Searching for America’s Next Cycling Paradise

Time to rethink your biking bucket list. A surprising state has entered the fray.

A photo of bikers rounding a farmland corner in Tennessee, which is trying to become America's next cycling paradise
The Volunteer State has dozens of beautiful, GPS-mapped bike routes to choose from.
Bike TN

According to data from Statista, Tennessee is the 12th most visited state in the U.S., sandwiched between Arizona and New Jersey. It wasn’t always this way, but Nashville has staged a meteoric rise in the last 10 years, arguably joining America’s inner circle of inevitable pilgrimages. The state logs robust visitor spending numbers year after year, and Tennessee tourism is now a $30 billion business annually.

People come for honky-tonk, Dollywood, hikes in the Smokies and distilleries. But Tennessee itself wouldn’t mind if they started coming for another reason: cycling.

The Tennessee Department of Tourist Development (TDTD) recently unveiled a new program called Bike Tennessee, which is a collaboration between the cycling app Ride with GPS and Chattanooga-based Velo View Bike Tours. It’s both a digital and grassroots campaign to spread the gospel of Tennessean recreation, which is already a $12 billion economy for the state.

Cycling hasn’t been contributing much to that pie. Shannon Burke, the owner of Velo View Bike Tours, wants to change that. She calls Tennessee a “perfect” place for cycling.

“It’s loaded with beautiful low-traffic backroads,” she says. “[But we also] have postcard-perfect scenery of every kind: incredible mountain challenges, easy spins on flat farm roads, deep woods adventures.”

TDTD recruited Burke to develop a more ambitious version of a program she’d previously spurred in southeastern Tennessee. The organization was inspired by Oregon, a state more directly associated with outdoor recreation, which boasts multiple cycling meccas.

“Oregon [has its] Scenic Bikeways program,” says Jenni Veal, Tennessee’s Rural Destination Development Manager. “It’s really well done, and I liked that idea — of featuring routes across the entire state. Cycling is a growing sport internationally…we want to put Tennessee on the map as a beautiful place to vacation on your bike.”

Biking the White Rim Trail With the God of Moab
Answering the call to the Canyonlands

If you visit the Bike TN website, there’s an entire database at your fingertips, offering routes across the state’s 95 counties — and through 14 of its state parks. (This was intentional: the parks aren’t just nice to look at; they also feature reliable bathroom access.) Unlike thru-biking tours, which may travel hundreds or thousands of miles across a state or country, Bike TN has charted dozens of tidy loops. Consider: Watauga Lake Winery Loop, Natchez Trace Parkway Loop and Sewanee Loop.

Each entry includes information on the mileage, elevation change, terrain, natural features and local attractions. There are links to bed and breakfasts, coffee shops and seasonal festivals. These routes pass vineyards, old battlefields and small towns. Worthy attractions all, just too out of the way to see people regularly stopping by. “Many of [our counties] are at-risk and distressed,” Veal says. “We want to capitalize on the growing economic impact of cycling…and bring cyclists to these communities.”

It’s an eye-opening look into the paradox of tourism booms. Even while certain sections of Tennessee (Nashville in particular) have seen a record influx of visitors and dollars, other corners have fallen by the wayside. An 18-mile roll through the Cherokee National Forest is obviously a very different kind of vacation than screaming “Jolene” on Broadway with your college buddies at two in the morning…but everything has its time and place, right? All TDTD can do is make sure people know these routes exist, and that they’re worth considering.

It’s a smart plan, all told, and one that other states might consider studying — just as Tennessee took inspiration from Oregon. After all, Bike TN didn’t have to build anything: infrastructure and signs were already there. Seasoned cyclists love stumbling into mighty, wide open routes, away from the dangers of motor vehicles or the traffic of too many peers. Bike TN is spoiling them for choice.

And if you’re not much of a cyclist right now, yet these photos stir something in you (personally, I’m a runner, and now I’m all confused), know that Burke took pains to include optionality at various levels.

“Something I tried to do with all of the routes is offer potential modifications to the primary route, making it easier or harder,” she says. “[That should] allow riders of different skill levels to experience each route in a way that works best for them.”

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