Racing the Trails

Chattanooga and its surrounding mountains offer up countless trails for hiking hobbyists, but many paths also play host to a sport that’s not for the faint of heart. The city is home to a growing community of competitive mountain bikers who aren’t afraid to maneuver rocky routes and tricky turns. Whether new to the sport or longtime pros, these six local riders are taking on challenges locally, regionally, and nationally. Read on to learn about the rewards of racing and how, when it comes to mountain biking, competition and camaraderie go hand in hand. 

Photography by Rich Smith

Melanie Blake

How did you get started mountain biking?

I started mountain biking in the late ‘90s while in college at the University of Alabama. My first ride (on a borrowed bike) was with a friend on the local trail in the pouring rain. We splashed through every puddle and got lost in the woods. I smiled the whole time and loved how we could go anywhere on the bikes. My dad surprised me a few weeks later on my 21st birthday with a bike of my own, and my life changed forever.

What is your favorite thing about mountain biking?

The freedom of being in the woods on a trail and going as fast and far as I want. I love the physical and mental challenge of pushing myself and doing more than I think I can.

Tell us about the competitive mountain biking community here in Chattanooga.

It’s pretty diverse because there are many styles of riding available in the area.

What’s your proudest biking-related accomplishment?

The monthly women-only mountain bike ride (started in partnership with SORBA-Chattanooga and the local women’s outdoor club, Velo Vixens) is my proudest accomplishment. These rides have been a fun way to share the love of mountain biking with other women, and it’s also given me the opportunity to encourage and support newer riders.

Tell us about your most memorable competition.

Last year I competed in the Leadville 100 Mountain Bike race, a 103-mile race that starts in Leadville, Colorado, at 10,152 feet and climbs to 12,424. It is considered one of the toughest mountain bike races in the world.

Do you have a favorite local trail to bike?

Chattanooga is fortunate to have over 100 miles of singletrack trail within 20 minutes of downtown. I really enjoy riding all the local trail systems because each has its own unique features and flow. But any time I can do a ride from my house is a big win for me, so I’d have to say Stringer’s Ridge, located in the heart of north Chattanooga, is my favorite. I can be on the trail in seven minutes from my house, crush a lap, and be back in an hour – not bad for a workday lunch break.

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Spencer Whittier

How did you get started mountain biking?

I got my first real mountain bike when I was about 12 or 13 years old, as a couple of my friends had mountain bikes, and I wanted to join the fun.

What is your favorite thing about mountain biking?

Being in nature – the woods and mountains with no cars to worry about – pushing my limits on the trails, and the challenge of riding obstacles or certain sections of the trail. 

Tell us about the competitive mountain biking community here in Chattanooga.

The competitive mountain bike community is growing as more trails are built, and more cyclists seem to be moving to our area. 

What’s your proudest biking-related accomplishment?

Winning the 2016 national cyclocross championship for the 30-34 age group in Asheville, North Carolina. From 2011-2016, I primarily raced cyclocross, which is an hour-long race on a shorter lap (1-2 miles) on an off-road course – grass, mud, sand, and sections where you may have to get off and carry your bike.

Tell us about your most memorable competition.

The 2022 Breck Epic Mountain Bike Stage Race in Breckenridge, Colorado. This was a six-day race where your cumulative time over 220 miles and 40,000 feet of elevation gain would determine your placing. Each day worked out to be three to four hours of racing. We had a group of about 10 that stayed together in Breckenridge, and it was great to share in each day’s race experiences afterwards, see beautiful mountain scenery, and push yourself in the high-altitude environment, where each day was anywhere between 9,500 and 12,500 feet above sea level. I had a great race and was able to win the 30-39 age group in a close race that was only separated by two minutes.

Do you have a favorite local trail to bike?

The trail systems on Lookout Mountain … Being able to ride from my house and access these trails is always a plus. The climb up Jackson Gap is about the toughest uphill trail around and has some great views. The Moonshine trails are fast and flowy, Lula Lake is a fantastic hand-built, tight, and technical trail, and the 5-Points section has trails that all ability levels can have fun on.

 

Ali Whittier

How did you get started mountain biking?

I grew up in Iowa, so I never imagined myself mountain biking one day. I met my husband, Spencer, a few years after I graduated college and moved to the Southeast. We were still dating in 2011 when he convinced me to try mountain biking. I was only a road cyclist then, so I was a little terrified at first, but I slowly got the hang of it and haven’t looked back since. Now we’re racing around the country together, and there are few mountain bike races I’m not willing to try.

Tell us about the competitive mountain biking community here in Chattanooga.

There is a dedicated group of folks who have been racing for years and will continue to race mountain bikes for a long time. We have a few local races that offer a great opportunity for recreational riders who are already “racing the trails” to test themselves against other riders in and outside of Chattanooga.

What’s your proudest biking-related accomplishment?

Racing bikes isn’t my day job, so I feel a sense of pride just finishing most bike events. But I think many people were surprised when I finished Trans North Georgia (TNGA) in 2020. It was 357 miles with 45,000 feet of elevation gain on difficult singletrack and steep gravel roads.

Do you have a favorite local trail to bike?

My favorite trail in Chattanooga is Bathtub Gin. It’s part of the Moonshine system on Lookout Mountain near Covenant College. It’s not long, but there are a ton of fun rock sections that are great skills practice.

For those interested in competitive mountain biking, what’s the best way to get started?

If you’re already riding, sign up for a race and jump in. It’s a great way to improve your skills, learn some things about yourself, and meet new people. If you’re super new to riding or don’t have a bike yet, swing by a local bike shop and ask them about bike racing or clubs to join.

Anything else you’d like to add?

Only one person can cross the finish line first, so don’t put your value in having to win every race you sign up for … There’s a lot of value in it, even if you’re not beating everyone else.

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John Hoover

How did you get started mountain biking?

I raced motorcycles in the 1990s … I decided to start mountain biking and road cycling to get fit for those races. I found that I enjoyed mountain biking more and felt it was safer and had better fitness benefits.

What is your favorite thing about mountain biking?

The friends I have made over the years who I met through cycling.

Tell us about the competitive mountain biking community here in Chattanooga.

Motor Mile Racing has been such a great thing for our town. Brad Cobb has worked hard for many years organizing and putting a great group of cyclists together. He has also really helped to advance mountain biking in general in this area. I have had my Motor Mile jersey recognized in many states.

What’s your proudest biking-related accomplishment?

I won a Tennessee state championship, and the next year was able to win a Georgia state championship and a Southeastern regional championship.

Tell us about your most memorable competition.

There have been more than a hundred races over the years, so there are many unique memories. Many times, it feels like you are not pushing hard enough when you are actually doing really well. It can sometimes be a struggle with your mind and your body. You just have to stay mentally tough, especially when things get really difficult. I think a lot of mountain bike racers enjoy difficult challenges. 

Do you have a favorite local trail to bike?

We have so many great trail systems in this area. The Pinhoti trails and the trails at Ocoee are my favorites. The endless climbing at both areas is really great training for rides and races out West. I like 5-Points and the Durham trails a lot. I also ride Bauxite and White Oak trails a lot during the week because I live close by. We are very lucky to live in a mountainous area with lots of trails.

For those interested in competitive mountain biking, what’s the best way to get started?

Find friends you enjoy riding with and train with them. Join a team if possible. Go out after long rides to eat and hang out and just have a great time together.

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Brad Cobb

When and how did you get started mountain biking?

About 20 years ago, I started riding road bikes with a friend. I had torn my knee up snow skiing, so
I started riding because it was low impact. I really enjoyed that for about a year or two and then got a mountain bike – I used to wreck constantly. The first race I did was the Cohutta 100 up at the Ocoee … I’ve been racing ever since.

What is your favorite thing about mountain biking?

The friends I’ve made from all over the world are the best part; you come in contact with so many different people.

Tell us about your most memorable competition.

There’s a bunch of stuff over in the Pisgah National Forest that I really love. There’s a two-day race called Double Dare that’s probably my favorite. You have a two-man team and checkpoints that you have to get. You’ve got basically 24 hours of racing, and you create your own path.

Tell us about the competitive mountain biking community here in Chattanooga.

For the height of the mountains we have, we have one of the best selections of different venues to ride and race anywhere in the country. What that brings is a lot of great mountain bikers. When I used to train, all we had was Raccoon Mountain. Fast forward to today, and you’ve got some unbelievable training areas. Back then at Raccoon, I would see maybe 10 or 15 people on a Saturday. Now, you go to any of these venues, and you’ll see tons of people.

Do you have a favorite local trail to bike?

There’s a bunch. High Voltage over at Raccoon Mountain is incredible. The new Durham trails, all the 5-Points stuff, and F4 at Lula Lake are great. And then the Pinhoti trails are really fun.

What’s your proudest biking-related accomplishment?

That’s an easy one. I’ve never not finished a race.

For those interested in competitive mountain biking, what’s the best way to get started?

I wouldn’t start out with a really expensive bike as your first purchase. I would get something that fits your budget and is more introductory in price and components. Ride it for a while and when you figure out you love it, then go out and buy as many bikes as you can! Also, find some friends to ride with as the camaraderie is hands down the best benefit.

Philly Williams

How did you get started mountain biking?

Technically, I started when I was riding down stairs with my brother when we were 10, but I didn’t get serious about it until 2020 while living in San Francisco and wanting to explore more than I could on a road bike. I’ve been riding bikes seriously and competitively since 2012 but started out on road bikes.

What is your favorite thing about mountain biking?

Being totally out of my depth and trying to problem solve how to keep up with my friends.

Tell us about the competitive mountain biking community here in Chattanooga.

The folks are amazing. Riders of all different skill levels and interests can find common ground.

What’s your proudest biking-related accomplishment?

I’m still working on it. Any day I can ride under the sunshine is great, but I still have rocks to climb.

Tell us about your most memorable competition.

My first mountain bike race once we moved here in the summer of 2021. I didn’t quite know what to expect and hadn’t ridden at 5-Points yet, but I did a six-hour event and I won my category by several laps. I realized I probably should be doing this more often.

Do you have a favorite local trail to bike?

The Moonshine Trails – mostly because I live in St. Elmo, so I can ride up John Smartt to get there from my house. It’s easy enough that I can have fun but challenging enough that I always have room to grow.

For those interested in competitive mountain biking, what’s the best way to get started?

Ride! Get some friends and go play at Raccoon Mountain or 5-Points! Then enter an event and don’t plan to do anything but have fun. My favorite part about racing is not racing – it’s pushing myself and seeing how it goes.

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