Urban Bike Parks, Part 1: Pump, Jump and Flow

By Avery Stonich April 27, 2015
Editor’s note: This is Part 1 of a four-part series:             Part 2: Evangelists      Part 3: Land Use       Part 4: Equipment

Urban bike parks—they’re local, they’re fun for a range of abilities and ages, and they can become the glue for an urban cycling community that doesn’t otherwise have a place to congregate. The inception of an urban bike park often starts with an eager cyclist or two who realize how such a facility can benefit his or her community, and then they move to convince others of the idea. It used to be a hard sell. Now the tide is changing.

Today more and more communities are recognizing that bike parks are assets that pay dividends similar to playgrounds, ball fields, swimming pools, and other recreation facilities. They bring jobs, promote healthy living, get kids outside, boost property values, reduce crime, attract residents, create trail connectivity, and convert underused (and even dangerous or polluted) lots to valuable hubs of the community.

Gone are the days of cyclists being the black sheep. Now an organized network of cycling advocates, with the help of the International Mountain Bicycling Association (IMBA), is spearheading a movement that has resulted in a boom of purpose-built bike parks across the country, with municipalities and land managers getting on board.

“It’s hard to track because the growth has been so explosive,” says Mark Eller, IMBA’s director of communications. “The number of inquiries to our professional trail-building service has easily tripled in the last two years.”

Bike parks typically offer a wide variety of progressive terrain in a compact area. Features range from beginner to advanced, providing family-friendly zones, areas where less experienced riders can hone their skills, and advanced jumps that keep even the most skilled riders coming back for more. The types of trails you’ll typically see at a bike park include pumptracks, dirt jumps, flow trails, slopestyle courses, skills areas, singletrack trails, dual slalom tracks, downhill tracks, cyclo-cross trails and a variety of other features, all constructed and shaped from wood, dirt and steel.

According to Eller, bike parks do for bicycling what climbing gyms have done for climbing, with the potential to boost ridership. “The whole idea of a purpose-built facility is allowing people to progress their skills. This makes a huge difference in opening the mountain bike experience to groups of people who have never really felt connected to it before,” says Eller.

 “The whole idea of a purpose-built facility is allowing people to progress their skills. This makes a huge difference in opening the mountain bike experience to groups of people who have never really felt connected to it before.” —Mark Eller, communications director, International Mountain Bicycling Association.

This is really good news for the outdoor industry, which is seeking ways to redefine itself in order to remain relevant and attract more consumers. “Bike parks can introduce a different level or type of riding to a new demographic or population,” says Dan Stefiuk, pro athlete liaison for gear manufacturer SRAM and co-founder of Friends of Big Marsh, the fundraising arm of a park underway in Chicago. This cultivates new riders, who can become lifelong customers if they have easy access to great trails right outside their doors.

Bike parks are a relatively new concept and are evolving rapidly. They can be indoor or outdoor, privately owned or publicly funded. Often the private sector kicks down initial funding to get the concept off the ground, and then a variety of stakeholders join the mix. Here are a few examples of notable parks in the U.S. that have attracted everybody from toddlers on Striders to pros doing back flips.

I-5 Colonnade • Seattle, Washington • 2008

The 2.6-acre I-5 Colonnade is located between the Eastlake and Capitol Hill neighborhoods in downtown Seattle. Its pump track, dirt jumps, log rolls, rock chutes, ladder bridges and trails are tucked underneath the I-5 freeway, making efficient use of an area that was once the haunt of trash and vagrants. I-5 was one of the first urban bike parks in the U.S., and holds credit for inspiring a movement that has since left this little park in the dust. According to IMBA, “It was a pivotal project that demonstrated that this kind of challenging riding could be supported by land managers.”

The I-5 Colonnade was built in the days when public support for bike parks was something of a pipe dream. The enterprising folks at Evergreen Mountain Bike Alliance put passion into action to make it happen, building and managing the park with the blood, sweat and tears of volunteers. Once built, it was a huge success, yet the cash-strapped park struggled with maintenance. It has since fallen into disrepair but is still a popular spot for locals to take a post-work spin. A revitalization of the park is in the works.

Despite its decline, the I-5 Colonnade paved the way for future bike parks and helps make the case for appropriate funding and support of such facilities.

Valmont Bike Park • Boulder, Colorado • 2011

Valmont Bike Park is a poster child for innovation, and has been the leader in setting new standards for best practices. Cyclists first weighed in on plans for the park in 1996, yet it took almost a decade before the community would see the plans in action.

In a compact 42 acres, Valmont offers something for everyone, from families to jump junkies. Alpine Bike Parks spent two years designing the park, which includes skills areas, slopestyle features, singletrack trails, a dual slalom course, dirt jumps, a large and small pumptrack and two cyclo-cross staircases—which hosted the USA Cycling Cyclo-cross National Championships in 2014. When officials from other municipalities tour Valmont, they often leave inspired to establish bike parks in their own communities.

In addition to creating top-notch technical features, the park also set a new standard in collaboration, with a broad range of stakeholders coming together to make this dream a reality. The City of Boulder, Boulder Mountainbike Alliance (BMA), IMBA, Alpine Bike Parks and a host of other groups played integral roles. The majority of funding came from the city, with BMA, local businesses, countless private donors, and Great Outdoors Colorado also contributing. The on-site staff and maintenance plan ensure the park remains up to snuff, with volunteers helping ease the burden.

Beyond the bike park boundaries, Valmont Park also includes a disc golf course, dog park, and multi-use field, and it is connected to a vast network of bike trails, allowing pedal-up access for the city’s 100,000 residents.

Mega Cavern • Louisville, Kentucky • 2015

Hidden 100 feet underground in a giant cave that was once a limestone quarry, the Mega Underground Bike Park is a privately owned bike park that operates on a pay-to-play basis, with ticket prices that range from $24 for four hours to $192 for a 10-punch pass. Giant floodlights penetrate the otherwise dark interior, illuminating 320,000 square feet of jump lines, pumptracks, dual slalom courses, and BMX courses, with a cross-country trail snaking around the perimeter.

Private funding has its advantages. The owners—who also operate a zip line, ropes course, tram, and other attractions in the massive cavern—conceived of the bike park in early 2014 and were able to open it to the public a year later (lightning speed by bike park standards). Whether the revenue model turns a profit remains to be seen, although it looks promising. According to Jeremiah Heath, co-manager of the Mega Cavern, people have flocked to the bike park since it opened in February, coming from all over the world to get check out the jumps and berms in a one-of-a-kind setting.

Big Marsh Bike Park • Chicago, Illinois • 2016

Big Marsh used to go by the name of Park 564. Soon it will transform 278 acres of wasteland into an urban oasis just 20 minutes south of the Chicago Loop, bringing a bike park, multipurpose trails, birdwatching, picnic areas, zipline, ropes course, restored wildlife habitat, and interpretive signs to a population of 3 million people. The park will provide a diversity of trails to a community that, until now, hasn’t had ridable dirt within close proximity.

SRAM, a Chicago-based bicycle component company, hatched the idea of a world-class bike park in its hometown after touring the Valmont facility in Boulder. Teaming with IMBA, SRAM pitched the idea to the City of Chicago in 2012 and is leading a $2.2 million private fundraising campaign to help finance the $6 million first phase. Now the vision is being etched in the ground, with construction underway on the 45-acre Big Marsh Bike Park, slated to open next year.

“The city was looking for an anchor of activity that could be a focal point and drive other projects, like a wildlife preserve and parks. This bike park will be the catalyst to drive that momentum. It was kind of a rethinking of the concept of what a park can be,” says Stefiuk.

The state-of-the-art bike park will include a wide variety of features, including various sized jumps for BMX, Belgian steps for cyclo-cross, flowing gravity trails for mountain biking, and skills trails. Just as important as dirt jumps and dual slalom courses, however, is the site’s environmental restoration, which is transforming a former polluted industrial steel site into a public amenity.

The public-private partnership is the result of cooperation among the City of Chicago, Chicago Park District, Hitchcock Design Group, Illinois Department of Natural Resources, IMBA, SRAM, Trails for Illinois, and Alderman John A. Pope.

The Future

These examples demonstrate that bike parks are evolving rapidly, with innovative design elements, landscaping, partnerships and integration with other facilities. “In the next two years, the bike park movement will have changed drastically,” says Andy Williamson, IMBA’s Great Lakes Region director.

“The most interesting trends in bike parks are going to be seen in the parks that haven’t been built yet,” says Judd de Vall, a former pro rider who used to build trails for IMBA before establishing Alpine Bike Parks. “Most of these things take a number of years in planning and design.”

De Vall would like to see a bike park within riding distance of every home in the nation. With a slew of new parks on his project board, he is especially excited about facilities he is designing in San Francisco and San Jose, California, both of which will serve sizable urban populations.

So what exactly does it take build a bike park? “It’s complicated enough that we made it the focus of an entire book,” says Eller. After replicating the process in dozens of communities, IMBA published Bike Parks and Flow Trails to help people understand how to create the vision, sell the idea, pursue funding, establish partnerships, and develop and maintain successful designs in the dirt for all to enjoy.

For more in-depth coverage of recreational trends, see the Outdoor Foundation’s 2014 Outdoor Recreation Participation Report.