Issue Twenty Two

DON’T BOO. BUILD.

Building A Community We Want To Be A Part Of

WORDS & PHOTOS x Colt Fetters

5 July 2017
Part One

Nothing in the Deep South

The ‘Deep South’ isn’t quite known for its mountain biking. Don’t get me wrong, quality trails are popping up here and there but it’s nothing like the wild west, with its plethora of public land and endless ribbons of singletrack. Here in the south, where public land is as uncommon as fat-free butter, we have to fight for our trails. However growing from the sweat and toil of the local community sprouts Chewacla State Park, an oasis of singletrack in Auburn, Eastern Alabama, USA.

Chewacla is a bit of an anomaly compared with neighboring regions. It has more than 25 miles of trail, community grillings, a blooming high school National Interscholastic Cycling Association (NICA) team and weekly group rides for women, children and everyone in between. Its cycling community is healthy, but it hasn’t always been this way.

Five years before the Central Alabama Mountain Pedalers (CAMP) was established in 2012, purpose-built singletrack in Auburn didn’t really exist. Instead, mountain bikers took to the local Auburn University Campus to huck stairs, speed down the concourse, and poach the president’s lawn. The one mountain bike trail in town was a steep, technical piece of singletrack built in the 1980s for the first NORBA race east of the Mississippi. (The trail is now called Heartbreak Hill – an apt description.) The town’s small mountain bike community didn’t make a conscious decision to build Heartbreak Hill, but projects like this would later be thoroughly thought through and perfectly executed.

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Part Two

Gold Rush

When Chewalca State Park first granted permission to build singletrack, the community was psyched… maybe too psyched. Wisely, the park picked a small tract of land in a hard to reach area and gave a hesitant nod. Novice trail builders rushed out like it was the California gold rush, building trails as fast as they possibly could. And who could blame them? Finding public land to build trail isn’t easy in the deep south. When asked now, everyone would admit that it was a mess, CAMP included. It lacked vision and the builders were only making trails for themselves. It wasn’t long before they recognized they needed to slow down. But even more importantly, they knew they needed to find some help.

To get organized, the prominent trail builders got together at the local bike shop to create a plan. Most of them didn’t know each other well, but they had a few things in common: a passion for craft beer, cycling, and the drive to build a mountain bike community in the city of Auburn. So they gathered to drink beer and talk about the future – much like they do today. After a while, the group decided to contact the International Mountain Bike Association (IMBA) to learn more about how to build trail in a sustainable manner. Two things came of this:

1) The group organized and formed the Central Alabama Mountain Pedalers.

2) The IMBA trail crew came to Chewacla to facilitate a weekend trail building course for the club.

That weekend workshop changed CAMP’s outlook. It learned how to plan a trail network, how to build superb trails using natural features, and how to build sustainably. More importantly, CAMP’s motivation evolved – instead creating trails just for themselves, it focused on building trails for everyone.

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Part Three

Going Big

Without a local trail system, one wonders: If they build it, will anyone come out and ride it? Well, the answer was obvious from the start in Auburn. Even though a mountain bike community didn’t quite exist, it was soon evident that the people wanted trail. CAMP hosted trail building sessions on weeknights and had up to 30 people show up. They were building six to 10 miles of singletrack a year, amazing the IMBA who couldn’t believe how much was being built. And it wasn’t just the length of the trails, it was the quality. These early trails – many believe – are still some of the best in the park.

Orchestrating the first grant was monumental for the club. It earnt $130,000 to purchase tools and outsource construction of the much-anticipated gravity trails. The money was extremely helpful and the recognition helped legitimize CAMP in the eyes of the broader Auburn community.

To finalize the grant, CAMP needed help from the city – it needed a revolving loan. So the group devised a plan to show the city what was happening at the park. It had to prove that the trails it was building weren’t just part of a glorified skate park. CAMP invited the local tourism bureau and the mayor for a tour during a typical day in the park. The idea was to impress these folks, so a little dressing up and staged showcasing was in order.

Everyone who owned a mountain bike was invited out to the park that day, including a field full of toddlers rolling around on striders that were purchased via donations to the club. CAMP even assigned a 70-year-old man to roll the 15-foot wall ride when prompted. As the group toured the park, the officials were awestruck by the number of cyclists using the trail network. As they walked by the wall, the old man dropped-in and railed the top of the wooden structure. The mayor whipped his head around and watched the septuagenarian ride away. He was dumbfounded.

Needless to say, the officials were impressed by the diversity of the riders on the trails. What really amazed the bureau and the mayor was that this community had been created out of nothing – with no help from the city… until now. That day sealed the deal, the city agreed to help with the loan to keep the operation running.

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Part Four

Commnuities

CAMP is built from strong relationships. Not just with the city or the tourism bureau but in the people who ride the trails and the wider community that embraces them. For instance, Dale the founder of Oskar Blues Brewery, is an Auburn graduate and an avid mountain biker. CAMP members have a penchant craft beer so reaching out to Dale was a no brainer. However, the difficult part was getting Dale’s attention. By happenstance one-day, the club president Philip received a call. It was a local restaurant owner tipping him off that Dale was in town and was going to be riding the trails at Chewacla that day. So, like any good stalker, Philip studied photos of Dale so he could recognize him, and then he grabbed his bike and rushed out to the park. He waited all day for him to show, and finally, he did.

Philip walked straight over to him, introduced himself and offered Dale a tour of the park. Through small talk, Phillip learned that Dale had cut his teeth mountain biking at Chewacla as a college student and was already familiar with the age-old NORBA trail. After re-riding the familiar trail, Philip proceeded to show him the recently built tracks. They rode everything in the park and, like many good rides, they ended at the wall.

Dale went big. Riding near the top of the embankment and in a moment of hesitation, he unclipped near the top. He planted a foot and swiftly re-clipped, riding back down safely. He skidded to a stop and excitedly exclaimed: “Holy shit! This is Alabama?” It was probably that ride when Dale decided to help support the club and still he continues to do so by donating canned beverages, funds and even a REEB bicycle to the local NICA team. This is just one example of many relationships that CAMP has created and nurtured through the years.

During 2015, Alabama was suffering through a budget crisis and was forced to consider closing some specific state parks. Originally, 15 of the 22 parks in the state were placed on a closure list (luckily only 5 of those parks were ultimately closed). Parks that could generate enough revenue to maintain operations were kept off the chopping block. The attendance numbers for the park before CAMP was formed were not impressive. Over the last 5 years, the attendance has almost tripled. Today, if you ask the Chewacla State Park committee what its fate would have been without the mountain biking community, it would answer that CAMP saved the state park – it would not exist without it.

Park attendance continues to climb as new users travel to Chewacla to utilize the trails. The relationship between CAMP and the state park is mutually beneficial – the club gets prime real-estate to build singletrack and the State Park generates revenue from the users of those trails.

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Part Five

Moving Forward

When you ask CAMP members why it’s so successful, the group will tell you that relationships are the key and they must be nurtured. Just as critical to their success is the drive to always go BIG with everything they do. This attitude is evidenced in the 35-foot road gap, wood-laden gravity trails, massive dirt jumps and the volume of singletrack packed into the relative small 696-acre park.

This club also knows how to throw a party, regularly hosting live music, film screenings, folks jumping sports cars and flaming bonfires alike. And most importantly, the grill – the CAMP grill is legendary. Built on the bed of a trailer, it takes 4 bags of charcoal to fill.  Every Tuesday night, this grill is chock-full for the group ride. Bacon wrapped jalapeno poppers, New York strip, chicken thighs, seasoned mushrooms, local Conecuh sausage links, and piles of okra are the norm. Locals attend the group ride religiously – for many it’s their favorite part of the week. At one point in the early years, club members asked one another: “Should we charge people for these events?”

“Hell no!” Was the response after only a moment’s hesitation. And that’s how it’s been ever since. Whenever CAMP hosts an event, everyone’s welcome. You better like hoppy beer and okra, though.

When other cycling clubs see what CAMP has accomplished, they ask for advice. Asker beware though, the club is a driven group of individuals, ones who are never willing to accept the status quo. Its goal is to stay two steps ahead and always build next-level trails that other local groups can’t fathom. It wants to be out front.

CAMP has no interest in copying what other folks are doing, it’s focused on what’s right for itself and its members. Through the years, this club has remained open-minded to new styles of riding. Starting with old school XC trails, then to flow trail, gravity trails, dirt jumps, freeride, and even BMX. Many attribute its success to its support of young, passionate riders’ visions. By giving youngins the power and guidance to build the kind of trail they are psyched about, they invest in the future of mountain biking. It’s easy for a club to hold the reins tight and stick to the tried and true, but that’s just not CAMP’s style.

Before CAMP, mountain bikers had nothing in Auburn. No trails, no community. Instead of whining, they decided to do something about it. They built the community they wanted to be a part of.

Don’t boo. Build!

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The End
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