The Laurel Run Trail has offered some cross-country adventures for bicyclists such as Greg Carr (center). (Contributed photo)
It’s all about getting somewhere you’ve never been before. That’s the sentiment of Jody Millsap and the other members of the Southern Off-Road Bicycle Association of Tri-Cities.
While Millsap knows that some people enjoy riding the same trails year after year, he and other club members are always seeking new adventures by maintaining old trails and building new ones.
Their most recent success was getting the Laurel Run Trail, formerly a hiking-only trail, approved for bikers.
Millsap, Todd Baker and Eric Baker initially rode the trail in late November 2012 and found that it had not been maintained well with fallen trees on the path. They went back with hand saws and removed the downed trees and other debris.
Other members of the club thought that trail was for hikers only, so Millsap and the Baker brothers consulted Laurel Run Park Managers Joe and Kristie Lindsey about getting approval for bikes on the trail.
The Lindseys, Millsap and Alana Roberts, property manager and special projects coordinator of Hawkins County, met to discuss issues, obstacles and improvements needed to approve the trail for multi-use, and the trail was approved for bicycles in January 2013.
Since then, club members have ridden the trail multiple times, and Joe Lindsey has been maintaining the Laurel Run Park side of the trail.
“Our trail system draws a lot of our customers, so anything we can do to make them better is that much more of a draw for us,” he said.
Lindsey said there has not been a tremendous difference in park attendance because signs have not yet been posted at the trail heads. He said park visitors come from all over, and that the park will definitely build new trails soon to make the park more appealing to the public.
The Laurel Run Trail is a moderately difficult ride, with strenuous climbs, narrow downhill stretches and technical jumps, and, said Millsap and the Bakers, the sights along the way are incredible.
“It was our favorite ride for a long time,” Millsap said.
The trail connects Bays Mountain Park and Laurel Run Park and passes through forested areas, by a waterfall and field, and crosses Kiner Creek. It also passes a number of old home sites and ruins.
SORBA Tri-Cities members map the trails they ride and post them to their website. This makes it easier for area mountain bikers to find locations and schedules for group rides.
The club functions as a social fitness organization, but it also improves bicycle infrastructure by maintaining trails on a volunteer basis. They maintain and build trails at many locations including Bays Mountain Park, Warriors Path Park, Sugar Hollow Park, Steele Creek Park and at the Elizabethton Watershed.
This encourages tourism and promotes a spirit of adventure, which benefits the community in a number of ways.
“As attendance increases when people bike or hike the trails, so does funding,” said Millsap. “In addition, the parks will most likely see an increase in other activities and races, which brings revenue to the cities and local businesses.”
He said Bays Mountain Park has been very supportive of the club and that Operations Coordinator Rob Cole has been instrumental in opening up the park for night rides and other events, like the Fun Fest Mountain Bike Poker Ride and Race in July 2013.
“Mountain biking has been embraced at Bays Mountain because they see the benefits,” he said.
SORBA Tri-Cities has two additional projects in the works: trail creation at Warriors Path State Park and getting about 10 miles of footpaths approved for bicycles at Bays Mountain Park.
“By allocating acreage for bike trails, the parks could recognize an increase in park attendance, which could ultimately lead to increase in funding and exposure for the park,” said Millsap.
At Warriors Path, the Tennessee Valley Authority has approved development of about 14 acres of land between the interstate bridge and the lake for construction of three to four miles of trails; though, Millsap said they could probably build seven or eight miles of trails. A connector trail to the trails on the opposite side of the bridge has yet to be approved, but the Tennessee Department of Transportation will contact the club this month with a conclusion.
Bays Mountain Park has allocated 10 to 12 miles of existing trails that they would like the club to develop.
“Some of them are so overgrown that you couldn’t ride them or hike them,” said Todd Baker.
But Millsap said the group is in desperate need of money to purchase a trail-building machine, which would cut construction time exponentially. Three club members are trained to operate the machine, but unfortunately, it costs between $40,000 and $50,000.
Club members have met with Chris McCartt, assistant to the city manager, and members on the Visitor Enhancement Program advisory board in the past to discuss matching the amount of money that the club raises to fund the purchase of the machine.
McCartt said that to match the funds, the club must first demonstrate that they will be able to get their portion of the funding, either from grants or money that they have raised.
“If they're able to raise the matching funds, we definitely want to participate or at least to make the request for the matching funds,” said McCartt. “There's no question its an enhancement to park.”
The VEP disburses money raised from hotel and motel taxes to projects that will increase tourism. If the club can raise half of the money, McCartt said the city of Kingsport would be willing to make a formal request to the VEP advisory board, which would make the final decision on matching the funding.
“We view the work that these folks do as a definite tourist enhancement, not only to Bays Mountain Park, but they had also talked about work at Warriors’ Path as well,” said McCartt. “They do a great job, and our partnership with them at Bays Mountain is outstanding.”
The club’s hope for the machine rests on the shoulders of its own leaders, grant foundations, donors and the VEP advisory board’s approval.
“Without a trail machine, our club membership — active especially — will never grow,” said Millsap.
There has been discussion at club meetings of renting a machine, but without sufficient funding, neither renting or purchasing one seems feasible.
SORBA Tri-Cities is an affiliate of the International Mountain Bicycling Association and has about 60 registered members. About 15 are active and attend meetings and trail maintenance days. The others are donors and volunteers.
Some local businesses that sponsors events and donate prizes are Reedy Creek Bicycles, Piney Flats Bike Shop, Texas Roadhouse, Marble Slab, Pool Doctor, Water Solutions Engineering, Mountain Sports and Hampton Trails Bike Shop.
“It would be great if we could get several larger businesses to donate say $5,000 each and then smaller businesses to donate $500 each, but it is really tough to get any donations at this point in time because purse strings are so tight,” Millsap said.
The non-profit organization was formed in 1998 to promote mountain biking opportunities in Northeast Tennessee. It plays host to many rides and events throughout the year to help people maximize their mountain biking experience and to learn how to improve the areas where they ride.
“Trails and the maintenance of them not only provides a good means to explore the beauties of our area, but also allows one to do so while engaging in exercise,” said Millsap.
The club meets on the first Monday of the month at 7 p.m. at either Poblano’s or Beef ‘O’ Brady’s. It is always accepting donations, and those interested may donate or join the club on their website www.sorba-tricities.org