More than 20 years ago, mountain bikers in the area broke the law to enjoy the sport they loved.
The Gainesville-Hall County area today is a mountain biking hub, drawing riders from a wide region to multiple high-quality trails.
The off-road trails have stretched and grown across the natural landscape of North Georgia over the last two decades, after years of supply-demand issues.
“There were no legal trails open to mountain biking,” said Tom Sauret, regional director of Southern Off Road Bicycle Association. “Many people were riding on private property, and most people went to North Carolina to find any mountain biking. It was really an overnight trip to go mountain biking.”
Sauret was one of the founding members of SORBA’s first Gainesville chapter. He was a professor at Gainesville State College, now the University of North Georgia, when mountain biking truly exploded in Hall County.
“When we began looking for a place to build mountain bike trails in town — which was Chicopee Woods — back around 1995, the park commission wanted to partner with a known entity,” Sauret said. “So we became the first chapter of SORBA.”
Gainesville’s chapter of the mountain biking association was the first of what would expand to include 41 chapters in seven states. Sauret said it started with just under 400 mountain bikers. Today it has more than 5,000.
“It just exploded,” he said. “And that’s how it all started in this area.”
The explosion of mountain biking across the state in the mid-90s was also due to its addition to the 1996 Olympic Games.
“In ’93, ’94 and ’95 in that area, state parks were developing trails for those races,” Sauret said. “That was really back in the early days.”
Today, Chicopee Woods Trail System is one of the highest-ranked in the region. With more than 21 miles of trails, it draws riders from a wide area.
“It’s a regional draw for the whole Atlanta area,” said Bill Andrew, city manager for Flowery Branch, who has been riding competitively for more than 30 years and mountain biking for the last six.
Sauret said the need to develop Chicopee Woods came from a problem with riders “poaching,” or riding illegally in the area adjacent to Elachee Nature Science Center.
“Part of our early development was getting that under control and developing a trail system there, so people could figure out where they could legally ride,” he said.
Kevin Mooney, manager at Bike Town USA on Dawsonville Highway in Gainesville, also helped get Chicopee Woods underway in the ’90s. He said Chicopee Woods is now “one of the best-rated and most popular trail systems in the area.”
“It’s easy access,” Mooney said. “It draws a lot of people using it on the weekends, especially from the Buford, Duluth, Gwinnett area, because they can hop right off the interstate and access the trail system.”
Mooney said within 45 minutes of Gainesville, there are probably six other trail systems, as well.
Kevin McInturff, Hall County engineer, is an avid mountain biker who frequents several Northeast Georgia trails.
“If you go out toward Woodstock, there’s a place called Blankets Creek mountain bike area,” McInturff said. “That’s a really, really nice place to go.”
McInturff said Fort Yargo State Park in Winder has a 12-mile loop, while Bull Mountain and Jake Mountain near Dahlonega are also popular.
Andrew said the area encompassing Bull Mountain and Jake Mountain is called Nimblewill.
“That’s very popular,” he said. “There’s probably 40 miles at least up there that you can ride.”
Adjacent to Sauret’s old stomping grounds are a few trails behind the University of North Georgia’s Gainesville campus on Tumbling Creek Road. The trail system covers about 3.5 miles, and plans are underway to connect the trails to downtown Gainesville.
A portion of the Hall County trail connection, called Highlands to Islands trail, is already complete, with more currently under construction. It will give Gainesville residents access to trails from downtown, meaning they won’t have to drive so far to get on their bikes.
Andrew said mountain biking has a few benefits that street riding do not.
“It’s cycling without the stress of cars blowing their horns at you or almost hitting you as they’re messing with their cell phones,” he said. “You get out in nature and get a good workout, but there’s less stress.”
Sauret said mountain biking is not only rising in popularity in Hall County, but nationally and internationally as well.
“The bike technology has changed, and trail building has gotten very sophisticated,” he said. “What we’ve learned about building sustainable and environmentally-friendly trails is just incredible.”
Sauret predicts bike parks will be “the new big thing.” They will be parks quite like Chicopee Woods, he said, with an urban interface.
“People won’t have to drive to North Carolina,” he said. “They’ll be able to find, in their own communities, places to ride on natural surface trails.”