Photo: Katherine Fuller
For most mountain bikers, there’s no better feeling than surfing along a twisty, narrow trail on a multi-hour ride. The Rocky Mountains offer nearly unlimited opportunities for backcountry biking adventures—but it’s not always possible to steal away for an epic adventure.
Enter the latest trend in mountain biking: bike parks. Designed and built especially for bikes, these facilities offer everything from jaw-dropping stunts to beginner-level trails. While an in-town setting doesn’t provide the escape of a long ride in the mountains, bike parks are highly accessible and a great way to improve cycling fitness and skill levels.
There’s a new crop of Front Range bike parks (see sidebar) that cater to off-road riding. They range in scale from Boulder’s Valmont Bike Park—which covers more than 40 acres and has been described in cycling media as one of the top bike parks on the planet—to community-based facilities constructed by enthusiasts with mostly volunteer labor.
“It’s been exciting to see the explosion in popularity,” says Lee McCormack, who teaches mountain bike skills clinics at Valmont. “The parks really have a broad appeal. Dads and moms, older and younger siblings can all find elements that challenge them, while staying in close proximity to each other.”
And, says McCormack, when you do get out for that remote singletrack journey, the practice you’ve logged in the park will pay off. “I’m riding better than ever on trails—smoother, faster and more controlled—because of all the time I spend honing my technique in a park context,” says McCormack.
The elements of a bike park
“Bike parks are absolutely one of the hottest trends in the sport,” says Chris Bernhardt, the director of trail building programs for the International Mountain Bicycling Association (IMBA). Requests for IMBA’s Trail Solutions team to create trail systems in urban and suburban settings have more than doubled in recent years. “We used to spend most of our time deep in the woods, figuring out how to route trails across ridge tops and stream valleys, but these days we’re just as likely to create a trail system next to a ball field or a subdivision,” he says.
Bike parks offer a high density of trails in a small footprint, with an emphasis on challenging features. Common elements include tight turns, quick changes in trail steepness and obstacles constructed from wood, steel or rock. Jump lines are popular—the best park designs offer multiple options ranging from tiny bumps all the way up to massive jumps that launch skilled riders into the clouds.
“Since you’re not traveling long distances and soaking up lots of scenery, you’ve got to keep the rider engaged with multiple trail features that test their balance and bike handling ability,” says Bernhardt. “The key for a successful park design is to make sure that mountain bikers at any skill level can identify the trails and features that will present the right level of difficulty, so they can tackle them and get ready to progress to the next level.”
Is it safe?
Riding in a bike park offers a more controlled setting than remote trails that might not see regular maintenance or may put riders miles away from help in an emergency. But that doesn’t mean you can’t get hurt.
Nat Lopes operates Hilride Progression Development, a company that designs and builds bike parks all over the country. “It’s always a scary thing to see an inexperienced rider approach a jump or feature that’s beyond his skill level,” says Lopes. “Good bike parks provide opportunities for riders to build their skills incrementally by starting out on smaller, more beginner-level features and working up to try more advanced elements. But even with the best designed park you ultimately can’t prevent a rider from making a mistake or a poor decision.”
If you’re wondering how the cities and communities that host bike parks can afford the risk of a costly lawsuit, remember that governments are able to limit their exposure through laws that shield them from many kinds of legal challenges. They can also set limits how much they will have to pay even if a suit succeeds. “It’s a common question,” says Mike Eubank, who manages Valmont Bike Park for the City of Boulder. “We strive to make the park as safe as possible with measures like clear signage to indicate park features, a trail rating system to indicate levels of difficulty and near-constant maintenance by an expert crew of trail workers. The park also offers cycling programs and classes to improve skills for kids as well as adults.”
One of the best things about bike parks is that they give local riders a meeting place and foster a sense of community. “Mountain bikers are often strong-willed, independent-minded people,” says Terry Breheny, who spearheaded the Golden Bike Park project as president of the Colorado Mountain Bike Association (COMBA). With a budget that was just a fraction of Valmont’s, the Golden project relied heavily on volunteerism and contributions from local bike shops and businesses to defray costs.
“It wasn’t easy to coordinate volunteer workday schedules and keep everyone excited about creating the park” says Breheny. “But everyone is stoked now that it’s finished.” A typical weekend crowd at the Golden park includes teenagers catching air on BMX bikes, families with riding with their kids and even a few racer-types in Lycra pumping out laps for a workout.
Breheny says that bike parks provide for a style of mountain biking that can be hard to find on the Front Range. “If you’re a freerider, a downhiller or a dirt jumper, you’re not going to find enough challenge on the multi-use trails that we share with hikers and equestrians. But in the parks, a rider can blast the descents and hit the jumps, without worrying about landing on a pack of bird watchers.”
There’s one group that seems to relish any bike park trail or feature. “Kids absolutely love bike parks,” says McCormack. “They groove on the chance to ride with other kids, and they immediately want to do the tricks that they see the older riders doing.” The fearlessness and ambition of a seven-year-old park rider is an awesome thing to behold (although it will also put a lump in any parent’s throat). Like the skier grommets that burn past their elders on Colorado’s ski terrain, older riders can now look forward to humiliation and inspiration in the summer months as well.
Mark Eller is the communications director for the Boulder-based International Mountain Bicycling Association (IMBA).