My MTB trip in Richmond VA.

bloaker

Maximum Pace
Nov 14, 2011
1,550
1,221
433
Miura, Japan
#1
Originally written by my buddy James for a forum in the US, so I am actually speaking of myself in the third person! Figured I would share for those interested in the 'other kind' of cycling.


Trips away from home are always good for an internal reset. Spending time with friends, both old and new makes for some great stories and memories.

My trip to Richmond had been planned for months in advance. Bloaker was returning to the States for a brief visit so we decided to put the word out to as many friends that could make it for some sweet single track action on the trails of the James River along downtown Richmond.

The trails here are epic to say the least. They are maintained by the city and offer every imaginable set of trail conditions and challenges you could wish for in a day of mountain biking. There are fast, flowing sections of single track where you feel like the speeders from Empire Strikes Back strafing through the tall trees, then you are thrust into a section of baby-head sized rocks in which you must pick your way through with care and precision. You will encounter some slick rock, wooden bridges and trail sections constructed over boggy areas to multiple creek crossings and even some old concrete building foundations. Richmond is a city steeped in the history of the old south and it has the architecture to prove it. Numerous abandoned mill foundations are slowly reclaimed by mother nature in various places along the trails and it makes for an interesting juxtaposition between the deteriorating brick and steel intertwined with kudzu and foliage.

I had ridden these trails a few times before and always scolded myself for not staying after the ride to explore the historic district of downtown Richmond. This trip would be different. I booked a very nice hotel only a half-mile from the river and made a promise to take in all that the city would offer.

Everyone met in the parking lot at the Tredegar Civil War historic center to meet and greet while we prepped for the ride. Bloaker, myself and four others would round out our rag-tag ensemble.

In order to reach the trail head you must first cross the mighty James river (no relation) on a suspended foot bridge below the bustling interstate above. This puts you onto Belle Isle, an island oasis that once housed Union prisoners in the Civil War. Reclaimed remnants of building foundations jutting from the rock faces are reminders of the storied past. The island now sports a multi-use path around its perimeter and a tight, winding section of single-track in the center that climbs above to expose the beauty of the river and a striking image of downtown. One can roll right to the precipice of rock projecting out over the trail patrons below. Perched upon the ledge offers a perspective not often gained and will get more than a few passers-by to point up in wonder.

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Exiting Belle Isle to the trails in Richmond takes you through a winding, tight section with a chain-link fence along the left side to keep errant ne'er-do-wells from the multiple rail tracks on the other side. Then it's time to throw the bike on your shoulder and hike up some flights of steps to the hilltop. It makes for an interesting procession of riders carrying bikes up the tower.

File pics from a previous excursion:

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The view of the James River from the top:
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bloaker

Maximum Pace
Nov 14, 2011
1,550
1,221
433
Miura, Japan
#2
Atop the hill, you are presented with a trail head that winds and weaves its way along the banks of a creek feeding the river. The trail crosses the creek a few times, you have to duck your head for some low trees and cross a few wooden platforms to keep from sinking in the muck. There is one particularly challenging section of wooden bridge that is merely a few inches wider than your tires and curves around the base of a tree. My attempts at this challenge have always ended with a plunge into the muck but I continue trying. One day I'll keep enough momentum and balance to traverse the whole thing. I opted for the safer route of the wider platform this round.

Popping out of the trail here puts you to the entrance to the Forest Hill section across River Road. We had an impromptu mechanical pit stop to diagnose some wonky shifting. Luckily we have some crack mechanics along with us.

I could not resist the picture when this scene presented itself... :D

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The other James got Steve's bike back to semi-operating condition although he was still frustrated with it. We headed over to the Forest Hills section of trails which is my personal favorite. It's a faster, flowing set of trails that throws a little of everything at you in a short amount of time. You pop in and out from deep forest to skirting an urban landscape while the city mosies alongside. The first obstacle to enter the trail is a narrow, concrete "bridge" that is mostly just a flat shroud for a drainage pipe across a deep embankment. There are no handrails and it's about 30 inches wide so balance, speed and confidence is key to safe crossing.

Once across, you're into a mild climb to a city park at the top.

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Today there was a food truck rodeo in the parking lot of the park. My stomach was saying stop and explore the gastronomic delights that abound, but the group motored on... maybe another time.

The climb gets a bit steeper as you reach the top and some of the guys were beginning to tire. Three of us waited for the remainder to arrive.

I was playing monkey on a pyramid of rock and stone while dodging poison ivy...
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We finally got everyone together for the group shot surrounding the No Bicycles sign. :D
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You can see the trail as it disappears into the woods behind the No bicycle riding sign. It falls and rises along ridges that occasionally brush with the urban environment. It's an interesting and fun section when you pop up behind the city maintenance department and skirt along the edge of another chain-link fence before turning left and plunging back into woods. Pieces of terracotta drainage pipe and ancient pieces of brick litter the trail sides as reminders that this was not always pristine woodland. We cross a rocky path before hitting the bombing run downhill to the creek bottom. Some of the guys have decided on a slower progression as we three contemplate which way to head off next.

Climbing up out of the creek bottom is a bit of a workout with the loose scrabble of rock pieces on the trail. Turning back into the thick vegetation reveals multiple bridge crossings as a runoff creek makes its way to the main tributary we crossed just a few moments ago. As the trail levels out to exposed roots and rock gardens, one must pick a clean line through or be thrown off-course into a steep embankment.

One particularly interesting trail feature is a massive tree burl jutting directly into the path of the trail. It seems to have gained notoriety over the years as small piles of rocks are stacked on top alongside various offerings left by passing hikers and bikers.

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The trails descends and curves back to River road spitting you out almost directly where you entered. It's a short spin up the road to the next trail head.

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The next section of trail is also the most physically demanding. It drops and rises sharply with multiple rock gardens, roots, off-camber descents into creek bottoms followed by a leg searing climb to a slick-rock abutment. To make your way through this section without stopping for a breather or to put a foot down for stability would be a feat unto itself. It's a relentless, albeit wildly fun, section of trail. Luckily, the rain for the few days prior had made the clay/soil mixture just the perfect consistency to keep traction on all but the muddiest crossings.

The slick rock section is not to be taken lightly, or without some forethought as to which line to take. There is a large tree on the right side of the trail just before careening down a hill and thrusting up to the rock abutment. As the rock crosses the trail, it is stepped and pitched hard to the right so as to add an increased element of pucker when hitting it at speed. Too far right and you're down an embankment to the rocks below... too far left and you will catch a handlebar, shoulder or worse on the boulder as it silently taunts all-comers in its path.

One by one, each rider took their aim, leveled their focus and hit the rock face. Most made it through unscathed, one dissented from the trail completely and another made it about halfway before jutting a foot out to prevent a face first scramble down the cliff.

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The trail continues to undulate through the forest following the river's profile until you cross under the bridge with a steeply pitched rock garden awaiting a donation of blood or flesh if anyone should venture off course...

The group crosses the mighty James (has a nice ring don't it...) and dips back into the forest on the other side. I didn't take any pics of this side as it's not as feature laden and mostly just follows an old canal path back to the parking lot. All souls made it back in one piece. Beers, burritos and babes followed soon afterward with carousing and cat-calling into the wee hours of the morning.