Breaking Away in Southern Indiana

Cycling in Indianan

story and photos by Chuck Haney

When you first think of Indiana, what comes to mind? For me, having grown up in neighboring northern Ohio, my recollections are of a flat-as-a-pancake landscape with orderly rows of cornfields bordering weathered barns complete with basketball hoops hanging off the side. You could just as easily hear the wind rustling through the corn stalks as the thud of a bouncing leather basketball. And, for heaven’s sake, what exactly is a Hoosier anyway?

Okay, this is actually an accurate description of northern Indiana. Glaciers from the previous ice ages have advanced and retreated, in turn they’ve bulldozed the landscape flat. These glaciers didn’t make it to the southern reaches of Indiana, but their meltwaters created narrow ridges, steep slopes, and deep gullies, especially around Brown County where, believe it or not, Indiana is quite hilly.

Those of you in a certain demographic surely remember one of the all-time classic movies involving cycling in southern Indiana. The movie Breaking Away, released in 1979, portrayed a young racing phenom named Dave, a local recent high-school graduate from Bloomington who hung out with his “cutter” friends, Mike, Cyril, and Moocher. Dave becomes obsessed with everything Italian and even poses as an Italian exchange student to woo a young coed. But when a visiting member of a professional Italian cycling team jams a frame pump into his spokes during a training ride, Dave’s illusions are shattered and he realizes it’s not just his father, whom he’s been rebelling against, who is unethical. Dave becomes confused and depressed. The movie culminates with Dave shaking off his depression to race in the Little 500 bicycle race held at Indiana University. The intramural race is still immensely popular today, and more than 25,000 spectators attend the race annually. There are both men’s and women’s races, as 33 teams relay race around a quarter-mile cinder track for 200 laps (50 miles) on single-speed coaster-brake bikes to vie for the coveted trophy. The Little 500 is a truly unique Indiana event.

Riders often form up in groups on the Hilly Hundred.?

Southern Indiana in the fall. Riders often form up in groups on the Hilly Hundred.

I drove to southern Indiana with a bagful of camera equipment, hoping to capture the intense autumn colors that light up the rolling hillsides. Both my mountain and road bikes were attached to my roof rack so I could take advantage of all the wonderful riding opportunities Indiana has to offer.

The old adage, “If you build it, they will come” doesn’t just apply to fictional baseball fields in Iowa. Organizations such as the Hoosier Mountain Bike Association have been instrumental in building an outstanding network of mountain-bike singletrack in Brown County State Park located near Nashville. Events like the annual Brown County Breakdown, a three-day festival featuring homespun music, a hog roast, and local brews to go along with riding the trails, have raised over $90,000 to maintain the progress of trail building and maintenance. With its strategically placed bluegrass musicians, it may be the only time you’ll ride while banjos and acoustic guitars serenade the singletrack!

The Muddy Boots Cafe is ready to feed hungry cyclists in Nashville, Indiana.?

Little brick buildings for you and me. The Muddy Boots Cafe is ready to feed hungry cyclists in Nashville, Indiana.

The International Mountain Bicycling Association (IMBA) recently bestowed epic status on the Brown County State Park trails. Epic status is quite a coveted honor handed out to only the most finely constructed and scenic trail systems. There are currently over 25 miles of trail in the park with more currently in development. In addition, there are nearly 100 more miles of mountain-biking trails in Brown County, with Nebo and Hickory Ridge trails in the Hoosier National Forest being the most popular after the state park. There is even a great trail system located in basketball legend Larry Bird’s old stomping grounds of French Lick. Southern Indiana has certainly established itself as on of the top spots in the Midwest to ride a mountain bike.

I had previously ridden the Brown County trails in May when the forest was 50 shades of green, so coming back in mid-October was a complete contradiction as the hardwood forests, comprised mostly of maple, oak, hickory, and poplar, exploded in a symphony of vibrant reds, burnt oranges, and vivid yellows. The high humidity of spring was replaced by the crisp cool of autumn. I was eager to put in some singletrack miles, especially on the new Green Valley section, which had been recently constructed, thanks to dollars from the Breakdown event. Within a few pedal strokes, I was quickly rolling along on a well-crafted trail under a canopy of fall colors. On some leafy sections, the only way to make out the trail itself was from the indentation worn by thousands of earlier mountain-bike tires. I was able to ride aggressively as every dip, banked turn, and berm seemed to be in just the right place. The trails skirted around and occasionally took me down into sharp ravines, and I maintained complete flow as I ascended punchy short climbs and descended sinuous ridgelines. This was definitely a happy place! The ride has been described as a Goldilocks trail — not too hard, not too easy, but just right.

Map of Indiana?

Map by Casey Greene

I veered from Green Valley onto the Hesitation Point Trail where a long, steady, pleasant climb took me out of the bottoms and hollers. The trail narrowed, and I had to navigate through the occasional technical rock garden. Hesitation Point was clearly more technically challenging than Green Valley. When I reached the clearing at the top of the climb, I could see why they call it Hesitation Point. You just had to stop, pause for a bit, and take in the magnificent view of the waves of rolling hills below, laden with autumn hues at their absolute peak, revealing an almost painting-like scene, and the spot was a great place to get in a quick snack before the trail gracefully plunged me downhill back along a ridge to the creek bottom. There was only a handful of riders out on the trail, unlike a few days earlier when nearly 600 riders had taken over the forest during the Breakdown. A series of up-and-down sections of trail led me back to my car near the park’s north entrance. Three hours of sheer nirvana on a mountain bike during a prime autumn afternoon — it doesn’t get much better than that.

The base for the area is the quaint town of Nashville, not to be confused with its more famous namesake in Tennessee. The Indiana version is known more for its bluegrass than country music. In fact, there is a thriving arts culture in the town of fewer than 900 residents, and bluegrass tunes flow out of various local coffee shops and restaurants. Nature and art are the big draws, and the town literally bursts from its seams in October as tourists flock in to leaf peep, shop, eat, drink, and take a leisurely drive to one of the many covered bridges in the area.

According to local ride organizer Tania Juillerat, there is a certain division in the area. The interest in mountain biking around the towns of Columbus and Nashville continues to grow, whereas road biking remains more popular in the Bloomington area to the west. With that in mind, I pulled down my road bike for part two of my Indiana adventure.

If you like the look of this road, southern Indiana is calling.?

Smooth rollers. If you like the look of this road, southern Indiana is calling.

After all the great mountain biking, I literally switched gears as I prepared for the 45th annual Hilly Hundred road ride just outside of Bloomington. It was a return to my cycling roots as I had ridden the event several times in the late 1980s. Looking at the Hilly Hundred website the night before the ride, some anxiety arose when I saw the elevation gains and losses. The profile looked like an extremely jagged saw blade, and there was more than one mention in the ride description of climbs reaching grades of over 24 percent. Was this a steeper and more difficult route than it had been 25 years ago? At any rate, my mindset was that the ride was more of an end-of-season prize for all the training miles and sweat I’d put in during the spring and summer, and I eagerly anticipated a lovely ride through the rustic Indiana countryside.

I arrived at the high-school parking lot in Ellettsville at dawn to get an early start. I had heard there would be over 4,000 riders participating. You know it’s a large and well-organized event when groups are shuttled into the high-school auditorium for a mandatory 10-minute safety presentation before registering.

The first day’s loop would head southwest of Bloomington and traverse backroads for nearly 60 miles, with 5,200 feet of climbing. It was a calm, slightly drizzly morning as I took off with several tightly bunched groups of riders in a staggered start. The light rain only enhanced the already beautiful array of autumn colors lining the rural roadways. With my Montana nametag pinned to the back of my jersey, I stood out in the mostly midwestern crowd, and several conversations began as I passed riders along the way. I think my fellow riders were more astounded, though, that I was riding sans jacket in the 45-degree mist than by the distance I’d traveled to do the ride itself. I explained that in Montana this would be considered a very pleasant temperature for a bike ride. All that Montana mojo also applied to climbing the hills, which soon splintered up our little peloton as I glided up the grade with no problem. Either all those years of climbing long Rocky Mountain passes had toughened me up or the stated inclination on the Hilly Hundred website was a bit exaggerated. Soon, there were fewer riders on the road as I neared the first rest stop, where local musicians were just warming up and the pumpkin donuts were fresh and tasty. It was particularly nice being out in front of the masses, especially when picking a safe descent line on the steep narrow roads that were occasionally strewn with potholes.

Riders await their turn at the start of the Brown County Breakdown.?

Chomping at the bit. Riders await their turn at the start of the Brown County Breakdown.

Day Two of the Hilly Hundred took us in a northeasterly loop under sunny skies past limestone quarries on quiet county roadways. There was even a hot-air balloon rising into the still morning air as we neared Bean Blossom Road. Cruising in a pack of riders along the leaf-lined highway in the Morgan-Monroe State Forest was a visual treat that seemed to make our speed seem faster, as the blur of yellow-tinged leaves flew by in our peripheral vision. After another great lunch stop, featuring tasty chicken breasts and more local music, there was one last big hill to conquer — the infamous Mt. Tabor, which features a 20-percent grade in just over a half mile. As bad luck would have it, my chain slipped off my front sprocket at the base of the climb — so much for building any momentum, but I was soon mashing my pedals, weaving in and out of other riders, some pedaling and quite a few walking their bikes up the steep incline. At the top, I paused not only to catch my breath but to take a few pictures of the steady stream of riders suffering with pained faces along with the many conquering heroes who were smiling upon reaching the top. Too soon we were back in town, and another Hilly Hundred was in the books.

One of the perks of my profession is that I travel widely. This gives me the chance to ride many of the country’s outstanding trails and roadways, and after several visits to Indiana, I can say without hesitation that the trails and roads in the Hoosier State rank in the very top tier of my all-time favorites. I can’t wait for my next visit. 

Chuck Haney is a photographer and writer who lives in Whitefish, Montana. His dedication to waking up well before dawn has put him in a position to capture many amazing images. For more, see chuckhaney.com.

This article originally appeared in the February 2013 issue of Adventure Cyclist magazine. Adventure Cycling members receive 9 issues of Adventure Cyclist each year and have full access to digital editions. Join today!