I'm James Maxey, the author of numerous novels of fantasy and science fiction. I use this site to discuss a wide range of topics, with a heavy emphasis on cranky, uninformed rants about politics and religion and other topics that polite people attempt to avoid. For anyone just wanting to read about my books, I maintain a second blog, The Prophet and the Dragon, where I keep the focus solely on my fiction. I also have a webpage where both blogs stream, with more information about all my books, at jamesmaxey.net.


Friday, September 02, 2016

A Beginner's Guide to Biking Triangle Greenways

Anyone who follows me on Facebook has probably noticed that my most frequent updates are bike rides automatically posted by Endomondo. Since I started using the app to track bike rides in early 2013, I’ve logged close to 3000 miles of rides. The vast majority of these rides take place on Triangle greenways. A lot of people tell Cheryl and me that they’re inspired by all the riding we do and want to get their bikes out and start riding as well. For anyone serious about that, no matter where you live, here’s are a few brief tips on taking up cycling for fitness and fun. And, if you live in or near the Raleigh/Durham/Chapel Hill triangle, I’m throwing in a firsthand review of the area greenways.

First, if you don’t have bikes and want to take up biking, the good news is you don’t need to spend a fortune. Both Cheryl and I ride bikes we bought at Target. The caveat to this is that bikes you buy in a big box store probably haven’t been put together with a lot of attention to detail. There are a zillion fine adjustments that need to be made on a bike. Brakes and gears need tweaking, seat height and angles need to be properly positioned, and your spokes need to be correctly tightened to get your wheels into a true circle. Fortunately, bike shops will do these tune ups for you for a reasonable fee. Since we ride our bikes so much, we usually have them tuned up each spring.

Good gears make for a good ride.

If you already own bikes, especially if they’ve been sitting around, definitely get them tuned up at a bike shop. It will make your ride safer and far less frustrating than the ride you’ll experience if your gears aren’t working and your seat’s the wrong height.

Second, Cheryl and I now usually go on rides of at least 15 miles, and often much further. However, when we first started riding, five and six mile rides were the norm, and they were exhausting! The hundred mile ride we did last year was completely unimaginable. At the beginning, I think the important thing isn’t distance, but the time you spend biking. Get out and ride for forty-five minute or an hour a couple of times a week. Take breaks whenever you need them. Maybe you’ll only get in three miles. But eventually, you’ll start getting in five and six mile rides, and one day ten mile rides. You can’t go out and start with a 50 mile ride. Even if you’re a runner with the muscles and lungs to pull it off, you need to log a lot of smaller rides just to get your butt conditioned.

Next, clothing: Cheryl and I started riding in just street clothes, which is fine for rides under 10 miles. The seams in the crotch of jeans will start to feel like a steel bar on a long ride, and a cotton t-shirt will turn into a heavy, sweat-soaked vest, so you’ll need to switch to exercise clothing if you plan to do longer rides. Bike shorts look goofy, but kind of become necessary at 25 miles or longer rides. I own a pair of bike shoes. These have stiff soles, which distribute the weight on the underside of my feet so my arches don’t get sore from pressing down on the pedals for hours at a time. Still, for rides under 20 miles, I just use tennis shoes.

One final word before I start reviewing greenways: Since nearly all of our rides are out and back along the same route, the hidden pleasure of any bike ride is that half your ride is always downhill. Admittedly, this means half your ride is always uphill. But you kind of learn to enjoy climbing a lot of long, slow grades during the first half of your ride, since you know that the second half is going to reward you with an equally long downhill.

Triangle Greenways

There are two really big Greenways in the area. You have the American Tobacco Trail which runs from Central Durham down into Apex, a distance of nearly 23 miles, and in Raleigh the Neuse River Trail follows the river from the dam at Falls Lake downstream for 33 miles. The Neuse Trail also has some significant Greenways that branch off of it. All have their advantages and disadvantages.

American Tobacco Trail

This trail has three distinct segments. First, from downtown Durham to South Point Mall, about seven miles. It’s all paved, mostly flat, with a few steep hills as it maneuvers around business and neighborhoods. The nice thing about this segment is that you are passing actual businesses. For some reason, even though Cheryl and I never stop at Wendy’s or Harris Teeter or Mellow Mushroom, the presence of businesses just off the trail makes the ride feel practical. Exercise isn’t the only reason you might use this trail. It can take you to destinations you would normally drive to. The downside of this segment: Stop lights and stop signs. You cross some really busy roads. It’s hard to maintain momentum when you’re stopping for traffic every five minutes. This section does have a few connecting greenways, but the only one we’ve ridden is the Riddle Road extension, which is a pretty easy ride, but doesn’t go anywhere interesting and offers little in the way of scenery.

The next segment is from South Point Mall to the New Hope Church Trail Head. This is by far the most frequent ride we do. This segment is all paved, mostly flat, mostly straight. The biggest advantage for this seven mile segment is that there are multiple bathrooms and water fountains along the path. We normally park in the shopping center with Homeplace and HH Gregg to set off on our journey, and frequently eat at one of the restaurants in that shopping center after a ride. If you start from the mall area and head to New Hope, the first seven miles has more uphills than downhills. The ride back is always faster than the ride out! This area has two downsides. First, it’s crowded. You’re constantly having to maneuver around runners, walkers, other bikers, and families out for a stroll. Second, the scenery is… meh. It’s not ugly, it’s just a long, straight ride without much to look at other than trees and housing developments.

The last segment is from New Hope down to the bottom. This segment isn’t paved. There are bathrooms, but they’re pit toilets, and no water fountains. The trail varies in quality. It’s fine gravel, and when it’s tightly packed it’s a good surface. But you hit ruts and washouts, and, worst of all, soft patches that look no different from the hard surface you’ve been on. If you hit a soft patch while you’ve got some momentum it’s definitely a hazard, though so far we’ve never had a fall on this section. The big advantage of this segment is that it does offer some satisfying scenery. Unfortunately, in recent months, we’ve noticed a lot of trees being cleared out to prep the way for housing developments. Hopefully it won’t spoil this segment too much.

The trail near White Oak

Other Durham Greenways: There are some short, one and two mile greenways north of I-85 that we don’t usually bother with. We did, however, just recently ride the Third Fork Creek Greenway that runs between 751 and MLK Blvd for about three and a half miles and found it to be a pretty decent ride, though a bit buggy. You could also see that this trail floods out pretty frequently. Still, for a ride through what’s a fairly dense part of town, it did have some interesting scenery.

Hillsborough, Chapel Hill, and Cary Greenways

All of these towns have decent greenways, but almost all of them are short. I think Cary has a master plan that will one day link up all their greenways, but for now the greenways we’ve tried out there haven’t given us the right combination of distance and trail quality that would bring us back for multiple rides.

Neuse River Trail

The full trail is best thought of as two trails of about the same size. Anderson Point Park sits pretty much at the midpoint of the trail. It has bathrooms and water fountains and makes a great launch point for your bike adventure. As a bonus, it’s also a trailhead for the Crabtree Creek Trail, and very close to trailheads for the Walnut Creek and Mingo Creek trails.

The northern half of the trail from the park to the dam is noticeably flatter than the lower half. This section has several long bridges that cross the Neuse, offering nice views. There’s also an old stone dam just a few miles north of the park that’s very photogenic, and boardwalks over swampy areas that house herons, muskrats, and countless turtles. At the top of the trail, there’s a bathroom and water fountains, and just across the road is a bike shop that sells drinks and snacks. We ride this section of the trail pretty often. It also has several short greenways that connect off of it that let you add on a few more miles if you want. The nicest of these is the Mingo Creek Trail. It’s about 4 miles long, and the middle part of it has a lot of boardwalks through wetlands.

Seriously, herons everywhere on this part of the trail.
The southern half of the trail has several long, steep hills. This isn’t a reason to avoid it, though, because these hills lead to some of the best scenery on the trail. A big chunk of the ride goes past landfill… yeah, I know, that sounds like the opposite of good scenery. But this is landfill that’s been filled in, so you see long, open fields, and in the spring large sections are planted with sunflowers.

The challenge of the southern section of the trail is the complete lack of bathrooms and water fountains. If you launch from Anderson Point Park, you’ll have a 34 mile round trip without these conveniences. If you’re a couch potato just starting out on riding, the hills really can wear you down. There are sections where you’ll have over a mile of uphill peddling. But, especially in the spring, the views reward you for your efforts.

It's all downhill from here. Except the parts that are still uphill.
The southern part has two significant connecting trails, the Crabtree Creek Trail and the Walnut Creek Trail. The Walnut Creek trail is a pretty nice ride out to the Walnut Creek Amphitheatre. Lots of boardwalks over wetlands, some interesting curves and bridges, one of two steep hills, but no long, unending grades. Past the Amphitheatre the trail has a really steep uphill to a park, and past this park there’s a long segment of the trail that on a neighborhood street. When it becomes a greenway again, it’s on an older section that’s has a lot of segments that are narrow, crooked, and steep, though if you’re willing to brave this, it will eventually lead you to the Raleigh Farmer’s Market.

The Crabtree Creek Trail holds together as a greenway for about 11 miles until you reach Lassiter Mill Park, which has a scenic, historic dam. Past this, the trail kind of disappears into a hilly neighborhood. Once you navigate that, the greenway continues for several more miles out past the Crabtree Creek Mall, but the scenery through that segment doesn’t really reward you for the effort of reaching it. (Though, as I mentioned about the northern segment of the American Tobacco Trail, this section of the greenway does at least offer you a choice of useful destinations.) The Crabtree Creek Trail also has the steepest hill of any greenway we’ve encountered in Raleigh. Aside from this, it’s relatively flat, and the first time we rode it was spotted multiple herons along the creek.

Lassiter Mill Park.
In all, the Triangle offers easily a hundred miles of high quality greenways, all with their own personalities. If you’re interested in biking, and live in this area, you seriously have no excuse not to be out there enjoying the miles.

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