“Be confident, buddy,” yelled a man to a rider. “That’ll help you out.”
Not far from the man, I stood in the gravel parking lot of Rocky Knob Mountain Bike Park near Boone, N.C., looking out at a brand-new pump track – a mountain-biking course of bumps and jumps that I planned to test out the next day. I made a mental note about confidence and chatted with another spectator.
Next thing I knew, screams were coming from the track, and the mountain biker was on the dirt. I wondered whether he was hurt, and I felt my self-preservation instinct kick in: Am I going to kill myself on this thing tomorrow?
When my friend Marilyn invited me to visit her in Boone, she told me about a new mountain bike park a few miles from town. I’ve probably been on a mountain bike a couple of times in my life, but I’ve certainly never biked any mountains, and my only bike-related bragging rights involve a recent 50 miles on the C&O Canal towpath, which runs from Washington to Cumberland, Md., and is arguably as flat as they come. But I was overdue for a visit to one of my favorite Carolina towns, so I packed my car and headed to the Blue Ridge Mountains.
Just west of the Blue Ridge Parkway, Boone – named after Daniel – is a year-round haven for outdoor recreationalists. With the opening of Rocky Knob, a $2 million facility, it’s now a destination for mountain bikers as well.
Led by a professional trail-builder, volunteers put in 3,500 hours of work building the 185-acre park over the past few years. Locals pitched in at weekly sessions called Dirty Thursdays, and college football players used brute force to move boulders. The first of five trails opened in 2011, and the trails, skills areas, picnic areas and pump track were completed by this year.
A sign at the base of the mountain explicitly says that none of the trails are for beginners, and some of the features are pretty advanced. The day I arrived, I hiked the easiest trail, 1.6-mile Rocky Branch, and found myself tentatively stepping over rock gardens, watching my footing on uneven boardwalks and hiking around countless switchbacks. In one of the skills areas, I walked over “skinnies,” narrow structures that look like balance beams and are meant – unfathomably – to be crossed by bike. Hiking down, I was happy that the mountain bikers had this park, but I thought, no way am I doing this on wheels.
Off the mountain, I watched kids and grown-ups on the pump track. A couple of guys from nearby Appalachian State, the local university, rode their dirt jump bikes over jumps and around berms, catching air, and returned out of breath.
“It’s like a sprint,” said Jason, a senior. He explained that the pump track gets its name from the motion as you go over the undulations. Essentially, your body stores energy like a spring, and you gain momentum as you go over the jumps and shift your weight, “pumping” your upper body. The best riders go through the entire course without pedaling and leave the ground often – making it a killer spectator sport.
The next morning, I met Kristian Jackson at the park. Blond and ponytailed, he’s a lecturer in recreation management at the university, as well as one of the course designers. He brought a Giant Anthem mountain bike for me to borrow – a “29er,” one of the cool new bikes with wheels three inches larger than the standard, that I was told would make it easier to pedal uphill.
Kristian talked to me about my stance on the bike and what to do if I crashed, although he skillfully avoided using that word. He explained that a good trail is “flowy,” rather than filled with sharp and jerky turns. I strapped on my helmet and remembered to stay confident. Soon, we were pedaling up the mountain, and within seconds, my legs were burning.
Rocky Knob is a stacked loop system – the higher you get, the harder the trail. Apparently, the designers tried to make the course easier, but it was too, well, rocky. I quickly learned to keep my pedals up off the ground so they wouldn’t hit rock. This was a little like learning how to ride all over again – except that this bike was a tank, rolling over roots and rocks like nobody’s business.
As Kristian led me around the loop, I found him to be that rare breed of hard-core dude who is kind and empathetic; he got off his bike and walked in all the tricky spots that he knew would be difficult for me.
At the base of the mountain, I wasn’t exactly crying for more, but I was exhilarated – and thrilled that I hadn’t broken any body parts. No need to press my luck, I decided.