Story by Tom Loeffler | Jun 29, 2015
Photography by Keith Borgmeyer

For walkers, runners and especially bikers, the Katy Trail boasts 237 miles of winding path and amazing views.

Unless you’re new to the area or have been in a deep sleep for a long time, you’ve probably heard of the Katy Trail. Like many things in life, it’s a gem right under our noses that too many of us take for granted.

The Katy Trail is the nation’s longest “rails-to-trails” project, stretching 237 flat and scenic miles from Clinton (located in western Missouri, just south of Warrensburg) to Machens (just east of St. Charles). The trail winds along the Missouri River and its bluffs. It has open fields and tree-lined stretches of thick shade, with quaint communities along the way. It has more great looks than the latest Cosmopolitan.

It is, in a word, fabulous.

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On portions of the trail, horseback riding is allowed (not around Jefferson City, however). Walkers use it, runners use it, but mostly bicycle riders use it, some for short trips and some for very long trips. Enter Red Wheel Bike Shop, your one-stop shop for all things bicycle in Jefferson City.

KT_Wyatt“There’s definitely been an increase in the awareness of cycling…more than anything, just the awareness about health and how cycling can be used as a tool for that,” says Nick Smith, owner of Red Wheel, who opened the business with his wife and fellow bicycling enthusiast, Jessica, in 2003. “Of course, we’re lucky having the Katy Trail. And the year they put the bike lane going across the [Missouri River] bridge [in 2011], we saw a really big uptick in sales.”

In February of this year, Red Wheel opened its new store on West Main Street (the shop is part of the redevelopment of the Millbottom area just west of the Capitol) after spending 12 years at its original location on West Edgewood. In other words, it’s a short pedaling trip to the Katy Trail, no car required.

“The real draw about the new location is being able to access the trail from the shop,” Smith says.

Smith, 38, is a lifelong resident of central Missouri and graduate of South Callaway High School and Linn Tech, where he earned a degree in industrial electronics.

“I got out in the workforce and did that for a few years, realized I didn’t like it and thought: ‘You know what? If I can make a living in the bike world, I’d rather do that,’” Smith says. “I knew I wouldn’t make as much money, but I’d enjoy what I’d be doing.”

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Although he ran track in high school, his real sports passion was — and is — bicycles. “As a kid,” he says, “I loved riding bikes, and it just kind of progressed from there, riding mountain bikes on gravel roads out where we lived. We had a little bit of land, so we built some mountain bike trails out there. I just like the sport, and it never went away.

“A lot of the kids I ran around with, once they got a driver’s license, they put their bikes away and never looked back,” he continues. “But a few of us kept on riding. It was a part of who we were: a bunch of kids who loved riding bikes.”

He got into bike racing in the late 1990s, which “helped spur my interest in cycling even more,” Smith says. “I was never very good [in competition], but it was a good way to meet a couple hundred other mountain bikers. Growing up in central Missouri, especially around Mokane, there weren’t a lot of people who were interested in it, so it was fun to go to mountain bike races in Springfield and Kansas City and be around people who were interested in this kind of fringe sport.”

During his racing heyday, though he still competes on a limited scale, Smith rode no less than 6,000 or 7,000 miles a year. But now, “since we moved the store, and we have a 3-year-old, I’ll be lucky to get a couple thousand miles in a year,” he says.

Smith has ridden the length of the Katy Trail in three days with Jessica, camping overnight along the way and pedaling nearly 80 miles a day. “That was probably too much,” he says. “We probably should have spaced it out and enjoyed ourselves a little more.”

But now, he’s enjoying more leisurely rides with Jessica and their 3 year-old son, Wyatt. “He’s riding without training wheels now, but he’s still not very good,” Smith says. “He’s only 3; we have pull-around trailers for him, and he’ll ride around with us.”

Smith then smiles.

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“He’ll be a biker whether he wants to be or not,” he says. “About once a week, we’ll ride up to the benches [located on the river between Jefferson City and Hartsburg] and just hang out for a while and have a snack.”

To be sure, the Smiths aren’t the only family to enjoy the Katy Trail. “It’s great for families,” Smith says. “It’s a good, safe, controlled environment. Whether you’re riding a couple of miles with some younger kids or whole families doing overnighters, it’s great. It’s beautiful. It’s a good trail to ride all year long.”

The Katy Trail isn’t the only biking option in Jefferson City. There’s the 15-mile Greenway Trail that winds through town and along Wears Creek, as well as trails at Riverside Park and Binder Lake. There are several groups that ride together on a regular basis. Every Tuesday, there’s a group that mountain bikes at Binder; some of the same riders gather on Thursday nights to hit area gravel roads; and on Wednesday nights, there’s a group that meets at Red Wheel and takes a trip on road bikes.

KT_OnTrail2But the Katy Trail still tops the list. And if you’re not careful — and besides the appeal of great views and better companionship — you might even get some exercise. “For family riding, it’s the best,” Smith says. “You don’t have to worry about cars or traffic or anything. But it’s deceiving; you have to pedal the whole time. There’s no coasting. It can definitely wear you out, but most people still think it’s definitely worth it.”