12 min read

Canaan MTB Festival 2023–Community Keeps Us Rolling

The Canaan Mountain Bike Festival was founded by Sue Haywood in 2009 with a simple yet powerful mission: to bring people together on bikes and encourage local trail stewardship.
Canaan MTB Festival 2023–Community Keeps Us Rolling
Tom Francis and the tale of many tires at the first stage of this year's re-born Run What Ya' Brung Trials Competition.

A Climb to Remember

I'll never forget my introduction to the Canaan MTB Festival well over a decade ago. The first official event of the weekend was the Ladies' Lunch and Skills Clinic with Sue Haywood. I'd been riding for a few years, but I was plagued by nervous butterflies at the thought of riding with strangers, let alone practicing skills in front of them. I don't think I'd ever ridden without my husband Eric, who also happened to be my very own, very patient mountain bike instructor.

If memory serves, about 20 ladies got together at the old Blackwater Bikes location when it was still nestled between Sirianni's and Bright Morning Inn in downtown Davis, West Virginia. We got to know each other a bit and practiced basic bike handling skills at Blackwater Falls State Park. Little did we know the epic adventure that lay ahead. We were, however, well aware of the tasty lunch that awaited us.

But we had to get there first. Sue's house is at the top of the mountain, and we were down in Davis with a 650-foot climb in between. As this was a mountain bike clinic, the only way up was on bikes in the woods. While I'd ridden the pavement of Route 32 many times after an exciting descent, I'd never scaled the whole mountain on trails. As we rode deeper into the forest, further away from the blacktop, the magnitude of the effort ahead began to sink in. The butterflies turned into a full-on nervous stomach, and doubt took flight in my head.

I wish I could say I crushed the climb, bolstered by all my new riding buddies' energy and excitement, and reached the top of the mountain famished but faster than expected.

But I can't. First, the sticky mud and wet roots made for many slip-ups and slide-outs. Then, we start gaining elevation and let the dismounts begin! Climbing technical trails requires skill and power, both of which I sorely lacked at the time. As I watched the more experienced riders seemingly zip up the trail and out of sight, I learned the true meaning of hike-a-bike, scraping my chain ring over one too many boulders. My butterflies were validated, and my self-doubt was digging in its heels. I was hungry. The humidity-soaked heat, grabby rhododendrons, and mountain laurel made the Appalachian forest feel more like a Costa Rican jungle. It started raining.

Mountain Laurel is typically in full bloom during the Canaan MTB Festival, dotting the jungle with pink and white inspiration.

But what could've been a soul-sucking hike-a-bike became instead one of the most foundational trips I have ever taken up Canaan Mountain. It turns out; I was not alone. I was sharing this muddy, wet, exhausting experience with a decent portion of the ladies. We all kept checking on each other. If we came upon someone pulled over, we asked if they needed anything–water, a snack, or just a break. As some of us spent so much time walking, there was plenty of time to talk and learn where each other was from and what brought us to Tucker County to live or visit. I made friends on that trek I cherish to this day.

2023 brought a much-anticipated reunion with friends from the early festival years. From Left: Vicky, Cheryl, Terri, Melissa, and Annie. Glady is also a festival regular!

We all made it to the top. I was in the very back of the pack. As I pulled my bike onto the gravel road and rolled down to Sue's house, I wondered if any food would be left. Of course, there was; this is a Tucker County picnic, and there is always enough food! We peeled off our gloves, knee pads, and helmets to settle in the grass, balancing paper plates stacked with delightful carbohydrates. We were already laughing. Tales of legend bloomed as full as the mountain laurel while we recounted the epic climb through the Canaan jungle.

The Birth of a Tradition

The Canaan Mountain Bike Festival was founded by Sue Haywood in 2009 with a simple yet powerful mission: to bring people together on bikes and encourage local trail stewardship. Sue's love of mountain biking is not only evident from her history as a professional cyclist bringing home national and world championship titles but also through her time spent volunteering as a NICA instructor, leading up the Blackwater Bicycle Association (BBA), endless dedication to local trail work, and a passion for coaching riders of all ages.

Sue Haywood smashing a stage of this year's Run What Ya' Brung Trials Competition.

The festival still has the same basic structure as in the early days. The Friday Skills Clinic draws riders from within Tucker County, throughout West Virginia, and surrounding states. Saturday is for group rides where locals and friends, new and old, meander through the challenging yet beautiful trail system throughout Davis, Thomas, and Canaan Valley. On Saturday night, the riders clean up and party at a local spot to raise money for the trail club. Sunday morning offers an opportunity to give back by participating in trail work, followed by an afternoon of absurdity on bikes, otherwise known as a hash or, these days, a scavenger hunt.

Like all great things, the Canaan MTB Festival started small. I'm sure there are some records or at least estimates of attendees over the years. However, records are unnecessary for this piece because I remember the good old days–when there were just three group rides to choose from, a small gathering at TipTop on Saturday night, and the same ten people showed up for trail work.

In 2019, I created a mandala to embody the essence of the Canaan MTB festival. The original poster art calls out many of the area's beloved trails. Art prints are now available at www.snowgallery.com.

Fast-forward to the 2023 festival, where the local tradition of the Thursday night ride at five comprised six large groups heading out from Blackwater Bikes, working up an appetite for the post-ride meal at Hellbender Burritos, followed up by the after-party at Stumptown Ales. While we greatly missed the skills clinic this year, it had grown as well–the last few years saw various groups of guys and gals all leveling up their riding skills thanks to a team of talented instructors. This year, Friday night brought back a crowd favorite with a bang–The Run What Ya' Brung Trials Competition. More on that in a bit. Saturday offered a whopping ten group rides. There was something for everybody, from a leisurely stroll through Canaan Valley to the always entertaining yet educational nature ride led by Chip Chase, multiple adventure rides, and a women's tech ride that picked through my favorite trails on Canaan Mountain.

Trail Labs in Canaan Valley hosted the FUNdraiser party with a stellar band, Jack Gregori and the Human Country Jukebox. Over 130 riders registered for the $50 dinner and a show ticket, and over $2,500 worth of prizes were donated by the local businesses for the always rowdy raffle led by BBA board member Keith Strausbaugh. Sunday's trail work drew 25 hearty volunteers to work on some of the most classic trails in Davis.

BBA board members celebrating another successful raffle! From Left: Mark Anderson, Sue Haywood, Matt Marcus, Keith Strausbaugh, Chris Clarke, Stephen Strothers, and Brian Sarfino. Amy Margolis, Eriks Brolis, Joel Hannah, and the dearly departed Kimmy Clements are missing from the photo.

Ladies of the Heights

For the second year in a row, I had the pleasure of leading the Ladies' Intermediate (perhaps advanced?) Tech Stroll. Last year, we had about 15 riders; this year, 26 women gathered together for a great mix of locals, regular visitors, and first-timers to the area. Even though I was there when the photo was snapped, I was stoked to see the line up in front of my house, ready to take on the legendary trails of Canaan Mountain.

The 2023 Ladies' Tech Stroll gathered at my home in Canaan Heights to ride some of the toughest single-track on the mountain. A few are missing from the photo; altogether, we were a group of 26!

The supportive, cooperative nature of female energy was on full display. Generally speaking, large group rides should always have a "sweep." This rider exchanges speed for the peace of having no one on their tail and ensures no one is left behind. In a group of 26, my friends Michelle and Cheryl joined forces in this official task, as the larger the group, the greater the wrangling! Other local riders also pitched in, making sure no one got off course due to the tricky navigation and numerous turns.

At the front of such a large group, I found myself disconnected from what was happening in the back of the pack. However, I had faith in my friends, who were equally focused on everyone having a good time. While waiting at intersections a few times, I recalled my first introduction to the Canaan MTB Festival. I wondered if any ladies were having a similar experience. It was cool this time, with no rain, and we stayed on the spine of Canaan Mountain for most of the ride. But we still averaged 100 feet per mile of climbing for twelve miles, picking through the woods over rocks, roots, and boulders. In other words, we worked pretty hard out there. We also chatted, made new friends, and, most importantly, had a blast.

Annie Winslow of the Cape Cod Crew snapped this sweet selfie of our trailside lunch spot.

Return of the Trials

Nope, that's not a misspelling of "trails." In 2014, Zach Adams was relatively new to the area. Owner of a trail-building company, Appalachian Dirt, and a skilled rider of tricky tech, he had the idea to resurrect a mountain biking trials competition in Canaan. For those who have never seen the spectacular show that is trials, imagine a mix of golf spectators and ninja warriors on whatever two-wheeled, human-powered contraption you choose to ride. The video below should paint an adequate picture. Zach discussed this idea with Eric, and the two hatched a plan to use our backyard as the location. Eric already had a few features in the yard, but they added some exciting log challenges, imposing rock features, and, eventually, the alligator pool.

Eric and I produced a promotional video for the 2017 Trials using footage from the previous year. This is how I like to remember my backyard. 

The Run What Ya' Brung Trials Competition became a huge success. What started as a handful of spectators huddled on our porch during a downpour while a few hearty riders slid around on the rocks to the sound of scant cheers and a cowbell, quickly became a 150+ person yard party complete with a food truck and the sure sign of a good time–a porta-potty. Eric built new features every year, and Zach always found a way of making the course more challenging, even adding a gap jump to the mix. They created a kids' course, and some of those same kids are now flying off jumps at Snowshoe Mountain Resort for fun, racing cross-country, enduro, and downhill and taking home plenty of wins.

But along came 2020. As I mentioned in The Victory Lap's introductory post, I lost Eric to leukemia that year. We also lost all sense of normalcy due to Covid. For the first time in twelve years, The Canaan MTB Festival wasn't promoted. A small group of locals got together that Father's Day weekend and made the best of the privilege of living where we love to ride.

In 2021, the festival hosted most traditional events, except for the trials competition. Without Eric, I couldn't keep up the Narnia that had become our backyard. It was all I could do to keep the front yard mowed and the wood stocked for the winter. Also, getting that many people together in one place, even if it was outside, still felt strange.

Again, during the 2022 festival, the trials didn't happen. Those three years, the quiet of the yard on the third Friday night in June was deafening. Looking out into the empty green expanse from the deck or walking the old features, many having grown over or fallen into disarray, my heart ached for the past. I can still see Eric out there in his salty sweat-soaked t-shirt and dirty jeans, bending over to move a heavy rock, letting out a grunt as it hit the ground in its new home. I see him riding around the John Deere in places no sane Harry Homeowner would take their tractor so that he could clear the endless rain of branches that threatened to take over the course. He weed-whacked for hours, built sketchy wooden skinnies, and made fun yet challenging paths and rock gardens for everyone to enjoy, even if they didn't sign up to compete in the event.

One thing that strikes me about the Canaan MTB Festival is how tenacious it is, despite the many challenges inevitably faced by a small team of people trying to organize something that has become so popular. It takes dedication and vision to keep something going in a small town, and Sue and the team at BBA have managed to do just that. For example, this year saw the return of the Run What Ya' Brung Trials Competition. The new location at the beginning of Camp 70 Road required days of volunteer work to develop. The event was held very close to the original site of the trials that initially took place in the 1980s, returning this tradition back to its home grounds.

And everything was back: the gnarly course, the brave riders, the rowdy crowd, the busy food truck, and yes, the port-a-potty! I had mixed feelings about the event moving to another location, but those feelings quickly transformed into pure joy at seeing my friends show off their best moves and spectacular mistakes. Zach followed behind, hounding them with his dab-counting scorecard. Cowbells, cheers, laughter, gasps, and groans echoed through the boulders and over the freshly-made trails.

The Power of Community

I spoke with Sue Haywood and Matt Marcus at the festival's close, two people closely tied to the history of mountain biking in this area. One thread dominates the discussion about the Canaan MTB Festival: Community. The value of that word cannot be overstated, as we've all lived through an era where it was stripped from us. Despite our wild differences, I believe humans inherently know the value of sticking together.

Sue's vision of bringing people together on bikes will always equal some super-fun times as a community. However, the power of togetherness also shines when times are rough. This week, we lost another member of our tight-knit community to cancer, Kimmy Clements. The BBA also lost a valued board member. The day she passed, many of the same people that were partying on the deck at Blackwater Bikes the night before gathered together to laugh, cry and console each other at a pot-luck planned in three hours that had more food than most weddings I've been to. We were all reminded how ephemeral our existence is, how quickly hope can turn to despair, and how much we depend on each other to get through the trials of life.

And that's why I live here. The mountain biking is exceptional, but the people take the cake.

Crazy man jumping over firecracker in woods

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