A Cycling Enthusiast's Guide to Greenville, South Carolina
The mountains and hills surrounding Greenville, South Carolina have long been a playground for passionate cyclists. From the undulating roads in the valleys that bike riders call “rollers” to the preponderance of mountain climbs—which according to legendary American bike racer George Hincapie, mimic the Alpine and Pyrenean mountains he climbed during his seventeen Tours de France—Greenville is a cyclist’s paradise.
In recent years, Greenville has evolved to become a world-class destination at the heart of Appalachia. With a bustling downtown and plenty of food and drink options, think of Greenville as Nashville’s more easterly, mountain-bound cousin. Thanks in large part to those aforementioned roads, along with cycling companies like Hincapie Sportswear and Boyd Wheels calling the Greenville area home, its reputation as one of America’s great cycling meccas has grown right along with it.
In search of terrain to keep up with his training regimen, George Hincapie moved to Greenville, South Carolina in 2000, when he was still riding professionally. On visits to see his brother Rich, who had already relocated from New York to Greenville, George noticed how the roads, the climbs, and the topography so mimicked those he was racing on in Europe.
A few years later, George and Rich started their eponymous cycling company, opened the cycling-inspired Hotel Domestique in the nearby hilltop town of Travelers Rest, and, within a few years, were hosting the Gran Fondo Hincapie, which has grown to become one of the marquee road cycling events in America. What was once a sleepy mountain town soon became a bustling minimetropolis.
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What to do in Greenville
Explore the city on a bike, of course. There are endless options for riding in and around the Greenville area, with routes and roads so numerous that even local resident and legendary American bike racer Bobby Julich says he finds himself on new roads during every single ride.
“There are just so many little backroads, so many different ways, loops, and routes to get everywhere,” Julich says. “And some of them, you think, ‘Wait, am I in Belgium right now? Or Switzerland? Or France?”
Julich, who is a Tour de France podium finisher (he finished third in 1998) and an Olympic medalist, moved to Greenville after spending years in the South of France, working in the cycling industry. At first, he was skeptical of Hincapie’s promise that Greenville offered some of the best riding in America. But as soon as he and his wife relocated to be closer to her family, Julich realized he was at the epicenter of one of America’s best-kept cycling secrets.
“I never expected to be this close to legitimate climbing. I always associated the South [with] being flat,” Julich, who grew up in the mountains of Colorado, says. “But the South Carolina Upstate is just the gift that keeps on giving.”
Riding in and around Greenville offers a variety of places to test your mettle, with climbs like Ceasers Head, Saluda Grade, Green River Cove, or the mighty and unrelenting Skyuka Mountain, the peak of which offers one of the most stunning views in this corner of Appalachia.
Of course, the most well-known climb in the area is arguably Paris Mountain, likely due to the annual Paris Mountain X event. At 2.2 miles and with an average gradient of 6.6-percent, Paris is hardly a daunting climb. However, the “X” means 10; as in, the goal of the event is to climb Paris Mountain ten times in one go. A bit more daunting, no doubt, but still very achievable for even the most intermediate cyclist. And while mountains like Skyuka, Ceasar’s Head, and Saluda are all a bit of a ride from Downtown Greenville, Paris Mountain’s proximity makes it ideal for a quick climb.
“The most special part [of] living downtown is that I can be at the bottom of Paris Mountain in just a few minutes,” said NBC cycling analyst Christian Vande Velde, who moved to Greenville in 2016. “If work is busy, you can roll out, climb Paris, and be home within an hour.”
“Maybe you can,” I reminded the longtime professional cyclist, who finished fourth in the 2008 Tour de France and seventh in 2009. “It might take the rest of us a bit longer.”
But Vande Velde assured me that most of Greenville’s mountains are very doable regardless of skill level. One thing that makes Greenville special is how its series of smaller climbs can really rack up over the course of a day in the saddle.
“You could accumulate five-thousand feet in a three-and-a-half-hour ride,” he said. But not every ride in Greenville has to be a leg crusher. Those in search of something a bit more laid back and far from the open roads (though, I can attest, drivers in the Greenville area seem to be very cyclist-conscious. Probably because most of them are themselves cyclists) can take to the Swamp Rabbit Trail, a twenty-two-mile-long rail-to-trail greenway that runs from Greenville to Travelers Rest.
Where to eat in Greenville
“The cycling mafia around here is pretty tight,” Vande Velde said, noting that the owner and executive chef of downtown Italian eatery Jianna, Michael Kramer, is an avid cyclist and regular riding buddy of his, Julich, and Hincapie’s.
And though the restaurant boasts a beautifully executed industrial-style dining room, the food is a high-minded take on classic Italian comfort fare, replete with an astounding selection of wines; don’t skip the oysters. If you’re looking for something more locally focused, grab a post-ride meal at Soby’s, which puts a modern twist on Southern cuisine.
Of course, you’ll need to fuel mid-ride and there is no place to do so better than the Swamp Rabbit Café and Grocery, a staple of Greenville’s riding community, as it is just off the Swamp Rabbit Trail. And if you’re doing the full Greenville cycling experience, Hincapie’s Hotel Domestique (more on that below) boasts an on-site eatery, Restaurant 17, that marries classical dishes with a focus on ultra-local ingredients in a modern lodge dining room.
Where to stay
While there are a ton of options in and around the Greenville area to stay, from cozy boutiques to chain hotels to an abundance of Airbnb-type options, for cyclists Hotel Domestique is the first choice. Located about twenty minutes by car from downtown Greenville, Hotel Domestique is a high-end respite in the mountains above Greenville. Named for the role George Hincapie played in his years as a professional cyclist (a domestique is a cyclist in a road racing team whose role is not to win but to help their team leader during a race, for example by setting the pace or creating a slipstream), the hotel offers bike rentals, guided tours, an abundance of route options, and (of course) spa and pool options to enjoy after those leg-burning mountain rides.
Riders looking for a more in-depth cycling adventure can sign up for a spot in the Experience Domestique Camp, a thrice-annual cycling camp that includes three days of riding with George Hincapie, Christian Vande Velde, Bobby Julich, and other cycling luminaries, along with three nights at the hotel, dinners with wine pairings, yoga, massages, and even bike rentals.
But if you want to stay closer to Downtown Greenville, The Grand Bohemian Lodge is a boutique hotel overlooking Downtown Greenville’s famous waterfalls that marries high-end service and accommodations with a rustic sensibility.
Originally Appeared on Condé Nast Traveler