Photo by Steve Bracci
Peace and tranquility are not the usual feelings you experience on your way to work. Unless you’re Michael Caudell. The emergency room doctor relishes the sense of freedom he feels as he commutes to and from GRU—on his bike. He’s traded in traffic and road rage for nature, sunrises and solitude. Not to mention a good workout. “I don’t have to worry about squeezing in exercise because I’m riding every day that I go to work. It’s convenient and better time management. I get there, get ready and go.” The 46-year-old triathlete lives off Hardy McManus Road in Columbia County and takes the Augusta Canal bike path at all hours of the day and night.There aren’t many sports with an ageless across-the-board appeal like that of biking. For every hard-core enthusiast, there are countless others riding for recreation and enjoyment. From Lake Thurmond to the Savannah River, from Grovetown to the heart of Evans—if you’re looking for a ticket to ride, the Columbia County area has it.
Phil Cohen has seen the landscape of the area change drastically in the 23 years he’s owned his Evans bike shop, Chain Reaction. “Lots more people are riding, thanks to the paths and park improvements; it’s added to the enjoyment of cycling and the quality of life,” says Cohen. County planners realize outdoor opportunities are a big draw for attracting new residents and visitors. But with increased population has come an exponential rise in traffic. “We used to leave on a bike ride from Washington and Columbia roads and within a couple of miles you were away from it all,“ says Cohen. No more. These days their rides start some 10 miles further out—at Patriot’s Park. Even there a continuous line of cars accompanies them in the late afternoon. “We’re trying to accommodate all sectors of recreation, but as the number of people biking increases, our goal is to keep folks safe, off the roads where they don’t have to worry,” says Barry Smith, community and leisure services director for Columbia County. u
There are more opportunities than ever to ride around the county, with more around the bend, including a centrally located bike path, a county greenway, bike rentals and even a BMX track.
It’s a popular destination for active visitors and residents alike, the best-known and oldest bike path in the area. The towpath at the Savannah Rapids Park got its name from its original use—a road used by mules to pull boats up to the canal headgates. The sandy flat road, shaded by trees with beautiful views on both sides, has undergone a transformation from years past. From seniors enjoying the day with their grandchildren to couples on a romantic ride (check out the bicycle locks placed on the fence at the headgate bridge), this is the place. It also accommodates serious athletes, training for triathlons and commuters, like Michael Caudell. “Some mornings, I’m dragging myself out wondering why I get up that early to do what I’m doing and I get down to the canal and the sun will be coming up over the river and I’ll remember exactly why I’m out there doing it. It’s a beautiful thing to see.”
There are two very different rides originating from the Savannah Rapids Park. For the first, head toward the river, over the pedestrian bike bridge and the 7.5 mile towpath takes you to downtown Augusta. For the second, start out at the entrance to the park, taking the paved path along Evans to Lock Road, where it ends, four miles later at Blue Ridge Drive. (Bikers can also park at Blue Ridge Elementary and start their ride there.) “I’m amazed at all the people out there, it’s safe and such an asset to the community. It’s a treasure,” says 68-year-old Larry Lynn, a long-time rider who uses the Evans to Lock path several times a week. County engineers say the next phase—a highly anticipated extension tying it into the popular Evans Towne Center Park—will be completed by the end of the year, at the earliest. “There are so many neighborhoods that would utilize it. I can see it busting loose over here as everyone took the path to go the park, ride to concerts, the library…How cool would that be,” says Cohen. No bike? No worries. Bikes can be rented at the Savannah Rapids Park and now at the Evans Towne Center Park, where the county has installed a self-service kiosk with GIS-based B-cycles.
But the county’s most ambitious endeavor is the Euchee Creek Greenway, a 20-million-dollar SPLOST project connecting recreational centers throughout the county. The greenway will be a 17-mile-long paved, scenic bike and walking path, running along the Euchee Creek basin. A portion has been completed behind the Canterbury Farms neighborhood off Chamblin Road. The second phase will be finished by late summer, with the end result being a three-mile section connecting with Grovetown city park trails. “You’ll be able to traverse all the way across the county without getting on a public street. It’s a gradual process and will take 10 years to complete, but you have to start somewhere,” says Barry Smith. When it’s finished, the Greenway will run from Riverside Park to Patriot’s Park to Blanchard Woods all the way to the Grovetown trails.
The county hasn’t forgotten the daredevils either. A USA BMX-sanctioned track and skateboard park at Blanchard Woods Park in Evans should be finished by mid-summer. Joey Tedesco, director of the Augusta BMX track, says the additional track will be good for bikers and for business. “Riders can go from one to the other, experiencing two different kinds of rides. It will be great for BMX racing in our area.”
Mountain Bike Mania
Start with a little nature. Add agility and skill. Then pour in the thrill of being on a roller coaster and you have the essence of mountain biking. “It’s exhilarating—an absolute blast,” says Phil Cohen.
One of the most popular single-track (18 to 24 inches wide) trails around runs between the Savannah River and the Augusta Canal towpath. The entrance is in close proximity to the pumping station and be warned—the direction of the trail changes daily.
People are surprised to learn some of the best mountain biking in the United States is in our area. The International Mountain Bicycling Association (IMBA) has named the CSRA as one of only 10 ride centers in the country. These mountain biker-friendly destinations offer a variety of rides and activities for the entire family to enjoy. So what’s put us in the big league mountain biking arena? “We have pretty stiff competition from out West. Although they have the altitude, we have something not very common—150 miles of trails within an hour of a metropolitan area—and we have FATS,” says Dave Kozlowski, president of the local chapter of SORBA (Southern Off-Road Bicycle Association). It’s also a key reason USA Cycling chose the trails at Lake Thurmond as the location of the Marathon Mountain Bike National Championships in 2015 and 2016. “There are very few places where you can get almost 70 miles of mountain biking with so little pavement. Although it’s currently held in mountain resort towns, the fact is they’re riding laps on a course. Here, they’ll ride out and back, but at most they won’t see any twig on the trail more than twice. That’s much different than riding laps,” says Kozlowski. The race will use the Bartram, Keg Creek and Mistletoe trails.
On any given afternoon, you will see license plates from Fulton County to the Carolinas, Tennessee and Florida. “Folks come from all over. They appreciate what we have here,” says avid cyclist (and former epic racer) Randy DuTeau, the executive director of Columbia County’s Convention and Visitors Bureau. u
The Army Corps of Engineers manages the area and encourages people to enjoy the lake and its surrounding beauty. They partner with SORBA volunteers who maintain all of trails, clearing obstructions and keeping paths safe.
“What’s great about it is anyone can use it. From beginners all the way to advanced riders, there’s opportunities along the 27-mile track here for everyone,” says Park Operations Manager Aaron Wahus, who rides the trails with his two daughters.
There are several trails in the Columbia County, Lake Thurmond area: Mistletoe, the Bartram Trail and Keg Creek Loop. You can access Bartram from four trailheads: West Dam, Lake Springs, Wildwood Park and Petersburg. There are different flavors, depending on the ride you’re after, but with plenty of single-track trail, it’s the closest commune with nature you’re going to get on a bike. Throw in awesome views of the lake and the Bartram Trail system is an unforgettable experience.
Beth and Brian Williams have raised their four daughters, age 17 to six, riding and running trails. For the Evans couple, the Bartram Trail has it all. “This is the perfect place for children because it rolls gently and they’re not huge obstacles, which makes it a great beginner ride,” Beth explains. “This is my go-to trail because I can literally go with my daughters, my wife or I can ride it at night,” says Brian, a self-confessed adrenaline junkie who rides across the CSRA. On this brisk, sunny afternoon, Beth was planning a five-mile ride with six-year-old Zoe Kate, while Brian, who’s in training for a 50K, was riding 20 miles.
Brian, a physics teacher at Greenbrier High School, is working to start a competitive mountain biking team at the school, now that the IMBA has launched a league in Georgia. The team would be sponsored through the National Interscholastic Cycling Association and racing could begin as early as the fall. “Unlike many other high school sports, cycling is something they can do for their whole lives,” he says.
No matter where you are, if you mention Augusta to a mountain biker, chances are they’ll ask you about FATS. The Fork Area Trail System has been called the Augusta National of mountain biking and it’s only 20 minutes away across the Savannah River in McCormick County. Fast, fun and flowy, FATS consists of six separate loops and is classified as beginner/intermediate, but don’t let that scare you away. “A six year old could ride it and an expert racer could get hurt out there. It’s that kind of trail. It’s very fast and you’ve got to be careful as far as your speed goes,” says Phil Cohen. The FATS trail has the distinction of being named an epic trail by IMBA, one of 30 in the country.
Ready To Roll
With a wide range of opportunities to ride, it’s clear why biking numbers continue to climb. Nicole Troutman of Evans enjoys FATS and the Bartram trails and takes her five-year-old son to both. “I like being outside, getting fresh air and flying down a hill.” Jack’s favorite part? “Popping wheelies!”
“I call it bum rushing the senses. Every time I take someone around and show them West Dam, Wildwood Park, Savannah Rapids and other places in our area, I realize we’ve got it pretty good, ” says DuTeau.
From a mountain biking mecca to river views, lake vistas and plans for a Columbia County greenway, no matter what your skill level or goal, there’s a path close by just waiting for you.