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Metro Trails Entice More City Dwellers

Published October 16, 2007


SEATTLE, WA—If mountain biking’s popularity is indeed waning amongst today’s younger generation, perhaps city park systems will give the sport the kick in the baggies it needs.

At least that’s what advocates like Justin Vander Pol are hoping.

“We haven’t really reached across the lines to get that broad cross section of people,” said Vander Pol, executive director of the Backcountry Bicycle Trails Club (BBTC) in Washington. “We need to really open it up.”

I-5 Colonnade mountain bike skills park in Seattle’s Eastlake neighborhood is possibly where this untapped potential lies. The entire two-acre skills park won’t be complete until October 2008, but the novice area featuring switchback trails and ladder bridges will be done by Labor Day.

The project’s cost is roughly $360,000, but Vander Pol said it’s worth it to bring the sport to inner-city youth.

“We need to build parks where the kids live,” Vander Pol said. “We need things that are entertaining, because, like me, they probably have short attention spans. We also need
low barriers to entry.” Once completed, the advanced area will feature a pump track, jumps and drops—things that many thought only existed at Whistler, and not their grey backyard.

The International Mountain Bicycling Association has lent support to city parks with programs such as Urban Hot Spots and Trail Solutions.

Trail Solutions is currently IMBA’s largest influence on urban trail systems, according to Mark Eller, IMBA communications manager. “One of the reasons IMBA added a fee-based program, as opposed to strictly working with volunteers, is that city planners and park departments are often most comfortable when they can work with a professional staff,” Eller said.

Trail Solutions establishes contracts with urban park systems, while incorporating volunteer labor provided by an IMBA-affiliated club into the long-range scope of the work. Wissahickon Park with its technical and steep singletrack in urban Philadelphia is a successful example of the Trail Solutions program.

But there are other success stories as well. In Washington, D.C., and Richmond, Virginia, for example, IMBA is working closely with the Mid-Atlantic Off-Road Enthusiasts (MORE) to improve and save riding opportunities in these two rapidly developing metro areas. Just east of Washington, D.C., is a new, 12-mile flowing trail system created from scratch in Rosaryville State Park.

“There is such an epidemic of childhood and adult obesity that there needs to be an outlet for people to ride their bikes, and not worry about getting hit by a car,” said Scott Scudamore, who retired last year as MORE’s president. “I started riding bikes again at 43 and I’m now 57. It’s clearly transformed my life.”

Further up the East Coast, “Mountain Bike America: Boston Guide Book” lists 45 rides within an hour’s drive of Boston. Impressive. Even more impressive is the role the New England Mountain Bike Association (NEMBA) played in making it all happen.

“As humans we need natural recreational resources to rejuvenate our lives and recharge our psyche,” said Philip Keyes, executive director of NEMBA. “This is especially difficult—and perhaps more critical—for those who live within the concrete confines of our nation’s cities. Trails revive and sustain our passion for living, being healthy and productive.”

Urban areas are where the majority of people and potential riders live, and perhaps more importantly, where there is the least amount of undeveloped land.

“It’s hard to get into riding when it takes an hour or more to get to a trail—a broad swath of the population is not inclined to repeat this process many times,” Eller said.

IMBA works closely with municipal entities and the National Recreation and Parks Association espousing the value of “undeveloped” parks that retain a sense of natural environments, rather than just building expensive-to-maintain ball fields, swimming pools and golf courses.

“Trails in these areas provide that outlet for riders to enter the sport, learn singletrack riding skills and take a step up in the quality of bike they ride,” Eller said.

Perhaps a city introduction will lead kids wanting to nurture their riding chops somewhere in the backcountry. Eller said many parks—from the National Park Service to city parks—are struggling with decreasing visitation. It seems communing with nature isn’t high on many kids’ priority list.

“With good trail design that appeals to kids’ desires and has the right amount of technical challenge, even a small urban park can provide years of exciting riding, as kids perfect their bike handling and jumping skills,” Eller said.

IMBA board president Hill Abell, who also owns Bicycle Sports Shop with two locations in Austin, Texas, said five trail systems run within Austin city limits.

“Lots of them come in from their ride needing a quick fix or a part,” Abell said. “We also have a big rental operation. It’s predominately out-of-towners and business travelers.” Abell estimates that he’d lose 15 percent in revenue without these trails in his backyard.

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