TAMING THE HULK

For Weekly SurgeMarch 27, 2013 

On April 7, mountain biking enthusiasts will descend on Myrtle Beach to compete in a racing event that promises to be unlike anything the area has ever seen – with packs of cyclists feverishly pedaling and gearing to navigate six-plus mile laps of uphills, downhills, berms, turns and drop-offs – vying for the victor’s spot when all is said and done.

This event is a segment of the Coastal Carolina Off-Road Series – and the only South Carolina whistle stop in a six-race schedule that includes Greenville, Wilmington and Jacksonville, North Carolina.

But wait, you say - a mountain bike race in Myrtle Beach? What mountains – and for that matter, isn’t this the land of bulky, fixed-gear beach cruisers and casual riders? Is somebody going to build six miles of sand dunes and sawgrass and call it a mountain bike trail?

Not even close.

There is a parcel of land tucked between S.C. 31, Grissom Parkway and the Intracoastal Waterway called the Horry County Bike and Run Park – which was unveiled last summer as a result of an arrangement with Horry County Parks and Recreation and two local groups, The Myrtle Beach Triathlon Club and the Waccamaw Trail Blazers, and it’s been dubbed The Hulk because of its attributes similar to the experience of riding The Incredible Hulk roller coaster at the Universal Orlando Resort in Florida.

Some say the advent of The Hulk has been the catalyst for a surge in mountain biking in Myrtle Beach among local enthusiasts and has piqued the interest of tourists who seek out the course and try to tame it while vacationing here. Others contend that the park has provided a centralized option for trail riding in an area that is dominated by vehicular traffic – especially during the tourist season.

But could this movement be short lived? As momentum is just beginning to build, could the rug be pulled out from under The Hulk? As the good doctor David Banner would say, “Don’t make me angry. You wouldn’t like me when I’m angry.”

IF YOU BUILD IT THEY WILL RIDE

The Waccamaw Trail Blazers is an off-road biking club dedicated to the building and maintaining of trails and to the promotion and education of mountain biking on the Grand Strand – and it is because of this group that the event will take place here on April 7.

A blurb on The Waccamaw Trail Blazers web site [ www.waccamawtrailblazers.com] tells us a bit more about the race location:

“The Horry County Bike and Run Park, aka The Hulk, started in the summer of 2012 has come a long way for a short single track mountain bike trail in Myrtle Beach. The single track mountain bike trail starts out with a 30-foot hill climb, then takes on characteristics of a wooden roller coaster for three-fourths of the trail. With a few tight twisty sections, several switchbacks, small hill climbs, ditch digs, dramatic drops, field laps and possible speeds up to 20 mph, this is the closest thing to real mountain biking that Myrtle Beach has to offer. It truly surprises everyone.”

According to the Web site www.singletracks.com, a single track is just that – “a narrow path that allows single-file riding only. Single track trails allow no room for riders to pass without leaving the trail.”

The Coastal Carolina Off-Road Series, or CCORS [ www.ccors.com], is put together by an outfit out of Wilmington, N.C., called Cape Fear SORBA [Southern Off-Road Bicycle Association,] under the umbrella of SORBA and the International Mountain Biking Association [IMBA]. These acronyms can be dizzying – but all are connected. Three events in the CCORS races have already been completed in North Carolina: Feb. 10 at the Bicycle Post Trail in Greenville, Feb. 24 at the Brunswick Nature Park in Wilmington and March 17 at the Henderson Pond Trail in Jacksonville. The Myrtle Beach event precedes the remaining two events in Greenville and Wilmington.

But how did the April 7 slot become available in Myrtle Beach?

“We decided to expand the Coastal Carolina Off-Road Series in 2013 to venture out and find new trail locations and involve new clubs in the series,” says Barry Wray, associate professor at University of North Carolina at Wilmington’s Cameron School of Business and CCORS team captain. “We felt this would add something new to the series for existing riders and bring in a new club with new riders to the CCORS series.” Wray adds that the organization also considered Charleston, Raleigh, N.C. and Charlotte, N.C., as potential locations before choosing Myrtle Beach, but says the Waccamaw Trail Blazers showed the most interest in joining the series.

“We saw this as a great opportunity to keep the series ‘coastal,’” he says. “However, we were concerned about the validity of a trail so close to downtown Myrtle Beach. We really didn’t know if the trail would be adequate for a mountain bike race. So we went to Myrtle Beach to check out the bike trail at the Horry County Bike and Run Park.” What they found was a challenging trail and a viable option for CCORS events.

In November, the Waccamaw Trail Blazers [WTB] hosted a prostate cancer benefit event at The Hulk called the Stache and Dash – and a number of Cape Fear SORBA members were there. “We were very impressed with the trail and decided the Hulk trail would fit very well into our series,” says Wray. “We were also impressed to see how well the Waccamaw Trail Blazers handled the event and how much enthusiasm they have for trail building. The date for the race really fell into place in our schedule because it worked the best for key members of the WTB club and fit nicely with our other events.”

Trail Blazers president Marshall Brown says the race itself is going to include seven class categories from beginner to expert ranging from one-to-four laps – but the idea is also to keep people at the race site. “We want people to stay, so during the lull time when people are racing and they start finishing up – we’ll have someone out there keeping their attention.” This includes music [which will be piped via PA from a black school bus owned by Eastern Mountain Bike Tours], mountain biking demos with “trials,” meaning entertaining bike tricks – and activities for kids. “Sometimes after a race, people start leaving if they didn’t win – but we are trying to push to keep these people there to support the other racers and cheer everybody else on,” says Brown.

Although Brown says that vendors, per se, will not be on site – some of the local bike shops will have people on hand to lend mechanical help.

David Hall, owner of the Myrtle Beach Bicycle Fix, is a sponsor of both the CCORS series and the Myrtle Beach event itself. He will be on hand to provide technical support prior to the event, but Hall, a seasoned professional competitor, is also racing in the event. “I’ll have tools in hand before the race, and then everybody’s on their own,” he laughs. Hall was featured in Weekly Surge’s Working 4 A Living in our Feb. 28 edition.

ROOM TO GROW?

Is the advent of the CCORS event in Myrtle Beach an indication that interest in mountain or trail biking is growing here on the Grand Strand?

“Definitely,” says Brown. “I used to ride by myself because I didn’t know anybody that rode – and then there were two or three of us that rode together. And now, if I was to go up to the trail at two o’clock on a Tuesday, I’d probably see 10 people I know out there riding.”

Word is spreading in the trail biking community. “What we’re doing as an organization with the Waccamaw Trail Blazers is promoting these trails in the proper fashion, like on singletracks.com so that people outside of the area know that there are mountain bike trails here and that we are starting to host big races,” says Andre Pope, former VP of Waccamaw Trail Blazers, and a partner in local tech business Cubic Phase, Inc.

Brown adds that the aforementioned IMBA is a big help with this. If an IMBA member from Ohio or California is going on vacation, a quick look at the organization’s Web site [ www.imba.com] lists all affiliated clubs.

Hall asserts that he has seen interest grow in the last six months. “People are breaking out mountain bikes that they haven’t ridden in years because now we have a good place to ride them,” he says. “Since the development of [The Hulk] – you can go out there on a Saturday or Sunday and there could be 30 or 40 people out there riding, compared to months ago where you might have seen one or two.” He is impressed by the trail. “It’s great – and it’s surprising for where it is. I had two people in my shop today from out of town, and they said they just rode The Hulk, and they said they were shocked at how good it was. That’s pretty much what everyone says when the go ride there, like – ‘wow, this is great. You guys have something good going here.’”

And Cape Fear SORBA’s Wray was equally impressed. “The course is surprisingly tough and technical with much more climbing than I expected,” he says. “It has one particularly steep climb to really challenge riders. I would say it will be one of the toughest races of the CCORS season.”

While the number might change, Wray says his best guess is that from 15 to 20 Cape Fear SORBA riders will participate in the April 7 event. “I am expecting over 100 riders total at this event. So far we have broken attendance records at all three races and I feel certain we will end up with a record number of riders in the series this year.”

Local entrepreneur Paul Reynolds doesn’t see this growth necessarily as an explosion, per se, but rather the Hulk as a unifying element. “These guys were kind of all out here but now they have a place to go see each other,” he says. “There is a lot of guys that said they used to ride a lot – on the old illegal trails which were called The Pits. I think it was on the Grande Dunes land - and they were excited because there was a new trail this close to the beach. I think they were always around. But I am seeing more people. Every time I go, I see more people that I have never seen before.”

Pope reminds us that the Waccamaw Trail Blazers organization has two other trails in the area, namely the Jackson Bluff Trail at Cox Ferry Landing in Conway and the A-10 Trail at the Market Common, but The Hulk is different. “The fact that the Horry County Bike and Run Park is centrally located and close to the beach, more people are willing to go there,” he says.

Local businessman James D. Cooper, current Waccamaw Trail Blazers VP, sees the area becoming a viable destination for cycling of all sorts. “Everybody comes down here on vacation,” he says. “Now they can bring their trail bike. For years they have come down here and, if they were cyclists, brought their road bikes. You see the roadies blazing down the highway in their Lycra and helmets – all rocketing along at 25 miles an hour. That’s intimidating for some people, but there are so many more options.”

Cooper should know. He’s been hosting casual group rides around town for a number of years that he calls socials. He also builds custom bicycles, primarily out of recycled materials with his business, Red Bluff Re-Cycle Works, and hosted a Tweed Ride in Charleston last year.

“Tweed rides occur all over,” he says. “Ours is in Charleston in the fall. Riders show up in vintage clothes, some with vintage bikes. We enjoy a casual, social pub crawl.” Cooper adds that he tried this the first year in Myrtle Beach to limited success. “Charleston is much more scenic and their community is larger and more supportive.”

Cooper enlightened us a bit more about The Pits, which he says were coquina pits along the Intracoastal Waterway between 62nd Avenue North and the Marina. “All of that property is privately owned and has been under brushed for visibility to keep folks from riding there. People will ride anywhere they can.”

Reynolds would like to see some comparative data: “It would be interesting to know how many other places that you can go to have a family vacation at the beach and also ride a couple of challenging trails. It’s a unique combination. We’re having more and more people from out of town riding this trail. It’s not something that should be dismissed, especially with the sports tourism [component].”

HULK SMASH?

With this growing interest in The Hulk, it might come as a surprise that the park as it stands now is a temporary situation. Is this a “Tame the Hulk while you can” proposition?

Local businessman Pete Politis of the Myrtle Beach Triathlon Club [ www.mbtriclub.org], approached Horry County about the 72-acre property.

“I got introduced to off-road triathlons, and I wanted to continue doing these races,” he says. I checked with Horry County and found out that they had a parcel of land that had (been) reserved for future field sports.” He saw that the area would be perfect for running and biking.

“When I went in there to look at the area, it was very challenging because of the terrain,” he says. “It makes you feel like you are in another state.” The property is more like an inland wooded area than a spot at the beach, although the ocean is minutes away. Politis says he exchanged e-mails with the county for a year and finally got the OK for temporary use. “So it has worked together over several clubs; the Waccamaw Trail Blazers and the Grand Strand Running Club.” The Myrtle Beach Triathlon Club will host an off-road triathlon at The Hulk on May 4, in connection with USA Triathlon, or USAT.

Cubic Phase’s Pope asserts that before the mutual clubs took temporary possession of the property, cut trails and cleaned it up, it was being used for illegal dumping. “People would also go ride their four wheelers and dirt bikes. Now we have a greater presence out there, and it’s a presence that the county likes. Sports tourism is definitely on their agenda, and this is an alternative that people will drive for as long as there are good trails and things like that.”

Pope adds that everybody knew going into the deal that the property was slated for future development. “We don’t want to look a gift horse in the mouth, so we are very thankful. We are going to use it is an opportunity to host races such as the CCORS and other things to raise awareness about mountain biking here at the beach – and continue to advocate for more land and more space to do trails on.”

Politis would love to see all of these alternative sports as components in a permanent county or state park here on the Grand Strand. And he shared this compelling idea: “Personally, I would like to see a subdivision – instead of having a golf course, have nice trails instead,” he says. “That would be an active residential development where people could ride or run – and really make use of the facility, versus just golfers.”

Reynolds was right to the point. “I don’t know what the timeline is for The Hulk. I’d like to find out if there is any way possible that we can keep the trail.”

Horry County Parks and Recreation director Brent Taylor says that The Hulk site is slated for multipurpose sports fields at some point. “We anticipated that being in the near future, and when I say near future I am saying in the next couple of years,” he says. “So we just figured why not go ahead and get some use out of it instead of it just sitting there.” But he has seen the growing popularity of the park – with biking and running enthusiasts. “It’s also possible too - given its popularity - that we might try to incorporate some of the trail in amongst the fields there. We haven’t ruled that out, but we’ll see how the design process goes.”

Politis says The Hulk sits on a 72-acre parcel of land, but a portion is what he calls “soil basin.” “The [Army] Corps of Engineers has the right to dredge the Waterway and seal up the basin. In future years, this would help – because once they fill it up, then the county would have 48 acres or so of nice, flat land for ball fields or more trails. There are so many areas like this up and down the Waterway that could be turned into nice little parks.”

The tantalizing prospect of having part of The Hulk trails remain permanently is something that Politis says is not under his control. “We’re pretty much blessed to have access to the land and to put the trails in. How they might want to include them in the future is up to them.”

Horry County has 25 acres to work with, according to Taylor. Realistically, could soccer fields be developed while keeping even a portion of The Hulk trails?

“On any park property we try to include as many compatible uses as possible,” says Taylor. “We haven‘t done a plan, because there is no point in spending money on plans until we actually have money for construction. I can tell you it would be [an] objective to accommodate as much of both uses as possible.”

Currently, the arrangement looks like a symbiotic relationship. The clubs have cut the trails and enlist volunteers to maintain and clean the trails, which they do regularly. This seems like a win-win situation, and Taylor understands the vision. “I think we are going to try to identify sites in the future where we can develop trail riding in the county. We’ve gotten some positive feedback from that trail in the short period of time that it’s been open. The department is all about promoting activity that’s going to promote health and fitness and that certainly does. We definitely want to try and encourage that.”

If the Grand Strand becomes a destination for sports tourism in regard to trail biking, running or hiking, it would seem that this would be an added benefit to Horry County.

“And I have had that in my mind, too,” adds Taylor. “Generally, when we develop facilities we kind of have I guess you would say a two-pronged approach: One, obviously – does it meet a need locally?. And two – can it be worked into our No. 1 one business in supporting the tourism angle? We’ve gotten calls from people from out of state –wanting to come just to ride it. So racing will actually even promote it even more.”

With a nod to Reynolds, we had to ask: Can they keep it?

“Well, like I said before – if we ultimately build the fields out there, I think we all want to try to incorporate as much of it as possible.”

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