On this lovely mid-Febuary day, however, it feels like spring. Buds are forming on the Bradford pear trees outside my office window, and the premature warmth makes me itch to get outdoors, though whether it will hold till the weekend is any meteorologist's guess. Nonetheless, I'm ready. My partner recently installed a roof rack on my Subaru so we can load our mountain bikes and go. We've yet to test either the carrier or the bikes, since Mother Nature keeps driving snow and ice our way, and we're not gung-ho enough to try combining slalom-skiing techniques with cycling.
Still, a local bike-shop owner keeps trying to good-naturedly shame us into bundling up, loading the bikes and hitting the trails. "Who cares? Just get out there!" he urged recently. Never mind that our mountain-biking skills are not much better than my ability to drive in snow. Never mind that our bikes are bargain-store specials (I picked Schwinns simply because my first 10-speed was a Varsity and my second was a Le Tour).
Given our beginner status and post-holiday fitness levels, we're planning modest biking ventures that would best be described as family-friendly. If a 4-year-old on training wheels could keep up, it's probably a good trail for us to tackle as a season opener.
One such ride follows Paint Creek in Tennessee's Cherokee National Forest. The stream winds along the north side of the state line before emptying into the French Broad River at Paint Rock, less than seven miles from Hot Springs, N.C. We're planning to start at the Paint Creek Campground, located off Highway 107 in Greene County, Tenn. From there, the 5.5-mile road is paved and flat, with pull-offs to safely accommodate traffic of all sorts. The shady route also features ample opportunities to stop and rest: picnic areas, waterfall views and at least one good swimming hole (though you might want to wait until summer for that).
An option on the North Carolina side is French Broad River Park, off Amboy Road in West Asheville. A 5-foot-wide paved track meanders almost all the way to Carrier Park, where the former Asheville Motor Speedway track awaits (locals have dubbed it the Mellowdrome, which seems just right for my current skill level).
I've also explored the easier rides in the Bent Creek Experimental Forest, which encompasses both the North Carolina Arboretum and Lake Powhatan (be sure to check which trails are open to mountain biking, though). This entire area allows you to mix the easy stuff with as much steep-ride excitement as you can handle. Here you can choose between meandering roads, woodland trails and daredevil single-track.
I remember one such adventure that sent a friend tumbling off her bike when she tried to avoid plunging full-speed down a steep stretch. We spent the rest of the day teasing her, because she'd fallen over after coming to an almost complete stop -- as if the mere thought of roaring down that hill had been enough to short-circuit her sense of balance. I, meanwhile, tackled it the same way I drive in snow: Go absurdly slow and avoid any sudden shifts to left or right.
This year, I'm hoping to get in better shape and gain more skill on the bike. Perhaps I can reclaim some of the gumption I had as a preteen flatlander who'd just moved to upstate South Carolina. That's where I discovered the thrill of barreling downhill on my Schwinn Varsity. I'd also try to ride the trails behind my house, though knobby tires hadn't arrived yet, and I spent a lot of time fixing my bike. But I haven't forgotten what a rush it was, even if I do go slower these days.
To learn more about Bent Creek trails, visit www.ncarboretum.org/Horticulture/trails.htm. For general information about mountain biking in Western North Carolina, try www.mtbikewnc.com/ or www.pisgahareasorba.org. For information about the Paint Creek Recreation Area and corridor, go to www.fs.fed.us/r8/cherokee/recreation/camping/ptckrec.pdf.
Send your outdoors news and ideas to Margaret Williams at email@example.com, or leave a message at 251-1333, ext. 152.