Free wheeling

Just to the north, lonesome roads offer safe, serene cycling

Staff WriterAugust 14, 2005 

Once I'd corrected my faux pax of parking in Mr. Sam's spot, I had a good feeling about the ride.

Mr. Sam was the proprietor of the Leasburg Grocery on U.S. 158 in Caswell County and, although it wasn't marked, the parking spot next to the propane tank was his. The store clerk said it was fine to park at the store, just not there, so I moved the Outback near a light pole a little farther out. My riding partner, Alan Nechemias, and I dismounted our bikes from the roof rack and were off to explore Route 3, the 22-mile Hyco Lake Loop, of the new Caswell County Bicycling route map.

The map was published last month and resembles the dozen county bike route maps issued by the state Department of Transportation's Division of Bicycle and Pedestrian Transportation. Same color-coded map showing the routes, similar narratives including length and things to look for -- historical, nutritional and otherwise -- along the way.

Although the map may look DOT-sanctioned, it was done minus the benefit of DOT's extensive GIS mapping system, minus the input of local bike clubs, minus professional cartographers and minus the expertise of the bike division's staff. And, perhaps most significantly, minus the several-year lead time it takes to produce one of the guides. In fact, the Caswell map was put together by one man, a casual cyclist who scouted routes by car. The map was produced on a shoestring budget, thanks largely to a $2,500 grant from the state Department of Commerce.

Simple as the map is, it effectively alerts cyclists to the two-wheel possibilities in this lightly populated county along the Virginia border. It's also part of a larger effort designed to draw tourists to a surprisingly rich recreational area little more than an hour's drive from the Triangle.

Exploring the Dan River Basin

Look at a map of North Carolina and recreational opportunities abound. Go west and you've got the mountains and hiking, mountain biking, climbing and snow sports. Head east and you've got coastal swamps, sounds, the Atlantic and just about every water sport imaginable, from kayaking to kite boarding. South yields a golfer's paradise.

And north?

Check out the border with Virginia and you're likely to stare for a while before coming up with something, if anything.

"It's as if we don't exist," acknowledges Lindley Butler, who with his wife, T, founded the Dan River Basin Association in 2002. "We aren't at the center of anything."

The group's goal is "protecting the natural and cultural resources" of the 3,300-square-mile Dan River Basin, which covers roughly 15 counties in North Carolina and Virginia, though the association's focus is primarily on six: Stokes, Rockingham and Caswell in North Carolina, and Patrick, Pittsylvania and Halifax in Virginia. While protecting those resources, they're also hoping to tout the region's recreational opportunities and draw a few tourist dollars along the way.

"The idea is to build this sort of borderlands region," says Butler. "An area of invisible boundaries where we can work together."

And play together.

Playing the Dan

Probably the most recognizable recreational resource in the Dan River Basin is Hanging Rock State Park. With 18 miles of hiking trails, swimming and rock climbing, it's the closest true montane environment to the Triangle. Located just north of Winston-Salem in Stokes County, Hanging Rock rises 1,700 feet above the surrounding countryside. Come fall, its vistas are particularly popular with leaf peepers.

Recognizable to the Triangle's more accomplished paddlers are the basin's three main navigable rivers, the namesake Dan, the Mayo and the Smith. Much of the Dan is runnable even at low water, while stretches of the Dan and Mayo offer Class II to IV whitewater after a good rain (or release from the power-plant dam in Danville).

Among the area's least appreciated attributes are its largely abandoned, rolling roads -- ideal for long bike rides.

I discovered this last year on Cycle North Carolina, the annual weeklong bike trek across the state organized by North Carolina Amateur Sports. The route varies each year; last year, it began in Sparta in the Blue Ridge Mountains and took a northerly course -- through the Dan River Basin -- on its way to Oriental. My most notable saddle moment came on the stretch in Rockingham County: Riding along state Bike Route 4 atop the Piedmont plateau, I glanced to the north and caught a crystalline view of the Blue Ridge Mountains some 30 miles north in Virginia.

Even at 20 miles per hour, it was a view I could afford to let linger, thanks largely to the fact that there were few cars and trucks to pay attention to.

Cruising Caswell

It's five minutes into our ride on the 22-mile Hyco Lake Loop before we encounter our first car, probably 10 more before our second. When I moved to the Triangle in 1992, I wandered into the All-Star Bikes store in Cary and asked where the good routes were. That led to a heated debate between the two guys behind the counter about how there were no more good rides, that development had swallowed them all up. I wondered if Caswell County resembled Wake County pre-me.

"You can go a week here without seeing a single cyclist," says Tom Edmunds, Caswell's director of economic development. If you do see one, it could well be Edmunds; he's the guy who put the bike map together.

Make no mistake: Edmunds doesn't fancy himself a bike map expert. At one point, he rode about 75 miles a week. Lately, he hasn't been out much at all. He did the map himself because he didn't want to wait the several years it can take to get a county map done through DOT. Edmunds decided to do the map in January; it was essentially done by the end of March.

Here are some enticing statistics Edmunds thinks cyclists should know about Caswell County. One, the 435-square mile county has only 24,000 residents; that works out to about 55 residents per square mile. Seventy percent of the county's residents work outside the county, meaning that during the week the county is all but deserted. And as Edmunds notes, you won't find much competition on the roads from local cyclists: There are no bike clubs in the county. There's not even a bike shop.

Further, there are only three stoplights in the county. All the better to maintain a steady pace, a pace interrupted only by the ever-present hills.

"It's always rolling, either up or down," says Victor Matias, who with his wife, Teresa, owns The Bike Shop in neighboring Alamance County. "There's not a whole lot of flat."

Matias is quick to acknowledge, however, that flat is a relative term.

"When I first moved here people said [N.C.] 150 was flat. To this day I still don't know what they're talking about."

Matias says there's less doubt about another facet of riding this region.

"Any direction you go," he says, "you'll find yourself in a rural, safe, traffic-free environment."

Staff writer Joe Miller can be reached at 812-8450 or jmiller@newsobserver.com. For the latest local outdoors news, check out the TIO Blog at Copyright 2014 . All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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