Tarheel Trailblazers

Joe Bergmann
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In Charlotte, we are blessed with many natural advantages. A moderate climate extends the time we can spend outdoors to nearly 12 months (except maybe July, it’s just too hot in July). We have rolling hills which creates depth in our landscapes and adds challenges to our outdoor activities. There are plenty of water ways and open lands to explore. There’s one resource, however, that has helped more people access, appreciate, and enjoy the outdoors than just about any other. Since 1990, the Tarheel Trailblazers have had a hand in creating almost every significant mountain bike trail in and around Charlotte.

Most people only see the final results of the Trail Blazers work. The depth of the work they manage with an all-volunteer staff is amazing. “The Trailblazers build and maintain over 100 miles of trail within an hour drive from Charlotte,” says Mike Long, one of the volunteer vice presidents of the organization. The work includes everything from designing new paths to cutting away fallen trees to working with local and state agencies. “The parks department gives us the restrictions we need to adhere to, but other than that all the work is completed by the Trailblazers,” says Long.

Doug Cosby courtesy of Tarheel Trailblazers

The volunteer force, currently around 270 people is the backbone of the organization. “There is a lot of selflessness in this club,” says Long. “These people spend their off work hours sweating so that all of us can enjoy the trails.” Each trail is managed by a trail coordinator who organizes work days and communicates issues to the team. Recruiting a work force large enough to maintain over 100 miles of trail remains the most challenging aspect of the project. Trail leaders take part in the “Trail Solutions” education programs offered by the IMBA  (International Mountain Bike Association) where they learn everything from route planning to proper chainsaw use.

While the sweat equity from the volunteers is what drives the project, trail construction requires some financial support. Trails are built to IMBA standards. Each trail is built and maintained to be both environmentally friendly and sustainable for many years. This means plenty of lumber, gravel, screws, and nails. While much of the work is completed with hand tools and hard work, there is a need to purchase and maintain power equipment such as mini-excavators.

Funds to create the bridges, mounds, and berms that make these trails so exceptional come from several sources. Each year the Trail Blazers receive a grant from the federal Transportation Administration by way of the Alternative Transportation Bill. Fund raisers such as the Catawba Riverfront Classic, held this year at the U.S. National White Water Center on May 18th, raise needed money. And private grants like those from REI, one of the clubs largest supporters, provide valuable financial resources.

Mike Long courtesy of Tarheel Trailblazers

Cooperation with local and state park authorities lies at the heart of the success the Trail Blazers have had over the years. Sometimes, however, trails don’t start out as parks. “One of the most popular trails in the system, Sherman Branch , was a piece of land the city didn’t know what to do with,” says Long. “The club looked it over and saw the potential for it to be a great trail. We assumed it would be temporary but it’s now been grandfathered in as part of the nature preserve. Last year Sherman Branch had 30,000 visitors”.

Likely the most technical, and unlikely, single track under the care of the Trailblazers is the Back Yard Trail near Marion Diehl park. Basically built “under the radar” by local mountain bike enthusiasts, the BYT was an “illegal” trail, running through a piece of city property, Long explained. “The BYT was in danger of going away. The club got involved. The city and parks department completed a land swap. The Trail Blazers worked with local HOA’s to protect their rights as well,” says Long. The result is a trail that Long calls a “unique gem” with some of the most technical riding in the Charlotte area.

Whether you’re walking, running, or riding, there are lots of things you can do to help out the trail. First, Long suggests that you give the trail a rest after a steady rain. “The red clay soil in the area just gets torn up by mountain bike tires when it’s wet,” says Long. It’s also important to be considerate of other users. Slower riders or runners/walkers should give way to faster movers and always announce when you’re approaching someone, a typical call of “on your left” or “rider back” is sufficient. Consider becoming one of the 270 people responsible for creating this amazing resource by joining the club.

Tom Fraser courtesy of Tarheel Trailblazers

Most of all though, you can volunteer by meeting a crew at a trail and helping to clear obstacles or provide assistance at the fund raising bike race. “People outside of our area are envious of the trail system we have. Over 100 miles within a one hour drive of Charlotte is outstanding. The more people who work on the trails, the more understanding there is for the resource,” says Long.

One of Long’s favorite rides in the area is the Monbo loop at Lake Norman State Park. The 6.5 mile trail alternates directions every year. Long prefers riding it clockwise, the direction for even number years, when it is “really fast and flows well”.

To learn more about the club, read the very informative beginners page, and keep up to date on the status of trails in Charlotte by going to: www.tarheeltrailblazers.com.

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