By Matt Kollmansperger
According to RichmondOutside.com, “It’s hard to imagine another metropolitan area, especially on the East Coast, with a better variety of mountain biking opportunities. Richmond could be mountain biking nirvana.” The mountain biking scene in Richmond has been overlooked in the past due to the city’s heavy urban presence and culture. A sport such as mountain biking is often seen as an activity that takes place in rural areas or, understandably, in the mountains.
What gives this sport in Richmond its spark is the blend of an urban setting and excellent trails right into the heart of downtown Richmond. This combination makes for a challenging, yet exciting style of trail and riding that is seldom found in this configuration. Upper School History teacher and avid outdoorsman Brad Cooke, one of Collegiate’s mountain biking team coaches, grew up in Richmond riding these very trails. “I remember riding at Buttermilk, and I remember riding at Powhite, but they were never nearly as developed as they are now.” Cooke remembers returning to a completely different situation: “I left in the mid-to-late-nineties, and there wasn’t much of a scene at all then… When I came back seven years ago, it was a whole different world.” This new world, he described, was one of new excitement and increased popularity. “A bunch of new trails were open, there were bike shops popping up all over the place, and there were bike riders all over the trails.”
Though the surrounding counties do have traditional downhill and cross country single track courses such as Massanutten and Pocahontas State Park, there are none that can match the diversity of the downtown trails. Richmond’s true colors are shown where the skyscrapers are visible beyond the rushing Pipeline Rapids, a rushing water system just downstream of the Federal Reserve. “It all starts downtown, where the trails of the James River Park System wind their way along both the north and south banks of the river. These are world class, technically-challenging trails,” according to Richmond Outside.
Forest Hill Park Trails
Located near the Reedy Creek landing on the southern bank of the James, Forest Hill Park makes up some of the more challenging and technical riding of downtown. Consisting of a large 2.9 mile loop ranging 168 feet in elevation, this trail is marked as Advanced singletrack. During these 2.9 miles, bikers can expect to encounter rock gardens, steep climbs, and fast downhill. This park is also a very popular destination for organized races for groups such as VAHS MTB (Virginia High School Mountain Bike) Series and many other organizations. Riders will typically ride the loop anywhere from one to four times and experience various obstacles and trail types. According to Cooke, “Forest Hill has some of the most sustained elevation changes, longest uphills, [and] longest downhills out of the parks systems park.” The general shape of the trail system is another attractive factor. “People like the contained loop nature of that trail system… you can run laps in that and never have to cross roads.”
I also spoke with David Hanley of the Outpost of Richmond, a local bike shop and market not far from the trails of Forest Hill. Hanley said, “I ride Forest Hill Park a lot mostly because it’s between here and my house.” This seemed to be the case for many members of the community, as this park is surrounded by fairly populated neighborhoods. “The fact that it’s so easily accessed by almost the entire population of the city just running through the middle of town” seems to add to its enticement. Hanley continued, “the skill level is a little bit higher, and it requires a little more focus and a lot more climbing,” but this seems to attract more often than deter riders.
Buttermilk & North Bank Trails
The Buttermilk and North Bank trails comprise a loop that runs on both banks of the James River. These trails are well known along the East Coast in the mountain biking community and contribute to Richmond being a popular mountain bike destination. They provide more challenging and exciting riding in Richmond. These trails are also very popular for races such as Urban Assault and other longer rides and events. Like Forest Hill, the Buttermilk and North Bank trails can be turned into a loop of continuous technical riding. Cooke elaborated: “People like to turn them into a loop. It’s about seven miles if you do both of those trails.” This system also provides challenging terrain that attracts riders from all along the the East Coast. Cooke said “Especially Buttermilk is a very technical trail, so people get excited about the challenge of the technical nature of the trail.” After all, that is often what is sought in mountain biking: the true challenge of the trail. Passing by places such as Tredegar Iron Works, the back end of Maymont Park, and including two bridge rides over the river, the scenery along this trail puts it high and above other routes in Richmond.
Despite the difficulty and excitement involved in these trails, a biking town is nothing without a strong, tight-knit community, and Richmond has just that. Whether it be a veteran of the mountain biking world such as Cooke or a relative newcomer such as Hanley, all find a place and a spot to fill. Hanley said, “I’ve been a cyclist my entire life, but I was gaining access to a trail system that I had never had access to before, so it seemed like it was kind of foolish to not have a bike and take advantage of the trails around here.” He continued to discuss how he actually began the process of getting on trail and riding: “I kicked the can around for a little while and finally bought bike and do not regret it at all.” Part of why Hanley did not have any trouble getting started was the overwhelmingly welcoming nature of mountain biking. “Its super-welcoming, people will pull you along. You don’t have to know their name” Hanley said.
As someone who has seen where the community has come from, Cooke feels the same way: “It’s a pretty vibrant biking community.” He also has been able to see how it has progressed over the past seven years of his being back in Richmond. Being the coach of Collegiate school’s mountain biking team, Cooke has seen it influence the younger riders through the Virginia High School Mountain Bike Series. This organization has provided opportunities for younger riders to compete, something that has become vastly more popular over the years. Cooke said, “It’s still in its infancy, but its growing exponentially every year… There are more programs and more schools that are joining.” This focus on a younger generation lays the foundation to develop riders to be more involved in their communities and ensures the future of this sport in Richmond.
Featured image credit: Matthew Irving via pinkbike.com.