There’s a lawn gnome at the end of the cul-de-sac wearing an orange University of Tennessee cap and a tiny UT football jersey. This is Knoxville, Tennessee, so most of the lawn gnomes in this neighborhood show a similar level of school spirit. The mid-sized southern city lives and dies by its SEC football team, so you'll see more than a few UT lawn gnomes as you pedal through neighborhoods full of small ranch-style homes. While Knoxville might be best known as a college football town, a busy group of builders and riders are working to give the city a second identity as a mountain bike town by piecing together a massive system of singletrack that winds through downtown's suburbs. It's called the Urban Wilderness, a patchwork of city and county parks, private land and wildlife management areas that offers 44 miles of singletrack just a few miles south of the heart of downtown. The in-town system has rapidly become the envy of the south, and it's only getting better. Last year, Knoxville's Appalachian Mountain Bike Club (AMBC) won a $100,000 grant from Bell Sports to build a downhill park within the Urban Wilderness. More than 26,000 people voted for Knoxville's Downtown Downhill, earning AMBC the grant over several other strong contenders.
"That's just how we do things in Knoxville," says Matthew Kellogg, the president of AMBC. "It's always a super grassroots effort, but we get broad community support for projects of that caliber."
There's more to Knoxville than just the Urban Wilderness. Sharps Ridge sits on the north side of town, with several miles of dry, technical climbing. Windrock, a private downhill park that attracts southern pros, is just a half-hour outside of town. Drive a little farther and you have the backcountry trails of Big South Fork, or head to the border of North Carolina and you'll find a growing system in Cherokee National Forest. All in, AMBC maintains more than 120 miles of trail. But it's the systematic growth of Knoxville's Urban Wilderness that shines the brightest. In the last five years, AMBC and Knoxville's forward-thinking Legacy Parks Foundation have been able to secure land easements and purchase key parcels to complete a ring of singletrack and public space on the south end of downtown Knoxville. The rate of trail building and maintenance has been staggering.
"Some of us in the club don't go to church and we don't watch football, so that leaves us a lot of time to build trails," Kellogg says as he pedals at the front of a small group heading north along the Tennessee River.
The ride begins at a former quarry/lake within the massive Ijams Nature Center, a 300-acre swath of land along the Tennessee River that has become Knoxville's de facto Central Park. Grey cliffs rise above the blue-green water as swimmers splash in the shallow end near a small beach. We cruise a mile or so of greenway sandwiched between the Tennessee River and fields of tall grass maintained by the Wildlife Management Area. During fall and winter, hunters will spend the day in those fields with their rifles looking for waterfowl moving along the broad Tennessee.
Soon we're on dirt, careening down the flank of a bluff at the exact point where the French Broad River joins the Tennessee River. The trail drops quickly through a thick stand of skinny hardwoods, the trees forming a narrow corridor on either side of the singletrack. It's rocky terrain, but there's nothing loose so you can throw yourself into the corners and carry speed over the patchy rock gardens. After a few minutes, the river is long gone and we're deep in the forest.
Knoxville lacks significant mountains, but the trails make the most of the natural rise of the bluffs that run along the edge of the city's rivers. The elevation changes are quick and frequent and rarely long enough to justify switching gears, so you stand and hammer the little hills, quickly getting into a paper-boy rhythm. The whole thing makes me feel like a kid again.
We're knocking out a 12-mile ride called the South Loop that passes through all of the parks within the Urban Wilderness. Kellogg and most of the members of AMBC have been riding this loop for years, long before it was legal. Back then they called it the Dirty South because there were fences to hop and No Trespassing signs lining large swaths of would-be developed land. Fortunately for mountain bikers, Knoxville is a boomtown that never went boom. Developers have bought and sold massive tracts of land around downtown with their sights on high-end neighborhood developments, but because of Knoxville's funky water table, it's tough to get multiple water and sewer permits for large parcels. A number of large-scale developments never got off the ground, so hundreds of acres of wooded land sat undeveloped for years, enabling Knoxville's Legacy Parks Foundation to bring key chunks into the public fold.
We detour off of the main loop onto a trail called AC/DC, which runs like an intestine through privately owned farmland. The trail plays out like a rolling slalom course-you can't pedal three times before hitting another twist in the path. Eventually we hit a ton of lumber on the 'seven bridges' section of trail-seven wide, sweeping bridges over small creeks, one after the other.
Soon, we're pedaling through a pasture and topping off our water next to a pen of baby sheep while Butter, an overprotective sheep dog, barks his head off at us. The land belongs to Brian Hann, one of the masterminds of the Urban Wilderness system. Years ago, he built 6 miles of trail in the woods surrounding his working farm and was desperate for people to ride it with him. Connecting his private trail to other trails through surrounding farms, neighborhoods and parks seemed like the natural evolution. More recently, he's built a pumptrack and BMX jumps, and it's all open to anyone in the community with two wheels. This is the way it goes in Knoxville. It's a "Stone Soup" scenario where everyone pitches in to make things work. Kellogg works for a development company that provides dirt for pumptracks and jumps, as well as heavy equipment to build trails. His boss even donated an old limousine that the club uses for shuttles and special events.
The Urban Wilderness itself is a testament to how friendly this town can be-a patchwork of land easements on private land and public space that was modeled after the Kingdom Trails in Vermont. Flush with Bell grant money, the club even wooed one of Kingdom Trails' master trail builders, Knight Ide, down to build the new expert downhill line at Baker Creek Preserve, which is where most of Knoxville's most promising trail development is taking place. The Baker Creek Preserve system will give Knoxville something every mountain biker desperately wants: ripping downhill within city limits.
The system is broken into two climbing trails and three distinct downhill lines. One climbing trail feeds the green (Cruz Run) and blue (Barn Burner) lines. The other leads to the new expert downhill trail, Devil's Racetrack.
There's an overweight dude wearing Chacos and an airbrushed Chewbacca muscle shirt at the top of Cruz Run and Barn Burner. He's breathing heavy from the climb and eats it hard on the first berm. We give him some space, but I picture Chewbacca eating shit all the way to the bottom. Both Cruz Run and Barn Burner are ridiculously fun. The red clay shapes beautifully and packs down like asphalt, giving you a chatter-free ride as you whoop through small tabletops and big, Talladega-style berms built for carrying speed. You can go a little bigger on Barn Burner, as the lips on the tabletops are sharper, but both trails are built with progression in mind.
Devil's Racetrack is another story. The climb to the top is an experience in and of itself. The singletrack corkscrews up the side of a cliff through a series of 180-degree switchbacks and bench-cut singletrack with nothing but some wispy grass and a questionable sense of balance keeping me from tumbling down the edge of the escarpment. It's the toughest climb of the day, but the views gradually increase until you reach the peak, where a sweeping shot of Knoxville-more green trees than skyscrapers-lays at your feet.
Devil's Racetrack makes the most of the 300 feet of relief within Baker Creek Preserve, starting with a corkscrew of berms right out of the gate. There's an optional line from the top that takes a fall-line approach via artfully placed rocks and boulders: Imagine a dry creek bed with perfectly aligned kickers and drops. You can roll all of it, but if you've got guts, you can go big through a wave of stone riddled with dire consequences. The main line down Devil's Racetrack is a little more forgiving, but only because there isn't much rock. It's two minutes of sweeping berms, full-commitment gap jumps and mandatory drops. Carry speed and you can go full horizontal through the first series of berms. Then the tabletops kick in, each one inviting you to go bigger than the last.
"This trail isn't really for us," Kellogg says. "Nobody here can ride it the way it's meant to be ridden. But the pros, like Neko Mulally or the Shaw brothers ... they're gonna love it."
And this is just the beginning for Baker Creek Preserve. A kid's loop is going in next, along with a couple of pumptracks and some progressive jump lines. More cross-country trails too. It is poised to be a world-class urban bike park, feeding mountain bikers into the greater Urban Wilderness.
"Can you imagine what this will do for the kids in this town? There's a middle school right there," Kellogg says as we sit at the bottom of Devil's Racetrack, pointing to the school across the street. "They can ride their bikes right over after school."
Therein lies the beauty of a system like the Urban Wilderness: easy access. You can pick up singletrack from any number of neighborhoods around town. You can embark on an all-day epic throughride or session a small piece of the system after work. Some lucky riders could feasibly commute to work, or the store, via singletrack.
The suburbs never looked so good.
STAY | There's no legal camping within Knoxville's city limits, and if you can't go dirtbag you may as well go swanky at The Oliver, a boutique hotel in the center of Knoxville's booming Market Square. You have Tupelo Honey's excellent fried chicken on the main floor as well as legit cocktails at the speakeasy-inspired Peter Kearn Library. Oliverhotel.com
DRINK | Knoxville's beer scene is as vibrant as its trail scene, with more than a dozen breweries coming online in the last year. Crafty Bastard has an interesting tap list, ranging from the tart, but refreshing gose to the tangerine-infused Hop Candy IPA. Near Baker Creek Preserve, you'll find The Handy Dandy, a corner store with a kitchen in the back that serves steamed sandwiches, spaghetti and Frito pie. There's also an excellent selection of beverages in the beer cooler.
GO | Knoxville is blessed with year-round riding thanks to the South's mild winter temps and curious lack of snow. Summers are hot, so plan on cooling off in Mead's Quarry after your ride. Fall brings cooler temperatures and gorgeous foliage, particularly in October and early November. Show up for the AMBC's Fall Festival in early November, and you'll get to meet all of the people who dig the trails around town. Give the trails a couple of days to dry out after a hard rain-the red clay gets slippery when wet. MTBproject.com is the best resource for trail beta.