Most of the former mining towns turned mountain bike destinations have been in the West; many former gold and silver towns now have a motherlode of trails to bring in greenbacks to boom and bust economies. Madisonville, Kentucky is one of the latest towns turning to mountain bike trails to diversify its economy and is another midwestern US town adding trails to places where outdoor recreation has long been an afterthought. James Sergeant grew up in Madisonville as a kid, and after leaving the small town to take on life’s challenges, he returned wanting to fill a void.
“[It was] a hardcore coal mining blue collar place, that the coal mines shut down and they’ve got some people here trying to do a few different things to make this little town bigger,” says Sergeant. “Me coming back after 20 years, I basically said, ‘Look, we’ve got to do something.'”
Hopkins County’s future as a coal mining region is less certain as many mines have closed over the years. In Sergeant’s proposal to the City, he said “As a previous coal mining town with a backbone of hard work and blue-collar labor, Hopkins County has struggled to keep up with the advancements of [the] 20th century. Due to the lack of labor pool and talent, corporations are reluctant to plant roots in the area.”
New trails will serve as a fresh way to bring in sustainable tourism revenue and add new parks for residents. That’s what Sergeant insisted to Madisonville city officials.
“If you bring mountain biking and a bike optimized trail system, you will then start to bring some people here that may take a look at our cutesy little town. And at the same time I started a master plan with the state for a bike and pedestrian master plan. So right now, we have proposed trails to connect all of our towns as well.”
Sergeant pitched the mayor of Madisonville for mountain bike trails on land he says was slated to be an RV park. He told the mayor that instead, they could build mountain bike trails, which the city and county had nearly no concept. Sergeant wrote out a detailed plan with charts and project costs. He says that the mayor expected him to come in and ask for $35,000 without a plan, but instead he asked for over a half-million dollars and action items to execute his detailed plan.
The mountain bike trails would offer sustainable revenue and get people outside, experiencing nature, and Sergeant showed the city examples of mountain bike tourism and how they can propel economies forward.
“And that’s when they were like, ‘Oh, I get it now.'” This was back in the fall of 2019, and by June of 2020 he had a concise master plan, and this prior weekend, they opened the first trails on new Grapevine network, with a total of eight miles and 400’ of elevation change. There are two 4-mile loops, with wooden jumps, dirt jumps, and berms. Rogue Trails, based out of Bentonville built the trails. There are still plans for 5 more miles on Grapevine Lake and potential for another dozen or so miles in the county in the next year. By 2023, they’re hoping to have 20 miles of trail in Hopkins County.
The man with the plan
James Sergeant has not built, designed, or planned mountain bike trails before. He’s worked in the automotive industry for over two decades as a project manager of sorts and that’s given him invaluable experience pitching and coming up with detailed, sellable plans.
So, Sergeant may not have advocacy experience, “however, if you put the process together and you plan things well enough with expected timelines, you can do a great deal over email and get the right people to move,” he says. “That’s one of the things I’m really good at.” Much of his motivation still lies in the community where he has roots.
Sergeant grew up BMXing around Kentucky, a mile from where Grapevine Lake is, and that evolved into mountain biking all over. Coming back into town, he started working with the Kentucky Mountain Bike Association and reading the IMBA Trail Solutions book, and he says he got his NICA coaching certification in Tennessee.
Since there aren’t any bike shops in Madisonville or the county, Sergeant is building a mobile shop out of a 16-foot trailer, and will slowly ramp up operations to help the community with cycling and mountain bike resources.
If things keep going this way in Hopkins County he may just work himself into a new career as a trails manager. He seems to have enjoyed the planning and coordination of the new trails and helping his community with its first concept of mountain biking.
“People believe this is my heart and soul, everything that I’m doing, but it’s not. It’s something that needs to be done, I believe.”