Iredell County Manager Ron Smith has the perfect tonic for another hectic day at the Government Center in downtown Statesville: He puts on his cycling helmet, shirt, pants and shoes and hops onto his mountain bike to ride the trails at Lake Norman State Park.
“I love being in the outdoors, and with my job, it’s nice to get away from everything for a little while,” Smith, 41, said at the park’s Itusi Trail on Tuesday. Smith, who started mountain biking in 1991, was there to try out part of the trail’s final three loops that opened this month.
With 30.5 miles of mountain bike routes, the Itusi Trail is the most extensive public or private mountain bike trail system in the Charlotte region, Itusi Trail coordinator Jeff Archer of Mooresville said.
The Itusi’s one-way, 12- to 18-inch-wide dirt mountain bike paths also are open to runners and walkers, who must yield to bikers, according to park rules.
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Named after the Catawba Indians word for “hawk,” the Itusi already attracts hundreds of riders a month to the 1,328-acre park, according to counting devices at the entrances to the trail’s three main loops. Some months see 1,400 or more riders.
Riders come from as far away as Charlotte and Winston-Salem, Archer said, but he expects the Itusi to become even more of a regional destination now that it’s complete.
The park is about 40 miles north of Charlotte.
When Archer and fellow mountain biker Bob Karriker of Statesville launched the effort, mountain bike trails were unheard of in North Carolina’s state parks, Archer said. After the state signed off on a proposed layout for the trail in September 2002, hundreds of volunteers worked thousands of hours over a decade.
“The first nine miles were nothing but completely hand-built,” Archer said at the trail Tuesday during a break in riding with Smith. “Five hundred (work) hours a mile, which was just insane.”
He returned home each day from work on the trail with arms aching from pulling tree roots from the ground.
Volunteers have included members of Charlotte’s Tarheel TrailBlazers mountain bike club and Boy Scouts such as Archer’s son, Seth, who built nearly 100 large red rescue markers, and Sean Endres, who constructed a changing stall. Both belong to Troop 171, sponsored by Williamson’s Chapel United Methodist Church in Mooresville.
In late 2008, the Tarheel TrailBlazers approved spending $10,000 for equipment to clear a seven-mile corridor, while major companies also pitched in. Outdoors retailer REI gave $10,000, while Duke Energy awarded $20,000 to buy a Bobcat 316 mini-excavator. Lowe’s donated $15,000 to purchase a Ditch Witch SK300.
A $75,000 recreational trails program grant from the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources paid for the latest three loops.
“It’s not only a lot of miles, but it’s a quality trail that won’t erode away as quickly,” Smith said.
Archer, 48, is perhaps the trail’s biggest fan, having seen it through from conception.
He is a longtime mountain biker who owns First Flight Bicycles in downtown Statesville. In his store in 2007, he opened a museum dedicated to mountain bikes. Two years later, Smithsonian.com featured his Museum of Mountain Bike Art & Technology in a profile of U.S. niche museums.
Archer had always thought the wooded and hilly terrain of Lake Norman State Park was a natural for mountain bikes, which reach up to 25 mph downhill on some of the Itusi’s trail routes.
Now that the trail is complete, he said, it’s time “for everyone to enjoy the ride.”