A sea of cyclists rolls toward the coast

Fred McCormick
Black Mountain News

It's not unusual to see people outdoors in the Swannanoa Valley on a weekend in the early days of October. Catching a glimpse of a few cyclists cruising through town or out in the countryside is a regular occurrence. 

But on the morning of Sunday, Sept. 30, when the 20th annual Mountains to Coast Ride gets underway from the center of town, the sight of a thousand cyclists bound for the coast will be one to behold.

A group of cyclists tour the North Fork Valley in Black Mountain last October.

Cycle North Carolina, organized by North Carolina Amateur Sports, is a nonprofit organization that consists of three annual events in the state. A two-day coastal ride kicks off the spring while a mountain ride takes place in the summer. 

In the fall, a much longer seven-day ride takes cyclists from town-to-town across the state as they make their way from the mountains to the coast. 

"Back in 1999, N.C. Amateur Sports along with the N.C. Division of Tourism, which is now Visit North Carolina, organized the first one with N.C. Department of Transportation and Capitol Broadcasting Company started a mountains-to-coast ride," said N.C. Amateur Sports president Chuck Hobgood. "It was not only to promote cycling in the state, but also to help generate an economic impact on small towns throughout N.C."

Riders take to the road to kick off the Mountains to Coast Ride, which started in Jefferson last year.

Every year the ride begins in a different town on the western side of the state. Participants often arrive early, stay in local hotels and experience what the surrounding areas have to offer, Hobgood said. This year will mark the second time Black Mountain has served as the starting location.

"Black Mountain is a great town and we love visiting," he said. "People love coming there, so we're really excited."

Many cyclists who participate in the Mountains to Sea Ride, which starts in Black Mountain on Sunday, Sept. 30, will camp the night before.

While some riders will begin arriving days before the event, many will show up on Sept. 29 when buses bring them from Oak Island and the Raleigh-Durham area. Black Mountain-based cycling company Velo Girl Rides will lead a warm-up that afternoon. 

"With us being the start town, which is a pretty big deal, as people roll into town they'd like to have some activities to participate in," said Jennifer Billstrom, who owns Velo Girl Rides with her husband David. "Cyclists already like to do a warm-up ride before they do a big event like this so I decided to take them on a route I've traveled hundreds of times."

Billstrom will lead riders from the center of town.

"We'll roll out past Louise's and to The Oaks trail," she said. "We'll make a lap around the community garden and then head out toward the North Fork Valley and take the left fork and the right fork."

The ride will be a loop of 10-15 miles, the Black Mountain resident said. 

"Generally on a more social ride like this we'll stop and talk about different things in the area," Billstrom said. "In Montreat, for example, we'll call attention to the fact there's so many hiking trails. When we go through North Fork Left Fork we talk about 'Three Billboards...' of course."

A cyclist on a tour with Velo Girl Rides passes an area in the North Fork Valley in which scenes from the award-winning film "Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri" were shot.

The opportunity for Black Mountain to host the start of the ride is a big one, Billstrom said. 

"For a lot of he people it's an introduction to the town," she said. "We hope they enjoy it and come back. This is a chance to show people just how great Black Mountain can be."

The first leg of the ride will take cyclists through Old Fort, Marion Tailgate Farmers Market, Lake James, downtown Glenn Alpine and onto Morganton. From there riders will head to Mooresville on the second day. The Mountains to Coast Ride will finish in Middleton Park in Oak Island on Saturday, Oct. 6. 

While Hurricane Florence threatened the event this year, Hobgood has explored the route and said the ride is happening. 

"This ride is important to the towns it goes through," he said. "Everything looks really good, and those destinations all expressed a desire to see it happen. We're excited to get it going."