By Brent Martin • Guest Columnist
In recent months I have watched a tense and difficult relationship play out nationally between some members of the mountain biking community and advocates for Wilderness. And over two years ago when the Forest Service began its management plan revision for the Nantahala-Pisgah National Forest, it appeared this would be the situation here.
Four years ago, Jennie Wyderko — then finishing up her undergrad at Virginia Tech — had barely even touched a mountain bike.
Fast forward to 2015, and she’s one of two female officers for the Nantahala Area Southern Off Road Bicycle Association, co-organizer of a women-only skills clinic and weekly ride through the club and a year out from finishing a 2,000-mile mountain bike route along the Great Divide in the Rocky Mountains.
Outdoors enthusiasts and diehard mountain bikers are waiting in anticipation the winter opening of a seven-mile mountain biking and hiking trail in the Sylva and Cullowhee area.
The trail will be the first of its kind accessible by foot, or bike, from the Western Carolina University campus and is expected to be a vital link in a recreation system that may one day expand to connect county, regional and even state trails.
A million acres of national forests sounds like a lot, and indeed it is. But consider the 8.6 million people who visit the Pisgah and Nantahala national forests every year and those vast green swaths that checker any map of Western North Carolina don’t seem quite so big after all.
In Western North Carolina’s thriving outdoors community, mountain bikers have long been at the center of the action. But now, they’re looking to make their presence official by kicking off a local chapter of the Southeast Off-Road Bicycle Association (SORBA).
The new SORBA chapter that local bikers and shop owners hope to create will focus on the Tuckaseegee River Watershed area, where Tsali Recreation Area is the mountain-biking crown jewel.
“It’s the powder skiing of bikes,” said Kent Cranford, owner of Motion Makers Bicycle Shop, who has stores in Asheville and Sylva. Cranford has been coming to Tsali since the late 1980s when he traveled over the state line from Tennessee to ride the trails with friends.
“Tsali was the one place where people could come spend a whole day riding on single-track trail,” said Cranford, and that’s why he and others in the area are keen to band together to ensure the trail’s continued glory.
“That old gal, she needs some loving out there,” said Andy Zivnisky of the 39-mile trail system in Graham County. He’s the co-owner of Bryson City Bicycles, and he, along with other enthusiasts, wants to help make sure the trail can be as good in the future as it’s been famous for in the past.
“As a group, we’d like to get together and recreate Tsali,” said Zivinsky. “The idea is to turn Tsali back into the place that everybody remembers.”
The true impetus for the group’s formation was some recent work done on the trail, and local riders want to be more involved in that maintenance in the future.
Forming a rider group like a SORBA chapter would also bring more money and opportunities to the area’s mountain bikers. According to Cranford, the National Forest Service — which is charged with maintaining and operating the trail system — stands a much better chance in competition for grants and other funding when there’s a volunteer group like a SORBA chapter backing them. It provides a built-in organizational framework for trail workdays and the manpower to help lay in the funds grants can provide.
And those benefits would extend beyond Tsali to the other trails in the area that mountain bikers use and want to make better.
Nathan Brock, manager and buyer for Nantahala Outdoor Center’s bike shop, said he’s long heard the request from customers — both locals and visitors — for a user group to serve the area.
“I hear it on a weekly basis, ‘what can we do to build more trails, what can we do to enhance the trails we already have?’” said Brock. “People are willing to come even from out of state.”
And now that the rumble is growing into action and a group is taking shape, he and other area professionals hope that the long-term effects of a SORBA chapter will grow the economic impact of mountain biking on the region.
One of the other oft-cited requests heard by bike shops is directions to more local trails like Tsali, or just more local trails. And while there are efforts taking shape at Western Carolina University and elsewhere to bulk out the region’s offerings, the thought is that a dedicated group of riders ready to work them can only make things better.
Local rider and business owner Robert Williams, who owns The Chocolate Factory in Dillsboro, said he’s stoked about the prospect of a new SORBA chapter. He’d love to see new bikers and business come to town for bike-centric events and better trails. And as a long-time mountain biker, he’s ready to pitch in to make it happen.
“Me and my family, my kids, we all use them and it’s important that the end user can support and keep trails open on public land,” said Williams. “There’s fewer and fewer dollars going around, so a lot of trail work is really done by clubs and organizations, and not by park employees.”
Andy Zivinsky agrees, and with the formation of a SORBA chapter and the cohesiveness it could bring to the area’s mountain biking community, that could, he said, translate into more dollars for the area and more fun and challenge for cyclists.
“We would all like to see there being more trails, a bigger trail network that drives business, drives new people into riding,” said Zivinsky.
There are other SORBA chapters in the area, but they’re geared towards the Asheville area or north Georgia, and the far-western region is lacking any kind of unified effort to create and sustain cycling opportunities.
For Cranford, that’s a void just waiting to be filled in an area brimming with potential to be more of a biking destination than it already is.
“If we can establish more cycling stuff in this area, we’re going to have more people that are good visitors — they spend the weekend or spend the week and aren’t afraid to spend the money for our restaurants, our music scene, our bookstores our arts and crafts, because that’s what they’re into, too,” said Cranford.
But increased business or not, he and his cohorts see this as an opportunity to support and further the sport they love, and they’re calling on other enthusiasts to join in the effort to keep maintain the joyous mountain ride that brought them here to begin with.
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.