The Appalachian Mountain Bike Club’s Trailblazing Plans for Knoxville

In Cover Stories, Sports by S. Heather Duncanleave a COMMENT

Mountain bikers have a rich and diverse relationship with gravity. The adrenaline surge of a downhill plunge, even with the risk of a fall (called a “gravity check”), is all the reason they need to do it again.

In Knoxville, that’s what the Appalachian Mountain Bike Club does: It hurtles forward to expand Knoxville’s trail system and its horizon. And then it does it again. And again.

Most recently, the club won a coveted grant to build a downhill trail so tough even most local bikers would never try it. In some ways, it was a strange goal to motivate a community. But for two weeks this spring, the Downtown Downhill campaign was all anybody in Knoxville could talk about. The trail project was competing online with two others, the winner claiming a $100,000 Bell Helmets grant.

To put it in mountain biking terms, Knoxville stomped it. The gravity trail received 26,619 votes from 25 countries, beating out its closest competitor by more than 10,000 votes.

cover_rei_0709Success breeds more success. Just a few weeks after the Bell win, outdoor retailer REI announced it was providing a $20,000 grant (half to the bike club, half to partner Legacy Parks) toward building a bridge connecting the gravity trail with the rest of Knoxville’s Urban Wilderness. The 200 acres, donated by the Wood family to Legacy Parks in 2013, will also include other trails aimed at every skill level.

Nolan Wildfire, REI community outreach coordinator, joked at the check presentation ceremony: “If you have not heard of the Appalachian Mountain Bike Club in the last month, then forgive me, but you live under a rock.” The REI grant leveraged donations covering the entire $100,000 cost of the bridge, says AMBC member Brian Hann.

But this is just the latest step in the club’s transformation of South Knoxville. The club and Legacy Parks were the masterminds behind creating 42 miles of South Loop biking trails and the surrounding Urban Wilderness. Just since 2008, the club of around 250 members has built (and continues to maintain) about 30 miles of trail. Its ability to partner effectively with other user groups, local governments, and the nimble nonprofit Legacy Parks has amplified its trail-building skills into a broader influence on the local culture, economy, and land use.

Paul James, executive director of Ijams Nature Center, says the vision, organization, and ambition of the bike club’s leadership has “created a very committed, dynamic, responsive, formidable club that is very passionate about creating community. They want Knoxville to thrive,” he says. “It’s not just something they do on the weekends.”

This was never more obvious than during the Bell Helmets contest. The victory marked a turning point: It has made outdoor recreation a part of the city’s identity, even for folks who never pedal a bike.

“I definitely think the club has had an impact on broader buy-in to the idea of Knoxville as an outdoors destination,” James says. “For South Knoxville and even for the downtown renaissance, the Appalachian Mountain Bike Club has been a real driver.”

A recent University of Tennessee economic study estimated that the Urban Wilderness trails the club has built could pump as much as $51 million into the local economy annually if they gain national traction. That goal is far more attainable now that the Bell Helmets contest brought the Urban Wilderness to a national audience, and the gravity trail will likely attract national-profile bike events, says Carol Evans, Legacy Parks executive director.

The bike club mostly builds and maintains the trails for free, although local governments have paid for a few requested trails or provided supplies like gravel. Bike Club president Matthew Kellogg says the club has received up to about $10,000 in the last year from the city and the county, each; the club spends about $50,000 on trails a year, Hann says.

“At city and county parks, we very much support the (Urban Wilderness) effort, but probably 80 percent of what’s happened in the trail system is a result of volunteer work from the Appalachian Mountain Bike Club and Legacy Parks,” says Doug Bataille, Knox County senior director of parks and recreation. “This has been a really inexpensive investment on part of city and county, with a big return on investment in terms of a really popular sport.”

Bataille estimates the club puts in more than 1,000 hours of trail labor a year, on top of leveraging grants and donations. “You can imagine what that saves the local governments. Obviously that’s a huge impact.”

So how did a small club of bikers grow to become the architects of a new vision for Knoxville?

Along for the Ride
From left: Matthew Kellogg, Brian Hann, Randy Conner

From left: Matthew Kellogg, Brian Hann, Randy Conner

The key drivers of AMBC are its president, Matthew Kellogg, and two previous presidents, Hann and Randy Conner—although the club is truly a group ride. What sets the club apart is the fact that such a large number of people make significant contributions, including hard labor. There have been as many as 144 members at a trail building day, and 40 to 80 are not unusual, Conner says.

Still, leadership helps makes that happen. Conner got the club pumping again after it had languished for years, Hann had the vision to connect undeveloped South Knoxville properties, and Kellogg had the energy to mobilize a whole city.

The three have more in common than their love of biking. They all work in some capacity for David Dewhirst, whose redevelopment of historic Knoxville buildings helped kick-start downtown’s renaissance. Dewhirst (who doesn’t bike) says he and his bike-club friends have a similar goal: The stewardship of beauty, whether in the form of historic buildings or the natural world.

More than a decade ago Dewhirst hired Hann, who recruited Kellogg and Conner and who now runs the construction division. Dewhirst was so sold on Hann’s vision for Knoxville that Dewhirst Properties now has a trail-building division, run by Conner, purely to support the Urban Wilderness.

“The greater vision is to be able to move about the community just on trails and greenways—to ride from home to businesses and do your shopping, and come back through the woods,” Hann says. “It’s removing the barrier to outdoor recreation. Getting in your car is a barrier.”

Dewhirst says Hann “sees the whole future of Knoxville as highly influenced for the better because of the Urban Wilderness. I think very few people understand the power of what that will be in the future.”

Okay, so what will it be?

Dewhirst speaks with gravity. “It will be what people think of first. Knoxville will be ‘The Urban Wilderness City,’” he says.

Hann is a wiry guy with close-clipped hair and a close-clipped goatee. You get the feeling he’s coiled and ready to spring, but he knows how to direct his energy. He speaks briefly and to the point, then hits the trail.

“A bicycle is like the best invention ever made,” Hann says. “You get places under your own power. It’s the most efficient machine known to man, and I like efficiency.”

People trying to describe Hann often struggle a bit, then summarize: He just gets things done.

Brian Hann, former AMBC president, first recognized the potential for the 42-mile South Loop in Knoxville's Urban Wilderness when he looked at a map of the area from 10 feet and saw a green ring.

Brian Hann, former AMBC president, first recognized the potential for the 42-mile South Loop in Knoxville’s Urban Wilderness when he looked at a map of the area from 10 feet and saw a green ring.

Hann has a map of Knoxville in his head, with the undeveloped large parcels illuminated. Plenty of developers and economic boosters have imagined similar maps to identify places where the city can grow through construction. Hann has the opposite intent. His Future Knoxville is a place made up of green places woven through the human construction.

Hann is a multi-tasker, so that map is there all the time: While he’s pouring concrete for a grease trap, while he’s grinding uphill in granny gear on his bike, while he’s hobnobbing with Knoxville Mayor Madeline Rogero and big donors. When the opportunity comes to snap up one of those properties as a city park or a trail easement, Hann is ready.

Hann and other bike club members put their own money and sweat behind that map. Hann and Kellogg both moved to South Knoxville near the trails. Hann bought a dilapidated farm to be one of the privately-owned links in the South Loop, building several public trails across it.

Along with his friend and neighbor Jason Stephens, Hann formed an LLC to purchase more property to connect parts of the trail, like the Wood property and Marie Meyers Park. (Hann says they plan to build tree houses on it.) They also buy residential properties by trail heads, then rent them out to trail-friendly tenants, often for little to no profit.

“We wanted cool places by the trail heads,” Hann says with a shrug.

On his way to the 1896 white farmhouse he restored off Sevierville Pike, he first crosses the Chain Ring trail as it intersects with his driveway, then passes his goats. Behind the house and past the chickens is a sap-stained Airstream trailer, where out-of-town trail builders working for the club stay for free.

Behind that is a pump track of sculpted humps and high corners where bikers can practice. Doug Barker is riding the pump track shirtless with a beer bottle in each back pocket. “Isn’t there an age limit on this track?” Hann jokes.

“I hope it’s not 51,” says Barker, revealing his age with a grin.

Hann points out, “Your daughter got messed up on a pump track.”

“I’m just glad they saved her teeth,” says Barker, who lives in Corryton and started riding bikes about 15 years ago.

The track and the farm are the location for the club’s big fall fundraiser, basically a festival with food, bands, booze, and bikes that draws 300 or 400 people, according to Conner. But the farm also gets visitors on a daily basis from the trails. The AC/DC trail is especially popular.

“It became part of the trail system as we built it,” says Hann. “We built this in the middle of the night in the rain.” Close to dusk, the trail is twisty and shadowed as it criss-crosses a gully using seven wooden bridges, some banked at steep angles demanding high speeds. “I wanted the bridges to feel like water flowing down and to be built like train trestles,” Hann says.

Kellogg, like Hann, has proved to be an outdoorsman who can work the inside game equally well. For the Bell Helmets contest, “I had a war room in my house,” Kellogg says. Ten laptops were set up around the dining room table while club members learned about how Google ranks websites from University of Tennessee Professor Julie Ferrara.

Competitors ended up copying the bike club’s tactics, website, and videos. (In one video, neglected “squishy bikes” with flat tires pine away while Sarah McLachlan croons “Angel” in the background.)

cover_limo_0709The contest was plastered across social media (even U.S. Sen. Bob Corker tweeted about it) and covered by every TV news station in Knoxville. Trucks and bars and bike shops were stenciled with “Downtown Downhill” (Mayor Rogero tried her hand at the spray painting), the Tomato Head pizzeria named a sandwich after it, and it was draped (along with a bike) from a construction lift on Gay Street. Dewhirst, who owned the lift, also paid for radio ads on WDVX. PetSmart volunteered to buy anonymous Facebook ads. The city of Knoxville and Oak Ridge National Laboratory emailed all their employees asking them to vote.

Partway through the voting, Kellogg and some other club members spray-painted Downtown Downhill slogans all over a limo loaded with bikes before driving to a mid-Atlantic conference of the International Mountain Bicycling Association. There, they gave a presentation on club dynamics and spread the word about the contest to the 20 participating bike clubs. That led to articles about the gravity trail in Northeastern media.

In the end, many Knoxville residents voted for the trail not because they care about mountain biking, but because they care about living in a cool city, Evans says.

“We’re a competitive city so we like to win. I think there’s just amazing community pride,” she says. “It is that we want to be a cool city. We are proud of who we are.”

The Path Less Traveled

cover_rider_0709Largely because they were inspired by the need for more mountain biking trails, Randy Conner and some friends got the bike club back in gear in 2007. They were having a few beers after a group ride in Oak Ridge and lamenting how far they had to drive first before they could pedal.

To be a chapter of the Southern Off-Road Bicycle Association, the club needed at least 15 members. Conner scraped together 17. Within a year, membership grew to around 100. “It kind of shows it was time,” Conner says.

More people joined the club as the places to ride multiplied. Plus the bonds created while building trails helped cement the group. “If our volunteers are building a new trail, they’ll feel like they’re part of something they can look back on with their grandchildren and say, ‘I remember when I built that trail,’” Conner says.

Conner and Hann approached Knoxville Parks and Recreation Director Joe Walsh about the club’s building trails at the 75-acre William Hastie Natural Area, a hilly, undeveloped property that had once been slated for a World’s Fair-era housing development. Although the city had owned it for six or seven years, it was used mostly for illegal dumping, ATV driving, and some casual walking by neighbors, Conner says.

“I was a little skeptical,” Walsh says. “Sometimes you get what you pay for with volunteers. But these guys are really organized and enthusiastic and do what they say they are going to do.”

Before approving the project, Walsh told Conner and Hann they’d have to get the Lake Forest Neighborhood Association on board. The experience taught club leaders that they would have to work with other groups, Conner says. That quickly become a bedrock of their philosophy as they moved on to build trails at Marie Myers Park (a completely unused city property) and the Ross Marble Natural Area at Ijams, which Legacy Parks had acquired from the Imerys mining company. The eight miles of trail the club built there, which now belong to the city, are among Knoxville’s most popular. That success led the county to ask the club to build trails at Concord Park in West Knox County, Conner says.

“People in their 20s and 30s who were driving 50 miles to ride suddenly were riding in town,” Walsh says. “They were not only building trails but organizing rides, and their energy and enthusiasm was contagious.”

Then Hann took over as president of the club. “Brian I think really took it to the next level,” Evans says. Legacy Parks had launched its Urban Wilderness initiative in 2008 with a fundraising campaign to buy a property on Armstrong Hill and the river bluff. “Shortly after that Brian called me and said, ‘You need to take a look down here. We have trails we are already riding.’”

They drove around, following the map in his head. “Brian had the vision and he knew how things should and could connect,” Evans says. “We took care of the acquisition side of it.” Evans, sometimes with Hann, also worked with landowners who didn’t want to sell but were willing to allow trails to cross their land.

In the past year, the club expanded its focus to creating trail opportunities outside South Knoxville. Kellogg says Walsh approached the club for help developing about three miles of trails at scenic Sharp’s Ridge. Evans continues to work with nearby landowners, including broadcast stations with towers on the ridge, in an attempt to eventually gain access for a trail along the north side.

Plays Well with Others

cover_cabin_0709It can be a struggle to keep up with the pacemakers when you’re part of a group activity. But this club leaves no one behind. Not the newbies. Not the trail runners. They are all welcome, and there are no stragglers.

Molly Green, who started riding after 30, says the club saw an uptick in membership during the Bell Helmets campaign and now has a group of “superbeginners” who meet for short rides a couple of times a week. She remembers a couple of years ago when she started biking, she showed up to one of the club’s Tuesday night group ride/socials. “I must have looked lost because someone came up to me and greeted me,” she says, and soon she had a group of women to ride with.

On a recent Tuesday evening when the thermometer registers 89 degrees, bikers with glove grips and backpack water systems discuss the features of various routes with beginners. When one newbie expresses concern about the distance of a recommended ride, they tell her the details of a “bailout point” to return her faster, and an experienced rider offers to join her.

It’s miserably muggy, but there might be 100 club members buzzing over wooded quarry trails among the cicadas or setting out toward more distant points on the South Loop. Knowing the bikers would be there, the Savory & Sweet food truck pulls up. “Augh, I forgot your eggs!” wails Hann, whose chickens make their own contributions.

Conner says the modern club is avoiding the old club’s mistakes. “Back in the ‘90s, we put on races and did a lot of work. But we didn’t have as much fun as we should have, and we learned from that. We learned if we’re going to have a work day, it has to be fun.” The club no longer sponsors races, and trail-building work “days” last just three hours and end with a big lunch. The club often runs out of tools before volunteers.

“It’s a club that I’ve enjoyed being involved with because they really get the concept of play hard and work hard,” says Bataille, a longtime member in addition to being Knox County’s liaison with the club.

Members of the bike club travel for trail-building training across the country. “They just build really, really good trail,” Evans says. “Their willingness to sweat for it gave them a lot of credibility.”

From the start, the club never built “mountain biking trails,” Evans says. “They are just as thrilled when there are hikers and runners on a trail as they are mountain bikers. That’s really advanced everything…. They play well with others.”

That focus on getting all users onto the trails has earned the club a broader range of donations. The Knoxville Track Club is one of AMBC’s biggest donors, Conner says.

AMBC is now working with Knox County and Legacy Parks to build five miles of trails at Eastbridge Business Park for bikers, hikers and—for the first time—horseback riders.

“We just can’t be focused on mountain bikes,” Kellogg says. “The more trail access everybody has, the better off we are…. Let’s make the most of that and build as many bridges as possible, physical and otherwise.”

The relationships the club built prepared it to deal with challenges like the state’s decision this winter to start charging mountain bikers a “high-impact user fee” for access to state wildlife management areas—including Forks of the River Wildlife Management Area, a key segment of the South Loop. Evans and bike club representatives met with state officials, who decided to exempt a portion of Forks of the River from the fee, which went into effect July 1.

John Gregory, manager of the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency region that includes Knox County, says the paved Will Skelton Greenway and the trail extending from it along the eastern border of the WMA will be exempt from the fee. This will allow mountain bikers to keep traversing the South Loop for free.

“We felt like we didn’t want to disrupt the connectivity of that whole area for bikers,” Gregory says.

Tennessee mountain bikers who ride the interior trails at the WMA, as well as new western perimeter trail planned by AMBC, will have to pay $15.50 for a day of access, or $74 for an annual pass; out-of-state visitors will owe $37.50 for a day or $233 for a year. However, for the first year WMA officials will mostly give verbal or written warnings rather than tickets, Gregory says.

In the Green

cover_ijams_0709The bike club’s influence has broadened support for both the Urban Wilderness and for biking in Knoxville. For example, for the first time, Rogero designated $100,000 in her new capital budget for the Urban Wilderness.

Shortly after her election, Rogero hired Jon Livengood as the city’s first alternative transportation coordinator, demonstrating her early support for biking. But her administration’s investment has climbed sharply since, from $60,000 to $1 million in just three years. Livengood says this is because the city completed a bicycle facilities plan to guide the spending. It includes bike lanes along Sevier and Cottrell avenues to improve road biking access to the Urban Wilderness. The city is applying for a U.S. Department of Transportation grant to build a pedestrian and bicycle bridge between the Urban Wilderness and Neyland Drive areas.

Walsh says the city put $25,000 in its budget for trail maintenance for the first time this year, and he’s putting out a request for proposals. He expects AMBC to provide one. Depending on other proposals, it’s possible that the city could pay the club directly for its maintenance work for the first time.

James noted that the club vocally opposed the James White Parkway extension, which would have pushed a freeway five miles through the Urban Wilderness. After decades on the books, that project was basically killed by Rogero in 2013.

A white paper published in June by the University of Tennessee’s Howard H. Baker Jr. Center for Public Policy tried to quantify the economic impact of the Urban Wilderness trail system on Knox, Anderson, and Grainger counties using research from eight other U.S. trail systems.

coverstory_5KMXX01A0709_COLR.inddThe study estimated that at a minimum, the Urban Wilderness injects $8.3 million in related spending into the local economy; if it has already become a regional destination, it is probably generating at least $14.6 million.

Livengood says the bike club and Legacy Parks have demonstrated the financial advantages of bike and trail infrastructure.

“I think the administration really saw that, ‘Wow, this can help out South Knox,’” Livengood says. “The momentum the club created is beyond, people want to ride bikes. It’s people want to live here.”

For years, Hann kept a spreadsheet tracking home sales near the South Loop. “There were $8 million in sales just among people I knew, people who bought specifically to be on the trail,” he says. “I was like the de facto number-one real estate agent in South Knoxville” because so many people sought his help finding houses, Hann recalls.

As the trails are linked more directly with downtown, more real estate may benefit, Dewhirst says.

“In a few years, you will have all the advantages of downtown urban life and be immersed in 1,000 acres of wilderness in minutes, never having to get out of your car,” Dewhirst says. “I truly expect to take my bike from downtown Knoxville and go to Tremont in Great Smoky Mountains National Park.”

Sidebar: AMBC’s New Trails in the Works

S. Heather Duncan

S. Heather Duncan has won numerous awards for her feature writing and coverage of the environment, government, education, business and local history during her 15-year reporting career. Originally from Western North Carolina, Heather has worked for Radio Free Europe, the Institute for War and Peace Reporting in London, and several daily newspapers. Heather spent almost a dozen years at The Telegraph in Macon, Ga., where she spent most of her time covering the environment or writing project-investigations that provoked changes such as new laws related to day care and the protection of environmentally-sensitive lands. You can reach Heather at heather@knoxmercury.com

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