Greenville, SC is a Growing Cycling Destination in the South

Greenville, SC is a Growing Cycling Destination in the South

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(Image courtesy of Hotel Domestique)

Whenever a city starts to develop a strong cycling culture, and the word starts to spread, the inevitable comparisons to Boulder begin. Nowadays it seems every region has its “Boulder-of-the-(insert geographical descriptor here).” And while they usually fall short of Boulder’s magical combination of geography, culture, weather and infrastructure, the fact that so many cities are proactively addressing cycling-related issues is extremely encouraging to cyclists everywhere, not to mention outdoor enthusiasts of all types, who also tend to run, hike, camp, climb, and so on.

One of the cities to emerge as a potential future cycling and outdoor Mecca is Greenville, South Carolina. In recent years Greenville has completely revamped its downtown area and turned it into a major tourist attraction full of art, gorgeous scenery, and an impressive culinary scene. Along with that effort came a deliberate effort to vastly improve the cycling infrastructure and actively pursue cyclists as tourists and potential citizens.

Greenville is not exactly new to the cycling scene – it held the USA Cycling Professional Road National Championships from 2006 to 2012, as well as the National Criterium Champs in 2015 and 2016. It’s during this time that American cycling icon George Hincapie decided he wanted to call Greenville home thanks in no small part to its training potential. Hincapie’s often-vocal passion for his adopted home helped put the town on a wider map and numerous other pros have relocated to the area. His Hollowesko/Citadel Racing Team (formerly Hincapie Racing) also calls the city home.

What those riders all know is that Greenville offers miles of wide open space to explore, with everything from serious mountains to rolling farmland, and even a 21-mile paved bike path starting in the heart of downtown. There are also thousands of acres of national forest with some incredible mountain biking, hiking or trail running. And perhaps most importantly, the city is virtually packed with many of the post-ride faves of cyclists, including locally brewed beer, fresh-roasted coffee, and farm-fresh dining.

Demographically the city is also similar to some of the other bike-crazy communities in the country. The city has just over 60,000 residents (as of 2013; probably higher now), which is much lower than it would appear based on the many high-rise buildings in the area. It seems the region is poised to boom however, with apartments and hotels under construction on seemingly every corner. The median age is a relatively young 38. But at this point at least, it enjoys a considerable lower cost of living than the Boulders and Portlands of the world: The median home price is still under $140,000! Median income hovers just over 40,009 with the Health and Manufacturing industries among the major employers, along with a growing tourism industry, and the unemployment rate is a super-low 4.6%. The combination makes Greenville a very attractive option for outdoor enthusiasts looking for a new oasis to call home (On a recent visit, I even found myself looking at real estate!).

Carolina Triathlon

The Riding

Road: It takes so much more than just open roads to make a great road cycling area. Road conditions, traffic and terrain are key of course, but so is a general acceptance that bikes belong on the road, and Greenville seems well-placed on all of the above. While we found some of the major streets through town were not especially bike-friendly, there were lots of alternatives that were great, albeit not quite as convenient to get out to the open roads.

But the city has been improving this steadily since 2011 when it drew up its Bicycle Master Plan: At that point Greeneville had a mere 22 miles of bikeways according to tourism spokeswoman Taryn Scher. “By November 2015, the total number of bike lanes, sharrows, greenways, and trails had grown to 60 miles and is still moving swiftly,” says Scher. “The city was designated a bronze-level Bicycle Friendly Community in October 2009 with plans to apply for a silver-level in 2017. The ultimate goal as stated in the 2011 plan is nearly 140 miles of on-street bikeways (bike lanes, bike routes and shared lane markings) with wayfinding for cyclists.”

While more definitely needs to be done, those improvements have made getting in and around the city much more bike-friendly to be sure. But once out of town the roads and scenery open up and long, winding, rolling roads abound, with little traffic. North of town seems to be the more popular area, especially since the Swamp Rabbit Trail heads that direction out of town, providing a casual and scenic cruise to start and/or end your long rides. The trail itself is a very flat rail-to-trail paved path, and it makes for a wonderful, casual spin out of town where you’ll share the trail with everything from pros to first timers, not to mention loads of runners and walkers. You’ll find that many of they cyclists are on their way to the little town of Traveler’s Rest, which has become a popular ride for Greenville locals – they ride out, eat some good food and/or down some local beer and fresh coffee, and head back home or simply call for a ride.

And of course North is where the mountains are, but don’t be fooled – these are some real mountain climbs. This is also the general direction of the Gran Fondo Hincapie, which hosts thousands of cyclists every October. Riders travel north into North Carolina before looping back to Greenville, and ascend over 7000 feet on many of George’s favorite roads, including the renowned Skyuka Mountain and Howard’s Gap Climbs (see route HERE).

Another popular climb is much closer to home. Paris Mountain featured prominently – and painfully – during the National Championships where it was climbed four times during the race. It is found just a few miles north of town, and offers a legitimate mountain climb, if slightly shorter than the others farther up the road. Accessible from the north and south sides of the State Park, it offers two distinct climbs in one: The route from the southern end ascends almost 900 feet in 5 miles, with one killer wall in the middle. The other is much steeper and shorter, ascending almost 800 feet in just 2.3 miles. Either can be easily accessed from town, on local roads or the Swamp Rabbit Trail.

top of paris mtn

There are great shops all over the Greenville area, including Hincapie’s own Hincapie Sportswear, which sells his signature cycling and tri apparel and other accessories. If you’re lucky, you might even catch a glimpse of the legend in his offices in the back of the store. If you need a rental bike and want the best selection and some of the nicest bike guys we’ve ever met (if you bring them great coffee they’ll be even nicer!), check out Carolina Triathlon downtown. The shop is housed in a cool old building just down the road from the heart of town, and the exposed brick and wooden beams are literally crawling with bikes and gear.

Mountain Biking: When it comes to mountain biking Greenville often takes a backseat to another “Boulder-of-the…” candidate, Ashville, NC, which is about an hour north over the hills. But Greenville has plenty of outstanding riding within a short drive, and many of the best areas are only a bit farther away than they are from Asheville. Three National Forests are less than 2 hours away, including Pisgah, Sumter and Chattahoochee (in NC, SC and Georgia respectively), and lots of other open space surrounds the area as well.

Some of the best riding, especially for fast XC style, can be found at the Forks Area Trail System (FATS) in Sumter National Forest. 37 miles of relatively flat, dry and fast singletrack, with some legit technical sections thrown in, means hours of speedy fun.

Even more fun we thought was DuPont State Recreational Forest, just across the NC border near Hendersonville. Trails crisscross the over 10,000 acres of gorgeous, lush mountain terrain. There’s even the closest thing I’ve found to East Coast “slickrock” trails, on the Big Rock and Cedar Rock trails: smooth steep granite makes up the “trails” here, and you can climb this up and over the summit to enjoy some amazing views, which are well earned after the lung-searing grind you’ve just knocked out.

Probably the best known area in the region is Pisgah National Forrest, just east of Asheville, where the riding lives up to it reputation, with literally hundreds of miles of trails spread out across over 500,000 acres. There are too many to list, but beware (or rejoice?) – these trails are very hilly, and are renowned for their challenge and ability to take riders far into the wilderness. Pisgah is also the home of Mt. Mitchell, the highest peak in the Eastern United States at 6683’, so don’t be fooled, these are legitimate mountains for sure.

If you need a great shop before – or more likely after – your ride at either Sumter or Pisgah, check out the good folks at Sycamore Cycles with stores near both locations. Even better, if you need a bike, they have plenty of top-quality rentals, and they’ll even deliver to the trailhead and pick up when you’re done riding too. So no excuses if you just happen to be passing through – just call them and go for a ride!

segway tour

The Scene

With the recent revitalization of Greenville – especially the historic downtown area – the town has developed a surprisingly vibrant arts and entertainment scene, including a few things cyclists tend to appreciate: fresh, local, creative food; fresh roasted artisan coffee; and top-notch, micro-brewed beer from both local and national brewers. Indeed there are over 100 locally owned restaurants within a mile radius around downtown, and at least 10 coffee shops in just a few square blocks. A casual stroll or cruiser ride through the highly pedestrian-friendly downtown will quickly result in numerous choices on all three fronts – and if you venture out a bit into the surrounding areas you find plenty more.

We chose to check it all out on … ahem … a Segway Tour. I never thought I’d do this, but it was there. So I did. And now I highly recommend it! Greenville Segway Tours provided the machines (and helmets!) and with a quick lesson we easily “mastered” these amazing – if a bit embarrassing to be seen on – vehicles. The owner/guide provided tons of history about the area, including stories behind the seemingly ubiquitous – and quite impressive to this somewhat snobbish native New Yorker – public artwork, and lots of useful info on entertainment as well.

There are far too many restaurants and coffee shops to cover here, but we loved the vibes at Moe Joe Coffee and Music House, on Main and Coffee Underground, appropriately situated on Coffee Street just off Main. Both offer classic “Bohemian” feel, replete with live entertainment. For a more intimate setting, the quaint Bex Café and Juice Bar is just down the street from the center of town.

Once you’ve had your caffeine fix, head over to Cantinflas for massive margs and excellent Mexican cuisine. Grab a sidewalk-patio table, a huge bowl of guac and enjoy front row seating for all the Main Street action. Or try Pomegranate On Main for fantastic traditional Persian food (think middle eastern with more raisins!) and a charming covered patio. While there, you have to try their renowned Pomegranate Martini. Another killer patio, along with an ultra-chic interior and bar area, can be found at Roost, located on the main drag adjacent to the Hyatt. They serve soil-to-city fare with a southern feel (and they have tofu for veggie-heads like me!). If you can score a patio table during one of the cities free weekly concerts (summers, every Thursday and Friday evening) you’ll enjoy a perfect view overlooking the crowd and band. Just off Main is another find, the Tupelo Honey Café, serving wildly creative twists on traditional southern fare with names like Wampus Cat Ribs and Cackalackie Pulled Pork in a warm, relaxed, esoteric atmosphere.

After splurging at these places, check out Southern Pressed Juicery for some cleansing and purifying with their crazy-but-delicious blends of fresh juice and local herbs. They bottle it too, so ask for an energy concoction to take on your ride. Now that you’re “healthy” again, get on your bike and ride north on the Swamp Rabbit Trail to Traveler’s Rest so you can splurge again at Sidewall Pizza Company, serving some of the most delicious pizza I’ve had outside of NYC (and remember, I’m a native!), and obscenely yummy breadsticks. Pair that with local beers and homemade ice cream, and we bet you’ll be calling an Uber with a bike rack to get home again.

southern pressed juicery

Speaking of local beers, Greenville has become a serious hub for micro brewing and home-brew, and has a burgeoning local culture around beer and brewing. There were far too many to choose from, so we left it up to a local expert who runs Greenville Beer Tours. Along with sharing some of his vast knowledge of local and national brewing scene, he took us to a few of the highlights including nationally renowned Thomas Creek Brewery, along with Brewery 85 with its enormous “beer garden” outdoor patio. We also toured Upstate Craft Beer Company, known not only for its handcrafted brews, but for its self-brew program where beginners and experts can find everything they need to create their own concoctions in-house or at home.

This is just a small taste of what Greenville has to offer travelers. As you can no doubt tell, it is another great cycling destination that offers plenty of great food and drinks to keep you satiated when you’re not on the bike as well. It is definitely a city on the rise, with much to offer visitors and residents alike.