Much like the old coal company or hardware stores of our region’s past, the shops in the New River Gorge often serve a purpose beyond retail. The clear cut business side, well…. it’s selling people stuff… but they are also cultural hubs that inspire discourse, build community and strengthen relationships. You can find this in many small towns but it seems to thrive in a mountain town. Because of this, I knew walking into Marathon Bicycle Company on a Friday afternoon that this visit could never be JUST about bikes.

I knew walking into Marathon Bike Company on a Friday afternoon that this visit could never be JUST about bikes.

My boot heels thumped on the new to us pine plank floors. They are warm with the patina of a 100 years and creaking with a nostalgia trigger few can deny. While it was pleasant, I can’t say I was surprised to find the women responsible for these floors dropping off her bike for some work. Elizabeth Morton, another local, is the designer who recently navigated Marathon through a rebranding AND retail space renovation. (You can read more about Elizabeth here).

Adam Stephens, the owner of Marathon Bicycle Company, was doing what he does best. Figuring our exactly what would serve Elizabeth’s needs to improve her riding experience. It’s a reflection of the company’s mission statement – Promoting a lifestyle of cycling through education and encouragement.

It’s a reflection of the company’s mission statement – Promoting a lifestyle of cycling through education and encouragement.

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Adam is a native who returned to his home state to open a new cycling shop in Fayetteville, West Virginia. It’s a story of another person finding a passion for an amazing region, despite themselves. And, it’s a story we’ll explore more closely in an upcoming article. To know Adam, you have to know a little about cycling in the Gorge – so let’s go there first.

We settled into the back of the shop, a stark and greasy contrast to the newly renovated retail space. It’s where work gets done.

Being a recent convert to mountain biking I don’t really have a vast knowledge of the cycling culture in West Virginia. Or, anywhere for that matter. Luckily, Adam does, and most importantly he has a passion for biking, especially in the New River Gorge Region. We settled into the back of the shop, a stark and greasy contrast to the newly renovated retail space. It’s the shop, SHOP where work gets done. Surrounded by a gallery of floor to ceiling tools Adam started converting Elizabeth’s bike to a tubeless setup. (Meaning he was adding tires that are pressure sealed to an internal bead lock on their wheel voiding the need for a traditional inner tube. Pretty similar to how our car tires work.) In the process he started to weave the tale of the biking community in the New River Gorge.

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“Cycling is a very, VERY broad sport. Where as climbing is like, well, trad or sport.” Adam began.

“Well yeah…” I realize out loud. “Because we all know… how to bike, more or less.”

Adam drives it home “Your first mode of transportation….. is a BIKE.

Your first taste of FREEDOM growing up…. is a bike.

You can get all the way across town and back in like 10 minutes and beat curfew. It becomes your first mode, your first tool for freedom.”

This struck home powerfully, and I certainly agreed. I did not, however, assert that my first mode of freedom was actually a Dukes of Hazard Big Wheel complete with spin out lever and roll bar.

This struck home powerfully, and I certainly agreed. I did not, however, assert that my first mode of freedom was actually a Dukes of Hazard Big Wheel complete with spin out lever and roll bar. The roll bar of course is critical safety equipment on a Big Wheel… especially when it’s lower than the rider’s head.

My first bike came soon after. It was a metallic blue hand-me-down from my sister. It was designed to become a “boy bike” after my sister’s use via the addition of a bolt in rack-me bar. It was a daft move by my always frugal parents… but not exactly what a young boy dreams of. I schemed relentlessly on ways to turn it into a BMX while riding it off ramps made from bricks and plywood, through dry creek beds and all kinds of places completely inappropriate places for it’s design. I remember that bike to this day.

Squirrel! Back to Marathon…

When Adam returned to Fayetteville, West Virginia to open Marathon the community was small. He can literally rattle off the names of the cyclist who were committed to biking, the core cyclists at the time. There were 5 or 10 of them, in a town of about 3000. Now, 10 years later he estimates the biking community of regular riders to be in the ballpark of 100 people. Still, there’s more to the story of mountain biking in the New River Gorge Region…

“The New River Gorge is above and beyond anything I ever hoped for. We have made some of the largest¬† strides…. largest gains…. the largest forward momentum…. of any national park in the country. We should be very proud of that.

We have an extensive, mountain bike specific, trail network. Meaning the Arrowhead trail systems, and others that where created with the recent addendum.”
I did not realize this, but, mountain bikers where once viewed by the National Park Service, at least in terms of regulations, as “mechanized transportation”. From a regulation perspective that made them the same categorically as ATVs, snow mobiles, or other motorized off road vehicles. Obviously a mountain bike differs significantly from gas powered vehicles in the context of impact, and requires less trail to support effectively. It’s a lot like comparing an 18 wheeler to a Kia. Or maybe a Big Wheel.

It’s a lot like comparing an 18 wheeler to a Kia. Or maybe a Big Wheel.

It happened basically by accident. Mountain biking, Adam explained, is a fairly new sport. It came around in the 80’s long after Park regulations had been established, and after 1978 when the fairly young New River Gorge National River was founded. Older sports like mountaineering paved the way for logical regulations for modern climbing… but with no predecessor mountain biking was an odd child that lawmakers weren’t sure how to manage.

The awesome part is… recent national legislation defined mountain biking in a new category, law wise, that accurately reflects the sport. With that change came the ability to create new, and expand existing, trail systems that are purpose built for mountain biking.

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Consider this. The New River Gorge National River covers about 70,000 acres of public land which, proportionally, has a very small amount of trails and they are concentrated in a few core areas of the park. The area around Fayetteville, West Virginia is one of the largest trail concentrations. The Arrowhead Trail System, near Kaymoor, was recently built through a massive partnership with the Boy Scouts of America. It is really the only purpose built trail system serving mountain biking in the park.

Now don’t get me wrong, it serves the need very well. Any given day you’ll find bikers enjoying the miles of trails that navigate the wooded hills situated on the rim of the New River Gorge. You often, in fact, catch a glimpse of the Gorge from some of the trails. Walkers and hikers also take advantage of this new resource.

As a runner I’ve personally¬† seen the trail system increase biker traffic on the trails which previously existed but now have multiple access points and convenient parking as a result of the Arrowhead Trails. It’s great to see new folks, and groups of folks, cruising the trails and fire roads which I often run for days on end without encountering another person on. While I strive for the peace of solitude on my runs, the traffic increase still doesn’t have the reach that would make it inescapable.

So where to we go from here? A vast park with minimal trails is a serious opportunity for mountain biking in the New River Gorge Region of West Virginia.

A vast park with minimal trails is a serious opportunity for mountain biking in the New River Gorge Region of West Virginia.

Adam drew a comparison to Moab, Utah.

“Moab has crazy hard trails that experienced mountain bikers seek out (to go ride).”
It’s a mountain biking destination that is well known, and bucket listed, in our country. It started it’s legacy because of the challenging trails it offers to an elite level of riders that bike at a high level of expertise. BUT, it draws thousands each year. And the majority of those folks ride the much more friendly Slick Rock trail… and check an experience of their list.

But the reason they’re going there is because, it’s, like, the cool mountain bike area that all the hardcore mountain bikers want to do. So they want to go do it…”

Adam believes with that model in mind the New River Gorge has an opportunity at hand.

“It’s what we need here. Arrowhead’s great, don’t get me wrong….

BUT….

Having a harder trail. Longer distance. Where you get to go on a full on epic ride, that will help define riding in the New River Gorge as legit”.

And it is legit. People like Adam, and the strong but welcoming cycling community in the New River Gorge assures that daily. So roll out here and join us. Revisit that moment when we first grabbed the rubber grips of freedom and peddled across town…. knowing we could get back before the street lights came on.