Words: Chris Lesser
Photos: Morgan Meredith
A quest for singletrack south of the Mason-Dixon line reveals a cast of unlikely characters, a hearty riding culture and a hollerin’ good time. Over the course of nine days and 1,500 miles, we mercilessly flog a rental van and live off deep-fried food as we search for the South’s finest trails.
The Fort Duffield trail network in West Point, Kentucky, gets its name from the Civil War-era encampment that sits atop a hill draped with singletrack. The fort once served as a supply depot for the Union Army, and some remnants are still visible at a small visitors’ center. But we’ve come here to see a different sort of relic.
Bruce Montana, 61, is waiting for us in the parking lot wearing a windbreaker and kneepads, his breath clouding in the cold air. Semiretired from his job selling high-pressure valves and fittings, the man is known for his homebrewed beer and an unwavering dedication to trail building. Eric first started riding mountain bikes here, as a skinny XC racer who once marveled at how Bruce negotiated log-overs. He might never have made it big if it weren’t for this man’s decades of trail-building work.
We follow the godfather of Kentucky mountain biking along ridges and over stream crossings. It is our eleventh trail in nine days, and we’re all looking for a gentle swan song. But even though the trails are mellow, the old man puts it to us, his windbreaker fluttering behind him as he slices through the trees.
The handlebars on Bruce’s Intense Spider are cut so narrow that it looks like he’s riding a fixie, but he’s no hipster. He still uses friction shifters and 8-speed cassettes—not because they’re retro, but because he has a stash of them, and they work. At one point he veers off the trail and leads us to a teepee he built. He has slept out here a few times, but mostly it’s just a place for him to hang his hat during long days of trail work.And suddenly Bruce doesn’t seem like such a relic; he appears much younger, grinning proudly in front of his fort, showing us his trails, riding bikes with us. And the mischievous spark in his eye shows traces of the same passion for riding that helped build singletrack in New Orleans and a 60-foot ladder bridge in the middle of Mississippi.
For a region of the country that is often reduced to clichés, painted solid red on electoral maps and generally misunderstood or overlooked by those who live outside it, the South has a healthy, hearty riding culture all its own. It’s part of the larger tribe, but also inherently distinct.
And thanks to hard-working trail groups and the unrelenting efforts of guys like Bill Victor, the trails aren’t going unnoticed. Next spring, IMBA will host its bi-annual Mountain Bike World Summit—previously held in such locales as Whistler, B.C. and Park City, Utah—in Augusta, Georgia. The town sits at the heart of SORBA country, and it’s just across the Savannah River from Bill’s roller-coaster trails in South Carolina.
Hidden in plain sight, the great riding here can’t stay off the map for long—not with local riders so openly inviting strangers to explore their trails, and not with a 365-day-a-year riding season. Trails in the South are spreading like the rogue kudzu vine, with no signs of letting up.
This content was originally published in Bike’s November 2009 issue.