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Bike the Bay?

A rider at Waterworks Park. Photo by City of Annapolis.

Mountain Biking Thrives in Unexpected Places 

By Steve Adams 

If, like others across the country, the pandemic kept you out of your usual gym, yoga studio, lap pool, or sports league, you probably had to get creative with your fitness routine. 

Some folks ponied up thousands for Pelotons and others adapted to all-weather power walking, hiking or running in the great outdoors. One activity that has experienced a surprising surge in popularity throughout the country was mountain biking. 

Cycling market research company NDP Group reported that nationwide sales of front-suspension mountain bikes were up more than 150 percent in April 2020 compared to April 2019, proving early-pandemic growth. 

The uptick was obvious in trail meccas like Denver, upstate New York, and California. But even here in the relatively flat Bay region, I saw a steady flow of bike-topped cars headed for the hills every weekend with my own eyes. Local bike shops experienced an unprecedented demand for bikes and had trouble keeping them stocked. And the boom hasn’t stopped.  

“Trail use overall increased greatly during the pandemic,” says Dave Magill, Maryland Advocacy Director of Mid-Atlantic Off Road Enthusiasts (MORE). “National and regional numbers suggest increases of 30 percent or more, and this applies to mountain bikes as well. We’ve seen it in crowded trailhead parking lots, greater turnout for the beginner rides that we host, and increasing numbers of people becoming MORE members. And in many bicycle shops being sold out of bikes.” 

“The bike industry as a whole has experienced a huge increase in demand,” a manager at Bike Doctor Annapolis confirmed. “It started with kids bikes when the schools shut down, and demand for adult bikes quickly followed when parents decided they wanted to join them. Then, after ‘cabin fever’ seemed to set in, things really took off.”  

Many bike shops struggled to meet the demand. 

“We saw a huge increase in business due to COVID travel restrictions and the fact that trails were one of the few places where people could get out and enjoy themselves,” said TrailWerks Cyclery manager MK. “However, we’ve also experienced major supply chain disruptions, with sourcing products and parts often very difficult due to production and shipping delays, as well as shortages in raw materials.” 

Annapolis Velo’s Chris Adair sees the good and the bad.  

“The positive rests in the fact that the pandemic definitely increased the interest in riding bikes, both road and mountain, with the most growth coming from first-time bike riders and amongst people looking for a new avenue for exercise. But it also introduced the setback of shortages … Since the summer of 2020 our shop, as well as most in Annapolis and across the U.S., have not had a stable inventory even now, roughly a year later.” 

Much More Than Exercise 

“With the closure of gyms and the decrease of cars on the roads, biking became an attractive way to release pent-up quarantined energy, get outdoors, and get some exercise in a way that is fun, challenging, and healthy,” says Nick Wigston, general manager at custom mountain bike seller Zinn Cycles. “What makes mountain biking a unique form of exercise is that while it works every major muscle group, it’s low impact and easier on your joints. Also, since it involves some quick decision making and navigating of obstacles, you can increase your reflex skills, stamina, and brainpower, all while enjoying the natural endorphin boost, mood enhancing, and fitness benefits.” 

Taking a bike to the trails is not what you see on TV, says outdoor adventure guide Chris Emery. “You don’t have to careen down rocky trails or hit jumps, as most mountain bikers actually stay on tame trails that are less risky than riding on a city street, plus biking puts less wear and tear on your joints than running and walking. Mountain bikes were a great choice during the pandemic because many trails are off the beaten path, meaning you’ll encounter fewer people than, say, when riding along a beach boardwalk or some other paved bike lane, and when you’re in a nature reserve or open space park you have a lot more choices for places to stop where you’re away from other people.” 

Siblings Michelle (left) and Mike Hornfeck stop for a break on the trails at Waterworks Park. Photo by Steve Adams.

Choose Your Adventure 

Every rider likes something different when it comes to choosing a trail. Most, though, are looking for something different than the flat, paved straightaways of the roads. 

“It’s a spectrum, but I would say that there are two broad categories of trails: flowy and smooth, or rocky and technically challenging,” said Magill. “Although media focuses on the more challenging side of mountain biking, many people enjoy smooth trails like the ones that we can create in our area on the clay and sandy soils.” 

MORE Vice President David Beugelmans agreed, noting that “mountain biking has expanded from a hardcore niche activity to something that entire families enjoy due to the diversity in both the type and length of trails.” 

Indeed, local enthusiasts I spoke to embrace a variety of trails. Patrick Emerson says that for him “hills are a must, but I also prefer a smoother trail that I can get some speed on,” whereas Michelle Hornfeck reported that “sometimes I want fast and flowy, sometimes I want rocky and rooty and challenging.” 

You can find a bit of both at two spots in Anne Arundel County: Waterworks Park and Bacon Ridge Natural Area

Destination Trails 

“When I started looking for good places to go mountain biking in the area, Waterworks and Bacon Ridge were the clear hot spots,” said Damian DeVille, a rider from Severna Park who recently returned to the sport after several years. “At Waterworks, I really like the ‘flow’ of the trail. It follows the contours of the land and lets you go fast but also keeps you on your toes. Honestly, it makes me feel like I’m riding a speeder bike from Star Wars.” 

This contour-following flow was exactly what MORE and its partners, including TrailWerks, were going for when they first began building the park’s single-track trails many years ago. 

“What may be surprising is the sustainable trail techniques MORE uses to build trails also make for a fun mountain biking experience,” said Beugelmans. “When you walk or ride the trails at Bacon Ridge and Waterworks, you’ll notice that the trails are constantly changing directions and grades as they follow the natural contours of the hillside. There’s a science behind this, with the primary intent to control water flow and prevent erosion. At the same time, these design techniques also make for a challenging and fun riding experience because the trail is constantly changing directions and grades, so it’s a win-win.” 

“The trail design and build teams at Waterworks and Bacon Ridge got so many things right,” echoed Magill. “Due to the sandy soils the land has many ups and downs, as well as short steep turns and gullies, and the trails follow these features beautifully. The trails climb and descend hills at good angles, using sustainable design techniques that get water off the trails quickly to prevent erosion, and this makes the flow of the trails very interesting. There are virtually no straight lines throughout the entire trail system, meaning that you can have a very satisfying and fun outing regardless of how long you want it to be.” 

MORE designed Waterworks and Bacon Ridge as ‘stacked loop’ trail systems, meaning the trails are organized into smaller loops with connector trails between them. This allows beginners to only ride (or hike) a short distance by using only one loop, while more advanced riders can combine multiple loops for a longer ride. “This has created a critical mass of trails that have made the region a true riding destination,” says Beugelmans. “In fact, if you combine all of Bacon Ridge and Waterworks into one ride it becomes an epic 33-mile adventure.” 

While you can expect a similar ride through heavily-wooded landscapes on trails next to steep ledges at either park, they each offer some unique sights to see. Among them are three fresh water fishing ponds and a large field filled with 55,000 solar panels at Waterworks, which also has a few bridge crossings, and a graveyard of old cars at Bacon Ridge.  

In the future, Magill envisions a 40-mile-plus, fully interconnected trail system and an “annual epic ride event” that will allow hundreds of riders to ride the entire trail system and “experience the best of all Anne Arundel County trails in a single day.” 

MORE just awarded the City of Annapolis the Land Manger of the Year award earlier this year for allowing volunteers at Waterworks Park to create miles of hiking and biking trails. And Beugelmans says MORE has many more miles planned. 

“After about a decade of advocacy we’ve been able to create roughly 14 miles of trails at Bacon Ridge and, after the City of Annapolis offered us the opportunity to recreate our success at Waterworks three years ago, about 13 miles were all designed and built by volunteers from the local community at no cost to the city or county,” said Beugelmans. “We are planning to build additional trails at Bacon Ridge, explore possibilities to remediate and reroute severely eroded trails in Truxton Park, and ramp up efforts for better connectivity of trails both with each other and population centers by creating off-road connections between trail systems. There’s no reason why county residents should be required to travel to neighboring counties or states for a quality riding (or hiking) experience.” 

The riders I spoke to, each with varying amounts of experience, have embraced this pandemic sport in their own backyards. 

“Like many people I first got into biking during the lockdowns,” said Emerson, who began both road biking and mountain biking early in the pandemic. “It’s a great outdoor workout, as I found that the speed and distance covered on a bike made it far more enjoyable than jogging. Plus, mountain biking provides an entirely different type of workout than road biking thanks to the hills and turns, so it really gets my adrenaline running.” 

Hornfeck enjoys seeing the growing ranks of female riders. “I’ve always been drawn to the woods, challenges, and being active, so my love for mountain biking just clicked naturally,” she said. “I’ve biked more than ever during the last year, though, and I feel like the biking community is now bigger than ever—and I love that I’ve been seeing more and more women out there, too.”  

Beugelmans says local mountain bikers are an inclusive community who appreciate and enjoy nature. And now, there are more miles of trail than ever for them to enjoy. 

“We may not have big mountains in Anne Arundel County, but we do have interesting topography, natural beauty, and an amazing community of volunteers. We are very excited for the future of natural surface, sustainable, multi-use trails in Anne Arundel County and Annapolis.” 

Trail Access Points 

The Waterworks trailhead is located on Housley Road, near Stone Point Apartments, where MORE recently installed a sign displaying real-time trail conditions as well as a complimentary maintenance kit and tire pump. 

Bacon Ridge has two trailheads: in the South, at 1801 Hawkins Road, Annapolis, and in the North, at 1399-1243 Bacon Ridge Road, Crownsville.