Tommy Penick

Braaaap... rooster trails and hero dirt. Cam Garrison gets the brown goodness at Bent Creek.

Tommy Penick Asheville, North Carolina

A few weeks ago, I passed a homemade sign stapled to a telephone pole in West Asheville. It was on a sheet of printer paper, emblazoned with the words “HYPE CITY USA”—a simple statement, but one that succinctly summed up Asheville’s growth and culture rejuvenation over the past decade.

In a way, the liberal mecca of the traditionalist south has become somewhat of a caricature of itself—an Austin, TX of the South, a hotbed for Korean taco trucks, energy-blockage-clearing crystal shops, and enough breweries to make Boulder wonder where they went wrong.


A few rocks, a log, and you have yourself sender of which Bent Creek has many. Cam Garrison airborne and styled out. CANON, 1/1250 sec, f/2.2, ISO 6400

It’s a trendy influx that’s changed the town of nearly 90,000 people. However, past the foodies, hipsters, political activists, and quartz dealers, a quieter, thoroughly impassioned population exists, one with long-standing roots. Their playground has an even deeper history. Beyond Asheville’s recent trendy identity is a gem far older than the River Arts District or even the textile mills that spawned many of western North Carolina’s towns: Pisgah National Forest.

When it's that good, it's worth taking a little time for reflection and good ol' fashioned stoke. Sam Anderson and Cam Garrison pause to enjoy a line on Bent Creek. CANON, 1/500 sec, f/2.2, ISO 1250
Share the trails, and not just with other bikers. Don't worry—no salamanders were harmed in the making of this photo. CANON, 1/1250 sec, f/4.0, ISO 2000

I didn’t grow up skiing the Wasatch or mountain biking the trails of Utah. I grew up in the flatlands of Central Virginia, getting my adrenaline from riding down flights of stairs. When my path veered towards Western North Carolina and Southern Appalachia, the people, the places, and the trails gave me good reason to rearrange my life priorities. I was inspired, and in the shadow of the East Coast’s biggest mountains, I began to actively chase my dreams as a photographer and filmmaker—which, inevitably, led to the even bigger, more iconic mountains scattered across the Northern Hemisphere.

The trail to the top of Kitsuma includes a series of switchbacks, perfect for dialing in your climbing turns. After battling the uphill gauntlet, Cam Garrison, Claire Tuttle, and Sam Anderson let gravity take over as they enjoy the rewards of their labor. CANON, 1/1000 sec, f/4.5, ISO 1600

Much to my surprise, however, I found myself yearning for the Southeast; not only for the intangible aspects of southern culture, but for the trails. On a basic level, my favorites represent everything mountain biking fulfills in my life—challenging, technical, and remote. We’re not known for flowy downhill trails in old-growth forests or wide-open rock rolls. Instead, ours wind through the forest, often looking raggedy and unkempt. As a photographer, this is difficult—they look more like tame hiking trails than rowdy single track through the viewfinder. But it also makes them rowdy and empty.

CANON, 1/400 sec, f/7.1, ISO 1600
Rhododendron flowers are beautiful, but when it comes to springtime trail riding on Kitsuma, they can make otherwise routine riding moves downright sketchy. Sam Anderson threads the flora in one of the trails rockier sections. CANON, 1/2500 sec, f/2.2, ISO 1600

Just as the town has (for better or worse) seen a recent cultural infusion, over the past few years Asheville has also seen a burst in the variety of the surrounding riding and trails. Like our reservations about the hipster scene, us locals have always stuck with the idea that our trails should be as difficult as possible. However, that mentality is crippling to the general bike culture of an area, and I’ve come to appreciate the easier trails as well as the classic hardcore ones. Whereas other parts of western North Carolina have fantastic terrain, they also have almost zero legal access and zero introductory trails—translating into a meager, limited bike culture. These new, more welcoming zones give us a place to hang out over beverages in a parking lot and grow as a community.

Their glory days may be behind them but, like a good mustache, skinnies are never out of style, even on flow trails like Kitsuma. Trusting his tires and hugging the edge, Cam Garrison freshens up on his log riding skills. CANON, 1/640 sec, f/2.2, ISO 1250
Almost the entire portion of North Carolina is famous for numerous rivers, streams, and waterfalls. The abundance of water is great for the views and post-ride cool-downs, but not so much when it comes to staying dry. Cam Garrison, Eric Wolfe, and Tim Haren brave the moss while crossing a creek on Big Ivy. CANON, 1/6 sec, f/2.2, ISO 800

The Bent Creek area is a perfect example. Nestled within Pisgah National Forest just outside of downtown, it offers the perfect after-work ride, the 44 miles of trail ranging from groomed, first-timer friendly flow trails to steep, rowdy drainages (if you know where to look).

Grip it and rip it! While it has its share of tech, Big Ivy has no shortage of flow. Cam Garrison enjoys the hero dirt in a particularly tasty corner. CANON, 1/1250 sec, f/2.2, ISO 6400
Sideways steeze. Eric Wolfe gets tricky on a side hit along Big Ivy. Thanks to the heavy duff coverage and loamy dirt along the trail, there is plenty of room to get creative. CANON, 1/1250 sec, f/2.2, ISO 2000
Cam Garrison may not be taking the typical stream crossing method, but a little water never hurt anybody. It's just like washing your bike, right? CANON, 1/500 sec, f/1.8, ISO 12800

Another local gem is Kitsuma, which falls from the summit of Black Mountain above the nearby Old Fort Picnic Area. Entirely single track, Kitsuma is a perfect blend of speed, steeps, and flow, followed by a mellow climb on a paved road. Or Big Ivy, which winds through one of the only old-growth forests on the East Coast and is just 15 miles out of town. Or Stair Creek, an old-school-style, high-speed trail that keeps you on the verge of exploding all the time. There are so many, and the list is growing as fast as the local food truck and brewery scene.

And while the author of that printer-paper sign on the telephone pole may have a different opinion, I’ve decided that when it comes to dirt, rubber, and bike wheels, Asheville lives up to the hype.