Ann Gibson for RootsRated Media in partnership with OrthoCarolina
A sport with a notoriously large learning curve, mountain biking is definitely not for the faint of heart. Let’s face it, any activity associated with terms like yard sale (crash that scatters your gear as if on display), endo (tumble over your handlebars), and mud dive (no explanation necessary) would make most people think twice before giving it a try.
But, if you’re in the Charlotte area and you’d like to start mountain biking, you’re in luck, because a tight-knit community of mountain biking advocates have invested decades in building trails and creating opportunities for cyclists at all levels to get involved. They’ve built miles of beginner-friendly trails and organized group rides, instructional clinics, online forums, and year-round events where you can get together with folks who love the sport. Tap into the Queen City’s MTB network and get ready to shred some trail with our guide to mountain biking in Charlotte.
Take a Lesson
The hills along the Catawba River west of downtown used to be an informal cluster of technical trails maintained by local volunteers. Over the past decade, it’s become the epicenter of Charlotte’s mountain biking community as part of the U.S. National Whitewater Center. Check their calendar of events for Intro to Mountain Biking classes, beginner group rides, and fix-a-flat clinics. Rent your bike and helmet onsite to try out more than 13 miles of beginner trails. When you’re ready for more, there’s 30 more miles of intermediate and advanced trails, and MTB endurance races that are as much fun for novice spectators as they are for the experienced participants.
Recap the day’s ride over craft beer and snacks just up the hill from the trails at the River’s Edge Grill. When you’ve mastered the basics, you can shop for your own mountain biking gear and accessories at the Center’s outfitter store.
Train on Beginner Trails
One of the most forgiving beginner rides in Charlotte is the 5.75-mile trail at Colonel Francis Beatty Park in Matthews. Mostly level singletrack offers a smooth ride, so your biggest challenge will be sharing the trail with runners and dog-walkers on this multi-use loop. After the ride, stop by Sweet Union Brewing Company for one of their signature IPAs.
Another novice trail, the 11.6-mile Sherman Branch, introduces you to an easy flow of moderate climbs and descents. Ride 6.9 miles on the Main Trail, or extend your ride another 1.8 miles on the Roller Coaster and 2.1 miles on the Big Lake Trail. Rated intermediate for distance, advanced features like jumps, berms, and rock gardens are optional and easily bypassed on side trails. Ride in a clockwise direction from the trailhead kiosk for optimum flow, and then stop at Resident Culture Brewing Company on your way back to Charlotte for 10 beers on tap, food trucks, and pizza delivery from Plaza Midwood’s Pure Pizza.
A third novice option adds more elevation, significantly more distance, and tons of fun. The Itusi Trail at Lake Norman State Park delivers more than 30 miles of rolling singletrack through hardwood forest along the shores of Lake Norman. It’s fast and flowy, with long straightaways and punchy climbs that give you a workout without pushing your limits. Riding the Itusi is a smooth, non-technical confidence-builder and a perfect stepping-stone to intermediate trails in the Charlotte region. After your ride, hit Lake Norman breweries Ass Clown, D9, and Eleven Lakes on your way home.
Have Your Bike Fitted
With a bit of experience under your belt, it’s time to invest in your own gear. It’s easy to injure yourself on a bike that’s too small or lose control on a bike that’s too large, so getting fitted at one of the local bike shops specializing in mountain biking gear is an important first step.
Talk to the experienced cyclists at Bicycle Sport, Trek, Queen City Bicycles, South Main Cycles, REI in Pineville and North Charlotte, and The Cycle Path and try out several models before making an investment. Discuss the trails you’ll be riding and your style—recreational, aggressive, fast and flowy, technical—so they can make recommendations. There are several bike styles to choose from, including bikes with no suspension (best for greenways and smooth, non-technical trails), hardtail suspension that absorbs impact at the front wheel, and full suspension to absorb the hits of intermediate to advanced trails. Do you like to ride singletrack, doubletrack (like forest service fire roads), or the narrow wooden bridges, jumps, and stacked berms of terrain parks? Select your bike style and tire size and thickness based on these factors.
Along with a properly-fitted bike, other essentials include a helmet, hydration system, bike shorts, gloves, and eye protection. As you gain experience, you may want to consider installing a clip-in pedal and shoe system to give you more power and control.
Get Group Support
For almost 30 years, the Tarheel Trailblazers have been maintaining and expanding trails throughout the Charlotte region. Get ride information from their online forum, and check trail ratings, conditions, and descriptions before you leave home. Attend monthly meetings and volunteer at trail work days to connect with other members.
Another membership organization, the Dirt Divas, focus on introducing women to mountain biking. They offer weekly rides on local trails and full-day rides in the mountains of the Carolinas and Virginia. Twice a year they plan a weekend trip, plus they hold monthly meetings and trail maintenance days—all great ways to find local biking buddies.