Nestled on the shores of Lake Allatoona in Cherokee County, GA, Blankets Creek is one of the busiest trail systems in the country. I caught up with trail builders Barry Smith and Walt Bready, along with Kel Pruitt and Leigh Pruitt of SORBA Woodstock, on the Van Michael Trail (VMT), one of the gems of Blankets Creek Mountain Bike Trail System. Barry and his crew will spend the next few weeks creating art on VMT while revamping 36 sections of trail, and we were out to see what Barry had done over his first couple of days, and talk about the work ahead.
Kel, a fit 54-year old who you often see ripping around these trails as well as leading work parties on them, is the Trail Director for Blankets. “We’re doing this project to improve the clockwise directional use of this trail. Our trail counters and chats with riders show us that they prefer to go counter clockwise, and we want both directions to rock,” Kel explained. VMT is a directional trail, requiring riders to go clockwise on Sunday, Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, and CCW on Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday.
“Ethan Quehl built flow into VMT five years ago, adding wide berm turns, jumps, and rollers, but flow trail equals maintenance. After five years of hard use, it’s time to reclaim and ramp up the flow that Ethan created,” says Kel.
Enter Barry Smith, a respected, soft-spoken, tanned master craftsman from Chattanooga who created the famed but now-defunct Firewater 50 race that took you over the rugged Cohutta mountains. “SORBA Woodstock chose Barry for this work because we love his trails,” says Kel. “He’s never worked for us, and we want our trails to each have it’s own feel. The best way to get that feel is to hire different builders to work their particular form of artistry into the trail. Right now Raccoon Mountain is my favorite trail built by Barry. I wanna say my favorite trail by Barry is Van Michael.”
Barry started a little below Talladega, a wide, sweeping berm not too far from the CCW entrance to VMT. He’s put in some pre-turn rollers, heightened and widened the turn, dug out a drainage swail, and added a bonus berm on the other side of the trail after you exit Talladega, heading clockwise. “Aside from creating the flow experience on the turn, I spent a lot of time building an aggressive drain here at the end of this feature,” says Barry. “In the early days, a lot of soil, loosened by construction and dry conditions, will end up there during rains. This drain can handle that. It will be easy to deberm, saving on maintenance, and it’s gonna last for years. Fun and function built into the experience. I have to look at the big picture, for riders and volunteers who keep the trail going.”
“I added the downstream berm to continue the fun once you exit the big turn. It just seemed like the thing to do,” says Barry.
As riders roll up (the trail is not closed for construction), Kel asks them to turn around and try riding down the berm. Elite riders and casual riders come through. Almost instinctively, the elite riders take the line that Barry has created. Others take a different line, but the flow works for them, and everyone: riders, builder, and Trail Director are all pleased with the work.
We move up the trail to the next section where Barry has created a new route. The tread is loose and powdery, with large roots protruding from the soil, like zombies clawing their way out of graves in a haunted cemetery. Kel explains, “this reroute lines the trail up with the next berm, improving the flow.”
Barry and Kel confer over said berm. Kel instructs, “Set the berm back, open it up. It will seem too big at first, but will wear in soon to perfection.”
“I’ll also bring it up higher,” adds Barry.
We walk on, and Kel throws out, “put in a mellow roller after the berm”.
“Don’t take out my jumps!” adds Leigh, rider and SORBA Woodstock Treasurer. “Van Michael is my favorite trail at Blankets, and I love the jumps through here,” she confides to me.
We stop at a smaller, well-worn berm that now starts with a bit of flat-ish, newly-disturbed soil. Kel points back to a smooth lump on the side of the trail before Barry’s little plot of disturbed ground: “this is an alt line jump for those who wanna get a little air. It’s a bit tricky because you land here on top of the berm. 80% of the riders won’t know it’s there. The other 20% will love it.” Barry will continue to work on this section, renewing the jump and the berm.
Kel and Barry stop down trail to discuss an overall concern for the work. “The soil here is so soft, we need to close the trail for 12 hours after rain,” advises Barry. “The trail needs time to recover from the rain before it’s ridden.”
“We won’t be able to keep everyone off, they’ll ride in from the surrounding neighborhoods, but we can try to keep most of the riders off. It will be to their advantage to be patient and let the tread settle,” says Kel.
So far it’s just been Barry working with his mini excavator, but Walt will start hand work on Saturday, removing spoils piles, cutting out roots (no more zombies), and naturalizing the trail, so that the new construction begins to look more like existing trail, not a construction zone. Randy Conner, an experienced builder from Knoxville, will join the crew to help out with the machine work.
Kel and Barry walk off a bit so Barry can learn how to best reach the area he’ll start on the next day. Once they’re done with that, we begin our walk back to the parking lot.
“When Barry’s crew is done, Van Michael will consist of three loops: the Race Cut, Van Michael proper, and Kevorkian. Kevorkian will be the most technically-advanced option, with the other two rated as intermediate,” says Kel. “No matter what we do, some people will hate it, but we have to do something, and the SORBA Woodstock Board has put a lot of thought and leg work into deciding what to do. We believe we’ve made the best possible choices, and I can’t wait to ride my new favorite Barry Smith trail.”
Pleased with what we saw, we head out for food, fellowship, and of course: beer. We all look forward to putting our wheels down on Van Michael 3.0.