Headlights in the Moonlight

A challenging trail near Briar Chapel beckons brave riders

By Matt White  |  Photography by Briana Brough

In 30 minutes,darkness will have fallen over the pine straw-trimmed lawns and neat sidewalks of the Briar Chapel neighborhood, but as Tamara Sanders sits in the back of her minivan, slipping on biking shoes, the sky is still a wash of red and purple and orange. “It’s perfect tonight,” says Tamara. “No humidity. It’s almost cool.” Indeed, though the temperature peaked at 90 degrees earlier in the day, it will soon be in the mid-70s. It’s 8 p.m. Showtime. Tamara, manager of The Clean Machine in Carrboro, and her boyfriend, Rob Noti, pull their mountain bikes from their van, as Andrew Farris, a lawyer who moonlights as a bike technician at REI, rolls up on his own bike. The three are longtime members of Triangle Off-Road Cyclists, or TORC. The organization holds meet-ups for rides on and, through volunteers and donations, maintenance for, nearly all of the Triangle’s mountain bike trails, including Briar Chapel, Carolina North in Chapel Hill and Lake Crabtree in Cary. Andrew, Tamara and Rob all lead rides for TORC, but have met tonight for one of the region’s most adventurous offerings: a headlamp-lit night ride around the neighborhood’s varied, sometimes treacherous, trail system. “This is one of our more advanced rides,” says Andrew. “It’s Briar Chapel, which has some advanced terrain. And, of course, it’s night.”

By 8:15 p.m., it’s clear it will just be the three of them, and Andrew waves the group out of the parking lot. They glide past the neighborhood pool, then duck into a break in the tree line hidden near a playground. Instantly, the soft light of the remaining day is gone with only headlamps splitting the dark, trees and pebbled dirt rushing past the riders as they pedal deeper into the woods. Because the lights shine from just above the rider’s head, every detail – each stick, each root, each rock – is outlined in a shadow, like an image in a child’s color book.

Before Briar Chapel became the sprawling subdivision set halfway between Pittsboro and Chapel Hill, it was a mecca for the region’s mountain bikers. Much of the property that was once the Herndon family farm lay fallow for decades before work crews began cutting into its forest to make way for homes in the early 2000s. It was then, Andrew says, that TORC riders discovered it as a playground of varied, bikeable terrain. A dribbly brook called Pokeberry Creek divides the land into a series of hills and valleys, which in turn give way to a marsh that, today, marks the neighborhood’s entrance. There are smooth pine glades, bumpy rock gardens and twisting game trails that crisscross hidden creeks – all perfect for off-road biking. As the neighborhood began to take shape, TORC riders rode trucks with four-wheel-drive into the woods to reach the first trails.

Today, the 7-mile loop runs past backyards and dog parks. Bikers swoop down long hills near Woods Charter School, dodge through switchbacks and can even ride a sculpted ‘pump track’ known as the Herndon Loop near 15-501 in open ground below power lines.

Tamara and her companions ride for about 90 minutes, the lights on their helmets bobbing and winking through the trees, working easily as a team. All three are expert riders and their beefy, wide-set mountain bikes have roughly as much in common with a typical suburban road bike as a Humvee does a Camry. Over rough, rock-strewn terrain, they expertly spread out, then group back together on smoother sections.

Like all TORC rides, the night ride is open and friendly to newcomers, but it is no place for novices. On this night, keeping up with Tamara and her friends proved far too much for this local writer. For a while, I pedaled furiously, faster than I would normally ride during the day, but a pattern quickly emerged: every mile, they would wait for me to catch up and I’d keep up for a minute, my headlight mixing with theirs. Then I’d be in their dust, a thousand specs twirling in the beam.

But, soon enough, I was too far behind even for dust. As I pedaled on, I’d see occasional glowing sets of eyes in the woods – insects or, twice, deer – reflecting back at me, wondering, perhaps, why I was out here alone.

 CM

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