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This is sooooo different from home….

I kinda knew I was in for it when I set up my great southeastern mountain bike road trip.  I say “kinda” because I had lived and ridden in Virginia from 2008 to 2010 and as a child, I lived for a year in coastal North Carolina in the ’70s. Funny thing though; the further you get from something the more the memories, especially the less pleasant ones, fade. You just wander out onto the trails just expecting to have a jolly good time having remembered nothing but the joy, selective memory having filtered out the struggles.  And then, when you return, it smacks you right in the face and says “How could you forget?”

Yep. That’s what happened when I ventured back into the lower right side of my map of the good ol’ U S of A.  So, here’s what I learned, or more accurately relearned, about riding in the Southeast.

1. It’s really wet here:  It rains a lot!

Coming from the lee side of the Rockies in the dry mountain west, I’m relatively unencumbered by rain. It rains seldom, and in my neck of the woods, most trails drain faster than rain can fall. The rain actually makes most of my trails better. But not out east!

Rain is a regular occurrence, and when it falls, the ground just soaks it up and hoards it like Scrooge McDuck does with his money. I actually got lucky with this one though. I was able to navigate my way around or between the relatively massive waves of airborne water, though it did require some flexibility in travel plans and a willingness to change routes and let go of my dream to ride this or that particular bucket-list trail.

 

2. It’s really wet here part II:  Seepage

In Colorado, we have an occasional creek crossing. Some streams are permanent but usually small. Some are seasonal, appearing only in the spring and early summer when the snow in the high country is melting. Others only appear during or shortly after a big rain. Between creeks or drainages, the trails are nice and dry. Not in the southeast!

Even at the midpoint between far-flung water sources, a trail may turn into a tire sucking bog. Water just seems to seep out of the ground in the most unexpected places. One second, you’re cruising along having a nice spin, and the next, you’re desperately trying to extricate yourself from a puddle of black glop. I’m lazy and would rather ride than do bike maintenance. At home, I don’t need to do anything but add a little lube for weeks at a time. Down south, it seems like washing your bike and cleaning out the drivetrain could be a daily requirement.

3. The South is a good place to get back to your roots

No, I’m not talking about going on some genealogy search to see if you are really descended from some Civil War general. I’m talking about tree roots. Lots of them. Out west, the trees are more spaced out, so there’s not nearly as many of them. In a drier environment, trees run their roots deep to help ensure water during the tough times. In the southeast, even the skinny trees are bigger than the spaces between them. With all that rain, they can keep their roots close to the surface. As a trail wears in, it can become a nonstop root rumble.

I usually love technical features, but there’s fun technical and there’s annoying technical. Root gardens often fall into the latter category for me. God help you when those roots get wet, which they are nearly every morning from overnight dew.

I remember cursing the roots in Virginia when I lived there. I was reminded of why on this trip (photo: Adam Baumgartner)

4. Lots of creepy, crawly things

In the southeast there are bugs, spiders, and snakes of many varieties. Talk about biodiversity. I forgot how much bugs like water and moist, hot, humid places. We have some bugs in Colorado, but nothing like this. Not this variety, not this many, and certainly not this aggressive. I got stung. I got bit. And not little bumps like the occasional mosquito, but big welts, or craters that reminded me of when the chiggers would get my mom in North Carolina. I don’t know if that’s what it was, because I didn’t feel it when it happened. I just saw the hideous aftermath.

I do know that a few of my bites were from ticks because I had to pull the impacted little buggers off me one night. I don’t know how long they’d been on there or on which ride I’d picked them up, but they were quite embedded and engorged. Nasty little hitchhikers. Two days after the trip, I picked up a little touch of the flu. Normally I’d just ride it out at home, but this time I beat feat to the doc to make sure I hadn’t picked up lyme disease or some other nasty tick-borne malady.

There are quite a variety of snakes as well, from sleek black ones, to colorful striped ones, and they are fast. This was okay with me as they were really trying to clear the trail as soon as they saw me, unlike our western rattlesnakes that coil up on the trail and demand you go around. Southeastern snakes are much more into multi-user trail etiquette and sharing, which is really nice.

5. Things are really compact

There are no wide open spaces in the Southeast. Out west, you can ride for 20 miles in one continuous direction without hitting any roads. In the southeast, you can ride 20 miles, but you’ll double back on yourself so many times it’ll make you dizzy. I swear, a southeasterner can pack 50 miles of trail into less space than it takes to build a Wal-Mart. Which isn’t to say you never get away from the roads. Those super dense trees will have you thinking you’re miles deep in the wilderness in no time, and the constant turning will have you so disoriented, you’d never know you’re within the length of a football field of the nearest road.

6. Great scenery is defined differently

Full disclosure: I’m heavily biased in favor of western scenery. I love the million-mile views you can only get in those wide open spaces. In the southeast, those super-dense trees rarely open up enough to see the bark within inches of your face. Once you set aside preconceptions and expectations, the southeastern woods become beautiful. They’re so lush, so thick, and so green. When a view does open up, it’s an endless sea of lush, gorgeous, green, and while it’s all so green, it’s not purely monochromatic. The various shades of green form a wonderful combination of blending and contrast. To stop and be truly at one with the scene, to stop and soak it all in is to allow yourself to be overwhelmed by a special kind of beauty that can’t be found anywhere out west.

You don’t need to have snowcapped peaks in the background to have a beautiful view.

7. There are some who like to take it slow

There are lots of turtles. I’ve never seen so many turtles. There are occasional tortoises in the desert, but again, the wetter environment gives rise to a great variety and quantity of turtles, and they’re prettier than the dry western tortoises. I saw turtles on almost every trail from Arkansas to the Carolinas. They’re sweet little amphibians. I would have liked to take one home with me, but alas, they are shy and didn’t seem altogether comfortable with me.

Too bad this sweet little fella didn’t want to come out and play.

8. The rocks are different

While it seems obvious that the trees would be different from east to west, it’s less so that the rocks themselves would be. After all, they’re just rocks, right?  But they are different, and since they make up part of the riding surface, they actually have more influence on the riding experience than the trees.

The rocks tend to be more square and blockier. When a trail turns eastern rocky, while the features may not be as big as the rocks on Amasa Back, they can actually be far more demanding. They are so jumbled, not rounded, not smooth, and all laid together at the oddest, most inconvenient angles. Western skills developed to hit big rollers and huck ledges are worthless here. Better to have trials skills, an ability to maneuver tight places, and an ability to not get frustrated by the low speed and constant on-your-toes posture required just to stay upright. A rider used to fast and flowy trails could easily curse this place. I found it to be just a different kind of adventure. That said, my impression is that a skilled southeastern rider could translate out west easier than a skilled western rider could translate to the southeast.

 

9. It’s really wet here part III:  Humidity

Drip, drip, drip. It never stops. The humidity was the one thing that singlehandedly derailed rides for me. I’ve never done well in humidity, and it seems to have gotten worse as the years have gone by. Within a few pedal strokes, my forehead would resemble Niagara Falls. Even when it wasn’t hot, the humidity would have every pore of my body spraying like a sprinkler system. No matter what kind of headgear I wore, I would get no more than a quarter mile from the trailhead before I couldn’t see for all the salt stinging my eyes. I was able to overcome each and every obstacle to have a great ride, except the humidity.

10. Lastly, southern riders are tough

Heat, humidity, bugs, snakes, tight, narrow trails, chunky unforgiving rocks at all the most inconvenient angles. One does not face all these obstacles and have a good enough time to go back and do it all again if one is in need of cushy creature comforts or groomed flow trails. Out in the southeast, you make your own flow and you expect little in the way of anything facilitating your fun. Things can be beautiful, but also brutal, demanding but also rewarding, and you will have to earn it. You will learn and grow, or you will quit. I fully understand one thing now; how riders can come from a place with little altitude, a fraction of the vertical of the Rockies, and no reputation for big mountain features, and positively slay some of our trails despite it being a whole different world.  I have the utmost respect for my biking brethren from Dixie.

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# Comments

  • mhosfelt

    your description of the riding in the SE, “narrow trails, chunky unforgiving rocks”, matches exactly the riding experience in NE Kansas. With that being said, what kind of bike do you think is most suited to this type riding, 27.5 vs 29, LT vs ST suspension. Excellent article, thanks.

    • John Fisch

      Yes, many are shocked to find there is such technical riding in eastern Kansas. On this trip, I hit Badger Creek (SE KS), which was very challenging, and in a past trip, I hit Fancy Creek which was my first taste of NE KS technical riding.

      As for what bike works best, I hate to be so noncommittal, but it really depends on the rider. Some folks like hardtails, even in the chunk, especially if the smooth trails outnumber the chunk which they still do in eastern Kansas. 29ers give you better rollover, but a 27.5 will give you more maneuverability.

      I generally prefer 29ers, but If I could only have one bike and I was riding nothing but the tight and chunky, I might opt for this bike I reviewed a while back.

      https://www.singletracks.com/blog/mtb-reviews/final-review-rocky-mountain-thunderbolt-bc-edition/

      But if I was traveling much or riding some
      of the faster trails as well, I’d definitely go with a mid-travel full suspension 29er which gives a broader performance envelope.

    • Dpratt23

      Atlanta native here

      Full suspension is the way to go in the Southeast. I rode Big Creek yesterday for the first time and there was a guy I was riding with on a HT. He was getting a bit beat up in the freeride park.

      I personally run 29s, but a FS 27.5 should be fine if that is your thing, just be prepared to work for it.

      Note about big Creek – this is hands down the best downhill and dirt jumps in metro Atlanta. There are some trails near lake allatoona, but smaller than the jumps at big Creek. If you are in Atlanta, it is located right off GA400 and Holcomb Bridge Rd. Absolute must go if you are riding in GA. Hawkeye is super gnarly and is damn close to slopestyle type jumps!

  • Mr Mojo Risin

    I agree about it being wet and muddy. I moved to WV three years ago and the mud never seems to leave the trails. It doesn’t help that we can’t go more than 2 days without rain. Constantly washing the mud off and replacing bottom brackets and derailleur pulleys is no fun. But if you don’t ride in the mud around here, you don’t get to ride. Buying a gravel bike helped fill the void when the trails are too wet to ride (80% of the time).

    Recently did a trip to Pisgah and after 4 days of riding, I just needed a rag to wipe the dust off my bike….it was so nice.

    • John Fisch

      I gave one of those a go. Apparently I produce sweat below the headband, so it still can’t catch it all.

  • Big ragu

    Good read! I’m a middle-aged MTB wannabe that lives in Arizona and I visit Maryland in the summer. Here are some observations from my first rides in Maryland after only riding in AZ: 1. I had only read about roots and might’ve taken the warnings too lightly! 2. While the humidity is brutal, I find myself able to ride during the day in the Maryland summer due to the awesome tree canopy- almost no sun exposure during a long ride. Of course, that’s when the temperature is reasonable and not a heat wave. 3. For me, in Maryland, I can’t cover nearly as many miles. In Arizona, I can cover a 20 mile ride in a couple hours. I may do 2/3s of that distance in the same time in Maryland if not less. This due to almost all the attributes you mentioned- roots, rocks, tight trails, humidity, etc. 4. If you can, borrow your younger brother’s bike. Leave it dirty for him to clean while you play with his kids. It’s a fair trade

    I agree, the east is not for the faint of heart. I love it, just differently.

    • John Fisch

      Yes, the tree canopy is a nice feature. It can be nice to not get seared by unfiltered sun! The tradeoff is that all those leaves are venting moisture 24/7, so the drop in temperature is offset by an increase in humidity.

  • ChainSuckSux

    Hey John, your observations are spot on for this region. Being from Georgia, I’ve ridden all over the southeast, and many of the tough hurdles (roots, rocks and the oppressive humidity) you mentioned, I got over many years ago, and long before full suspension technology was able to help. Aside from the humidity, I love the technical rocks and roots on the trails in the east, and eventually, you learn to sort of float your bike on/over these obstacles.

    On a few occasions, I’ve found that my riding/training in the heat and humidity here has allowed me to ride very comfortably (and more aggressively) when I take a trip out west even for high elevation rides.

    I noticed you are riding a Foes Mixer, do feel like it served you well on this trip? I’m a Foes fan, but I wonder if the Mixer is better suited for out-west riding.

    • John Fisch

      I positively LOVE my mixer and the mixed wheel configuration makes for better turning and greater maneuverability…. but that feature manifests best at higher speeds. I feel the bike is better suited to western riding. The geometry is spot on for ripping really long downhills at warp speed. It’s not quite as adept in the constant up and down or the low speed techy bits more common out east. If I lived out east and had only one bike, I don’t think the Mixer would be it. If I lived out east and had two (or more) bikes, the Mixer would probably be one of them.

  • wareagle4130

    All of that is true, but don’t forget there’s an entire other half of the year where people up north and at higher elevations have to deal with snow and face stinging cold while those of us in the south are riding in shorts! Yes, it does get cold some, but there are usually 60+deg days sprinkled generously in too. In the heat of summer I tell myself that it’s worth it for the winters, so just let me have this.

    • John Fisch

      For me, that’s the glory of the Southwest. Long riding season, and nice and dry as well. Even in my native southern Colorado, we have warm spells in the Winter and can generally ride year round, but without the oppressive heat and humidity of the south.

      But don’t tell anybody, it’s getting really crowded here.

    • wareagle4130

      Dang it, don’t you make me move to CO… I can’t afford it!

    • John Fisch

      That rapid rise in the cost of living is a predictable but unfortunate by product of the rapid, unrestrained population growth. Overcrowding leads to overpriced, the two of which ironically combine to degrade the quality of life everyone moved there to get in the first place.

  • James G. Camp

    6 & 7 don’t bother me, it’s the other 8 that make trails in SE USA that has made me reconsider road cycling and actually look forward to taking my chances vs the motorists. With road cycling in FL, the motorists really don’t bother me, but those tree roots & rocks, after a quick afternoon FL monsoon, the roots & rocks, muddy slop is against you. And the trails aren’t maintained nearly like they might be elsewhere. The winding trails and you’re several feet from the direction you just rode. a few turns and your now lost. The trees are that tight, you now need a compass to get back out of there because you ca’t see the sun. The trail I rode was called Graham Swamp for a reason. Water Moccasins & Gators are a concern now. After a certain mile mark there’s no simple walk out, so eventually I got out of the woods.The climbs are lined with tree roots going up. Very few if any hardtails ride the trail, almost exclusively full suspension from most everyone that rides the trail. Once out of the woods, Going home, the Lehigh Trails were a joy, the local traffic was nothing to ride in & with, smooth asphalt, still had all my fillings in my teeth. Because I do ride to the trails, rather than rack the bike on a car. Those roots are brutal. The rocks, don’t ride big paddle sized platform pedals. Pedal strike on the narrow passages thru the rocks was annoying as the author put it best.

  • coot271

    Thanks for the accurate description of southeastern riding. I always felt that I performed more physically in a 15 mile loop in Georgia than I would on a 50 mile trail out west. The trails here can be demanding with rock gardens, root steps, various critters on the trail, steep switchbacks, heat, humidity, and mud. But By-God, its amazing and satisfying! I appreciate the good read John!

  • ConwayBolt

    I hate articles like this. Its easy to write a disparaging article about any region/equipment/style/habbit and to what end? Articles like this make the author seem to me to be shallow and aloof. Fortunately for this author – not everyone feels the same way about his superior western trails, descending on them and clogging them with so many riders as to make them unusable. Every region has its pros/cons and ive been fortunate enough to be able to travel and enjoy great trail riding in many parts of our great country.

  • rmap01

    Nice read. Just confirms that it’s all about perspective. That’s also why it’s also so cool to ride in other parts of the country.

  • Riverntrail

    I’ve lived all my life in the Southwest Virginia/Northeast Tennessee region. I could do without the mosquitoes, and snakes give me the creeps, but what I dislike most about riding here is the humidity. Many times what I thought were raindrops falling on my knees were actually beads of sweat dripping off my face. I never ride without my Headsweats Shorty, which keeps the sweat out of my eyes, but my hair and face get absolutely drenched. I keep a pile of towels in the truck to protect my seats during the spring and summer. And of course, the humidity quickly saps your strength.

    • wareagle4130

      I love my Headsweats cap. I tried a Halo and a Gut’r and both still resulted in sweat in my eyes and dripping into my glasses. The Headsweats works like a charm though.

      And speaking of keeping car seats from getting drenched with sweat, I recently purchased this “changing poncho”, https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B07CG73MTT/ref=ppx_yo_dt_b_asin_title_o04_s00?ie=UTF8&psc=1. I love it. Can strip out of my soaking wet riding clothes while standing in a crowded parking lot. I used to just sit on a towel in the car, but the towel ends up soaked, and my seatbelts get soaked too. With this I’m in nice, dry, clean clothes in my car. Highly recommend (though I’m short and it’s just long enough, so may not be long enough for taller folks).

  • Kenny Dunn

    What is it my sons in the military say, “Embrace the suck”. Middle aged in SE KY here, yeah, all of the above. Its pouring here now and I just finished a bit of my rake and ride trails near my home. Plus bike helps, and its actually pretty firm where I was riding. In the past month I have ridden arguably the best trail east and west of the Mississippi, Black Mtn in Pisgah and The Whole Enchilada in Moab. Being from the east I thought after riding Moab it would really up my game, but its the other way around, now I realize if you can ride the rocks and roots out east the west isn’t all that bad. Sure, its steep out there, and it certainly gets too steep and the drops too big for me, but the traction is amazing. Out here be like…traction? Is that what they put you in after a crash? Don’t get me wrong, I love CO and UT, can’t wait to go back, and if I was a younger man would probably give it some thought about moving out there, but its all great!

    • John Fisch

      So Black Mountain is the best in the east? On this trip I hit Laurel Mountain and Kitsuma Peak in Pisgah. Both were great. But i didn’t get to Black Mountain. Sounds like another entry in my “need to go back so I can do that one” list.

    • Kenny Dunn

      Well, I have read some folks say Black Mtn is the best, it was great, but it was rough, lots of hike a bike and some of the down was very rough, beat you up good. Lets just call it a great adventure. The DuPont side of things is a blast if you like fast flowy fun (I do). There is a trail here in KY that hardly anyone rides that is possibly best off the radar, only part of it is on the map, you can read a little about it on the trails section. “This trail is more or less Pisgah minus the lung busting climbs. There’s rocks galore, nasty roots, beautiful waterfalls, hairy switchbacks, plenty of creek crossings, caves… and it’s all singletrack.”. If you ever want to do it, let me know! https://www.singletracks.com/bike-trails/cane-creek-sheltowee-trace-trail.html

    • John Fisch

      Black sounds a lot like the Laurel Mountain/Pilot Rock loop that I did in Pisgah, which makes sense because they’re very close to each other.

      Sheltowee was actually on my original agenda for this trip but had to be replaced due to weather.

    • Kenny Dunn

      I guess it wasn’t as far off the radar as I thought! Its really disheartening to go there and ride on a beautiful fall weekend and be the only one rolling the trail. Not because I mind the solitude, but because it just shows what a lack of interest in cycling in the area. I imagine Black is a lot like Laurel or Kitsuma, the other trails I have been on in the area include Bent Creek and DuPont. I was fixated on DuPont for a while, Ridgeline is just so perfect, plus you can ride slickrock on the other side of the forest (none of it is anything like Pisgah as far as technical, tho)! I liked Bent Creek because of its proximity to Asheville (have the wife downtown in 5 minutes) and the campground, but the people running the campground are so weird I gave up on it. But every cloud has a silver lining, the first time I heard about DuPont is when I started to complain to a ranger how the hosts weren’t doing us right and the only reason I come here is to bike he said “I know all about it, go to DuPont, you won’t be sorry”.

  • matthew.krupp

    As a rider from Kentucky I appreciate the respect given in this article to the kind of riding done here. It seems as i see videos on the internet the west is always pumped up and is to be the Mecca. Points 5 and 6 don’t seem to be respected enough. I hope to ride out west some in the future. I find it encouraging the skills I am building here should translate mostly well there. It sounds like I need to learn drops. Fun article and balanced view. It is wet in so many ways here. Now i got to try the trail mentioned above here in Kentucky.

  • williedillon

    Interesting read! Somehow it seems I’m the only one here that doesn’t mind the humidity. I mean I would prefer around 70 degrees with not too much humidity, but at least with some humidity you don’t feel like you’re being sucked dry. I also don’t find bugs to be much of a problem – in my experience they are so much worse in the northeast for some reason (specifically mosquitoes). Oh, and turtles are reptiles, not amphibians. 😛

    • williedillon

      I also think the trails deal with water really well here, but I suppose if we get a bunch of rain all at once (as we are right now) then it’s going to be a few days before it’s dry again.

  • Erokese

    I’m sorry to ask this question but I live and ride in NC.

    The flu? Are you sure you don’t need to be checked for lyme?

    • John Fisch

      From the article:
      “Normally I’d just ride it out at home, but this time I beat feat to the doc to make sure I hadn’t picked up lyme disease or some other nasty tick-borne malady.”

      Getting checked for Lyme is exactly why I went to the doc rather than just ride it out. Especially since I almost never get a cold or flu (maybe once every 5 – 7 years), especially in May.

      Fortunately all’s clear and I was actually back to 100% before the test results even came back.

      The silly thing is I knew better from my time in VA.
      Pre-ride: Always put on some repellent, even if you think you don’t need it.
      Post-ride: Always check yourself over for unwanted hitchhikers.

      Funny how easy it is to forget when you’re out of that environment for a while!

    • Kenny Dunn

      I thought I may have gotten lyme a couple of years ago here in KY. Vision was a bit blurry, achey, got checked and all good. I think it was the multiple spider bites! Lyme is very rare this far south. Extremely.

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