By Gordon Anderson
When Lee County officials closed down the mountain bike trails at San Lee Park back in April after a series of serious injuries to inexperienced riders, there was a good chance they’d never open back up.
“I heard from a bunch of (county) managers in North Carolina, and probably nine out of 10 told me to just bulldoze the whole thing,” said Lee County Manager John Crumpton. “They said, ‘Just go ahead and get it over with; you don’t need what we went through.’”
To the benefit of mountain bike trail enthusiasts in Lee County and beyond, Crumpton ended up making a different decision. He instead talked to leaders in the mountain biking community, who convinced him that the trails — which have existed for the better part of the last decade, built almost entirely by volunteers and collectively known as the Gravity Park — could not only be made safer, but also leveraged into a quality of life amenity that gives locals another recreational option and draws in scores of out-of-town riders.
To be clear, the trails at San Lee Park — set to reopen under a new configuration sometime around Thanksgiving — are just one element in a broader network of bike trails in Sanford and Lee County that are experiencing heavy use by locals and visitors alike.
“We’ve done some trail promotion over the last few years, and we know that here recently, our trails [website] has been viewed almost 500 times, and we know they spend a lot of time on that page,” said Wendy Bryan, director of the Sanford Tourism Development Authority. “And so when these people come, our focus is on getting them to stay here longer, to spend more time here.”
After the San Lee trails’ closing in the spring, county staff hired the team at North Carolina-based Black Diamond Trail Designs to begin the process of redesigning existing pathways at the park using input from riders and working to mitigate some of the riskiest features while maintaining courses that appeal to all levels of riders. A survey of riders by the county garnered more than 150 responses (up from about 15 who responded to a similar survey a decade ago).
“Some of the comments that we got in the survey came from a certain group of people that like the fact that five of the downward trails were expert level. And we had one so-called intermediate level but it really was probably more advanced,” said Crumpton. “So, what we’ve done is, we got the beginner area here, then we’ll have an intermediate area, and then advanced, and expert. So, you progress. We’re just making it so every caliber rider can ride up here.”
The new trails — there will be five total, two of which are complete with a third about 75 percent done — range in length from half a mile down to closer to a quarter mile and increase in difficulty. Riders will see some instructive “filter features” that will help them figure out which trails are appropriate for their skill level.
“We’ve really tried to take a lot of the variables out of it, where it’s like, at first you’re just focusing on riding, and then as you go on and get better you can focus on jumping,” said Black Diamond’s Joseph Litaker, who is leading the redesign. “It’s really progressive and intuitive almost to where it’s like, I really just have to focus on learning how to jump, which makes it a lot safer.”
That being said, the more advanced the trails get, the more visibly difficult they become, even to a non-rider.
“That’s what we mean by filter features,” said Clayton Newman, a member of the Black Diamond team. “If you see that jump that looks intimidating right at the start of the track, you’re going to know you should go for one of the easier trails.”
The geography at San Lee makes all that possible, and is one of the reasons the trails have been in place for so long. Bryan, with the Sanford TDA, said those unique features make for a great marketing opportunity for Sanford.
“One of the things I asked early on was ‘how do we have mountain bike trails in the center of the state?’” she said. “And what I found out was that the Piedmont begins when you’re leaving Lillington and coming into Lee County, and that line where the shift occurs is at San Lee Park. So we have some of the oldest rock around. So these runs make for high-level rides, and that’s the message we’re working to get out.”
When the issue first arose, Crumpton, already a biking enthusiast, sort of immersed himself in the world of mountain biking to see what he could learn. He said Charlie Storm, owner of the Back to Dirt bike shop on Wicker Street in downtown Sanford, was an instrumental voice in convincing him to fix, but keep, the trails.
“Charlie has been working on my road bike forever. And so I want to talk to him about it and he was one of the ones convinced me this could work,” he said. “Inside, we did a lot of research, and (Litaker) and our attorneys were involved video conferences we did. But I will tell you I know more about mountain biking now than I ever wanted to know.
“I still don’t know it all, but there are guys like Charlie and (the Black Diamond team) who have ridden all over the United States and even all over the world. So there were a lot of resources here.”
As Back to Dirt’s owner, Storm is sort of at the center of the local biking community. A Maryland native, Storm initially came to North Carolina to study at Appalachian State and opened his store in Sanford nearly two decades ago. He moved downtown in recent years and has seen a steady increase in interest in biking ever since, particularly during the COVID lockdowns.
“I have a lot of background and I’ve ridden all over the world so I feel like I have a lot of knowledge about mountain biking,” Storm, who leads regular rides on the various trails around town that Bryan and the TDA have promoted. “But with trail design I don’t really do anything. Hopefully I’ve helped steer from afar.”
Storm said the bar for entry to mountain biking can be fairly low, even if the hobby can turn expensive.
“I have brand (of bike) that kind of bridges the gap between what you’d get in a department store and a bike shop, and they’re like $500 bucks,” he said. “To get started on a top mountain bike you can go, up to $3,000 to $5,000.”
And while downtown Sanford might not feel extremely connected to mountain bike trails a few miles away, Back to Dirt does just that, leading visitors to many of the other things downtown has to offer.
“We’re closer to the trails than we were (in our previous location in Tramway), and so for people coming from Durham or Raleigh, it’s closer,” he said. “And I get people every day, people asking me where to eat, and I usually send them to whatever is closest like the Smoke and Barrel or Local Joe’s.”
For Litaker, who has designed trails all over the country, the benefits of mountain bike trails that are freely accessible to the public are almost too many to count.
“In terms of long term master planning, you’ve got a great community in town,” he said. “We really appreciate the county’s decision not to bulldoze these trails because it really makes me happy to see places like this. The sport of mountain biking does do so much for the next generation of kids, and there’s so much it teaches them.”
“And the primary effects, like the money spent at the shops and restaurants, are big,” he continued. “But the secondary and tertiary effects where it’s like, home values go up because it becomes a more desirable place to be. School grades go up and teachers get paid more. I mean, it really does trickle down into a lot of different aspects. It’s hard to measure that.”
Even before the reopening, as Litaker and his crew worked one afternoon in late October, a handful of locals were out sort of beta testing the trails in the current configuration. Litaker and Crumpton pointed out areas where dangerous jumps had been “fixed” through a variety of methods and discussed how the rapidly the local mountain biking community has grown.
“The more the sport does get bigger, there are a lot more communities that are doing stuff like this and you’re finding a lot more bike parks in different areas,” Litaker said. “It’s really cool to have a free bike park for all these people to travel to, and it’s actually become a bit of a travel destination. There’s so many parks that charge a lot of money, and it’s just nice to have a park that people can come to and just show up for free.”
For Crumpton, that community’s presence, and the years of work put in by volunteers before the closure, made the decision to keep the Gravity Park open an easy one.
“We had too much invested here, and too much of a following,” he said. “So we had to do something to make it safer and something where we can control risk. And these guys will come back once a year, make sure nothing’s been tampered with on what they left behind. We just had to formalize what we were doing.”
Crumpton also said he’s loved the park since he began his tenure as county manager in 2008.
“The very first project I did when I got here was the (San Lee) dam repair,” he said. “And then we had the fire we rebuilt the Nature Center. And I’ve camped out here with Boy Scouts, and I just can’t tell you how often I’ve been down here. So I just have an affection for the park in general.”
The Gravity Park’s official reopening has not yet been announced, although county officials have said they expect it to take place in late November or mid December at the latest. The Rant will publish that date when an announcement is made.