I’m a very lucky man. I’ve been able to ride my mountain bike in a lot of different places around the US over the last few years, and I’ve taken every chance I can to hit the best spots.. Classic places like Moab, Fruita and Sedona, less recognised places like Tucson and Phoenix, even a trail centre in a warehouse on the outskirts of Portland. I loved all these places. I’d happily go to any of them again. And if you only ever get one chance to ride in the US, those big hitters like Moab and Sedona are definitely worth considering. However…
This is my chance to make a strong case for Knoxville too. It’s less famous than Moab, the landscape isn’t as dramatic as Sedona and there aren’t hundreds of YouTube videos of your favourite influencers hitting the trails. But if you think you’d enjoy nearly 100 miles of singletrack, world-class pumptracks and skills loops, bike shops, countless breweries and some mouth-watering barbecue, then put Knoxville on your wishlist right now.
A warm welcome
There’s no money in writing about MTB. But it does have its perks – one of which is that you get to meet really nice people who’ll show you around, introduce you to the locals and generally try to make sure you have a good time. Local MTB rider, adventure photographer and all-round excellent person Leslie Kehmeier joins me on day one of my Knoxville adventure at the excellent Plaid Apron diner, where we plot out a week’s worth of rides, events and general good times over plates of eggs and organic vegetable hash.
Biking Peak at Baker Creek
Starting with the basecamp of all things MTB in Knoxville – the Baker Creek trailhead. This dreamlike facility on the southern edge of the city is a testament to just how much can be achieved with enough commitment, effort and collaboration. Local riders club AMBC – Appalachian Mountain Bike Club – have worked with the city, local landowners and sponsors to build a giant bike playground that’s free, all-weather and open to all. There are three separate, linked pump tracks made of tarmac, so bikes of all kinds, scooters, skateboards and anything else with wheels can use it, and it’s packed, with everything from toddlers on balance bikes to backflipping dirt jumpers. There are wall rides. Graded drop-ins to build confidence. MTB skills loops with rock gardens and balance features. Even the park benches have been built with sloping ends so you can ride them like skinnies if there’s no-one sitting there.
I could happily spend all day just working on drops and jumps right here, ignoring the fact that I’m surrounded by highly-skilled small children, but all this bike bounty at the parking lot is just the start. Baker Creek is also the gateway to many of those 100 miles of local MTB trails, so Leslie, myself and Ethan from Rocky Mountain Bicycles (thanks for the loaner bike my friend) set out to see what’s on offer.
There are trails in every direction,and we spend the morning ranging far and wide into the network, but the highlights have to be the Barn Burner and Cruze Valley trails – two fast, flowy and jump-filled DH runs just a five minute climb up the hill from the trailhead. Locals Caroline and Chrisonthy join us as we hit these two trails over and over, and then insist we session the lower half of Barn Burner with them, as they’re working on their jumps. ( I think they’re trying to politely suggest that mine need work too – which they definitely do.) Caroline’s been off the bike for two years with an injury, but by just following her lead, I’m soon hitting some of the biggest jumps I’ve ever ridden and yelling like a loon. What a start to the week.
I’ve timed my visit to attend FallFest – the annual AMBC hootenanny to raise money for trail building and give local riders a chance to celebrate. This isn’t just a couple of gazebos and a donation bucket – over 3500 people descend on Baker Creek over three days, to take part in organised rides, watch the famous whip-off competition, bid on thousands of dollars’ worth of premium MTB goods and have a whole lot more fun besides.
It’s really heartwarming to see the community in full force. There are riders of all ages, skill levels and backgrounds here, and an atmosphere of genuine inclusivity. You could show up here as a Rampage pro, or someone who’d never ridden MTB before in their life, and have an amazing time.
I join an ‘intermediate’ social ride, with slight trepidation, and we head off into the local hills. It’s a hoot – everyone’s super-friendly, and we’re soon bouncing off the roots and rocks of Soup’s On, Giddy Up and Party In The Woods. Local bike shop owner Shawn invites me to follow him down a spicy offshoot, and we both manage to clip our hands on exactly the same tree, at speed – a grazed finger and some bruised pride the only casualties.
It’s a proper shindig, this festival. The whip-off competition is a butt-clenchingly dangerous competition to pull off the best stunt over a 20ft-high gap jump in front of hundreds of spectators, and it’s got everything from backflips to riders veering off-course and ploughing into the crowd – it ends with a man holding a cowbell over the gap on a stick so riders can try and ring it with their back wheels. Awesome.
There’s a race for adaptive riders that runs right through the middle of the event to whoops and cheers from all. A floodlit ‘best line’ competition in the pump tracks that sees riders of all ages flying over the jumps for style points. World Cup DH legend Aaron Gwinn can be found humbly standing by a large printed map of the new trails he’s planning at his Windrock Bike Park nearby, chatting to all and sundry. And it ends with a second-line marching band, fancy dress and a silent disco that runs into the small hours. These Knoxville folks know how to have a good time.
Just out of town
Knoxville’s location at the base of the Great Smoky Mountains means that there’s forests and trails near the city in all directions – including the aforementioned Aaron Gwinn’s excellent Windrock Bike Park. We decide, for reasons of personal safety, to forgo the uplift service and its access to multiple and potentially fatal black downhill runs. Today’s ride explores the so-called ‘XC’ routes, but they’re far from mild. After a short lung-buster of a climb, we’re soon flying off rock slabs, roosting huge piles of leaves out of rocky berms, and hitting step-up gap jumps. This is proper technical trail – strewn with rocks and roots, little punchy climbs, plunges through narrow tree gaps and more, with a relatively easy return climb and multiple ways down. You could easily spend a happy day here, but we’re running out of adrenalin and skill after yesterday’s efforts, so it’s time for lunch and a trip back to the city for more fun at Baker Creek.
Paint Forest Trail
It’s not all sculpted berms and signposted loops here – there are hundreds, maybe thousands of acres of forest close to the city, and trails abound in all directions. Leslie takes me out to ride the Paint Forest trail, close to the border with North Carolina, and it feels very different to the heavily-used tracks in town. There’s hardly anyone around, and it’s a 20-min dirt road trip off the highway before we start riding, but it’s well worth the effort. If there’s anything better than plummeting down narrow natural singletrack, leaves flying in all directions, with a view of layer after layer of mountain ridges through the trees, I haven’t found it yet. The conditions are glorious – the colours of the forest in early November stretch from the vivid yellows under our wheels to the hazy purples of the distant hillsides – and for most of the ride we feel like we’re the only people on the planet. It’s tough climbing, and I get bested more times than I’d like, but even just scratching the surface of this forest makes for a truly memorable day.
Not enough time
I could keep banging on about my week for much longer than this. The thrilling rock berms of Knight Fall trail at Sharp’s Ridge, or making a month’s worth of jump progress in a single afternoon on the skills track, or the countless cool spots for food and beer we found all over town, or the warm welcome I got from every single rider I met. I could write a whole feature just about how impressive the organisation and effort put in by local riders really is, or how much my heart was gladdened by the strength and supportiveness of the female riding community. Like all genuinely eye-opening experiences, it’s hard to contain in just a few hundred words. So let’s just say that if you wanted to create the perfect MTB life – with all the trails you needed, and every chance to improve your skills, and a community of people loved riding as much as you did – you could do a lot worse than start here.
Thanks Knoxville – you were awesome.
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All photos courtesy of Leslie Kehmeier – thewideeyedworld.com
Special thanks to visitknoxville.com, Rocky Mountain bikes – rockymountainuk.com and Patagonia eu.patagonia.com for their help with this trip.
Insta – @timnwild