By Ivey Schofield
On March 5, more than 500 families flocked to the Bladen County town of Elizabethtown to race along a mountain bike trail. Now locals are hoping to capture that momentum and create their own racing unit.
“We just need to find the right person to put together a composite team,” Town Manager Dane Rideout said.
For years, there have been whispers about the creation of a Bladen County team within the North Carolina Interscholastic Cycling League, a mountain biking program for students in grades six through 12 with 26 teams across the state. But nobody has followed through.
Mountain biking enthusiasts and several locals say Elizabethtown is the perfect place to host its own team.
The Browns Creek Nature Park and Bike Trail, owned by the town and operated by Cape Fear SORBA (Southern Off-Road Bicycle Association), is one of the best trails in eastern North Carolina, they say, boasting about 18 miles of obstacles, climbs and jumps in Elizabethtown.
“It’s a great trail, and it has a lot of options,” said Brian Russell, director of the North Carolina Interscholastic Cycling League. “Hopefully we can have folks (in Elizabethtown) catch the bug.”
Ken Shughart, who has lived about 8 miles outside of Elizabethtown for more than two decades, loves mountain biking and has helped build the Browns Creek trail. But when his son, Karson, wanted to join a team as a sixth grader, they had to drive to Wilmington to enroll.
Karson was the only kid from Bladen County on the Cape Fear Fins Composite Mountain Bike Team, Shughart said. But they regularly practiced at the Browns Creek trail, especially before the annual race in March.
“It’s good quality time and great exercise, and you get to be outdoors, not sitting in front of a screen like so many kids today,” said Shughart, who was also a coach on the team. “I think it’s a great thing.”
The Browns Creek trail used to be full of locals, Shughart said. Now, he doesn’t recognize most of the people who use it.
Twice a year, Michael Hitefield, who lives in Jacksonville and has been coaching a mountain biking team with three of his children since 2018, drives two and a half hours to the Browns Creek trail to practice.
“That is the premier trail east of I-95 and one of the top trails in North Carolina, period,” Hitefield said.
Cherish Roeder, who lives in Sneads Ferry and is a coach on the Jacksonville team, also comes with her family occasionally to practice mountain biking in Elizabethtown.
Roeder said she likes the Browns Creek trail because it’s long and has spaces for parents to watch and cheer on their children.
Each year, the North Carolina Interscholastic Cycling League race brings about 500 to 600 kids, which creates an economic impact of $200,000 to $300,000 from families lodging, eating and shopping in Elizabethtown, Russell said.
“By having an amenity like that within the town limits, we get a lot of out-of-town folks getting a chance to visit Elizabethtown and all it has to offer,” Rideout said. “The hope is they’ll see something they like that’ll bring them back here again and again, or even put down some roots.”
Currently, Elizabethtown is actively recruiting for a mountain bike shop to set up downtown, Rideout said.
Rideout said the town also hopes to get more locals involved in mountain biking, but the startup costs of buying a bike – which could be around $1,000 – is steep in an area with an average per-capita annual income of $18,500.
This year, the league offered more than $5,000 in scholarships for families, which included team registration fees and race fees, Russell said.
The cost is worth it, parents say, since the sport offers bonding time for the entire family.
Roeder said she began mountain biking in 2018 after her husband, two sons and daughter had joined the team.
“I decided if everybody else was going to ride, I’d better learn,” she said.
Hitefield said the sport helped him and his son rebuild their rocky relationship. He also said he likes asking for parenting advice from the other dads who are coaches on the Jacksonville team.
“This is the only sport I know of that you get to do as a family,” Hitefield said. “And those kids (on the team) become like our own kids.”
The sport also teaches children important life lessons, like sportsmanship and teamwork.
Tenth-grader Brooke Evans said she was shy before she joined a mountain biking team in Durham four years ago. Now, thanks to the GRiT (Girls Riding Together) program aimed at encouraging girls’ participation in the sport, she feels more confident.
“The girls community especially helped me in the early years stick with it,” Brooke said. “Then I just grew a really strong love for biking and biking with my dad as well.”
Hitefield said he hopes Elizabethtown will create its own team. And in the meantime, he said he would love to come show any parent or child interested in mountain biking what it’s like.
“Give us an excuse to go to Browns Creek,” he said.