I started, it wasn't above ground." Kyle tells me. "There wasn't much awareness of riding trails around here. In fact, back in those days, I would see the signs in the National Forest and on the gates that would say foot travel welcome. I said, 'Well, I wonder if my bicycle is okay?' So I contacted the Forest Service offices, and they were like, 'Why would you want to ride your bicycle there?' They had no awareness of it, which was good thing. They ultimately told me to just have at it."
Kyle moved to Roanoke in November of 1983 from the Chapel Hill area of North Carolina. The long time broadcast media advertising sales representative opened up a skate shop at the age of 25, while he was selling ad space for the local newspaper. "It was an interesting time. I don't know how I did that but I did it, but I was 25 so I had the energy." Fly fishing is what brought Kyle to the mountains initially, but an obsession with mountain biking was in short order, and before long he found himself staring longingly at the ridges that surround town, wondering what kinds of secrets were being held captive in those deep forests.
"We just started digging up maps and looking around, and then bumping into people at races. I mean it was all about meeting people. That led to a sort of a networking situation where we found out what we could ride and where we could ride. I mean we traveled up to Harrisonburg and Massanutten long before the Stokesville area got fleshed out. So you had all these different areas and we were really beginning to discover more and more of the opportunities we had here in town."
Nowadays, we can make quick work with our phones to organize a group ride within a matter of minutes. In the 80's and 90's, that simply wasn't an option. So Kyle did what was done to get people together for a cause: he placed an ad in the local paper.
"I put this thing in the paper," he says. "When people used to actually read the paper, and it had a little outdoors/sports section, about a New Year's ride at the Cove. 14 people showed up and I'd never met any of these people before. Our New Year's ride continued to grow, and this was before we held any events there when Carvin's was still pretty under the radar and raw. But eventually we did get the opportunity to host something called the American Mountain Bike Challenge
at Carvin's Cove, and that's when we decided we were going to try and make Carvin's Cove legitimate.
"We knew that was going to be the front range beacon for everything else that we have around here. We just needed to make it legal as it just seemed like the obvious thing to do. That seemed to open the eyes of the greater public to that fact that you can mountain bike here in Roanoke. So people began buying bikes, and it was almost overnight where all of the sudden you had all these people parking out at the Cove off of Bennett Springs Rd before there was a parking lot, and causing a lot of problems with the neighbors. That was in '97, and then from there, mountain biking became very public and very much in the press. Then the East Coasters bike shop came to town, which gave us another boost because they came from Blacksburg, and had helped develop the Pandapas trails and the Rowdy Dog
event, and they were all in on it. They had a race team and once they opened up shop here, they wanted to get involved organizing races and events, which of course was our original form of social media."Carvin's is understandably at the center of the VBR mountain bike landscape.
George Washington and Jefferson National Forests provide riders here with a bounty of backcountry mountain biking.
Wesley Best was among that early contingent of riders looking to shake things up in and around Roanoke. Originally from Blacksburg, Wes moved to Roanoke in 1996 to help the aforementioned East Coasters bike shop open up its second location in Roanoke. Now a co-owner of the 2 store chain after having purchased it from the original owner 13 years ago alongside his business partner, Wes didn't expect to stick around Roanoke for long when he moved here initially. Shortly after his move, he was chosen to be on the committee charged with researching the potential for mountain bike trails at Carvin's Cove. He mentions that it was just he and one of his employees, Ian Webb, who were for bikes at Carvin's against 5 others dead set against the idea of opening it. Their concern was for the water supply of Roanoke and the surrounding communities. Eventually, once it came time to vote, all 7 members of the committee voted to open Carvin's Cove to mountain bikes.
"We got the 'Cove' open," Wes says during our chat at his shop. "And people kind of saw that shared vision more and really started to embrace the idea that the outdoors, and cycling in particular, was what we have. Everybody wants to mention 'Oh the technology corridor, we're this, we're that.' We've got mountains and trails and absolutely phenomenal riding opportunities both for road and off-road. And once that sort of happened, that ball started rolling. In 2003 I interviewed for a couple of jobs outside of Roanoke and really thought about leaving. They were pretty good job opportunities, and they were places that had mature bike cultures. But I just love the way of life here. I would rather stay and work on our own bike community and culture. I want to build that here, be a part of it and still enjoy the positives like zero gridlocked traffic. We don't have any of that stuff. We've just got great riding."
Roanoke and Virginia's Blue Ridge encompass a pretty sizable swath of real estate, and I've spent enough time here to recognize that there are several smaller groups within the overall mountain bike community, and that the vast majority of these trails come exclusively from volunteer sweat equity, which can understandably make for some sensitive discussions when it comes to the development of trails and the desire for access to more land. As one of the universally regarded leaders of the mountain bike and cycling community for the region, I asked Wes to elaborate on his desire to put in decades of work for this, and how those group dynamics come into play.
"The cycling community at that time was pretty factionalized," he says". All cycling communities are kind of factionalized, but it was really
factionalized, but everyone came together to support opening the trails at Carvin's Cove. That group effort really showed, especially officials within the city, that this wasn't just a couple of dirt bag mountain bikers looking for their slice of the pie. It was a larger part of the community that were asking for this resource. We were also able to show that there was an economic impact to all of that, which has a way of getting some attention.
"Our community has changed so much over the years. Now it's way more cohesive. I think Roanoke IMBA now Blue Ridge Off Road Cyclists have done a great job of helping build that. When I moved here it was more fractionalized. You had all of these small groups who rode together and they didn't know each other. Now there are a lot more opportunities; people are getting out and socializing and they're doing trail work together. There's just enough going on that we have this sort of active social community outside of the riding. It's a friendly riding community. We're lucky that we have a lot of great bike shops in Roanoke. We all get along together and work on different projects together which is really helpful. It's a good community."
Both Kyle and Wes speak to something that stands out to me every time I visit this place. The trails here, and the sensibilities shared by so many among the mountain bike community aren't exactly things that can be manufactured on the spot, or in a short time frame. These are things that have taken many years to develop, and it shows. Yes, there are many purpose built riding opportunities throughout the region to enjoy yourself on, but the signature ride in this place comes from trails that are most certainly not purpose built. Steep, fall line, gnarly, and physical they are. The same can be said for the riders themselves. Yes, there is a growing contingent of new riders, which is a good and healthy sign of the times here. But the foundation for the culture here was shaped by the people who stomped around in the woods decades before GPS navigation was a thing, and went knocking on the doors of city officials for trail access, and placed ads in local papers to organize group rides. This old school mentality, while much more refined nowadays, is still alive and well in these parts, which in my estimation is a very good thing. There are a growing number of mountain bike communities that are being upon a foundation of tremendous resources, and believe me, I want to ride all of them. But Roanoke and the rest of Virginia's Blue Ridge has been much more methodically - and organically - grown.
The city and state have begun to see just how potent the mountain bike community really can be in VBR, and that has resulted in Roanoke being awarded with the Silver Ride Center designation from IMBA earlier this year. I met with Dan Lucas, professional mountain bike guide for Roanoke Mountain Adventures, and asked him what kind of water that holds within the mountain bike community, and what the opportunities and/or challenges that kind of designation can bring with it.
"Certainly some of both." Dan says while perched next to me on a wooden railing at a Carvin's Cove trailhead. "One of the challenges will be to keep a consistent quality to the trails that people from beginner to advanced levels are going to be able to come and ride. I suppose would be a huge task for any place, but we need to step it up in that area I think. We're doing okay right now, but it's going to be a bigger challenge as more people keep coming in and they're going to want more and do things like that. I think another challenge is having locals buy into the process that all these other people from other places are going to be riding your trails
. I can see positive and negatives with that as a lifelong local. Ultimately, we want the city to step up and help pump money into the trails, so if they're seeing visitation increase and money being spent in and around town by people who are coming and riding our trails, then I think it's a very good thing.
"But, if we keep this ball rolling and we do it the right way, I think the government and the private sector alike will benefit a great deal from being the only Silver Ride Center on the east coast. That's going to be a huge deal money wise, and it'll also give us the leverage to maintain them at a high level. It costs money to make sure that trees are out of the way, and that berms are shaped properly, and that trails are clear of obstacles and devoid of ruts and holes. We have a great trails coordinator in the area, Renee, and she does a lot but I can already see that she is getting maxed out on what she is able to do by herself. I hope the city is able to see that too and can continue to try and put money into making our trails better."
Top to bottom, left to right: Kyle Inman, Wesley Best, Dan Lucas, and Kristine McCormick.
"One of the things that we learned," Kristine McCormick tells me over dinner at her house in downtown Roanoke. "And in the nine years that I've been here, that I've learned, is that in order to have a cool place for people to visit, you first have to have a cool place for people to live. They've slowly and very methodically worked on building this culture. Six years ago, almost seven years ago now, they looked at, 'Well, we don't have a mountain bike club. We need to have a mountain bike club.' There had been stops and starts, you know? Trying to get something off the ground, and then Frank Maguire came down from Pennsylvania with IMBA. He was our regional director at that time, and we sat down with Pete Eshelman and Steve Hetherington at Just The Right Gear
. They sat down, and said, 'Okay, we're gonna be an IMBA chapter.' I think that's what made it stick, was that it had IMBA in its name. It gave it that authority. That's when we formed Roanoke IMBA: January 2012."
Kristine described her move to Roanoke after having lived all over the country, in places like D.C., Tucson, Dallas, and New Hampshire. She's a digital marketing freelancer, who in addition to her regular clients, also works as a digital marketing consultant to Visit Virginia's Blue Ridge, the area tourism bureau. Formerly the president of Roanoke IMBA/BROC, she went hunting for a Cannondale at a local mountain bike staple, Just the Right Gear
shortly after arriving in town, and left instead with a Kona Blast
"I started riding the alleys in the neighborhood." she tells me. "We have awesome alleys in Roanoke. They're super fun for alley cats. I was riding Fishburn Park, which is a local park that has some trails here. Then I started riding at the cove. I was riding by myself 'cause I didn't know anybody else. I eventually met some of the other moms in the neighborhood who rode mountain bikes. We would drop our kids off at preschool, and we had three and a half hours. We'd load up our bikes, and zip out to the cove, and go ride, and be home in time to pick up our kids from preschool."
Kristine and I spoke at length about a number of things, including managing relationships with land managers, her advisory role with VBR as the in-house mountain biker, and establishing the mountain bike community as a commodity for the region as a whole. I was struck by one of the first things she said to me after finished dinner and began chatting "on record", and wanted to revisit the idea of creating appeal to visitors by emphasizing the quality of life for locals first.
"It goes back to what I said before, Roanoke's population was aging out, and the youthful talent was leaving. People nowadays, they pick where they want to live and then figure out their job later. They pick a place based on whether or not it's a cool place to live, and that it matches what they want to do. If outdoor recreation is important to them, they're not moving to Houston, Texas. We're building a culture where our community values outdoor recreation, and it becomes something that's ingrained in our community. It's authentic. It's not just a marketing campaign. I mean, we live this every day. I can ride from my house, here, down to the greenway. I can ride the greenway to Mill Mountain. Do 12 miles of single track, ride the greenway and be home in two hours. I mean that's an urban mountain biking experience. There aren't too many communities that can boast that experience.
"It's really important that we manage our growth. Now everybody in Asheville is going to hate me when I say this, but we don't want to be another Asheville. We don't want to be an economy that is so reliant on tourism dollars. We want to make sure that we're attracting different kinds of business to come here, and settle in the valley, and provide high quality, high paying jobs. We want to make sure our real estate market doesn't get too hot, where people can't afford to live here. That happens in some of these mountain towns that all of a sudden become really popular. The people who live there and work there can afford to live there anymore. So managing our growth is really important."
Roanoke and the rest of Virginia's Blue Ridge seem to have a pretty intrinsic understanding of this idea that they need to grow their community, their trail networks, and their land management relationships in a way that benefits themselves first. Take care of the people who call this place home first, and the visitors, the attention, and the opportunities for growth and progression will follow in short order. Listen, it would only be fair for these people to have a healthy injection of financial resources to bolster what has been, up until now, almost exclusively a labor of love and volunteerism; especially when the fruits of said labor are being used in an official capacity to draw people into the state and region. The mountain bike community here has built something largely from the ground up, with virtually no outside assistance, and that work is be promoted as a commodity by a growing contingent of decidedly non-endemic entities. Ultimately, that's a good thing as it shows some growth and maturation of our sport in a broader sense. That's the beauty of what they've accomplished here. Through years of exploring the ancient hills with outdated topo maps, to forging new relationships with land managers throughout the region, to building hundreds upon hundreds of miles of some of the finest trails east of the Mississippi, this community has built something that a pretty damn close to being a categorically world class destination, and they are just only now beginning to scratch the surface.Roanoke mountain biking trailsBlacksburg mountain biking trailsBedford mountain biking trails
Local KnowledgeBike Shops:
Within just Roanoke limits alone there are many bike shops to suit your needs, from East Coasters, to Just the Right Gear, Downshift, Roanoke Mountain Adventures and more, adding assurance so that you know you'll have all of your bases covered during your visit.Favorite Eats:
Roanoke has really been stepping up their culinary game in recent years, with a strong emphasis downtown on quality dining options. A few standouts for me include Downshift for breakfast, Sweet Donkey for coffee, burgers at Jack Brown's, and Big Lick Brewing Company for a beer or two. The truth is that you have plenty of options depending on your tastes and budget here, so have at it. Bonus points for really good Greek and Indian cuisine.Area Digs:
I stayed at the Hampton Inn by the airport, and it was great. It's close to 581 which gives you quick access to all of the riding options in the area, plus they were cool with both bikes in the room and had quick internet. There are a lot of lodging options here, from AirBnB, to camping, and everything in between. The Roanoke Boutique Hotel
just recently opened and caters directly to outdoor enthusiasts, with bike storage and and an outside shower. Outside showers are unbeatable.Local Mountain Bike Club: The Blue Ridge Off Road Cyclists
are working hard to build and maintain trust among the various land managers throughout the region. The fruits of such labor include the Silver Ride Center designation from IMBA, as well as access to hundreds of miles of stunning backcountry trails throughout the Blue Ridge area. These guys are just getting started as well, with ambitions that include dirt jumps, a pumptrack, and possibly a form of lift served riding in the future...Brice's Key Tips:
1: Avoid Carvin's on the weekends. Carvin's Cove is the centerpiece for riding in the greater Roanoke region, as it should be. But there's a lot more to this place and when the crowds roll into town on the weekends to ride the Cove, you should really consider exploring the incredible trails that surround "Star City". Poverty Creek, North Mountain, Fort Lewis Mountain, and Falling Creek Park are just a few of the options.
2: Bike choice: I found myself going for the Firebird for most of my week in town. That's not to say that the shorter travel bikes are less appropriate, but here's the thing about a lot of these trails and how my own sensibilities align with them: I am not really in a rush to get to the top of some of these massive climbs, and most long travel enduro bikes will get you up the mountain comfortably enough. What I do enjoy are the opportunities and options available on the way down
that these bikes afford us. A lot of the big mountain backcountry can get steep and deep, with some chunky stuff and natural features that you can have more fun with aboard something longer, slacker, and with a more stout suspension setup.
3: If you want to ride on Fort Lewis Mountain (and if dropping 2,000 feet in a mile and a half sound good to you, you will want to ride here), otherwise known as the Havens Wildlife Management Area, you're technically supposed to get a permit. The cost for the Daily Access Permit is $4 per person. The cost for the Annual Access Permit is $23 per person. Click here
to order your permit online, or call 1-866-721-6911.