Affordable mountain bikes have been part of the Lowcountry suburban landscape for decades despite the fact that the recreational activity has always suffered from the Lowcountry's lack of one key resource: mountains. Even though it has sometimes been re-branded as "off-road cycling," a shortage of easily accessible public trails has hobbled the sport locally.
That changes Saturday with the grand opening of the Wannamaker North Trail, a roughly eight-mile loop that winds through a vacant tract of Charleston County Park and Recreation woodlands in Goose Creek. Though open to walkers and runners, Wannamaker North represents the first local trail to be designed and built on public land specifically with off-road cyclists in mind.
"It's designed so a beginner can get through it," says Brad Phillips, a West Ashley mountain bike racer and trail designer who began pondering a trail on the site in November. But he adds that at high speeds, "it would get more technical. If you're experienced, the faster you go, the tighter it gets."
The result is something quite different than the Lowcountry's other two off-road cycling options. The Awendaw Creek section of the Palmetto Trail at Buck Hall is a scenic ride on a footpath that offers few thrills for off-roaders, while the interconnected system of bike trails at the Marrington Plantation recreational complex on the Naval Weapons Station tends to be faster, more open, and covered in roots. At Wannamaker North, cyclists flow through a slalom-like course that makes use of subtle natural obstacles and features a challenging half-mile rollercoaster along the banks of an old canal.
Trails built for riding, not hiking, are a relatively new phenomenon, and they've been driving a wave of interest in the sport over the past decade. While the state offers mixed-use trails that have become cycling destinations in the Upstate, Midlands, and Pee Dee, South Carolina's mountain-biking crown jewel is undoubtedly the Fork's Area Trails System in Edgefield County. Built by volunteers with $225,000 in grant funding between 2005 and 2008 in the Sumter National Forest, the system, better known as FATS, boasts six trails, 37 miles of groomed singletrack (wide enough for one bike at a time), and an expanding national reputation.
But FATS is also about three hours from Charleston by car and sits within easy spitting distance of absolute nowhere. So while Lowcountry riders might enjoy making a meal of FATS when schedules allow, their only realistic choice for a quick after-work ride has been Marrington, where trail-builder Don Watts maintains the 13-mile "Red Loop," plus a series of challenging yellow-blazed side trails and the daunting Foster's Creek Loop.
Though beloved by the local fat-tire set, Marrington has its issues. The complex's military landlords require a security background check before issuing civilians a $15 cycling permit, and the base commander retains the right to close the gates and shut down the trails at any time. Relations between riders and Navy leadership generally have been good, but Lowcountry mountain-bike groups have been hesitant to invest their limited resources in a trail system that comes with few guarantees and multiple restrictions.
For racers like Phillips, who competes for the Mt. Pleasant Velo/Piggly Wiggly Cycling Team sponsored by BaNa sports drink, Marrington's security requirements eliminated it as an option for sanctioned race events. The search for a suitable public trail site that could also serve as a venue for organized cross-country races lasted several years, including near-miss negotiations for a trail in the Francis Marion National Forest.
The search frustrated Phillips, but during last year's short cyclocross racing season at Wannamaker Park, he struck up a conversation about the topic with Oliver Sendell, a racer who works as an event coordinator for the Charleston County Park and Recreation Commission (Cyclocross is a type of race in which riders must sometimes dismount and carry their bikes over obstacles). One thing led to another, and in mid-January the county approved the construction of a trail at Wannamaker North — provided that mountain bikers agreed to build and maintain it.
Dozens of volunteers — most of them connected to the Low Country Fat Tire Freaks and Charleston Biking off-road groups — gathered for the first organized work days on Feb. 4 and 5. Weekend work parties continued into April, but Phillips, who holds down a regular job as general manager of Yamato Japanese Steakhouse in Mt. Pleasant, spent practically every free moment in March building and improving sections of the trail. Even a sprained ankle, sustained when a stray vine on the new trail flipped his bike awkwardly, didn't sideline him. Phillips limped around the trail in an air cast for more than a month.
The portion of the trail that required the most work is also its signature feature. Nicknamed "the Ridge" by trail builders, it's a half-mile-long, sinuous mound of dirt left behind during the excavation of the canal-like ditch beside it. Wannamaker North rises and falls with the tall mound's contours, offering fast descents and sudden rises that make attempting the run at low speed a cautious folly. "You've got to use your momentum to get up some of those climbs," Phillips says. "If you try to ride it too slowly, your front wheel starts getting unstable at the top."
Phillips has designed and built trails from Florence to Myrtle Beach to Phase II of Foster's Creek at Marrington, so he quickly recognized the potential in that long mound of dirt. "I knew that feature was going to require a little extra maintenance, but I also knew it would be worth it because it was just so cool," he says. Watts and a few others helped with the most technical cuts, but Phillips said he did much of the work on the Ridge during his solo sessions. "I could see it in my mind, and I'm such a control freak I had to get out there and do it myself."
Liability worries kept volunteers from riding the emerging trail through most of the winter and spring, but that prohibition ended in early May when organizers put out the word via the Fat Tire Freaks Facebook page that trail-builders were not only free to ride the route, but encouraged to do so. In early spring, the trail was still soft from lack of use and needed riders to pack it down. Though still on the soft side, once the CCPRC completed the trailhead kiosk, fee deposit box, and parking lot, the trail was ready to meet its public.
For riders used to the Marrington Red Loop – where even casual riders typically average at least 10 mph – Wannamaker North is far tighter. Its narrow singletrack winds between closely placed trees, offering few high-speed straightaways and demanding a rider's constant attention. It rewards that attention with whoop-de-doo features, an aesthetically pleasing design, and that elusive quality most trail-builders seek: flow. On a trail that's got it, each change in direction and elevation sets the rider up for the next, producing a rhythmic series of physical puzzles to be solved on the move. Flow, whether slow or fast, is a coveted trait, and the consensus seems to be that this trail has it.
Recent visits have included encounters with users who range from video-camera-wearing fanatics on $3,000 full-suspension steeds to young teens on department-store hardtails to middle-aged mothers on entry-level, rigid-fork, fat-tire bikes. So far, all have offered thumbs-up reviews, with particular praise for the policy that alternates the direction of travel each day — and a lot of complaints about the bugs.
The single feature that seems to inspire the most comment is called either the Bridge, the Corkscrew, or the Toilet Bowl. Located on the Ridge, it's the one spot where the trail passes under itself. On counterclockwise days, it represents a tough little climb. On clockwise days, get into the high side of the banked turn and hang on.
Meanwhile, Phillips is looking forward to hosting competitive events, and local recreational riders are hoping the trail gives a boost to the sport. But the big winners could turn out to be local bike retailers. The group Bikes Belong estimated that two-thirds of FATS users didn't even ride a bike before the trails were built, and their opening drove a double-digit sales increase at the nearest bike shop.
---HOW TO RIDE