Archived Outdoors

Feeling the vibe: Mountain bikers converge in WNC to learn, network and explore Tsali trails

out frThe parking lot at Tsali Recreation Area was full of bikes Friday evening — more than 100 of them, strapped to the backs of sedans and SUVs, tied into beds of pickup trucks, license plates running the gamut from Florida to Virginia to Mississippi. Gears were spun, wheelies popped, hoorahs yelled as mountain bikes shot down the trail or gathered in a shiny metal line to await the start of the group ride.

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“I’m kinda excited,” said Rob Burgess, prepping his bike in the parking lot. “Tsali is one of the epic trails.”

Burgess, who’s from Hattiesburg, Mississippi, had found himself and his bike at the remote trailhead for the same reason as the other 150 mountain bikers converging in Bryson City that weekend — the Southern Mountain Bike Summit, held each spring and fall in some different corner of the southern U.S. This was its first time coming to Bryson, hosted by the local Nantahala chapter of the Southern Off-Road Bicycle Association. 

“It’s spectacular,” said Andy Zivinsky, president of Nantahala SORBA and co-owner of Bryson City Bicycles. “Amazing people show up, talk about cool stuff — and then we get to ride bikes.”

Nearly 150 people registered for the summit, which brought more than 200 people into town total when counting families and friends of those registered.

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“It brings people to our area during the offseason, which is an economic benefit to us,” said Diane Cutler, membership coordinator for Nantahala SORBA and Zivinsky’s partner in life and business. 

The daytime hours of the two-day summit were full of presentations — information on everything from the rules and regulations that govern the U.S. Forest Service’s decision-making about mountain bike use to the science behind bike trails’ impact on the environment. It took some serious effort to set up all those chairs and get all the ducks in a row for showtime, but according to Burgess, that effort was worthwhile. President of a newly formed biking chapter, Burgess was there to learn and network. He said he found the perspective from the Forest Service especially helpful. 

“The Forest Service is there for everybody,” he said as his takeaway from the presentation. “Mountain bikers are just one special use group of many.”

He hopes to put what he’s learned to use in the effort toward getting more trails and opportunities for bikers back in Hattiesburg. 

“It’s kind of to unite the community,” said SORBA president Dan Zaffuto, who lives in Jacksonville, Florida. “We all get to share what we go through as local chapters. It seems no matter what state you’re in, you have the same challenges. It’s all about preserving trails and putting more trails on the ground.”

And, getting more people invested in those trails. That’s partially what the clinics offered by Sue Haywood, a former world champion racer, aimed at doing. Throughout the weekend, she offered sessions to help bikers of all skill levels gain confidence and improve their technique, including one for women only. 

“It went really well,” she said of the Friday clinic while preparing for her evening trail ride. “I’m always surprised at people’s willingness to listen and try stuff that really scares them — and to get up after they crash and try it again.”

As mountain biking trails go, Tsali has some of the tamer options available — as Tyson Carter, of Dothan, Alabama, said, it “flows” well, offering relatively wide turns, a good mix of ups and downs and few places where a less confident rider might feel the need to walk. For an advanced rider, it’s pure bliss — “just being at peace,” as Zivinsky said — but the ride brought out a mix of ability levels. 

Angie Coleman, for example, had never ridden a mountain bike in her life. She was along for the ride from northern Georgia with her boyfriend Luke Garland, who’s been biking for about 15 years, and she figured she might as well give the trail ride a try. It was certainly tough, leaving her breathless with hands rattled numb from the vibrating handlebars. 

But she’d do it again. 

“I’m not scared about getting hurt,” Coleman said. “If I could go downhill 100 miles an hour all day, I would.”

The experience was awesome, she said, a sentiment echoed again and again from riders coming off the trail, clicking through their gears, and loading up for an evening of revelry with this assembly of people who share their passion for life on two wheels. 

“So awesome to see so many people come out here who love Tsali,” Zivinsky said. “They could feel the vibe.”

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