It’s a rainy day in November as I pull into the the parking lot of Anderson Elementary School and manage to find a spot among the dozens of SUVs and sedans saddled with bike racks and decked out with bumper stickers. This is the designated parking for the Appalachian Mountain Bike Club’s Fall Festival, but the actual festivities are happening about a half mile away in someone’s ample South Knox acreage.
“Do you know how to get to the festival?” a woman yells from her car. I don't know exactly but decide I'd rather wander the woods with a friend, so I wait for her to park. She jogs up to me as I stand in the drizzle at the trailhead of Lost Chromosome—what some passing mountain bikers tell me is the quickest way back into the property.
I introduce myself and we set out down the mucky trail into the canopy of trees that form this section of Knoxville’s Urban Wilderness. My new acquaintance is a veterinary dentist, a specialty I wasn’t aware existed, and she’s come to try out some of the bikes available for test rides at the festival.
“I’m not much of a mountain biker,” she tells me, “but I thought I’d check it out.” I’m happy to be with a fellow mountain bike novice. The muddy trail oozes beneath our feet, and we find ourselves sliding down hills and occasionally catching our toes on slick roots as we make our way toward the festival. Eventually, we hear the sound of music, the subwoofer bass rumbling over the hills towards us.
We emerge onto a dirt road, curve around past several rural residences, and eventually emerge onto the scene. Lines of canopy tents shelter silent auction wares, a beer station, and warming pans full of encased meat and burgers. Mud is caked almost everywhere. Only the lily-white table cloths have somehow managed to avoid the spray. In spite of the wet conditions, everyone is in good spirits.
We go our separate ways, and I walk up to the edge of the roped-off area, where the quarter-mile short track race is finishing up. Only about 50 yards of track is visible near the main festival cluster, the rest disappears into a nearby copse of trees. It’s honestly difficult to tell who’s winning the race because every cyclist is met with a mix of cheers and good-hearted jeering. From what I’ve learned about AMBC, this fits. Since its inception, competitiveness among AMBC’ers has taken a back seat to trail building and community. On any given day, one is far more likely to find these folks organizing a social trail ride, heading up beginner clinics, or hosting a work/play day than competing in a race or comparing stats. The cyclist rounding the bend in comically tight bike shorts and one of those giant rubber horse-head masks further confirms that this festival, and AMBC in general, is all about fun.
I see a few familiar faces at the end of the food line forming nearby. I join and move through the piled-high hot dogs and desserts. About 450 will be served tonight. We find a seat near the middle of a long stretch of tables set end-to-end.
I start asking those nearby what drew them to the festival (and to AMBC in general) and I hear the same themes emerging: community, passion, and commitment to leaving the natural resources of Knoxville better and more accessible than they were before.
“I moved here seven years ago for a job,” says Steve Sanborn, a water resources engineer by trade. “But I found a great bunch of guys here and now there’s no other place I’d want to settle down.” Steve says that he has been blown away by the investment the city has made in the outdoors. “People like Matthew Kellogg and the mayor saw the potential, and I’m just riding their coattails. South Knoxville has really transformed and it’s going to keep growing for years to come.”
The festival, while open to everyone, is really made by and for the community of mountain bikers and outdoors enthusiasts who have put in hours riding and building the beautiful network of trails in Knoxville. Lindsey Cochran, an archaeology graduate student at the University of Tennessee, is one of those bikers thrilled to spend time with her peers. “It’s nice to see everybody out of their Spandex, in normal clothes, just having a good time,” she says. “It's a really cool community experience.”
Dusk settles in and the silent auction closes. The light of the setting sun is replaced with a couple large bonfires and a band takes to the stage. People are chatting, the horse head guy has transformed into a very enthusiastic waiter, confirming drink orders with a yell and sprinting back to the beer table to fill them. Things are relatively subdued, which surprises me. From the tales I've heard, the festival can get pretty crazy.
And then I see it. The pump track.
Several people are drifting away from the bonfires into the trees behind the bike rental tents and caution tape demarcating the earlier race. I follow them over and see that a crowd has gathered around a tight circuit of dirt trail. The track is built with sharp turns, high walls (not unlike a skateboarding pit), and a handful of hills from which to catch air. The aura here is delightful chaos. More children than I even knew were at the festival are gathered in small clusters on the small island formed inside the ring of speeding mountain bikers. Their little hands are full of fireworks and they're trying to time the fuses so the firecrackers explode beneath the tires of the bikers. A few bikers have saved the kids the trouble and tied roman candles directly to the frame of their bikes, simulating smoking tires.
Regular pile ups form on the tracks and the onslaught is met with cheers from the crowd, who are at all times only inches away from the zooming bikers. One bike flies out from under a guy and almost bowls over a bystander, deflected at the last minute by a divinely planted tree. I’m mesmerized by near-miss after near-miss and just stand there staring for a long while until I hear the voice of my friend Daniel behind me. He’s just found the track too and is amazed at the sight. “Where the hell are we?” he asks.
This is the first sign of the festival shedding whatever cordial skin it had and revealing what it’s likely to be for the rest of the night: a mountain biker’s adrenaline fest.
Some of the Lord of the Flies -esque festivities eventually pour back over to the bonfire area, where the band on stage has incited a portion of the crowd to commence mosh pit thrash dancing, which includes the sacrifice of all the decorative pumpkins—an AMBC tradition. With the air smelling faintly gourd-ish, the band is met with cheers and a shower of mums, plucked from nearby. I have work in the morning and these antics are likely to go on well into the night, so I bid farewell to my friends and give a final nod to this crazy bunch of bikers who have built, with their own blood, sweat, and passion, one of the best urban outdoor communities in the country. In this crowd of hell raisers, I see people who love each other, love the trail, and love that they live in a city where they can work hard, play harder, and occasionally go a little insane.
One last note, from Matthew Kellogg, president of the Appalachian Mountain Bike Club:
"We couldn't throw such a fun party without Brian Hann and Mary Beth Tugwell, who invite us out to their farm each year for the festival, our sponsors who help offset the cost of the festival and make the silent auction so successful, and the cycling community who come out to volunteer and participate. This is one of my favorite days of the year!"