A column by Michael Lancaster
Fall is here. You can smell it in the cooling air. The humidity has become a little less like soup. There’s an inviting crispness to the morning breeze pulling us away from the air conditioner, outside, back into the sunshine.
Nearly every mountain town is gearing up for the fall festivals for which our region is famous.
People travel for miles to come marvel at our beautiful North Georgia mountains. At this time of year, Hogpen Gap can feel a bit like Interstate 85 at rush hour, only people are pushing their noses against the windshields of their slow-moving cars to peer at Mother Nature’s autumnal color.
For anybody who has ridden a bicycle on our local trail systems, fall is Christmas, July Fourth, Labor Day and every other holiday rolled into one.
Trail riders don’t want to merely marvel at the beauty of the landscape, we want to dive into it, wrap ourselves in the cooling embrace of the endless forest trails that are hidden from the gaze of motorists on scenic drives. It’s there, in all it’s flowing glory, right on our doorstep, and it’s pretty much free for all of us to use.
Here in the Southeast, we are blessed with the perfect climate for trail riding. Our summers may be hot, but our fall is long, our winters mild and our spring comes quickly to shake off any stubborn arctic grip.
Our trails are rarely closed. Summer forest fires are few. Snow closures are almost unheard of; when the trails are closed because of excessive rain, they are back open quickly, usually within a day. But now, now is the perfect time to ride.
So where to start? Where are these wonderful trails? Well, the best place to start isn’t in the forest, it’s at your local bike shop. This is where you’ll find your best source of local information, not just on where to ride, but when and how, and oftentimes you’ll find someone to ride with, too.
We have three wonderful bike shops in Gainesville: Biketown USA on Dawsonville Highway, Wrenched Bicycles on Broad Street and Habersham Bicycles on Limestone Parkway. Any one of these shops is also a great place to start if you are nervous about getting out on the trails alone.
Most bike shops organize rides where they introduce customers to the local trails. For example, Biketown USA has shop rides on Tuesday and Thursday nights at Chicopee Woods. Meet in the parking lot at the trailhead at 5:30 p.m. They are no-drop rides, meaning no one gets left behind. Wrenched Bicycles has regular group rides on Saturday mornings and Thursday nights, also riding out at Chicopee Woods.
These rides are a great way for a newbie to get involved. It’s also a bonus to ride with a bike shop as there’s free info and advice on tap, and there’s usually a mechanic in the pack should anything break or need adjusting. And, talking of taps, Wrenched has a craft brew bar in the shop, too, to sate that after-ride thirst.
Also, check out and join your local Southern Off Road Bicycle Association chapter. They are a locally based advocacy organization made up of local riders who build, maintain and advocate for our trails. You can even join a work party and find out how trails are built and maintained (a great way to meet other bike enthusiasts).
Before you go into the woods there are a few essential pieces you must have:
• A mountain/trail bike: If you have one, get it serviced before you ride. It’s better to find out what’s wrong in the shop than out on the trail.
• A helmet: It’s not an option, it’s a must. It will protect your head if you fall and if you come across low-hanging branches. It doesn’t have to cost a fortune, but it has to be on your head. Don’t go ride without it.
• Plan on getting a flat. It may or may not happen, but plan for it anyway. Talk to your local bike shop about what you need depending on whether you have tubes in your tires or not. Every rider should carry a multi-tool with a 4 and 5 mil hex key, tire levers, a spare tube (the size is on the wall of your tire) and a pump or compressed air cartridge.
• A chain link or power link, just in case your chain snaps: These little wonders cost a couple of bucks, but they’re worth their weight in gold should your chain give out miles from the trailhead.
• Water, plenty of water: Even in the depths of winter, dehydration is an issue. It’s thirsty work pushing a bike up a hill.
• A couple of power bars or PB&J sandwiches. You don’t want to run out of steam before you’ve stopped having fun.
Optional extras are:
• Padded bike shorts, although anyone who has suffered chafing will tell you they are essential.
• Gloves, to reduce calluses and blisters.
• Backpack with bladder to carry water with less hassle.
Again, talk to your local bike shop; they really do have all the answers to your questions. However, you won’t know what you need until you get out there and give it a go.
- Chicopee Woods MTB Trails, Elachee Drive, Gainesville
- UNG Trail System, between Old Oakwood Road and Tumbling Creek Road, Gainesville
- Bull and Jake Mountain, Off Jones Creek Road, Lumpkin County
- Yonah Preserve Trails, Albert Reid Road, White County
- Fort Yargo State Park, 210 S Broad St., Winder
- Unicoi State Park & Lodge, Ga. 356, Helen
But where to ride, I hear you say. Well, we really are spoiled for choice when it comes to trail access in and around Gainesville. There is something for every skill level and every temperament all within easy reach.
Some trails like the Chicopee Woods trail system and the University of North Georgia trail system are right on our doorstep, just off of Interstate 985 on Elachee Drive.
Others such as Bull and Jake mountains or Yonah Preserve are a short 35-minute drive.
Yonah is a fantastic place for beginners to find their legs. It’s a multi-use (not just bikes), natural surface trail. There are over 7.5 miles of multidirectional trails to go at with another 20-plus miles coming soon.
Just half an hour away are Bull and Jake Mountain, located at the southern terminus of the Appalachian Trail. Here you’ll find more than 50 miles of epic riding. There really is something for everyone here: red clay single-track, loose rocks, stream crossings and some harsh, when-does-it-end climbing. The trail system also includes an International Mountain Bicycling Association “Epic” route that covers a good chunk of the whole trail system, which will test even the most advanced rider.
Just down the road to our south, in Winder, is the Fort Yargo Mountain Bike trail system. It offers a good combination of flowing trails, tight twisty climbs and some epic descents. This place offers plenty of features to challenge the intermediate cross-country mountain bike rider. It also offers up some truly splendid scenery and lake views.
To our north, just beyond Yonah, there is Unicoi State Park, where the trails offer steep, long climbs and fast descents with a few technical features. This is a great intermediate trail system with sweeping views and lush green fields.
We haven’t even mentioned all the gravel paths that are opening up or what’s available further afield in Cherokee, the Blue Ridge Mountains or the Chattahoochee National Forest.
Get out there, enjoy and let me know about your adventures.