THE BIKE BEAT
By Adam Searing
The Chapel Hill-Carrboro area has one of the largest communities of cyclists who ride mountain bikes in the state. Why? We are blessed with longtime extensive trail systems on land owned both by the University of North Carolina and local governments combined with a very active community. As mountain bikes were just coming to public notice in the early 1980s, my fellow bicycle mechanics and I pioneered and developed the emerging sport of off-road riding on trails in Battle Park and Carolina North that are still in use. Fast forward forty years and I find myself a coach for the exploding North Carolina league of NICA – the National Interscholastic Cycling Association – and the largest concentration of kids riding in the league is right here in the Orange County area.
Luckily for my aging body, technological leaps over the last decade have also fundamentally improved the bicycles used to ride off road, contributing to a resurgence of the sport. The bikes are lighter, safer, more comfortable and, perhaps more important to the younger crowd, faster than ever before. This is making riding in the woods even more popular.
Unfortunately, our local governments haven’t figured out that this growth in the sport of mountain biking necessitates some adjustments in our park and greenway planning. While communities as diverse from internationally-known Sedona, Arizona to small but beautiful Mayodan, North Carolina have embraced mountain biking as an economic driver and recreation priority, the same isn’t true here.
The exception is UNC, which played an enormous role (both passive and active) in establishment and now management of the extensive system of trails on what was once called the Horace Williams Tract. However, as any mountain biker who has ridden these trails can tell you, there are no guarantees from the University that those trails will remain. Development plans for the future Carolina North campus will impact recreation uses of the Forest greatly in future years.
A storied history of local off-road riding, a fast-growing league of local teams involving hundreds of kids and parents, and indications of how big an economic driver this sport can be should have local governments making trail development and preservation of parks and forest in which to ride a priority. This isn’t happening.
Orange County has a large currently undeveloped park, Twin Creeks, now being used for hiking and extensive “informal” mountain bike trails. The county’sexisting development plan calls for multiple soccer fields, baseball fields, and tennis courts. Preservation of forest and bike trails are not priorities.
The Greene Tract Forest, a 164 acre parcel of land jointly owned by Chapel Hill, Orange County, and Carrboro, has an extensive area that could be developed for affordable housing. The rest of the property currently contains numerous bicycle and hiking trails among huge oaks and around scenic streams and historic sites. County plans and a raucous Chapel Hill Town Council meeting featured maps that set aside major areas of these trails for “undesignated uses” – which could include market rate housing development and other building.
And while mountain bikes featured hugely in the private development of the Brumley Forest park in Orange County, this was not driven by governmental bodies but rather by the Triangle Land Conservancy and the generosity of the Brumley family.
There are huge opportunities around town and in our area for development of world-class mountain bike trails if only local government will make this a economic development and recreation priority. Whether it is better use of Merritt’s pasture, a cooperative agreement to legalize and connect local informal trails with greenways, or making trail development and forest preservation a priority in our parks, there is much to do. Let’s hope local officials can hear the increasing sound of spinning wheels, shifting gears and kids enjoying themselves outside on their bikes.
Adam Searing is a lifetime resident of Chapel Hill, a mountain bike coach, and attorney.