Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Richmond, VA: Buttermilk and The Unpainted Two-By-Four

Remember to yield to this dude if you see him on the trails.

I rounded what I guessed would be the last in a series of switchbacks on my way down a steep embankment to the James River near Richmond, Virginia.  I was already well behind my seat to compensate for the steep downward angle and travelling beyond a comfortable speed.  Ahead of me appeared a wooden ramp structure with one more ninety degree turn.  A single two-by-four was all that stood between my inertia filled body and a ten foot dive onto rocks and pavement below.  As my tires skidded onto the dirt covered wood it was all I could do to keep them from locking.  As I looked ahead at the fast approaching two-by-four, I couldn't help but notice that it was conspicuously fresh looking and unpainted.

I clearly wasn't the first person to test that ramp.

If you follow the James River upstream from the Atlantic, it meanders slow and deep until reaching a set of cascading rapids that mark the line between the lowlands of Virginia and the mountainous interior.  On the banks of those rapids lies the city of Richmond.
Translation, "Bitch got what he deserved!"

It was early April and my wife and I were headed to Richmond for a wedding.  Although I had driven through the city a handful of times, little had stuck in my memory beyond the wide highway skirting around the city or the signs for the home of Marlborough cigarettes.  That is to say, I knew virtually nothing.

I heard that it had some decent biking, but figured, "How good can their trails be?  They're right in the city."

My first hint that Richmond would defy expectations came when I looked online to buy a cheap mountain bike for my stay there.  I had researched rentals and found that they would set me back about $30 per day.  At three to four days of riding,  I was looking at throwing down a good chunk of change.  In theory, I reasoned that Richmond was decidedly in the South, where just about everything is cheaper than up North.  Just like I had found a cheap bike during a trip to Florida, I figured I could find a hardtail for less than I would spend to rent a bike for four days.  Afterwards I could donate the bike to a local cause and not feel like my money had been thrown into a bottomless pit.  After a little searching on Craigslist I quickly realized that the market price for a hard tail was significantly higher than I had expected.  And it wasn't for lack of supply.  There were a lot of bikes for sale, but the prices were more like those found in Boston than Florida.  Something was up.

When I arrived in Richmond, that something became readily apparent.  The city had a flourishing bike culture.  And whereas New York has the ironic fixie hipster bike culture, and Boston has a decidedly lycra clad road biking culture- Richmond is the land of the hard tail mountain bike.  I saw dozens upon dozens of people biking during my weekend there, and only a handful were on road bikes.

For the folks who enjoy near drowning experiences.
The city was vibrant and alive with activity- and there were bikers everywhere.  This was a far cry from other southern cities like Charlotte or especially Atlanta where bikers rarely dared venture out on the local roads.  With the University of Richmond, Virginia Commonwealth University and other smaller schools there are over 30,000 students that live, work and play in the area.  In addition, the last ten years have been kind to the state of Virginia: with expansions of federal jobs in the DC area, a steady stream of money has flowed through Richmond.

As we rolled through urban neighborhoods on a warm early spring eve, we passed endless rows of quaint single family homes interrupted by a block of restaurants with folks dining outdoors or listening to live music.

And these vibrant neighborhoods are complimented by one hell of a backyard.  Within a stone's throw of the downtown  is a world class whitewater playground on the James River.  A healthy set of Class III-V rapids await those who will make the short trek down to the riverbank.   A ribbon of public land also runs along both sides of the river connecting several trail systems making a decent ten mile singletrack loop.

And bike rentals!
Thwarted with my plan to purchase a bike, I decided upon Riverside Outfitters for my bike rental.  It was close enough to the trail head that I could ride directly from their office without having to risk my life on busy roads.

I rolled into their parking lot on a Sunday afternoon, and a sign directed me to the back where the one guy on duty was cutting firewood.  He set me up with a bike, gave me some recommendations on which way to ride, a map, and sent me on my way.  The mood was decidedly friendly, and helpful. I'd recommend these guys for a rafting trip in a heartbeat.  But, to be honest, I was unimpressed with my bike rental.  It was a fairly heavy KHS Alite 300 hardtail with a terrible front fork and rim brakes.  Used to riding a dual suspension bike with disc brakes, the KHS took some getting used to.  I brought my pedals, which helped ease the transition, somewhat.

The rentals.  Which weighs more?
I was pressed for time so I drove over to the Reedy Creek trail head and hit a loop through Forest Hill Park to warm up.  Despite my (numerous) complaints about the rental, I soon forgot all about my bike and it was all about the trails.  The loop through the park was smooth and breezy.  While there I met up with a local who was more than happy to show me around.

We set out on Buttermilk, the trail that runs on the southern bank of the river up to Belle Isle Park.  The trail was fairly deserted until we reached Belle Isle.  Given it was a Sunday afternoon, there were throngs of people out enjoying the warm spring weather.  However, almost as soon as we left the parking lot heading west on the North Bank trail, the crowds disappeared and we encountered only the occasional biker or hiker.
Our loop required that we run a short section through a residential area where my local guide had parked.  He and I parted, and I continued west.

You should see the looks I get
with this t-shirt.
I jumped back into the woods and rolled down the long set of switchbacks to my date with an unpainted two-by-four down by the riverside.  As I skidded down the wooden ramp, my gaze zeroed in on the flat heads of two nails hammered into the fresh wood.  As they stared coldly back at me, I swung my rear wheel around and safely rolled through the corner and down  to the path below.  Had the ramp been the least bit wet, I would've tested that new two-by-four, and I'm guessing I would have won that collision- or lost, depending on how you look at it.

With a surge of adrenaline now coursing through my veins I flew along the trail by the river then up the next climb back to the ridge above.  In fact, to be honest, I can't even remember that climb I was so amped from my wild ride down the switchbacks.  After crossing a busy bridge to the south bank, I headed east to complete my loop.  The next few miles were by far the most enjoyable of the afternoon.  Back on Buttermilk, this section along the river was fast and flowy with just enough tricky rock to keep me on my toes.  I danced along the trail, navigating through the various rock gardens and rolling along fast sections cut into the steep bank until I returned to the parking lot.

What's a trail review without a picture
of the trail?
Together the North Bank Trail, Buttermilk and Forest Hill Park make an excellent ten mile loop.  I left the trails with a big smile on my face, and the day's adventures only underscored an important lesson that the bells and whistles on your bike are less important than great trails and good company.   It doesn't matter if you don't have the newest in 27.5", 11 gear, carbon fiber technology:  Just get out and ride.

All told, Richmond makes a perfect destination for those looking to mix their urban pursuits with a little bit of adventure, or just as a stopover on your way further South.  Either way, you should bring your hardtail.  And who knows, maybe the local food and music scene may even convince you to stay for a while.

Just keep an eye out for an unpainted two-by-four.

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