By Zeke Barlow

Barlow lives in Blacksburg, but his mountain biking home is Carvins Cove in Roanoke.

Twenty-five years ago, my mountain biking buddies and I were veritable outlaws when we bombed the handful of amazing trails that rimmed the Carvins Cove reservoir.

We had to park in questionably legal spots, and we were never even sure if the folks who owned the land allowed riding in the hills. Rumor was that the person who decided whether or not riding was kosher thought we’d go to the bathroom on the trails and it would end up in the city’s drinking water —never mind that the horses left ample evidence of their approved existence. All the while, a little town south of here called Asheville was encouraging mountain biking, brewing beer — and growing.

But what a difference the last few decades have made in the city that I love so much.

Far from bikers being labeled outlaws, mountain biking is not only thriving in the Roanoke Valley, it’s helping it improve the quality of life here.

The valley earned an International Mountain Biking Association Silver status designation for its stellar trails and support of the sport, which brings more attention and dollars to the region. When one of the most exciting economic developments to hit Roanoke in a decade was announced — Deschutes Beer was building an east coast distribution center —part of the reason that was cited was the area’s amazing outdoor recreation. Company officials were even taken mountain biking during their courtship (FWIW, there have been only more trails built since Deschutes decided to slow their Roanoke expansion, so that can’t have anything to do with their recent decision.)

So when I read that an IronMan race was going to hold an event in the Roanoke Valley, I got even more pumped to think about the expanded outdoor recreation opportunities and benefits the race would bring. But one part of the story caught my eye: the Western Virginia Water Authority, which runs the reservoir, was going to allow swimming in Carvins Cove for the swim part of the race? What??? Swimming has been banned since I was a kid paddling my dad’s canoe there — and as long as anyone else can remember.

“The authority’s board carefully weighed the decision, but ultimately decided it was an ‘extraordinary opportunity to showcase’ the region, said spokeswoman Sarah Baumgardner,” The Roanoke Times story said.

I couldn’t agree more. So why not showcase the region the other 364 days of the year?

Kudos to the Water Authority for having the vision to support the IronMan event, but perhaps it is time to revisit the policy of swimming at the Cove — much like was done for mountain biking.

The article quotes Baumgardner as stating, “The authority’s chief concerns were safety and aesthetics” — but that sounds similar to the antiquated arguments that mountain bikers fought for so many years. The Water Authority said cleaning the water for drinking is no issue — they do it at Smith Mountain Lake which seems to have everyone in the valley swimming in it during peak summer weekends. Let’s focus less on the mechanics of this issue and instead examine if this is a good idea for the valley. Then the decision becomes as clear as Carvins Cove water.

Imagine if the next Deschutes were touring Roanoke to decide if it wanted to locate here and company officials got to take a swim in the cool water of the Cove? Or if, after a long ride on the greenway from downtown, you got to take a dip on the water? What recognition would we get for having such accessible (somewhat natural) swimming areas? Could we surpass Asheville in outdoor recreation coolness?

I know detractors will say they don’t want the Cove to turn into Smith Mountain Lake, where jet skis buzz like mosquitoes all summer. I don’t want that either — and that’s not a viable argument. You can’t build McMansions on Carvins Cove so we don’t have to fear massive crowds and throngs of power boats. We wouldn’t have to build docks and promote more motor boat use.

Yes, this is a big change for our small town and would require altering policies and investment of lifeguards and wardens and so many other things. But remember, change is good — and economically beneficial. Look at our what our evolved attitude on mountain biking has done for everyone — including those who have never rattled their bones down the Cove’s famed Gauntlet single-track trail.

So what say you, Roanoke? Is it time to dip our toes into the idea of swimming in Carvins Cove? I think so.

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