Words: Chris Lesser
Photos: Morgan Meredith
A quest for singletrack south of the Mason-Dixon line reveals a cast of unlikely characters, a hearty riding culture and a hollerin' good time. Over the course of nine days and 1,500 miles, we mercilessly flog a rental van and live off deep-fried food as we search for the South's finest trails.
The cannon shot gives us our first indication of the surrounding area. Although it's dark as tar on the eastern fringe of Tennessee's Cumberland Plateau tonight, the blast echoes across the valley and rings off the rocky landscape, revealing a sort of sonic snapshot.
The topography here is bunched up like wrinkles in a bedsheet, and it's no wonder the U.S. government chose nearby Oak Ridge as one of the primary sites for the top-secret Manhattan Project—if anything went wrong as scientists were learning how to engineer the first atomic bomb, the rocky ridges might help contain the disaster.
The Haw Ridge Fall Festival is the work of a loose-knit group of local riders, and entry requirements include a riding partner, a light and a six-pack apiece. We arrive at the trailhead too late for the night-ride relay race, but just in time for the bonfire and bike jumps over it. We don't quite know what to expect pulling up to a party where we know no one, but the fact that we ride bikes and bring a case of beer and a bag of fireworks buys us a warm welcome.
Before the night is out, someone jumps the fire on a Marin DH bike, we assault every car that leaves the party with Roman candles, and somewhere in between, the cannon—a miniature stainless-steel replica made by a local rider's grandfather—is pulled out of the back of a pickup. It puts our out-of-state fireworks to shame.
After just a few hours of sleep at a questionable Oak Ridge motel, we meet local rider Doug Ferguson at Windrock, in the Coal Creek OHV Area of nearby Oliver Springs. The 72,000 acres here are mostly used by ATVs, but Doug and a core group of riders have permission to cut downhill trails to their hearts' content—and they have.
The steep and riotously rocky terrain demands respect, and is as challenging as any lift-fed bike park on the continent. The trails range from fast rocky singletrack to full-on DH sections that could stand some race ribbon and tree pads. Porter keeps pace with Doug through most of the ride, and even sessions a road gap with his Haro Xeon and an XC lid. It takes more than an hour to finish the first shuttle, and this, Doug tells us, was the easy way down.
"You'll see chicks tear up this road on ATVs in goggles, moto' boots, a bikini and no helmet," Jay Smelser tells us as we load the truck for another shuttle. Though he is relatively new to the local mountain biking scene, Jay has already logged his fair share of hours building trail alongside Ferguson—much of which they did by hand, using come-alongs and prybars to move the massive rocks that litter the 2,000 vertical feet of trails.
The next morning, we drive two hours to Raccoon Mountain, where riders are already waiting, fogging
up truck windows to stay out of a steady rain. Jamie Pillsbury, who works at locally based Lynskey Bicycles, has agreed to show us around. Also joining us are Jon Magnusun from the bonfire party and Chris Ivory from Murfreesboro, a small college town in central Tennessee. All three are riding rigid singlespeed 29ers.
After a week of pristinely clear days, the wet weather isn't altogether unwelcome. The singlespeeders impressively blaze over wet, slippery rocks and tear down high-speed singletrack chutes. Raccoon Mountain holds some 16 miles of singletrack woven around a 500-acre reservoir. The SORBA-built trails reveal a familiar, well-built cadence, albeit with more rocky, technical sections than at FATS or Blankets Creek.
The riders we're with are part of a cadre of hardscrabble mountain bikers who don't often show up in magazines or movies. Riders like Ivory, who rides the brutal Pisgah Productions events—the Most Horrible Thing Ever, PEMBRA, Double Dare—without any real aspirations of ever winning. He's the kind of crusty SOB who does them just to suffer through them. He lives and breathes bikes, wrenching as head mechanic at a Murfreesboro shop, but he doesn't get all philosophical about it. "Good clean fun," he calls it. Plain and simple.
This content was originally published in Bike’s November 2009 issue.