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.
Louisiana: Meet the Mutants
Ratboy hasn't shifted out of his big ring all day, and right now he's barreling straight at me, his head lowered in exertion. The trail we're on snakes around thick stands of cypress and oak in a discombobulating blur of bayou. Although it winds for miles under the canopy, the trail reveals itself just a few yards at a time, and after an hour of gasping for lungfuls of heavy swamp air, I feel a flutter of vertigo and realize I haven't ridden in a straight line since I entered the Comite trail system on the northeast side of Baton Rouge, Louisiana.
Corners come up erratically, and every turn reveals a fresh battery of branches and roots to negotiate. Riding here is a fullbody exercise—balance, weave, lean, pedal, brake, lunge. There are no straight-aways, just twists and dips, so shifts are rattled off on the fly.
When I look up from one of the never-ending turns, I see Ratboy screaming toward me. But then I regain my senses and realize that he's not charging toward me–he's actually 20 yards and a hairpin corner ahead on the same tightly wound trail. In reality, he's pulling away.
I was told this would happen. "It's like a 5-mahl BMX track in the woods," Eric "Ratboy" Heyl had said the night before, when we met him to talk trails at a New Orleans Hooters. The raucous restaurant, plus the sweet humidity and the crazy Cajun drawl all signal that Ratboy is of a breed of rider unlike any I've met before.
Ratboy worked in the auto-glass industry for 16 years before he turned his weekend bike shop job into full-time employment at East Bank Cyclery, and a side gig as the president of NOMAMBO—the New Orleans Metro Area Mountain Bike Organization.
"I was born here, raised here, and wish I never was here," Ratboy deadpans, briefing us on the area. But even if he claims to have little love for the Big Easy, he and NOMAMBO have fought long and hard for a stretch of singletrack within city limits. When the conversation turns to trails, his salty attitude evaporates, replaced, oddly, by giddy enthusiasm.
Hurricane-plagued New Orleans, with its plasticbead-festooned tourists and alligator-infested swamplands, is the last place one would expect to find mountain biking. And if the North American cyclist has an archetype—tall, lanky, lean—then Ratboy, fittingly, is its opposite. Short, squat, solid—the 35-year-old father of two is built like a cement truck.
To be sure, the New Orleans-area riders have a rightful place in the taxonomy of the sport, connected by common threads like trails, bike racks, bad tan lines and goofy jerseys.
Despite an utter lack of classic races, well-known fattire festivals or, well, mountains, a mutant mountain biking culture has taken root in the South—rebellious, inherently idiosyncratic, and filled with colorful characters and exotic (yes, exotic) trails. Photographer Morgan Meredith and I have come here to discover the people and the trails that constitute the South's unique strain of riding. And if Ratboy and his swampland trails are any indication, we're already on the right track.
This content was originally published in Bike’s November 2009 issue.