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Wednesday, 12 April 2006 00:00

Happy trails: Franklin mountain biker sets his sights on a busy racing season

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By Michael Beadle

Some people bike for the fun of it. Some people bike to race. For Franklin’s Owen Simpson, it’s a bit of both.

Over the past three years, Simpson — who also goes by O.J. — has been pedaling with the Smoky Mountain Racing Team, a Franklin-based organization that promotes cycling for men and women of all skill levels throughout Western North Carolina. Simpson, 30, has a hectic schedule through spring and summer, racing nearly every weekend from now until August. These races have taken him to Tennessee, Florida, Georgia, South Carolina and Western North Carolina sites like Tsali in Graham County.

Last year, Simpson had a couple of Top-5 finishes, including one at the National Off-Road Bicycle Association series in Snowshoe, W.Va. In the last race of last season, he won at Callaway Gardens in Pine Mountain, Ga., and set the course record. In 2004, Simpson and fellow SMR teammate Chad Smith finished third in the Dixie Bootleg 6-hour Enduro Race in Asheville’s Mountain Sports Festival.

Right now, Simpson races in the “expert” level. The different racing levels, Simpson explains, go from beginner up to sport, then expert, and on to semi-pro and pro. His goal is to get up to the professional level eventually. Thanks to about a dozen sponsors and support from friends and family, he’s pedaling towards that goal one race at a time.

And what might be the cost of this dream?

A good bike can cost several thousand dollars. Weekly repairs might cost $100 to $200. Standard issue gear would also include a helmet and gloves. Then there are traveling expenses. Simpson works during the week as an estimator and project coordinator for Timber Creek Builders in Dillsboro, but then he’ll take off on the weekends to race. This year’s races include names like “Tiger Rag” in Clemson, S.C.; “Bump N Grind” in Birmingham, Ala.; and “Stumpjump” in Spartanburg, S.C.

“Tsali’s probably one of my favorites,” Simpson says.

The races Simpson competes in tend to be certain distances or certain times. For example, the annual Knobscorcher this past weekend at Tsali covered 35 miles. The fastest time wins. Races are staggered so that beginner level cyclists don’t get caught in the same race with the more advanced and faster riders in the expert, semi-pro, and pro levels.

Then there are endurance races where cyclists or teams of cyclists compete in timed events — 12 hours or 24 hours at a time.

Simpson has had his share of scrapes and bruises, but no major injuries.

“Never go anywhere without a helmet,” he says.

Simpson is originally from Griffin, Ga., (about 30 miles south of Atlanta) and moved to Franklin in 1993. About three years ago, he bought his first bicycle at Smoky Mountain Bicycles in Franklin, found out about local races and just went from there.

With help from his coach, Thomas Burns of Sylva, Simpson is hoping to work on improving his climbing ability, a weaker part of his biking right now.

“I’m a good flat power rider,” Simpson says, adding that some racers are better at climbing and not as good in the flats.

Simpson also enjoys basketball and four-wheeling — when there’s time. People have tried to get him to go fishing, but he says he’s not sure if he could sit still that long.

“Other hobbies tend to go by the wayside,” Simpson admits, but the life of a mountain bike racer doesn’t mean he has to leave his friends behind. On the contrary, folks at work, friends and family are quite aware of his cycling lifestyle, and he looks forward to seeing them come out to races.

Cycling and mountain biking have been growing in popularity thanks to more exposure in the Olympics and the X-Games, but that’s not all there is to the two-wheeled sport, Simpson explains.

“People see mountain biking and cycling as hard core all the time,” he says, but it’s not just for intense people.

He’d like to see more people enjoy biking simply as a recreational sport. Once people get on a bike, they love it, Simpson says. It’s just another way to get exercise and enjoy the outdoors.

Simpson has been involved in a local effort to expand the biking trail at the Franklin Recreation Park, adding 2 to 3 miles on to the 5-mile greenway along the Little Tennessee River. There’s about a half mile cleared so far for the serpentine biking trail. Simpson just stepped down as president of his local chapter of SORBA, the Southern Off-Road Bicycle Association, since he’s moving to Asheville next month, but he still plans to be active in the organization.

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