People driving near Smithfield and Four Oaks earlier this month might have noticed a lot of traffic. But the congestion wasn’t from cars – almost 1,100 bicyclists passed through in a single day.
The annual “Mountains to Coast” bicycle trip, a recreational bike tour, came through Johnston County on Oct. 3. Organized by Cycle North Carolina, the weeklong trek started in Spruce Pine in Mitchell County and ended in Atlantic Beach, passing through Johnston County on its way from Holly Springs to Goldsboro. The group had two rest stops in Johnston County: Lazy O Farm near Smithfield and Howell Woods Environmental Learning Center east of Four Oaks.
“It’s a tour; it’s not a race,” explained Chip Hofler, director of marketing and sponsorships for N.C. Amateur Sports, which runs Cycle North Carolina. “So we’re encouraging them to get off their bikes and explore the towns as they go through them. ... We’re able to showcase North Carolina’s beauty as well as all the small towns.”
The group last rode through Johnston County in 2006, spending the night at Johnston Community College, Hofler said. “We had a great experience when we were in Smithfield before, so we knew that coming through Johnston County would be an accommodating place to go through, and it would also prove to have some good rest stops and some good back roads for the cyclists to ride.”
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At Lazy O Farm, bicyclers could go on a hayride and sample local honey. The farm has been in the Olive family since 1850 and is now supported by agritourism as it teaches children about farming.
This kind of exposure helps introduce people to the county, said Amanda Astoske of the Johnston County Visitors Bureau. “We’re very fortunate to have this group,” she said. “This is a great group who appreciate what we have to offer.”
Astoske hopes the bikers will remember Johnston County’s good roads and come back with their local cycling clubs or on vacation. “We want to make sure they do come back,” she said.
To that end, Astoske set up a booth at the Lazy O Farm rest stop and invited Shamrock’s Buzzy Bee of Four Oaks to sell honey. “People are receptive,” said Buzzy Bee owner Kathy Hildreth. She and her husband, co-owner Al Hildreth, said they made about the same sales as they would on a Saturday at the farmers market in Clayton.
Al Hildreth said the event gave Buzzy Bee exposure to people outside of Johnston County. “It’s giving us a lot of exposure to people from all over the country,” he said.
Hofler said about half of the bikers come from outside of North Carolina, representing at least 35 states, England and Canada.
John Toponwey of Brooklyn, N.Y., said he was looking for a long bike ride about 13 years ago and came across “Mountains to Coast.” “The ride was so nice, the people were so nice” that he just kept coming back, he said.
Mike Skinnell of Herndon, Va., said he heard about the trip from other cyclists in Virginia and decided to give it a try. “I’ve had no regrets,” he said.
Originally from Ohio, Skinnell said Johnston County reminded him of home. “The country smells, just the ruralness reminds me of the farms I used to work on,” he said.
Raad Yacoub of Raleigh biked in with a friend, Jeff Birk, also of Raleigh. Yacoub said he enjoyed the hills leading up to the farm. “We like the challenge,” he said.
Birk said he noticed the crops change as he rode from the mountains into Johnston County. “It’s interesting to see the change in agriculture as you cross the state,” he said.
“It’s a nice trip to see the state,” Birk added.
David Thompson, who runs Lazy O Farm with his wife and her mother, said he liked meeting people from so many places. “They’re interested in the farm,” he said, calling them a good crowd. “They like the idea that we’re teaching children where their food comes from.”
His wife, Tami Olive Thompson, said, “It’s interesting to see just a whole group of people we’re not all used to meeting and seeing in Johnston County.”
The two made their farm a rest stop after Cycle North Carolina asked them. Tami Olive Thompson said she hopes people who have a nice experience at the farm will come back. “Maybe they can remember Johnston County as a nice place to go through,” she said.
“I’ve never seen so many bicycle riders in my life,” she added.