Is Roanoke the Best Up-and-Coming MTB Destination in the Southeast?

Roanoke MTB.
Roanoke MTB. James Revercomb
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The International Mountain Biking Association has designated dozens of locations around the world as certified Ride Centers. Through a challenging application process that requires an invitation from an IMBA board member just to begin, these destinations are thoroughly vetted on a long list of criteria.

In 2011, IMBA altered its points-based approval process by introducing a gold, silver, and bronze tiered rating system. There are currently no Ride Centers on the east coast, from Maine to Florida, that have achieved higher than a bronze accreditation—yet.

Enter Roanoke. The mid-sized Virginia city tucked into the southern edge of the Roanoke Valley is poised to be the first to achieve this prestigious distinction (in Virginia, Harrisonburg and Richmond are designated Bronze-level Ride Centers). But even before the IMBA places its official stamp on the town, Roanoke has already distinguished itself as a mecca of mountain biking. And its local leaders are leading that charge—they also have their eye on silver accredidation in the not-too-distant future.

"We began preliminary assessments 18 months ago," says Kristina McCormick, president of RIMBA, the Roanoke chapter of the IMBA. “We believe we have the points to be Silver.”

Accreditation is not without its local challenges, however. For example, the run-ups to the mountains in this part of the country are short and steep, unlike many places out west. This made it difficult to get the points on the application needed for beginner-friendly trails and longer, less dramatic descents.

But the work being done to create an amazing biking center is not just about checking boxes to gain a new badge of distinction. It seems instead to flow from a real love of the sport and the outdoor spirit of the area as a whole—one of the reasons why the area is becoming recognized as a must-ride spot for newbies and veteran mountain bikers.

Take the Trail Ambassador program, for example. Any visitor to Roanoke who wants to try out the singletrack in the area needs to only send a request through the RIMBA website, and a board or club member will meet them on the trail for a personalized tour. This is important, says McCormick, because "you don’t get a good feeling of the flow of a trail when you have to stop at every intersection to make sure you’re going the right way."

Another highlight of Roanoke’s rise into a mountain bike mecca is a trail named Rattlin’ Run, which is part of the Carvins Cove Natural Reserve, the second-largest municipal park in the country, with 40 miles of singletrack and another 40 in the works, according to McCormick. When the popularity of the singletrack in the park required changes to make the trails more sustainable, McCormick said a small but vocal group complained of a "dumbing down" of the trails. Their response came in the creation of Rattlin’ Run, a hardcore trail that has gained quite a reputation in the MTB community in Roanoke and beyond.

Built by the Midweek Work Crew—a group affiliated with the Pathfinders for Greenways and whose average age is 75 years—the trail is a double-black diamond full of technical challenges. Off-camber rocks, tight, awkward turns, and hop-worthy stone walls—as well as some fun and flowy descents—make this piece of singletrack so difficult that, to McCormick’s knowledge, no local has ever cleaned it.

The charge toward silver continues with many new trails and facilities for mountain bikers either in the planning or construction phase. But locals aren’t waiting around for the official process to be complete: Many already consider the Roanoke area the "Mountain Bike Capital of the East".

Want to test the validity of that claim? With some help from the RIMBA President, here are some area highlights to get you started on your visit to Roanoke.

Where to Ride

Hit the trails and experience amazing mountain biking during your family time in Virginia's Blue Ridge.
Hit the trails and experience amazing mountain biking during your family time in Virginia's Blue Ridge. Sam Dean

There are dozens of excellent trail systems around Roanoke, including some epic backcountry rides. Here are three parks to get you started.

Rattlin’ Run isn’t the only worthy ride at Carvins Cove. The expansive trail system is divided into the "uppers" and the “lowers”. McCormick suggests the lowers for beginners with some experience. The uppers, she says, are for intermediate to advanced riders who want to “earn their downhills.”

Although Carvins Cove is less than 30 minutes from downtown Roanoke, you don’t even have to drive that far to find great singletrack. In fact, you don’t have to drive at all: In a shining example of urban mountain biking, the Roanoke River Greenway flows through the heart of the city like a cycling artery and connects to the trail system at Mill Mountain Park. These trails rise some 900 feet from the base of Mill Mountain, making for a lung-and-quad-burning climb. But the view is worth the ride and at the end, it’s a short trip back to the many post-ride refuel options in Roanoke.

The trails at Explore Park offer a faster, less technical ride than other systems in the area. Roots are the major obstacle. Roughly 10 miles of singletrack run through the park, but McCormick says it is poised to become a "bikers’ park" with more trails and a progressive skills center. Other plans for the site include a kayak park, zipline course, food and retail options, and a connection to the Roanoke River Greenway.

Where to Refuel

With two stalwarts in the craft beer industry, Deschutes and Ballast Point, tapping Roanoke as their east coast bases of operations, it’s no surprise that there’s plenty of refreshment to be found post-ride. Other options for beer include Parkway Brewing, located about 15 minutes from Carvins Cove as a convenient spot to wash down some trail dirt. Producing the full spectrum of brews—from delicate Kolsch to a hearty Baltic Porter—the brewery has a style ready to please just about any beer palate.

Conveniently located along the greenway near Mills Mountain, Sweet Donkey Coffee is a popular MTB hangout. The shop also hosts a Friday night food-and-music mash-up.

Blue 5 is quintessential Roanoke. Retaining much of its historic charm, the restaurant is housed in a 100-year-old building. Live music with a distinct blues and jazz focus reverberates through Blue 5 Tuesday through Saturday, while the smells of traditional Southern cuisine fill the space all the time. It also won the 2017 Great American Beer Bar Award, meaning you’re not likely to leave thirsty.

Where to Find a Bed and a Bike

Cambria Inn and Suites is a modern but cozy hotel with easy access to the greenway. For a more rural setting, book a room at Mountain Lake Lodge. Tucked into the heart of the Blue Ridge Mountains, the lodge is an ideal base for outdoor exploration.

Roanoke Mountain Adventures is a one-stop gear shop for biking and more. They offer a range of bikes from multiple manufacturers, making it an ideal place to try a new ride. And if a multisport weekend is your kind of thing, they also rent kayaks, canoes, and tubes.

Originally written for OrthoCarolina.

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