Words and photos: Leslie Kehmeier
Originally published in Issue #192
There’s a lot cooking these days in the world of mountain biking. And contrary to what you might think, it’s not necessarily about the construction of progressive trails or constantly improving bicycle technology. At the core, it’s about the communities that have embraced this type of recreation and its connection to the outdoors, making it part of the sustenance that fuels everyday lives.
Over the last decade, Knoxville, Tennessee, is one such community that has been writing its own recipe for success. It is a place where trails are served up like family-style meals. There is plenty to go around and a bunch of really cool people to share the experience with. Although this medium-sized city is not the only location in the U.S. doing remarkable things with mountain biking, its achievements and momentum are about to put it prominently on the map as one of the best places in the eastern part of the country to ride bikes.
So how is Knoxville dishing up all of this outdoor goodness? It starts with a base of good geography. This city in eastern Tennessee is blessed with a swath of the Ridge and Valley Province of the Appalachian Mountains and a pleasant climate year-round. From there, its 200,000 residents layer on the right combination of trails and access, outdoor-minded people, long-term vision, and a natural, “live, work, play” attitude.
Trails and Access
Knoxville just surpassed the 100-mile mark for trails. That’s right, there are 100 miles of trails available to mountain bike, walk or run on throughout the city. Residents and visitors can chose from a full menu of options, from easier and intermediate trails deep in the woods to the recent addition of a double-black-diamond gravity trail that’s an experience straight out of a bike park.
It doesn’t matter if you prefer hours of pedaling on traditional singletrack or the thrill of launching yourself into the air via wall rides and table-top jumps, Knoxville has everything available. It’s a build-your-own, all-you-can-eat mountain bike kind of place.
What’s even more tantalizing is that a fair amount of the total mileage lies very close to downtown. The Knoxville Urban Wilderness is a unique outdoor recreation zone that comprises 1,000 acres of preserved recreational, cultural and historic spaces connected by an extensive trail system. Access is only a matter of putting on your shoes and rolling out the front door onto a trail.
“You could be in the woods for eight hours and then be in the heart of the city having a great meal within 10 minutes,” shares Carol Evans, director of the Legacy Parks Foundation. Evans is one of the leaders and major catalysts in the rising outdoor scene. She understands that people who support and connect with the natural landscape are critical to building momentum for the community.
People are always part of the equation in every community. But the right people are essential to communities that end up being above average. Evans stands out in that regard, leading the way for the acquisition and management of the lands in the Urban Wilderness. While her background in marketing and previous work with the city gives her serious chops, it’s Evans’ emphasis on being inclusive and listening to the community that has certainly created a natural synergy between people and the outdoors.
“We’re doing more than just preserving green spaces; we’re selling the [outdoor] experience. And when people have a sense of the land, like they do here in Knoxville, we have to listen to what’s important to the community. Instead of bringing people in through our door, we bring them in through their door,” she explains.
Over the years, Evans, along with other leaders, has done a tremendous job bringing more people to the table, always making it larger and rounder. One person who is often sitting at that table is Brian Hann. He simply, yet passionately, loves bicycles and the outdoors. In fact, Hann thinks the bicycle is one of the greatest inventions ever and is certain you’ll fall in love with them just by riding one once.
As an avid outdoorsman and cyclist, Hann moved from Cincinnati, Ohio, to attend the University of Tennessee, jumping right into the woods as soon as he arrived.
“Knoxville has always been about the outdoors, something that I connected with right away. In fact, I didn’t even know there was a football team when I first came here. What I did know was this: Knoxville was close to the Smoky Mountains.”
Hann is part of the Appalachian Mountain Bike Club, a nonprofit mountain bike organization and the keepers of Knoxville’s singletrack trails. As past president of AMBC, Brian has put a lot of sweat equity into both the trails and the greater community. He’s not one to take credit for much, something that’s common among the people who are, as Brian describes, “really good at getting shit done.”
And he’s right. It is evident that everyone is on equal ground, enjoying the process of the entire community succeeding. “There’s nothing special going on here. We’ve just taken ideas from other places and then made them our own.” He also shares the not-so-secret sauce that exists everywhere, “It takes vision, a little planning, enthusiasm and the will to go for it. The energy generated from that combination of things is contagious. People should just see the potential [of a place or idea] and not think things are impossible.”
Once the Urban Wilderness became well-established, the Knoxville community wasn’t about to stop preserving lands and building trails. In fact, they just celebrated their biggest accomplishment to date, the opening of the Baker Creek Preserve.
Set on 100 acres of donated land blessed with significant elevation, the park serves up a full plate of mountain bike experiences. In addition to a pump track and dirt-jump area, Baker Creek proudly boasts the Devil’s Racetrack, an advanced, double-black downhill trail built by AMBC, Legacy Parks Foundation, IMBA and a handful of local builders.
The project was funded through the 2015 Bell Built grant, which AMBC won after a six-month-long nationwide, public campaign. The victory wasn’t just a lucky fluke. It was achieved through a decade of doing great things with the Knoxville outdoor community.
“The strategy for success started years ago establishing ourselves as a club that builds and maintains multi-use trails, not bike trails,” shares AMBC President Matthew Kellogg. “We had years of work and goodwill saved up. During the Bell Built grant we cashed in much of that support when our team asked the community at large to support the project. It all snowballed from there, and now we have a world-class downhill run that’s connected to a progressive urban trail network.”
With the Baker Creek Preserve in place, Knoxville will undoubtedly become a big draw for visiting mountain bikers and outdoor enthusiasts from surrounding regions and eventually the nation. There’s more than a week’s worth of riding and other outdoor activities to enjoy. And beyond that, the city has all the other services that make it a great place to live or visit.
Live, Work, Play
As the community was designing and building trails, it was also taking the fi rst steps in quantifying the value of its outdoor-recreation assets. Riding around town, one notices great places to eat, drink, sleep and explore—all aspects of a place that creates tangible economic value. These amenities pair well with access to over 100 miles of trails, creating a draw for both residents and visitors alike.
A recent study by the Howard H. Baker Jr. Center for Public Policy reported that the Urban Wilderness is likely to be contributing $8.3 million to the Knoxville economy from a local level. The study also indicated that, as trails and recreation opportunities gain regional and national awareness, the numbers could grow to $14.6 million and $29 million respectively.
If Knoxville were a cake, these economic benefits would be the icing on top. Make a reservation for Knoxville. As it continues to expand its menu and invite more people to sit at the table, you can bet the outdoor feast will only continue to grow.
Secret Sauce for Promoting Your Outdoor Community
- Gather a passionate and talented team of volunteers to devise a plan.
- Stack the deck with a great photo and film crew.
- Make a plan for media; make it easy for local news and TV to share your content. Provide good, consistent graphics.
- Create fun (short), shareable videos.
- Generate quick and to-the-point interviews (on the interviewee’s timeline).
- Blast the internet, all the platforms, all the time.
- Consider Google Adwords for nonprofits.
- Hit the streets with your message.
- Get creative with the resources at your disposal and leverage your connections, because in the end, everyone wants to help you win.