Coastal Virginia Biking Guide

by | Jul 9, 2020

Eight Great Local Spots to Ride Your Way to Better Health and Take in Some Stunning Scenery Along the Way

Biking in Coastal Virginia

It’s no great secret that bicycling is one of the best and most enjoyable ways to catch a workout. Pedal-power lets you get outside, feel the air, cover a lot of ground and, hopefully, catch some great scenery along the way.

Getting started is super easy and advancement is as simple as pedaling a little faster and farther. When it comes to family members—especially kids—bike rides are an easier sell than gym visits or jogging: A well-planned trip feels more action/adventure than icky health maintenance.

Achieving the effect, though, requires knowing good spots. Lucky for us, Coastal Virginia is home to plenty. Whether you’re a novice looking to add new workouts to your routine, a parent in search of healthy outdoor activities, or an enthusiast on the trail of that next favorite ride, these eight spots deliver some of the region’s finest biking experiences.

Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge
False Cape State Park

For wilderness and wildlife lovers, these unique preserved areas offer one of the most fantastic rides in the U.S. Enclosed by Back Bay to the west, 10 miles of beach to the east and North Carolina’s 4,392-acre Currituck National Wildlife Refuge to the south, the area brings some of the most pristine and isolated maritime forest on the East Coast and attracts thousands of migratory birds. Public travel to False Cape is limited to bike, hike or shuttle, keeping visitors sparse. Family and beginner-friendly paved and gravel loops can be found throughout Back Bay. These can be navigated via beach cruiser or standard mountain bike. The trails in False Cape, though, are sandy and demand a fat-tire rig. Expect tough but rewarding pedals to near-deserted beaches, groves of mature live oaks and staggeringly beautiful bayside sunsets.

Rentals: Surf & Adventure Company owner and bike enthusiast, Rob Lindauer, knows the area’s trails like the back of his hand and is happy to help curate your adventure. Bikes can be delivered to vacation rentals and trailheads alike. Cruisers are available from $18. Fat bikes are $50 per day. 757-721-6210.

First Landing State Park

This locals’ favorite spot in northern Virginia Beach is within view of the Cape Henry Lighthouse and features around 20 miles of multi-use trails. Terrain is incredibly varied and ranges from 1.5 miles of fat-biking along Chesapeake Bay beaches, to smooth double and single-track routes passing through unique ecosystems including dense maritime forests, bald cypress swamps, lakesides, salt marshes and lagoons. The popular six-mile Cape Henry Trail connects First Landing’s northern and southern entrances, is mostly flat and extremely kid/beginner friendly. Upping the fun-factor are segments of lengthy boardwalk spanning marshes. About 90% of the route is shaded by canopy, making for pleasant summer riding. Though busy during the tourist season, fall and spring frequently yield solitude.

Elizabeth River Trail

Perfect for casual cruising or an evening out-and-back burner, this 10.5-mile beauty proceeds along the Elizabeth River waterfront through downtown Norfolk and points beyond. Along the way, designated paved lanes pass through 11 distinct sections of trail, offering views of urban areas, parks and historic buildings. Begin at Norfolk State University and pass through Harbor Park to enter the downtown waterfront. There, you’ll catch riverside eye-candy, including the Waterside Marina, Town Point Park, Nauticus and the Battleship Wisconsin. Cross the Brambleton Bridge to peruse one of the city’s oldest and most architecturally stunning neighborhoods. Continue along lovely greenways skirting historic Fort Norfolk and Plum Point Park and on to repurposed railroad lines in West Ghent, a jaunt through ODU, Myrtle Park, Norfolk Country Club marina, the Hermitage Museum and Gardens and more.

Rentals: Just blocks from the trail, Pedego Norfolk is conveniently located and stocked with enough options to fit all your biking needs. In addition to standard cruisers, they offer tandem, trike and, particularly helpful for older or recently injured riders, e-bikes. 757-320-2400.

Newport News Park

Offering a great variety of rides for all skill levels, mountain biking and cruising areas are separated within the park’s sprawling 7,500-plus acres—which make it, in fact, one of the largest municipal parks east of the Mississippi. From the Jefferson Avenue entrance, catch the eponymous Bikeway Trail. This scenery-rich beginner route passes through mature forests and brings 5.3 miles of smooth, hard-packed gravel and natural surfaces with little to no change in gradient. As a bonus, the trail crosses into the adjacent 9,400-acre Colonial National Historical Park and yields views of Yorktown Battlefield. Six miles of mountain biking trails can be found a few miles south at the Harwood’s Mill Reservoir. Cyclists can expect dense forests, views of the 265-acre lake, nice windy single track and light hills. The area is perfect for newcomers in that it offers no serious technical obstacles.

Rentals: Conte’s Bike Shop. Offers a full line of retail and rental bikes, including ultralight carbon-framed road rigs and mountain bikes from brands like Giant, Specialized and more. Rentals from $15 a day. Call for more info. 757-234-0542.

The Dismal Swamp Canal Trail

Located in Chesapeake, this is one of the only designated bike trails in the country to boast a decommissioned state highway as part of its primary infrastructure. Comprised of the former state Route 17, the 8.3-mile stretch offers smooth and easy riding along the easternmost portion of the more than 112,000-acre Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge. Expect a long, straight, car-free pedal through tree-lined corridors paralleling the swamp, with an occasional historical house and heavy doses of quiet. A haven for migratory birds and wildlife, the Refuge serves as a home or seasonal stopping point for more than 200 species of birds, bobcat, river otter, grey fox, mink, beaver and an estimated 300 black bears. Keep an eye out and your trip will invariably yield sightings. This is a remote rural area with no retail or food located on the trail, so you’ll need to bring everything you need with you.

New Quarter Park

Situated northwest of I-64 about five miles outside downtown Williamsburg along the York River tributary, Queens Creek, this 545-acre park is a serious all-caps GEM. More than 6 miles of single-track trails were crafted by area enthusiasts from the Eastern Virginia Mountain Bike Association (EVMBA) for the express purpose of mountain biking. While the Tidewater’s diminutive hills lend themselves to jokes among riders in the Blue Ridge and Alleghany Mountains, New Quarter uses available gradients to stupendous effect. Smooth, flowy trails wind through gorgeous riverside forests and are everywhere—seriously, everywhere—punctuated by cool obstacles. Expect countless 100-plus-foot-long, elevated wooden platforms—including some nice drops. Don’t worry though, if you’re a newbie or traveling with greenhorns, go-arounds can be found throughout.

Freedom Park Trail

With 20 miles of bike-devoted trails, this 600-acre beauty should be on any area rider’s go-to list. One of the Eastern Virginia Mountain Bike Association’s first major projects, the trail system is progressive in difficulty and includes rides ranging from green-level bunny track, to intermediate, to feature-heavy expert routes. Of the latter, Trail C offers big, banked wooden platforms in curves, bridge drops, jumpable tabletops and road gaps, whoops, gravity pits, log rides and more. Trails are flowy, 90% forested and feature lots of switchbacks. They are designed to enable experienced riders to maintain good speeds. Combine trails A and B for a heartrate boosting five-mile pedal. Looking for a bonus activity? Both the Williamsburg Botanical Garden and Go Ape zipline and adventure course facility are housed within the park.

York River State Park

Some of the region’s best elevation changes unfold along the banks of the York River through surrounding estuaries, marshes, creeks and hilly forests. Thirty miles of trail wind through 2,531 acres, making for abundant options and enjoyable return trips. While the majority of paths are open to riders, five are designated as bike-only. These include a five-mile section of John Blair Trail and the fun, but somewhat technically demanding six-mile Marl Ravine Trail—where more than 70% of the route is on a gradient. The latter offers fascinating geological scenery and a variety of steep ravines cut into ancient shell deposits. A pair of mostly flat, breezy routes—the .38-mile Black Bear Run and 3.12-mile Bobcat Run—add family-friendly options.

Rentals: Bike the Burg is a full-service shop is located downtown and offers both mountain bike and cruiser rentals. The former includes a fleet of well-serviced, premium hardtails from reputable brands like Marin and Fuji. Mountain bikes can be delivered and picked up from start and stop points and cost $55 each per day. 757-570-7326.


A Beginner’s Guide to Buying a Bike

Purchasing a quality bike can be costly. Here’s how to do it right.

Guide to purchasing a bike

Nothing throws an outdoor experience in the gutter like bad gear. The same is true for riding bikes. On one hand, there’s something to be said for working with what you have. But if what you have is a rust-addled, hand-me-down from Walmart? It’s more likely to lend itself to frustration than pleasurable pedaling.

If that’s the case, investing in a new rig is probably a good idea. Of course, you’ll want to ensure your ride-to-be is just right. But if you’ve paid a visit to a bike shop in recent years, you’ll know that may feel easier said than done.

Not only do makes and models abound, price tags can run the gamut. For instance, a quality hardtail mountain bike typically retails between $450-$750 for a basic model. Deluxe versions can bring costs upward of $1,450. Upgrade to dual suspension and prices jump to around $1,800. High-end rigs can bring costs well above $5,000.

For beginners or those looking to get back into the game, this can turn choosing into a daunting task. Surf & Adventure Company owner and longtime Virginia Beach-area bike enthusiast, Rob Lindauer, says buying a bike should be more joy than nightmare.

“It can feel overwhelming, but that doesn’t have to be how things plays out,” says Lindauer. Years of personal experience and working with customers has honed his purchasing techniques. “If you take your time, do a little upfront thinking and research, and try out different options, buying a bike can be a lot of fun.”

Below, Lindauer offers tips and tricks to help you do it right.

Consider the Application

Where and how do you plan on riding? Those are the big questions.

“There are bikes for all kinds of situations,” says Lindauer. “Getting a realistic understanding of your goals and riding intentions beforehand will help narrow the playing field.”

For instance, is your idea to simply pedal around the neighborhood en route to the beach? A single-gear cruiser would be ample. Or are you looking for hardcore exercise and lengthy road trips? That’s upscale road bike territory. What if you want to ride primarily on natural terrain in forested areas? For that, you’ll need a mountain bike. Or is it more pedaling down beaches and sandy shoreside trails? The scales may tip toward a fat-bike. But what if you’re looking to combine on and off-road experiences? A hybrid might be the ticket.

“The point is, the answers to these questions are going to determine the type of bike you buy,” says Lindauer. “If you go into a store knowing the intended application, you can steer associates in the right direction. Then he or she can help you try out appropriate models.”

Ability Level and Room for Growth

While it may sound obvious, your physicality and riding ability is going to play a major role in determining your bike of choice.

For instance, if you’re itching to ride in the woods but have troubled knees, you may want to consider a pedal-assisted mountain bike to help with climbs. Riding a road bike for a 10-mile daily commute is different than putting in 120-mile weekends. If the former is the sum your ambition, you can get by with cheaper wheels than someone aiming to put in serious miles.

“You don’t have to dive in headfirst, but you do want to consider your level of enthusiasm,” says Lindauer. If you’re athletic and just getting into mountain biking, do you start with an entry-level rig or something capable of tackling more advanced area obstacles and holding its own at a resort bike park?

If interest is lukewarm, test the waters with an affordable used bike. If you’re feeling gung-ho, buying higher-end can fuel excitement, lead to faster progression and greater fun.

Know the Lingo

Prior to visiting a store, familiarize yourself with some basic bike terms. The effort will help you understand available options and have a better dialogue with sales associates.

Frame— The metal core of the bike. Typically made of aluminum, but more expensive models can feature lighter, stronger carbon fiber. Different sizes fit riders of different heights.

Wheels Comprised of the rubber tire, the rim and the hub. The latter connects to the rim by way of spokes.

Suspension— Front and rear hydraulic shocks that smooth out jolts and bumps. The rougher the trail, the more suspension you need. Pricier options are lighter and more adjustable.

Drivetrain— What makes the bike go. Ranges from one to about 30 gears, with upward of 12 in the back (in the form of a cassette or internal-gear hub) and one to three in the front (called chainrings). Most feature a standard metal chain.

Brakes— There are three types. Beach cruisers often have coaster hub brakes. Rim brakes can be found on models ranging from department store clunkers to the occasional high-end road racer. Disc brakes are hydraulic or cable-activated. They’re heavier but bring more stopping power, with less force, in all conditions.

Contact points— There are three: seat, pedals (options include flat with toe-clips or clipless) and handlebars and stem (with flat, curved or drop options).

Buy from a Reputable Local Bike Shop

The truth is, online outlets can bring cheaper prices and wider selections. But there are big downfalls: Bikes are bought sight-unseen; customer service amounts to little more than chatting online with a remote agent.

For beginners and serious riders alike, you can’t beat a great locally owned bike shop.

“Associates tend to be super knowledgeable and really friendly,” says Lindauer. Owners and personnel are community-oriented and seek to cultivate long-term relationships. “These guys and gals are going to take the time to work with you one-on-one to find the perfect bike. They’ll get you in the saddle, get you properly fitted and let you take it for a test spin. Afterward, they’ll talk to you about how it felt and probably make some suggestions.”

Better still, if something goes wrong two weeks or six months after buying? You know where to go and whom to talk to about fixing it. Pro Tip: If you’re in the market for a mountain bike, ask about demo dates. While most shops don’t let riders take new bikes on trails, retailers often schedule events at local riding spots where you can test drive a variety of demos.

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