In the 1990s, I could walk the trails on Monte Sano Mountain and not encounter another person. While few people in Huntsville hiked the unkempt trails, there were almost no mountain bikers at all.
Now, on warm, sunny days, the “hairpin curve” on Bankhead Parkway is lined with cars bearing bike racks. Up higher, in Monte Sano State Park, newbies, kids and hardcore riders zoom down trails that are well-marked and well-maintained.
In the past 15 years, Huntsville’s mountain biking community has grown significantly. While this is partly due to the fact that the metro area population has risen 22 percent since 2000, it’s also due to the efforts of mountain biking groups, including the Huntsville chapter of the Southern Off-Road Bicycling Association (SORBA). Founded in 2005, SORBA Huntsville plays a significant role in bringing mountain biking to northern Alabama, with 600 people on its email distribution list, and a membership that includes more than 200 “units,” including individuals and 50 families.
Since its inception, SORBA Huntsville has fostered the growth of mountain biking in the area by improving local trails, building new paths and providing opportunities for riders to connect.
Huntsville’s Mountain Biking Boom
When SORBA Huntsville formed, there were only a few dedicated mountain bikers in town, said Mary Anne Swanstrom, president of SORBA Huntsville.
“There were only a dozen or so people who were riding regularly on Monte Sano and other spots like Chapman Mountain,” she said. “You mostly saw people who were pretty hardcore, because the trails were fairly technical. To meet other riders, you would track people down through message boards, because we didn’t have Facebook. And there was nothing like regular, weekly rides.”
The mountain biking scene was small in part because managers at Monte Sano State Park didn’t welcome bikes on trails. But in 2005, the park hired a new manager who openly welcomed mountain biking.
“He saw an opportunity to work with volunteers who could help maintain the park,” Swanstrom said.
Members of SORBA and other local biking and trail-running groups began to improve many Monte Sano trails, which the Civilian Conservation Corps had originally constructed for hiking in the 1930s but hadn’t considered the long-term effects of rain and erosion.
Nine members of SORBA Huntsville attended classes by Trail Design Specialists and learned to assess soils and maintain and build sustainable trails. These individuals formed a trails committee that has ongoing efforts to fix trails and construct new routes, such as the Dummy Line Trail, which runs alongside Bankhead Parkway.
Around 2005, Monte Sano State Park also added the Bucca Family Trail, a mostly flat winding path for novice riders. “That’s what really began to change things,” said Swanstrom. “That opened things up for families and people who wanted to try the sport.”
Building a Biking Community
While maintaining trails is a primary mission of SORBA, the organization’s other main goal is to promote mountain biking.
“Part of our responsibility is to encourage people who want to try mountain biking, and not take them where they won’t enjoy it,” Swanstrom said. While SORBA Huntsville supports the Bucca Family Trail, it also hosts rides for women, who sometimes prefer to not be thrown in with a group of men, especially when they’re new to mountain biking.
As SORBA has attracted more families and women, it has also benefited from Huntsville’s booming population of Millennials.
“You have young people coming in from Colorado, California, or Virginia, where they have large mountain biking communities, and they want to continue their sport and plug in with other folks,” Swanstrom said.
To bring people together, SORBA Huntsville created an annual Time Trial Series, where members gather on Thursday evenings for eight weeks in June and July to ride a variety of trails.
“We don’t call it a race, because individuals just go for their best time,” said Swanstrom, adding that some rides are family-friendly, and people can enjoy the event if they’re not hardcore mountain bikers. “We’re in our sixth year, and it has just gone crazy,” she said, noting that the event drew 60 people the first year and 220 people in 2015. “This year, we think it’s going to be even bigger.”
As the Time Trial Series evolved, Facebook became a primary venue to share information. Over time, the organization’s Facebook page (with 900 likes) has become a hub where people not only share Time Trial Series information, but also connect to go on rides or just grab a beer.
Building the Future
While SORBA Huntsville continues to expand its ranks, the organization still faces challenges, said Swanstrom.
“Our main goal right now is to engage our membership more to participate in volunteer activities,” she said. “A lot of people love to ride, but we also have to give something back. There’s no group of folks paid by the parks to keep the trails nice—that falls on the folks who use them.”
Among its many projects, SORBA Huntsville is re-routing an eroded section of the Logan Point Trail, which runs along the backside of the Stone Cuts on Monte Sano. But the group’s work extends beyond the mountain. Across town at the U.S. Space & Rocket Center, two SORBA members are improving a trail where youth will race in April as part of the Alabama Interscholastic Cycling League.
When Swanstrom and her crew aren’t repairing trails, they’re also raising funds for various projects, including a proposed pavilion for the biking parking lot in Monte Sano State Park. According to Swanstrom, her organization will provide 20 percent of the funds for a significant stone structure that will serve as an outdoor classroom, a meeting place for mountain bikers and a storage facility for trail-maintenance tools.
Fortunately for Swanstrom, raising funds and recruiting workers isn’t too difficult. “It’s a little different from some sports where you do your thing, and then go home,” she said. “With the mountain bike culture, people feel like they want to help out and give back.”
Get Involved: To learn more about SORBA Huntsville, visit its website or Facebook page. Membership is $20/year for youths, $35 for individuals and $50 for families. Members receive free admission to chapter events including the 8-week Thursday Time Trial Series, Spring Fling Picnic, Fall Picnic and Winter Social. This year’s Time Trial Series will be June 2-July 28 on Thursday nights at 6 p.m., with a bye week June 30.
Originally written for BCBS of AL.