Editors Note: This story originally appeared in issue 210. Now that the riding season is fully upon us we would like to share our experience from the Windrock Bikepark located in Oliver Springs, TN. Consider becoming a subscriber and keeping independent mountain bike journalism like this alive and well.
Words and photos by Brett Rothmeyer
Snow fell gently like ash after a forest fire as we tried to generate body heat under the grey December skies. Our gear — helmets, goggles, elbow and knee pads — scattered in a gravel lot, the four of us stood quietly. Gunshots echoed from the valley below, breaking winter’s silence. Whatever reservations we had about the day were amplified by the rumble of a poorly maintained exhaust system heading our way. A pickup truck came into sight; passengers clung on from the bed, muddy and hooting. These weren’t village rebels looking to loot our belongings, or post-apocalyptic land pirates; they were mountain bikers, and we were probably safe regardless of the likelihood of the other two possible scenarios.
A young man and a woman jumped out from the bed of the truck. We remained motionless.
“Where y’all from?” the woman asked, her black jeans spattered in mud, hair pulled tight in a ponytail.
“Pittsburgh,” Stephen said.
“You should follow us down.”
We murmured like a Greek chorus until one of us spoke up.
“It’s best we don’t; we have never been here before, so we are kinda trying to find where best to start.”
And like that, they were gone, floating over the red clay earth and disappearing off into the woods with a parting yelp of joy. We looked at a map and then glanced at the entrance to the trails, hesitating, not wanting to make a fatal choice. It’s a choose-your-own-adventure moment: blue trail, live to ride another day; red trail, plummet to your untimely end. As we approached the start of Talladega, it was clear that this was no ordinary bike park and the rumors we’d heard about its ferocious terrain were most certainly true.
Windrock Park is located in Oliver Springs, Tennessee, an hour or so northwest of Knoxville. It doesn’t take long before urban converts to rural and the hills become proper mountains. Windrock has long been an ATV recreation spot and campground accommodating motorcycles, jeeps and a whole host of wild-looking vehicles that rumble and bash their way through the rocky and unforgiven terrain. There’s a bit of a “Land of the Lost” vibe here — not complete anarchy, but this sense that you can kind of do what you want and as long as you’re not jeopardizing anyone else’s well-being, it’s most likely fair game. Our perception may have been skewed, given the time of year. Besides a couple of ripping locals, we were the only ones around.
Windrock’s relationship with mountain bikes began in the late ’90s, when a group of locals from the surrounding area needed a track that was more challenging than what they could find in places like Pisgah National Forest to get ready for the NORBA National Downhill series. These early trails were basically just raked-out fall lines down the mountain — in a lot of cases straight down. With permission from the park to do what they wanted, the early downhill scene set the stage for what was to come.
Like a lot of scenes that operate in the proverbial underground, rumors began to spread, and others came to see just what was happening. Eventually, current national downhill champion Neko Mulally and fellow downhiller Sean Leader would go see for themselves exactly what was going on at Windrock. With both Mulally and Leader racing the pro downhill circuit, they saw the potential in the layout of Windrock to build something completely unique.
In 2016, Leader and Mulally committed themselves to cutting new lines down the mountain of Windrock. With just a handful of basic landscaping tools and chainsaws, the two went to work. Inspired by the challenging courses they had raced on the pro scene and by the fact that they could create whatever they wanted, they started putting in long days. “Sean and I are really the third generation of riders at Windrock,” explains Mulally. Unlike those who came before them, both men became full-time trail builders. They lived and breathed the trails at Windrock. Staying in a trailer at the bottom of the mountain so they could maximize their time, it wasn’t long before they established some of the mountain’s iconic trails.
What began as two friends with a passion for riding and creating gnarly tracks has turned into a destination point for riders to test their skill set. The trails at Windrock are open year-round, giving ample opportunity for aspiring downhill riders to put in some massive hours in the off-season to prepare for the events of the coming spring. One of those events just happens to take place at Windrock. Beginning in 2018, just a year and a half after Mulally and Leader moved their first shovelful of earth, the U.S. Pro Gravity Tour series kicked off at Windrock, attracting some of the country’s best riders to the hills of Tennessee. Along with hosting pro-level events, Windrock has become a full-on public bike park, equipped with rental bikes and safety gear as well as a bus and trailer to shuttle riders back to the top of the mountain. Yes, there is a fee to ride at Windrock, but it pales in comparison to the bigger lift-service resorts around the country. During the week, riders are welcome to shuttle themselves up and down the access road as many times as they’d like during park hours for $10 per rider.
As we plummeted into the first steep and swooping berms of Talladega, it was clear that we were in for a days-long wild ride. Talladega is one of the more groomed and forgiving trails on the slopes of Windrock, and it immediately let us know who was in charge and made us grateful to be decked out in full downhill equipment. On our second pass, we headed for Drop Out, a spur off of Talladega that was more rugged and raw, littered with rocks and tight, steep chutes. There’s something about challenging and potentially catastrophic riding that causes the inner child to emerge. Collectively we laughed at the ridiculous terrain that sprawled out before us and at our ability to keep escaping disaster. “These are the intermediate trails!” we kept reminding ourselves.
There is a cornucopia of adjectives to describe the trails at Windrock: wild, raw, gnarly, burly, cutty, untamed, unforgiving, suicidal — they all work. Imagine Pilot Rock in Pisgah National Forest on PCP, naked and screaming. Not you, but the trail itself, and now imagine trying to subdue that kind of colossal energy. That is what riding Windrock is like. For the moderately skilled mountain biker, Windrock offers an experience of all the senses and will ask more of you than most anything you have likely ridden prior.
“Yeah, some of them, they’re just not that fun!” Mulally admitted with a chuckle. He went on to explain that he and Leader purposely built things to be extremely difficult to prepare riders for events like the World Cup, where they are likely to come across equally as heinous features.
Perhaps the highlight of our time at Windrock was riding the trail Reach Around. It was our first foray off the blue intermediate trails and onto the black diamonds. No less steep than what we had encountered earlier in the day, it offered a more diverse terrain experience with bump jumps over rocks, creek crossings and an exit back to the lot on steep berms and doubles. It seemed to hold everyone’s attention for the remainder of our second day. While descending Reach Around, there were signs of Windrock’s past: twisted tracks and steel cable from what one can only assume are the remnants of an old coal mine; the rickety remains of a wooden jump ramp, alone in a patch of woods with no trail leading to nor from it. Dusted with snow, it was a ghost of sessions past. We stood, puzzled, wondering where and how this figured into the landscape.
Windrock has come to offer the downhill community what the likes of FDR and Burnside have provided to the skateboard community: a raw and rugged DIY experience. There is no one on patrol to come save you, and the hospital is a good drive away. Built by riders, for riders, there’s a no-nonsense aspect to riding these trails; there are no side attractions like fancy cafés or pubs trying to siphon more money out of you. Just bikes and maybe a hibachi grill in the shuttle lot.
As we descended for the final time into whatever light was available under the dusky winter sky, we stopped for a parting session on a rock feature toward the exit of Reach Around. Toes and fingers numb, a few tumbles and bumps let us know it was time to go. In the lot, Mulally was operating a large earth-moving machine, shaping and piling high the Tennessee clay. Mulally and company were busy putting some final touches on the last section of the Pro GRT finishing area and what will likely be the stage for the “Whip-Off” contest during the same weekend. Hosting several large events at the park and maintaining trails, it’s a wonder that Mulally has any time to pursue a professional career in the sport, let alone be the national champion in the discipline. When asked what his schedule will look like this coming season, Mulally confirmed that he will be racing a full World Cup and Nationals calendar.
“The place kind of runs itself now,” he said. “Sean does a ton of work, and we have a full-time park manager,” which allows Mulally the time and commitment to be one of the best downhill racers in the world.
We packed the van, humbled but hungry for more, wishing there was more time. Mulally climbed down from his Bobcat; he’s built more like an NHL defenseman than most bike riders you will meet.
“What did you all think?” he asked. We could only muster puffs of air and expletives, laughs and agreements. Mulally affirmed that this is the normal impression that Windrock leaves on people. As we pulled away to the parting sounds of semi-automatic pistol fire from the gun range just below the parking lot, we immediately started breaking down our favorite and most terrifying sections of trail. Bewildered by the ability of Sean Leader and Neko Mulally and the host of others who call Windrock home, we started plotting our next visit.