Have you ever observed one too many red flags and turned around on a ride? Heeded your intuition when things didn’t feel right? Bailed when all signs said to get the hell off the trail? If you’re a mountain biker in New Orleans, the answer is probably no.
Shotgun holes on the new sign your mountain club installed informing ATVers and hunters to stay off your only trail in town? A trailhead located a stone’s throw from a string of petrochemical plants known as “cancer alley”? Overgrowth tangled in poison ivy and poison oak threatening to return your trail to swamp? Swarms of mosquitos that discourage any mid-ride stops? Alligators straddling the singletrack? Hurricane rain, heat and the country’s highest relative humidity?
What about the fact your trail actually sits below sea level and floods with 10 feet of Mississippi River water every few years? Psh! All signs go for a New Orleanian mountain biker. As the Cajun saying goes: Laissez les bon temps rouler (let the good times roll)!
“You don’t need mountains to go mountain biking,” says Eric “Ratboy” Heyl, president of the New Orleans Metro Area Mountain Bike Organization (NOMAMBO) and assistant manager of Eastbank Cyclery, the only bike shop in the area that caters to mountain bikers. “It’s like calling a circular saw a Skill saw – that’s just the name.”
Prior to 2003, mountain bikers in New Orleans drove more than two hours to find decent singletrack. That’s when Heyl and Dan Dickerson, an engineer and passionate cyclist (who was paralyzed in a skiing accident in 2009) co-founded NOMAMBO with a few friends, in partnership with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, designed and started building the Spillway Trail at the Bonnet Carre Spillway, a 7,600-acre flood control area 12 miles west of New Orleans that allows floodwaters from the Mississippi River to flow into Lake Pontchartrain and away from the city.
“Cyclists in New Orleans have been road riding for a long time,” says Heyl. “There were dedicated roadies who had mountain bikes they would play on twice a year. Now, a lot of people prefer to mountain bike and save their road bikes for when the trails close.”
Though NOMAMBO was given 148 acres to build on, only 40 of those acres between a canal and a swamp are usable. “You have to look for stuff in the woods and get creative,” says Heyl, who lives six miles from the trailhead. “What looks like a straight trail from overhead actually rides as twisty as they come.”
The few hundred riders who access the Spillway Trail each week ride the trail clockwise; some ride counterclockwise after sunset. Heyl and club members, which include plant operators, hair dressers, engineers, teachers, mechanics, equipment managers, insurance agents and boat captains, change the loop every now and then, as does Mother Nature with silt deposits, puddles and debris.
Last year, Heyl hit a tree with his shoulder at full speed when his front end washed out on a corner he’s railed perfectly for years. “It’s got a good flow to it. There’s no climbing, but there are technical turns that keep you on your toes. It’s like a very flat dual slalom course.”
The sandy sections hide between stretches of riverbed clay, and hand-built berms and bridges keep things interesting as the trail winds around Palmetto palms and, for a non-Southerner, other exotic foliage. In addition to gators (seriously, I saw two on one ride), snakes, armadillos, raccoons, hogs, rabbits and bobcats share trail access. The six-mile loop includes a dozen unnecessarily named sections – a little glimpse into the fun-loving cycling community that calls this stretch of swamp home.
The “Wookie Wiggle”? A nod to the nickname Heyl’s wife bestowed upon her hairy husband (Heyl once shaved his body hair in the shape of riding bibs for a race). Up-Chuck represents a more technical section put in by friend Chuck Weckle. The Pipeline represents a rare clearcut for a natural gas pipeline. Ghost Trail: a nod to the club’s “Race of the Dead” Halloween race.
At 5’7″ and 190 pounds of muscle, Heyl is as improbable a mountain biker as the Spillway is a singletrack destination. In 1993, after losing his college baseball scholarship (“doing something stupid”), the amateur BMX racer bought a $300 mountain bike and two years later competed in his first race in Mobile, Alabama. He calls it an “addiction” since then. He once refinanced his truck to buy a new frame.
Heyl isn’t a typical New Orleanian or even Louisianian – though his accent, reminiscent of a Brooklynite, is unequivocally NOLA. The husband and father of two rarely drinks, he doesn’t fish or hunt, and he doesn’t attend Mardi Gras parades. What he does is ride, either on road or dirt at the Spillway or other trails in northern Louisiana or Mississippi, six days a week, racking up more than 5,000 miles a year.
He also races in a regional race series in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama that stemmed from a state series he and friends helped start. Heyl takes anyone with the slightest interest in mountain biking under his wing, showing newbies the Spillway, planning weekend rides and leading group trips to places like Chattanooga and Birmingham.
“Being on a mountain bike is like being a kid again,” says Heyl. “It’s a way to get away from the hustle and bustle of a job and frustrations at home. Cycling in general has become my release. The fact that the trail is basically in my backyard is my motivation to keep working on it.”
Aside from a $500 grant NOMAMBO received after Hurricane Katrina, which devastated the trail and took almost two months of chainsawing to reclaim, the club self-funds its trail maintenance. It’s a big task when the Spillway might be the most labor-intensive mountain bike trial in the country.
“With the rain and the heat down here, the trees and weeds are constantly fed the equivalent of Miracle Grow,” says Heyl. “We cut it, spray it and the stuff grows back in two weeks.” In northern Louisiana, the Louisiana Off-Road Organization manages four trail systems. “If I had four trails to maintain, I’d have to quit my job,” says Heyl. Spillway riders also have ATVers, equestrians, hunters and other trail poachers to deal with.
Owned by the federal government but leased by the parish (that’s Louisiana for county), the land is divvied up for specific activities, but user conflicts arise regularly. “The ground is too soft for shared use,” says Heyl, who brings officials from the Corps to the Spillway Trail to witness damage caused by horse hoofs or motorcycles. While the whole of the Spillway Trail is off-limits to hunters, Heyl has ridden around a corner during hunting season to find a shotgun pointed directly at him.
Years ago, someone with malicious intent strung high-strength fishing line across the trail. Heyl’s been known to take care of things himself. He cut down an 80-foot diseased Oak tree that trail vandalizers had built a rope swing in and would perch in above the Spillway, yelling obscenities to women on the trail.
Heyl manages the NOMAMBO Facebook page, and lets local riders know if the Spillway is open or closed with a simple red or green light status change. “The biggest issue is people riding the trail when it’s closed,” says Heyl. “Someone will bypass a mud hole and I’ll have to get a machine to cover it with limestone.”
With wetter summers and more frequent flood events, the Spillway has been closed more than ever. Last year the trail remained closed the entire summer, which eliminated the club’s summer time trial series – a vital part of fundraising, and this year, before summer even started, the Spillway had been closed for what adds up to around three months. Other club fundraisers include races like the Spillway Scramble cross-country race and the Insanity Check, which challenges Louisiana mountain bike clubs to race 20 laps on the trail (100 miles) in one insane group ride.
But the biggest fundraiser of the year goes down the weekend before Halloween, when the Spillway – already a somewhat creepy place for swamp newbies – transforms into the scariest haunted house in town for NOMAMBO’s infamous Race of the Dead. Members rig up elaborate stunts like motion activated flood lights and squirt guns and coffins that propel corpses onto the trail. Mid-race surprises like a remote-control air horn and a cyclops jumping out of the woods with a chainsaw are standard.
One year, at the back end of the trail (where alligators have been spotted), on the tightest turn, a motion sensor triggered the dueling banjos song from Deliverance. A generator fuels an industrial size daiquiri machine at the finish, where awards await, ranging from a block of cheese (first place) to cheeseballs (last place) and a pound of bacon to imitation bacon bits. Ron Cortez, an oil refinery operator, cooks up a massive vat of jambalaya and costumed racers rest on old tires around a bonfire that rages until 2 a.m.
Ryan Lawson, a South African transplant who met Heyl in 2009 when he bought a bike from Eastbank Cyclery, wouldn’t feel at home in NOLA without the bike club. The friends he rides the Spillway with are the people he calls when he needs help fixing something at the house or needs a ride to the airport. While monthly meetings, rides and races consist mostly of friendly bickering, nagging and teasing, the relationships built around the Spillway are rock solid. Fundraisers for friends and families in need are commonplace for a club who looks out for each other.
“Mountain biking around here has a lot to do with the people instead of the trails,” says Lawson. “Our trail is great for what it is, but it’s just a flat trail in the middle of a swamp. It’s this group of people that makes it.”
Where to ride, stay and eat in New Orleans
Fall tends to be the driest season at the Spillway. Check the NOMAMBO Facebook page for trail conditions. Your first stop should be Eastbank Cyclery, conveniently located near Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport (eastbankcyclery.com; 1908 W Esplanade Ave, Kenner, LA). The state’s network includes trails in Baton Rouge, Lafayette, Lake Charles, Alexandria (35 miles of trail), Shreveport and Rustin. Just across the border in Mississippi, Mt. Zion Trail and the Ridgeland Trails are worth a stop.
The historic and recently renovated Pontchartrain Hotel inspired Tennessee Williams while he wrote “A Streetcar Named Desire”. Right out front, the St. Charles Avenue streetcar line traverses the Garden District (a quiet, shaded respite from the French Quarter) and its 200-year-old oak trees draped with Mardi Gras beads. The hotel includes a couple of cool bars, including the Hot Tin Rooftop bar with views of the mighty Mississippi and downtown New Orleans.
Where to begin? No matter how many meals you have time for in New Orleans, it won’t be enough. Start in the Bywater neighborhood, at Bacchanal for late afternoon drinks, snacks and music, followed by dinner at N7, a tire shop turned French bar and restaurant. Bon Appetite magazine named Turkey and the Wolf sandwich shop in the Irish Channel neighborhood the best restaurant in American in 2017. Since 1880, Commander’s Palace has been a New Orleans landmark known for food, service and atmosphere. Read up on Commander’s storied history before sitting down for its famous jazz brunch (reservations required). Reserve your cocktail-n-the-French-Quarter experience for Sylvain, a low-lit, hip bar and restaurant built into a carriage house as old as America.
All photos by Sandy Carson.
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