"There were only five to six miles of single track," said Willard, a teacher at Evans High School. "We'd ride other areas like power lines -- even some of the gravel roads."
Today, the rugged sport has an exponentially wider fan base and a growing bounty of local trails.
"Within a 60-mile radius of Augusta, we probably have 125 miles of single track now," Willard said. "It's a blessing to have that much. It's a mountain biker's dream."
This week, about 350 visitors from dozens of states will have an opportunity to share that dream during the International Mountain Bicycling Association's 2010 World Summit, being held in Augusta today through Saturday.
"We think it's extraordinary that it's coming here," said Erskine, a member of the Southern Off-Road Bicycle Association's Central Savannah River Area chapter, which has been instrumental in expanding the region's network of trails.
The summit will bring together the nation's leading mountain bike experts, who will discuss topics ranging from trail design and funding to urban bike parks and public-private partnerships.
In their spare time, visitors will enjoy the trails that helped lure the event to Augusta, said Mark Eller, the communications director at IMBA's headquarters in Boulder, Colo.
"The proximity to the trail system is one of the reasons we're coming to Augusta," he said. "We also have such great clubs in Augusta and the entire Southeast region, and we wanted to come out there and celebrate those successes."
One of the primary success stories is the Forks Area Trail System. The cyclists call it "FATS." Today, it has six courses covering almost 35 miles -- all within Sumter National Forest, a half-hour drive from Augusta.
The local club worked with the U.S. Forest Service, the South Carolina Department of Parks, Recreation & Tourism and other groups to secure grants to carve challenging mountain bike trails from federal lands along the Savannah River.
The first segments opened in 2005 near the Woodlawn community in McCormick County and gradually have been expanded.
Today, the FATS network is one of IMBA's designated "epic rides," denoting the nation's finest mountain bike venues.
The trails were financed with grants from the forest service and the tourism department, and supplemented by donations from the off-road bicycle association, which also contributed hundreds of hours of volunteer labor. The projects were managed by Long Cane Trails LLC, a local company owned by mountain biker Bill Victor.
The FATS area lures a steady stream of visitors to a remote forest once used only for hunting and growing timber.
Each trail has its own riding experience -- and a unique name denoting its terrain: The Great Wall, The Skinny, Brown Wave, Deep Step, Big Rock and The Tower.
"It's amazing how many people ride out there now," Willard said. "On the weekends, I've seen 50 to as many as 75 cars parked up there. It is really, really busy."
The license plates, he added, illustrate the area's regional appeal. "People come from Savannah (Ga.), places down in Florida, from Columbia, S.C., Atlanta -- all over," Willard said. "They will drive all that way just to ride the trails we have here."
Locally, the availability of trails is expanding. New mountain bike opportunities along Thurmond Lake include trails that eventually will link several parks in Columbia County. A new "pump track" recently was completed in North Augusta, offering cyclists a place to practice close to home.
"It's starting to catch on even more because we have all these places," Willard said. "It's amazing how many people ride now. We see kids from the high schools out there on weekends, and sometimes you'll see whole families out there: mom, dad and the kids, too."