Kentucky mountains rich in opportunities for economic pedal power

Gary Bentley
Gary Bentley

As your legs spin, you feel your heart beating through your chest, and you watch the sweat beads drop from your forehead to the pavement. At this moment you feel free. Your mind is clear of all thoughts, you just keep pushing.

Then as you reach the final destination of the ride, you feel a sense of accomplishment. Regardless of whether you reached your goal or simply gave it your all in effort, you pushed yourself to your limits and that is accomplishment.

This is the feeling that a cyclist gets when traveling across rural back roads, city streets, gravel farm roads and trails carved through forested lands. It’s what drives the adventure cyclist to wake up at 5 a.m. for a bicycle commute to work or ride to the grocery store in the rain and snow. This feeling is what will push the elite cyclist to travel over 4,000 miles by bicycle in only 14 days to be the first to reach the end of a race from Oregon to Virginia.

The world of adventure cycling is breathing a new life into the hills and hollers of Eastern Kentucky. By looking at growing numbers for adventure cycling across the United States, it is easy to see the sport as the next step in the right direction for the region.

Cycling contributes an estimated $133 billion each year to the U.S. economy. Iowa has reported $365 million per year in spending from recreational bicyclists. The Katy Trail in Missouri generates $18.5 million which supports 367 jobs. A case study found over 680,000 bicyclist visits to the Outer Banks of North Carolina each year, generating $60 million.

In this state, over 1,300 cyclists made their way into Laurel County on April 23 for the 2016 Redbud Ride in London, part of Kentucky Tourism’s Century Challenge. Cyclists traveled from across the nation to explore the beautiful landscapes found in this region. Whether on the entry-level 24-mile route or the experienced 102-mile loop, all of the riders shared the same passion, energy and drive.

Less than two months later, on June 4, Royalton hosted its second annual Royalton Rail Trail Festival. Royalton is a small community happy to sit along the Dawkins Line Rail Trail, Kentucky’s newest and longest rail-to-trail project. Riders experience a beautiful ride across 24 trestles and travel through the 662-foot-long Gun Tunnel on this 18-mile ride.

The trail offers an opportunity for family and friends to gather, ride bicycles, hike and ride horseback on what was once a railroad dating back to 1919. The trail has not only been the spark for multiple events and festivals but is motivating investment in new businesses that will open their doors to adventure tourism in Johnson and Magoffin counties.

Right now, a small group in Whitesburg, the seat of Letcher County, is planning the Second Annual Pine Mountain Summit Challenge. Organizers James Winston Lee, Erik Arroz and Justin Keene have been actively building a cycling community through weekly group rides and social rides that accommodate the new cyclist who may be intimidated by the Spandex-clad warriors as they speed down Pine Mountain often reaching 50 mph.

The challenge held its inaugural ride in 2015 with riders traveling from across the state as well as from Indiana, Virginia and Tennessee. Whitesburg police led riders from Main Street to the city limits as they made the initial descent into the surrounding community of Whitco. Riders enjoyed a fast-paced ride for 26 miles before making the six-mile ascent to the peak of Pine Mountain, finishing at the Little Shepherd Trail overlook.

The second annual event will take place Aug. 27 and will offer multiple routes for all levels of cyclists, including a kid’s race in downtown Whitesburg.

When looking at cycling events and infrastructure in Eastern Kentucky, there is a single correlation between the avid cyclist and those who have no interest in the sport: Both want to make positive impacts on their communities through job creation, increased revenue and better health for the people of the region.

So now is the time for Eastern Kentucky to take advantage of its scenic beauty and roads that are less traveled to build new opportunities for the region through cycling.

Gary Bentley, a Whitesburg native, lives in Lexington and works in manufacturing. Reach him at garybbentley@gmail.com