Urban Bike Parks, Part 2: Evangelists

By Philip Armour May 18, 2015
Editor’s note: This is Part 2 of a four-part series:             Part 1: Pump, Jump and Flow      Part 3: Land Use  Part 4: Equipment

 

Urban bike parks are great magnets for attracting youth, beginners and minorities to the sport of mountain biking. Bike terrain parks, much like ski resort terrain parks or climbing gyms, offer a clear progression from beginner to advanced features, allowing bikers to improve and test their skills gradually. According to OIA’s 2014 Outdoor Recreation Participation Report, 16 percent of Americans—46.6 million people—participate in road, mountain and BMX biking. And biking is the most popular outdoor activity for youth (ages 6–17), which makes bike parks a great investment for local communities.

To mobilize local riders and get urban bike parks built, community advocates collaborate with local officials and land-use managers, initiate park designs and volunteer for park construction. It’s a labor of love. And a trio of Boulder, Colorado-based bike advocates are championing this urban sporting trend that’s bringing more people to the sport of mountain biking.

Jenn Dice, PeopleForBikes

Founded in 1999 as Bikes Belong, PeopleForBikes is a charitable foundation that advocates for recreational cyclists and commuters, while also working in partnership with bicycle manufacturers and suppliers. With 20 employees (in Boulder and Washington, DC), PeopleForBikes has the backing of a $7 million annual budget and more than a million members. One of this nonprofit’s initiatives in recent years has been to fund urban bike parks.

“Public/private partnerships help bring these projects together,” says Jenn Dice, PeopleForBike’s vice president in charge of developing the group’s business network. “A little bit of seed money from the federal recreational trails program or state grants can kick-start a process that leverages five or sometimes even 10 times the original funds when you get the private sector and other levels of government involved.”

Dice is a former lobbyist for state and local nonprofits and got her start in the biking industry in 2001 with International Mountain Bicycling Association (IMBA). She was also a longtime board member with the Outdoor Alliance.

“PeopleForBikes works to unite millions of Americans, thousands of businesses and hundreds of communities for better bicycling in America,” says Dice. “We work with the industry to promote bicycling whether it is on a bike path, in a bike park, singletrack trails, road biking or bike shares. We fund a lot of exciting bike programs and projects.”

PeopleForBikes is a great partner with OIA and also works on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. The group organizes BikesPAC (the political action committee), conducts fly-in lobby days and joined the U.S. Conference of Mayors to promote bicycling at the city level.

“We work with the industry to promote bicycling whether it is on a bike path, in a bike park, singletrack trails, road biking or bike share.” —Jenn Dice, PeopleForBikes

 “Between mayors and members of Congress, there are a lot more leaders riding bikes and understanding what they do to improve a community,” says Dice, who sees more and more urban bike parks being constructed as part of infill development. “We will continue to fund great ideas that bring communities together, leverage public/private partnerships and ultimately get more people riding bikes.”

Mark Eller, International Mountain Bicycling Association

In addition to its own efforts, PeopleForBikes donates money to IMBA, where Communications Director Mark Eller has emerged as the authority on urban bike parks. He edited the definitive book on the subject: Bike Parks (IMBA, 2014), a hefty layman’s guide to lobbying, fundraising and constructing local bike parks, written by Bob Allen. Eller worked for consumer print magazines (Rock & Ice, Trailrunner and Ski Racing) for more than a decade and drew on his journalism background to edit Bike Parks. He and Allen did first-person interviews with master trail builders and commissioned essays from athletes and other writers.

“Bike parks are meant to be ridable on a lot of different types of bikes,” says Eller, who has raced mountain bikes since his early 20s. “We try to distinguish ourselves from BMX, because that sport is very exacting. It’s really a race format not a riding style. Those racecourses are designed with specific roller spacing and jump heights, etc.” Bike park designers aren’t beholden to the strict specs of BMX racecourses.

Motivated to get a bike park into your community? Read Eller’s book. Like Dice, he believes that urban bike parks are great for the sport by attracting riders of all skill levels and ages.

“Mountain biking’s traditional demographic is white, middle-aged and male, so we’re looking to develop bike parks that reach new audiences,” says Eller. “Urban parks can be placed in demographically diverse areas, and when you put a park close to people, you attract younger riders, both genders, and various ethnic groups. Everyone can come explore what mountain biking is.”

“Urban parks can be placed in demographically diverse areas, and when you put a park close to people, you attract younger riders, both genders, and various ethnic groups. Everyone can come explore what mountain biking is.” —Mark Eller, IMBA

Parks are a means of community outreach, too. Denver’s new Ruby Hill bike park will have a “bike library” for people to check out bikes for less than the cost of renting. This program is directed at people from underserved communities, so they can get value out of the bike park, too.

“Urban bike parks are community resources meant for everyone. Just look at Boulder’s Valmont Bike Park,” says Eller. “It’s set next to a trailer park, and many of the riders are Spanish-speaking. You see lots of these kids on BMX bikes, and that’s broadly true for all urban parks.”

“Urban bike parks are community resources meant for everyone. Just look at Boulder’s Valmont Bike Park. It’s set next to a trailer park, and many of the riders are Spanish-speaking. You see lots of these kids on BMX bikes, and that’s broadly true for all urban parks.” —Mark Eller, IMBA

Clayton Woodruff, Progressive Trail Design

For his part, Clayton Woodruff is a boots-on-the-ground soldier. He and his brother, Nathan, run Progressive Trail Design—a company based in Fayetteville, Arkansas, with offices in Boulder, that constructs progressive bike parks around the country. Woodruff led the design of Denver’s new Ruby Hill park, which is being built this summer. Woodruff’s experience in bike park development came from riding bikes at a high level for more than 20 years and from a career in project management and operations.

“Urban bike parks have really come on in the last six to seven years thanks to overall acceptance by municipalities,” says Woodruff. “They see the use and need for these parks. Today, there’s more organization by local riders than ever. In the early days, it was just guys in the woods.”

Many cities and towns are also starting to build smaller bike parks, with pump tracks and skills courses, as well as “pocket parks” along concrete greenway paths. As far as design goes, Woodruff says he sees a push toward turning underutilized parks and areas and into bike parks.

“We have done a few parks now that are built on capped trash dumps,” he says. “These areas cannot be used for any other purpose, so bike parks are an obvious choice.”

Woodruff also runs a manufacturing company called Progressive Bike Ramps. He says the newest idea in the bike park design industry is prefabricated features, like pre-engineered steel frames and precast concrete: “These features improve safety and durability and speed up construction. In terms of design, we’re always learning. It’s constantly evolving. Controlling drainage, water runoff and erosion are big focuses.”

Standardized features, like the half pipes you see in skateboard and ski/snowboard competitions, may never emerge, but berm and tabletop dimensions are becoming more uniform. “We’ve come a long way from just winging it,” Woodruff chuckles.

Eller agrees: “Prefabricated structures built offsite and made of steel and wood are the new trend in urban bike park design. Their big advantage over dirt is that they retain their exact shape and riding quality with minimal maintenance over time. Erosion and the volume of riders degrade dirt features, while prefabricated structures are resistant to slight changes in the angle of jumps, which affect how riders get thrown into the air and land. These structures ensure that it’s the same jump every time.”

Municipal bike parks provide features for many different skill levels to attract local riders, all for little or no cost, and with close-in access to urban areas. Bikers of all ages can progress safely in a controlled environment, without having to negotiate singletrack in remote areas, which requires an advanced skillset. Riders and municipalities are working together to further the sport of mountain biking and to lower the barriers to entry. And thanks to people like Dice, Eller and Woodruff, the construction of urban bike parks is on the rise.