Next thing I knew, screams were coming from the track, and the mountain biker was on the dirt. I wondered whether he was hurt, and I felt my self-preservation instinct kick in: Am I going to kill myself on this thing tomorrow?
If you go: Boone, N.C.
Moments later, the biker got up and joined the man in the parking lot, seemingly unscathed. But the screams continued, and it took me a minute to understand that his only pain was that of being separated from his beloved bike.
“Pleeeease!” he sobbed. “Once more!” The man lectured the young cyclist about his “tone.” And that’s when I made another mental note: No matter how things went down with my first mountain-biking adventure the next day, I wouldn’t act like a 6-year-old. I will not, I told myself, make a scene in the parking lot.
When my friend Marilyn invited me to visit her in Boone, she told me about a new mountain bike park a few miles from town. I’ve probably been on a mountain bike a couple of times in my life, but I’ve certainly never biked any mountains, and my only bike-related bragging rights involve a recent 50 miles on the C&O Canal towpath — arguably as flat as they come. But I was overdue for a visit to one of my favorite Carolina towns, so I packed my car and headed to the Blue Ridge Mountains.
Just west of the Blue Ridge Parkway, Boone — named after Daniel — is a year-round haven for outdoor recreationalists. Ever since Lance Armstrong came here to train in the late 1990s, singing the praises of the area’s beauty and steep cycling climbs, the town has been milking his testimonial. That may have helped put it on the map, but Boone has always held its own in the road cycling department. With the opening of Rocky Knob, a $2 million facility, it’s now a destination for mountain bikers as well.
Led by a professional trail-builder, volunteers put in 3,500 hours of work building the 185-acre park over the past few years. Locals pitched in at weekly sessions called Dirty Thursdays, and college football players used brute force to move boulders. The first of five trails opened in 2011, and the trails, skills areas, picnic areas and pump track were completed by this year.
A sign at the base of the mountain explicitly says that none of the trails are for beginners, and some of the features are pretty advanced. The day I arrived, I hiked the easiest trail, 1.6-mile Rocky Branch, and found myself tentatively stepping over rock gardens, watching my footing on uneven boardwalks and hiking around countless switchbacks. In one of the skills areas, I walked over “skinnies,” narrow structures that look like balance beams and are meant — unfathomably — to be crossed by bike. Hiking down, I was happy that the mountain bikers had this park, but I thought, no way am I doing this on wheels.