The Road Bikers (a.k.a. The Fitness Freaks)
The Mountain Bikers (a.k.a. The Daredevils)
The Commuters (a.k.a. The Anti-Establishment)
I pull up to the Pilot Light on my bike and immediately sense that something is happening. Something that makes me uneasy. I can feel a particular tension vibrating in the air, like the strings of a violin. The tension is so severe that I almost turn around and ride straight back to where I came from. Maybe I should, I think. But, there are snow flurries and gusting winds, and I can no longer feel my face, hands or feet.
The day is Sunday, and the time late afternoon. It's the end of the "No Child Left Behind" Alleycat Bike Race, a 12-mile ride looping through Knoxville, with abandoned schools serving as mandatory checkpoints. The final checkpoint is the Pilot Light. Parked and tethered outside the bar is a bizarre assortment of bicycles. Expensive road bikes, full-suspension mountain bikes, a BMX bike or two, and then several bikes that, apparently, belong to no style whatsoever, hodgepodges of old bike parts and silly decorations. Surely all of these different bikes belong to people just as diverse. And, surely, once all of those people are forced together into one small room, they'll go crazy; they'll recognize the fundamental differences in their riding styles, and they'll detest each other instantly. It will be high school all over again, with the various bike cliques degrading each other, each group flaunting its own riding style as the best. Surely, there will be a rumble.
The Road Bikers (a.k.a. The Fitness Freaks) "If you see someone on a road bike, you're going to think they're all uptight with shaven legs and whatnot," says Dennis Alles, long-time employee and bike mechanic at Cedar Bluff Cycles. "Road bikers are a little more straightforward, a little more serious about training than other types of riders." If real life were high school, road bikers would be the runners, the athletes intent on improving their own fitness, concerned with reaching the lowest possible percentage of body fat and highest possible VO2. There's strength and agility required--proper bike handling is necessary in heavy traffic--and the deep conditioning needed to ride 100 miles in a single day. Road bikers keep training logs, they eat well, and they count their cadence and check their cyclocomputers religiously, like teenage kids check their cell phones.
The road biking scene in Knoxville is the most organized of all the scenes. Bike Zoo, Harper's Bike Shop, Cedar Bluff Cycles and West Bicycles all offer group rides during the week, though many are on hiatus during the winter months, and a few shops sponsor race teams on the weekends. There are bonafied clubs, too, like Smoky Mountain Wheelmen and, for the gals, Knox Revolution (though the latter doesn't discriminate against mountain bikers).
Road bikers ride in strict formation during training rides, careful to follow each other at the proper distance and equally careful to follow the rules of the road. The riders alternate who leads the ride, so that everyone receives the same amount of wind-pounding, and no one escapes the draining effects of wind-resistance.
There's a bizarre fashion style associated with road cycling. While the riders are often business-casual by day, when they jump on their bikes, they're outfitted in colorful jerseys with loud slogans and brand names printed across them. It's a style that would shame the most liberal of people during the daytime hours. They're spotted wearing tight spandex shorts and cleated cycling shoes that sound like high heels when tapped across a hardwood floor.
Road bikes themselves are technical and often expensive, generally made of lightweight titanium or carbon fiber, and ranging from $700 to upwards of $4,000. Says Gary Chambers of the Bike Zoo, "Lance Armstrong helped to jump-start the road bike industry, and a lot of riders want to emulate his style and his gear."
The Mountain Bikers (a.k.a. The Daredevils) "I used to think, when I first started riding mountain bikes, that we were all a bunch of old hippies," Alles says. "I think that over the years, with the popularity growing, you see a lot of different kinds of people. But, mountain biking attracts a little bit more of a radical crowd."
Mountain bikers are looking for different things from their rides. "Mountain biking isn't as good for deep conditioning. There's a lot more sprinting and stopping involved," continues Alles. "There's also a lot more adrenalin involved." Mountain bikers plummet down steep hills at breakneck speed. They leap rocks, cross streams, and avoid hitting trees at every turn.
Mountain biking is not as trend-seeking as road cycling, but it still borrows inspiration from new technologies. There are full suspension bikes, ranging from $1,000 to $5,000, but even some top racers prefer "hard-tail" bikes, bikes without rear suspension joints. One new technology is the use of 29-inch wheels, instead of the traditional 26-inch, the idea being that the 29-inch wheels roll over things easier and develop more gyroscopic effect.
Ask any Knoxville mountain bike rider where the best place to ride is, and they'll probably tell you the same thing: Haw Ridge. Located about 15 minutes from West Knoxville, Haw Ridge is an Oak Ridge City Park, and offers more than 20 miles of trails, ranging from highly aggressive single-track riding to trails your grandmother could ride. Otherwise, mountain bike trails around the Knoxville area are scarce. There are a few miles of riding available at Concord Park, and one looping, single-track trail at I.C. King Park. Rides are more likely conducted between a few friends than with large groups, and some mountain bikers prefer total solitude.
The Commuters (a.k.a. The Anti-Establishment) If you ask downtown personality, and founder of the PEN15 bike gang, Tracy Jackson why he enjoys riding, he responds quickly. "Mostly, I like getting everyone together, that's the fun part. Drink the beer, eat the free pizza, and then go for a ride," he says, referring to the group's common meeting place, Preservation Pub, which offers free grub and cheap beer to happy-hour goers.
There's a large group of people of the same mind, and that group is growing rapidly. With more people living in the downtown area come more people looking for alternative methods of transportation, and more kids, and adults, distancing themselves from the traditional styles. Knoxville now even boasts its own community-run bicycle library, from which would-be commuters can rent a bike for a small fee. (See http://www.ninjaswithagendas.com/bikelib/main.htm for more info).
The downtown riders are not particular or snobby about the kinds of bikes they ride. There are old, steel-framed road bikes, mountain bikes with slick tires, whatever they can get their hands on. "You see a lot of bikes that were someone's really nice road bike 20 years ago," says the Bike Zoo's Chambers, "It's a kind of recycling, which is really neat."
Fixed gear bikes are notoriously popular for urban riding, and Knoxville has its own fair share of them on the road. "The fact that there are more than two people riding fixed gear bikes downtown, that's a pretty big deal," says Chambers. Street clothes are perfectly acceptable for riding, most wear flat shoes instead of cycling shoes, and practicality is the most important fashion indicator. Helmets are optional.
There are weekly rides within this community, but they usually center on a different motivation. Jackson says, "There's a Booze and Cruise every Wednesday. There's hardly any riding involved, most of the ride is from your house to the first bar, then you just ride from bar to bar." On a less pointless note, there are critical-mass bike rides on the last Friday of every month.
Pseudo-competitively minded bikers also enjoy participating in seasonal Busternut Alleycat races, introduced last year to the great delight of the urban biking community. The Busternut rides are usually a shorter length than road cyclists would consider difficult, around five to 10 miles, and they involve checkpoints with fun tasks to complete, like screen-printing tees.
There are more sub-sections of cycling than those three within the Knoxville community. There are a few BMX riders, known to ride around Market Square in the warmer months, though there is no official BMX park in Knoxville. Comfort bikes, set up for those wanting to take a monthly cruise around the neighborhood, make up a large percentage of bikes sold at area bike shops. There are commuters in business suits, clearly not anti-establishment or rebellious, aside from the fact they're not using a car. There are college students who travel long distances to ride down ski slopes in the warmer months, and riders training for triathlons. "There's a very broad range of people out riding in this area," says Chambers.
As I step inside the Pilot Light, I see the scene is already chaotic. "Are you drunk on your bikes?" Will Fist, local musician and rider bellows into a microphone, before he picks up his drum sticks. A girl in cropped plaid pants is dancing in circles with a spandex-clad boy in cycling shoes. Everywhere I look, PBR cans and laughter meet my eyes. This is baffling, I think. Everyone seems content, exhilarated from the ride in frigid air, and lacking all desire to pound each other to a pulp.
Is it possible that the Knoxville bike scene is not made of cliques and finely drawn lines between disciplines, but rather individuals all fond of riding, regardless of the way it's done? The differences were still visible; I notice that certain parties--hint: not the riders in spandex--are drinking more than others. Other people stand in smaller groups and chat intimately. Most of the riders in cleated shoes depart before the kids with jeans and flat shoes, though maybe for comfort reasons alone.
Perhaps the differences aren't as vast as originally suspected. Maybe the lines blur, and within the cycling community, everyone is bound more by what they share than what they don't. "I wouldn't think there are cliques," says Jackson. "When you come to these races, you have the serious guys in spandex who normally wouldn't ride with us, but everyone gets together to have fun."
"I haven't seen any gang fights yet," he adds with a laugh.