You, too, can bike to work

Whether it’s for fitness, for fun or to save the planet, there’s plenty of reasons to bike to work. There’s also plenty of excuses not to.

This week, The Smoky Mountain News sought out two people who make biking to work part of their lifestyle and asked them how they do it. Turns out, they have a perfectly good solution to excuses laid on by the rest of us — and some extra benefits we hadn’t thought of.

 

Long-distance commute

Odell Thompson is one of the few bike commuters with long-distance fans.

While sitting in his architect’s office in downtown Sylva last Friday, an email popped up from his parents in Texas who caught a glimpse of Thompson riding into work that morning on a web cam trained on Main Street.

“We saw your yellow bike go by on the web cam,” they wrote.

When Thompson started biking to work almost five years ago, it changed his life in ways he didn’t expect. Initially his impetus was exercise. Thompson’s bike ride from Cullowhee to Sylva takes about 30 minutes, compared to a 10-minute drive. But the extra time on this bike three days a week is what he should be spending on exercise anyway. Thompson likes to think of it as killing two birds with one stone.

“I am getting to work and getting home, and by the way I am getting an hour of exercise a day,” said Thompson, 49.

But what surprised Thompson was how much it added to his outlook on life.

“Riding to work gives me a good way to clear my mind before the day starts. At the end of the day when I need to decompress, riding home gives me the period of time and physical exertion to leave work at work and take care of myself mentally,” Thompson said.

Thompson doesn’t mind riding in the rain or in the cold of winter. It’s all about the right clothing, be it rain gear or warm layers. He carries his work clothes in a satchel on his bike and changes at the office. On hot days, he freshens up by taking a washcloth to his face and neck.

A common excuse among non-bikers is that they need their car during the course of the workday. While it is indeed a deal killer for some, Thompson knows ahead of time what days he has appointments out of the office and what days will be spent at his own desk, and therefore schedules his rides accordingly.

While it’s impossible not to worry about cars when riding a bike, Thompson takes several precautions to reduce the risks.

“My bicycle is very visible. I have yellow bags and yellow fenders and flashing lights all over it. I feel like I am visible enough and the cars will see me, but you are always aware,” Thompson said.

As an added perk, Thompson likes the fact he’s not using fossil fuels, especially last summer when a gas shortage led to long lines and high prices.

“I would pedal by and just look at everyone in line at the gas station and smile,” Thompson said.

Thompson believes he is doing his part for a more sustainable society.

“We need to adjust our thinking about everybody being able to drive everywhere in their own little hermetically sealed capsule, in particular here in the mountains because there is not a lot of flat land to build new roads,” he said.

Thompson said while saving the planet is a worthy cause, exercise remains his top motive.

Thompson’s final piece of advice: commit yourself for at least a month before throwing in the towel.

“The first time your butt will be sore and you will say, ‘I don’t want to do that anymore. That sucks.’ But if you do it religiously two times a week for a month, after that you are hooked,” Thompson said.

 

“Mast Transit” style

When the Mast General Store launched its “Mast Transit” program last year, offering a bonus of $4 a day to employees who biked to work, the timing couldn’t have been better for Jay Schoon.

Schoon, who works in the outfitters department of the Mast Store in Waynesville, was already contemplating a “bike to work” New Year’s Resolution.

He had a dilemma, however. He lived about 20 miles away from work in the rural Fines Creek countryside. The distance wasn’t an issue, nor a killer climb along the way. Schoon’s problem was the narrow country road with no shoulder during the first part of his ride.

Until a solution dawned on him. Why not drive half way, park his car at a roadside truck stop and bike the rest?

“I was being stubborn about living too far away,” Schoon said. “It just dawned on me I could drive part way.”

Mast compromised and gives Schoon $3 a day instead of $4 since he is still using his car some.

He actually applies the $3 to a life insurance policy that he probably would cut from his monthly budget otherwise.

“It pays for my life insurance in case I do get run over.” said Schoon, who’s 39.

As an added precaution, Schoon has a rearview mirror on his sunglasses to keep an eye on cars behind him.

He also stumbled upon a lovely shortcut that departs from the road and follows a newly created greenway from Lake Junaluska into downtown, making the majority of his ride very pleasant and car free.

“I love my bike ride,” Schoon said.

Schoon would recommend the drive-part-way, bike-part-way solution to anyone facing a similar stumbling block.

“Find a killer route, even if it is not on your way,” he said.

Schoon doesn’t wear special bike attire. Working at an outfitters store, a fleece sweatshirt and hiking pants are accepted work apparel, and ideal for pedaling in to work as well. Schoon is a self-described “lifestyle biker.” He’d always ridden his bike as a preferred mode of transportation — including on his first date with the woman who’s now his wife — and didn’t like giving it up just because he moved to the rural countryside far from town.

The time on his bike in the morning and afternoon has made a world of difference in his life.

“I was missing something. Part of my lifestyle was not quite right,” said Schoon.

How to decide?

A new rule could make it easier to open up trails in national parks to mountain biking.

Mountain biking isn’t banned in national parks as a matter of course, although it is rare to find parks where it is allowed. Before allowing mountain bikes, a park must undergo an extensive environmental analysis heavily laden with opportunities for public comment.

The rule change would loosen the requirements, allowing what amounts to an “abbreviated analysis,” said Greg Kidd, a representative with the National Parks Conservation Association Asheville office. Needless to say, Kidd’s organization is against any truncation of the process.

“We feel strongly it is important to have the full analysis and that includes public participation and opportunity for the public to weigh in,” Kidd said.

But Kent Cranford, owner of Motion Makers bike shop in Sylva, thinks the current process is so arduous that it is essentially a barrier.

“This new rule change will make that process much easier. Right now it is an ugly process,” Cranford said.

Cranford said the rule change will streamline the process, not totally skirt it.

“My understanding is that it won’t remove any barriers of making sure mountain bikes aren’t going to damage anything. They are still going to have to go through the environmental process and the approval process,” Cranford said. But it wouldn’t be as burdensome, time consuming or costly to the park.

The rule change came at the suggestion of outgoing President Bush, a mountain biker himself, in his final days in office. The proposal could be dead in the water already, however.

“When Obama came in, they put a freeze on all rule changes that had been promulgated by the outgoing administration,” said Bob Miller, spokesperson for the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. “At the end of any administration there is a lot of rule making, or changing, as they go out the door. The new administration wants to catch their breath and decide which are in play. There is no telling when this one will move forward.”

A public comment period has been underway for the rule change and will expire Feb. 17.

To read the rule change, go to edocket.access.gpo.gov/2008/E8-29892.htm. To comment, go to www.regulations.gov and use the code 1024-AD72.

— By Becky Johnson

Can mountain bikes find a home in the Smokies?

Mountain bikers face a long, steep climb in their fight to see more trails opened to tires in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

One of the major hurdles facing the sport is stereotypes, said Kent Cranford, a mountain biker and owner of Motion Makers bike shop in Sylva.

“People have images from TV that somebody is going to come jumping over their head or screaming by with tattoos and piercings all over,” Cranford said. “This is not a Mountain Dew commercial. Most people are effectively hiking on wheels. They want to get out in the backcountry and see the wilderness, too.”

Mountain biking would allow people to see more of the park, a lot of which is out of bounds due to distance.

“As big as that park is, penetrating in 20 miles is not something you can do without staying overnight,” said Timm Muth, a mountain biker who lives near Sylva. “But on a bike 10 miles in and 10 miles back out is very doable in a day, and it would make the park more accessible to a lot of people.”

Pam Forshee, a mountain biker in Franklin, said she rarely visits the Smokies now.

“There is nothing for me other than hiking. If I could go over there and hike and bike and camp for the weekend it would be heaven,” said Forshee, who runs Smoky Mountain Bicycles in Franklin with her husband, Dave.

“I don’t understand why the national parks have not allowed bicycles in the park all these years. We have as much right to be on the trails as anyone else.”

Cranford is a member of the International Mountain Biking Association, which has been lobbying for bike access in national parks for years. Cranford thinks they are steadily chipping away at the barriers shutting out bikes.

“It is wrong thinking to think a trail can just be this, or just that. It is all of our land,” Cranford said.

But many of the hikers and nature lovers who currently enjoy the trails of the Smokies don’t want to see mountain bikes join the mix. Reasons include wear and tear on the trails, the risk of collisions and what many consider a more intrusive form of recreation.

Greg Kidd, senior program manager with the National Parks Conservation Association Asheville office, agreed that nearby national forests provide ample opportunity for mountain bikers and a host of other recreational uses including like hunting and kayaking. But parks aren’t the place for such a smorgasbord.

“The fact is that national parks are a place apart. They are designed for a different kind of experience,” Kidd said. Besides, “The park doesn’t even have the resources to maintain the trails as currently used.”

 

Horses and bikes

Mountain bikers pushing for access in the Smokies often point to horses on the trails and ask: why them and not us? Horseback riders are allowed on approximately half of the park’s 800 miles of trails, with the greatest percentage being on the North Carolina side of the park.

“I think it is unfair they grandfather horses into the park and won’t allow bikes as well,” Muth said. ”Certainly any trails that are already open to horses should be open to mountain bikes. Mountain bikes have much lower impact on the trail surface than a horse.”

The mechanics of a horse hoof versus a bike tire are quite different. The horse rotates its hoof as it makes contact with the ground, gouging up the trail bed in the process. The loose soil is then more vulnerable to erosion. Mountain bikes, on the other hand, compact the soil and harden the trail’s surface, helping it stay put.

“Horses kick up the terrain a lot more than bikes do,” Forshee summed up.

But Kidd disagrees with the bikers’ line of thinking.

“Certainly there is no question that horses have an impact on the trail. But if we increase the types of uses — like bicycling — that would certainly just exacerbate the problem,” Kidd said.

Not to mention the sheer number of mountain bikers compared to horse owners, Kidd said.

“Arguably with the growing popularity of mountain biking, the amount of potential mountain bike use on those trails would dwarf the amount of horse use,” Kidd said.

But the flip side is mountain bikers would help take care of the trails they ride, Cranford said.

“That is the upside. If they let mountain bikes in, they work on trails,” Cranford said. “Ask the forest service how they feel about mountain bikers and they’ll tell you they love them because they come in like crazy to work on trails.”

 

Sharing the trail

Mountain bikers aren’t surprised when they encounter a backlash.

“You often have different user groups who want to be selfish and keep places to themselves,” Muth said.

But Forshee pointed to the arrangement at Tsali — where trails are designated for mountain biking and horseback riding on alternate days — as proof it can work. Even sharing the same trail, it could work, she said.

“It is a matter of using caution and proper etiquette,” Forshee said.

That etiquette calls for bikers to yield to horses, and for good reason, Muth said.

“I’ve seen guys go flying by a horse within a couple feet. They say ‘I’m not going to ride into the horse,’ but that’s not the point. You are going to scare the heck out of them,” Muth said. When they get spooked, they could buck their rider.

Instead, mountain bikers should always come to a stop, get off their bikes and offer a greeting.

“The talking helps because the horses recognize you are another person. When you are on a bike they can’t figure out what the heck all that stuff is,” said Muth.

Muth generally says “hello” then asks the horseback riders how to handle getting past. If they have skittish horses, they might ask the bikers to scoot off the trail while they navigate by.

“They are very appreciative of this,” Muth said of his approach. “Different user groups need to take the time to understand what each others needs are out there.”

While most of Muth’s encounters are friendly, there have been exceptions. In an extreme case, he came upon hunters at Tsali who stood across the trail with their guns and wouldn’t let him pass. On another occasion, his wife and son ran into a hunter who was put out by the their presence and fired shots into the air as they rode away.

 

Safety first

An oft-heard argument by those opposed to mountain biking is the fear of collisions.

“Part of what is fun about mountain biking is moving at a fast clip. If a bicyclist comes screaming around a bend on a trail and an unsuspecting hiker happens to be walking up that trail, that could lead to some very serious issues,” Kidd said.

Muth said there is always that chance, and has actually seen a few near collisions.

“I love to fly fast downhill and you could run into problems if you come around a blind curve and there are three or four people standing on the trail,” Muth said. “Mountain bikes need to be conscious that when they come around a blind corner they should expect there could be somebody standing there.”

By the same token, hikers should assess the vehicles at a trailhead for clues as to who is on the trail that day. If there are three or four cars with bike racks, it should signal to hikers be cautious — or pick a different trail, Muth said.

“If I know it is hunting season and there are three pickup trucks at the trailhead with gun racks, I say ‘you know, maybe I will go somewhere else,’ as much out of consideration for them as safety for myself,” Muth said. “There is plenty of room for everybody. You just have to be conscientious that everybody has a right to be doing different things.”

 

Not any time soon

While optimistic, bikers acknowledge they may have a long road ahead of them in their fight for access in national parks.

Bob Miller, a park ranger and spokesperson for the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, said the park has no plans in the near future to tackle the mountain bike issue.

That was pretty much the answer mountain bikers were bracing for.

“I don’t think we are going to see much in the way of trails opened up,” Cranford said.

Although a proposed rule change would make it easier for parks to open trails to mountain bikes — namely by removing the requirements for a taxing analysis — Miller said the park would take the issue seriously and opt for a thorough and comprehensive review even if it wasn’t technically required.

The top issues to weigh: would mountain biking degrade the national park experience of others using the trails and would mountain biking harm the ecosystem, Miller said.

Another question is whether the park could afford the additional ranger patrol and rescue operations that would go along with mountain biking in the park, or afford the extra trail maintenance.

Miller said such a study would be done only in the context of a parkwide planning process, not a piecemeal approach of opening a trail here and there. Overlay that with drawn out public comment periods, and you have one massive undertaking.

Miller said the Smokies has broached the subject anecdotally, but never had what you would call a formal request to take on the issue.

“The fact is we are surrounded by some pretty nice mountain bike areas already,” Miller said.

But Muth said the mountain bike trails in the Pisgah and Nantahala national forests don’t offer enough diversity, particularly by way of easier mountain bike trails. There are few options for beginners or even intermediate riders.

Mountain bikers say they aren’t advocating for a wholesale opening of all trails in the park, admitting there are some trails that simply aren’t suitable.

“I don’t think bikes should be on the Appalachian Trail,” Cranford said by example. Others would be too steep, too narrow, too rocky.

“Most of the trails there wouldn’t even be fun to ride,” Cranford said.

Likewise, Kidd isn’t opposed to bikes carte blanche.

“I think if a trail is appropriately designed and designated specifically for mountain biking use, I think there is a potential for mountain bikes to find a place in the park,” Kidd said. “As for bike use in the backcountry, we would likely find that incompatible as a blanket statement. But that’s not to say there is not a single trail in the park where it would not be appropriate.”

Why he rode: Continental cyclist A.J. Rowell returns home to Sylva after nearly 10,000 miles on the road

By Jennifer Garlesky • Staff Writer

On June 1, 2007, A.J. Rowell left Prudhoe Bay, Alaska, and began pedaling a bicycle across North America. Just before 1:30 p.m. on Wednesday (Dec. 19), the Jackson County native pulled into Sylva, seven months and nearly 10,000 miles later.

Pedaling my America: Jackson County native A.J. Rowell prepares for 10,000-mile summer cycling ride from Arctic Alaska to Cullowhee

By Michael Beadle

Before you ask the most obvious question – why? – remember, it’s not a race or a sudden urge to drop out of society so he doesn’t have to pay his bills.

Like the bumper sticker reminds us, “All who wander are not lost.”

Franklin trail network to offer new rides for bikers

For years, Jack Lansford and his mountain biking buddies in Franklin would have to load up their bikes and hit the road for a minimum of 30 minutes before reaching the nearest trailhead. As any biker, hiker or paddler knows, the longer the drive to reach your play ground, the less frequently you find yourself doing what you love.

Bold & Cold: Icycle Mountain Bike Race at Fontana Village promises thrills and chills

By Michael Beadle

If you’re a mountain biker looking for a challenging course that’s as cold as it is fun, check out the Icycle Mountain Bike Event at Fontana Village this weekend.

Winter workout

By Michael Beadle

Just because the temperatures drop and days grow shorter doesn’t mean you have to give up your exercise routine.

First Tour de Tuck to challenge cyclists

A new cycling tradition begins this summer with the debut of the Tour de Tuck Bike Challenge on Saturday, Aug. 19.

Happy trails: Franklin mountain biker sets his sights on a busy racing season

By Michael Beadle

Some people bike for the fun of it. Some people bike to race. For Franklin’s Owen Simpson, it’s a bit of both.

Over the past three years, Simpson — who also goes by O.J. — has been pedaling with the Smoky Mountain Racing Team, a Franklin-based organization that promotes cycling for men and women of all skill levels throughout Western North Carolina. Simpson, 30, has a hectic schedule through spring and summer, racing nearly every weekend from now until August. These races have taken him to Tennessee, Florida, Georgia, South Carolina and Western North Carolina sites like Tsali in Graham County.

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