By Jon Pratt
I was fortunate enough to be invited to Milwaukee to attend the 2011-2012 annual grand opening at Ray’s this past weekend. Being a longtime rider at Cleveland, I was excited to see the new fun Ray had dreamed up. But first, a short history lesson: Ray’s Cleveland opened up in 2004 and has been growing ever since. Last December, with the help of Trek Bicycle, Ray was able to open a new location in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
What I expected to find in Milwaukee was a basically a Ray’s 2.0—a facility fine tuned from the years of experience garnered in Cleveland. What I hoped to find was a riding destination that hadn’t lost its soul in the process. Cleveland has an attractive “patina”, as Eric Schutt, head honcho at Ray’s Milwaukee, so eloquently
stated. The new park was born from a relatively new building which used to house Menards, a home improvement chain. The idea of riding around in a gutted home improvement warehouse didn’t resonate with me too well. Would I miss the stained, cracked floors, and steel beamed ceilings of Cleveland?
Along with all the excitement of a new place to play when the winter months bring their cold, wet weather to my outdoor cycling haunts, I was pumped to see the pros that were coming out for the opening: Aaron Gwin, Jeff Lenosky, Lennie Westfall, and Stu Thomsen. Aaron, of course, is the first American to win a World Cup overall title; Jeff, one of the premier riders in the world who also helps design many events and parks; Lennie, an incredibly talent rider and employee of the Mirraco Bike Company; and last but not least, Stu who dominated the BMX scene from the mid-70s to mid-80s. Turns out Jeff would not be able to make it due to some scheduling conflicts, but hanging out with the other pros was a pretty cool way to spend the weekend.
Now let’s get to the park. As soon as I started a short tour of the facilities with Eric Schutt I knew they had learned well from Cleveland. Most immediately apparent to me was that there was a well thought out way to get around the entire park while visiting all the separate skills areas and jump lines: the cross country course. Painted green, like the line in the “turn here” Fidelity commercials, it connects literally every section of the park together, making it easy to fine tune your skills in the beginner or sport skills area before moving on to the expert lines.
Another new feature of the cross country course is the inclusion of lines that are more beginner friendly and that keep the flow going around some of the more difficult sections. All the easier lines are included in the simple to follow green path, while the more difficult sections are optional spurs. One of the spurs on the cross country course is an old jump line which includes a Red Bull wall the more advanced riders can play on. While the more BMX oriented rider may miss the feature this year, it opens up a new experience for the riders who tend to stick to the more mountain bike friendly areas of the park.
Along with the upgrades to the cross country course, there is an out-and-back Micro Rhythm track which is a great place for people to get comfortable with how a jump line feels. Built with an out-and-back design, the track features several boxes and jumps. Instead of a bermed turn at the end of the outbound rhythm line, there is a platform that allows the rider to reset themselves if they hadn’t been ablt to get in sync with the course before attempting the inbound line. Personally I had trouble getting back in sync once interrupted by the platform, something that I had issues with on the out-and-back in Cleveland as well. But, I understand the idea behind the exclusion of a bermed turn.
The wooden features in the sport and expert sections felt much sturdier than the ones I’m used to riding in Cleveland. There always seems to be something loose or out of wack in Ohio….not so in Wisconsin. For instance, I can’t count the number of times the sliding bridge in the expert section of Cleveland got stuck and was closed. The sliding bridge in Milwaukee is built level across the ground (a change from the elevated version last year), running on pipes and rollers similar to the construction of a modern rollercoaster. It is noticeably smoother, and slightly easier than its Cleveland cousin. The teeters all felt more solidly built, as did the elevator.
There are a few things I didn’t like about the Milwaukee skills areas. The lines felt very close to each other, especially in the expert area. I also found most of the lines were similar to the ones in Cleveland. There are some cool new things, but things just seemed a little too familiar.
Good, bad and ugly
Unfortunately, I was unable to ride the jumps which consists of sport, expert, and super rhythm line, or the street park, because my front tire slipped off one of the skinnies and I ended up breaking my thumb. My accident did segue nicely into a conversation with Eric about safety in the park though. The entire staff is well trained in exactly how to deal with accidents, and the park is actually constructed with safety in mind. For instance, sections of track can be taken out of the jumps to get a stretcher where it might be needed. It’s not something I want to dwell on in an article, but just know I saw a few crashes and the response of Ray’s crew, and it was immediate and professional.
Back to the park. The jump lines looked great, and everyone was out having a blast on them. I was told that the jumps and street park were designed for both mountain and smaller wheels, but they definitely looked like they’d be much more fun on the latter. At least it looked that way watching Stu, Lennie, and Reese from Pinkbike rip them up.
The novice section, tucked into the right side of the building comes complete with skills cards hanging from the ceiling detailing the correct way to execute particular moves, including falling, through words and pictures. Believe it or not, there were actually kids in the novice area practicing how to fall onto a soft stack of foam. Alongside the novice tracks were hooks where season pass holders could store their bikes. Many of the bikes belong to people who have 9-5 gigs and come over after work instead of going to the gym. I’m completely on board with that!
Like in Cleveland, Ray’s Milwaukee provides a great weekend package deal including hotel and park entry for out of town visitors. There are two hotels to choose from in Milwaukee, the Hilton Garden Inn and the Four Points. All the press and pros stayed at the Hilton Garden Inn. Rooms were great, food was great, no complaints at all! While both lodging choices offer free shuttle service to Ray’s, only the Four Points offers a free airport shuttle. Important, because the airport is a good 30 minutes away from both hotels. The shuttle is just a large passenger van, so there really wasn’t a good way to transport bikes back and forth…someone at Ray’s or the hotel should invest in a hitch rack for the van.
It was a great weekend, and I think Ray and Eric, with the help of Trek Bicycle, hit this one out of the park. Milwaukee is indeed a refined version of Cleveland, with its own soul. There’s enough of a new experience at Milwaukee to advocate that the devoted Cleveland rider venture north.
Oh, there are rumors of another Ray’s in the works; I may need a new jersey soon.
Women are welcome too
Women’s weekends are back in Cleveland on Feb 17th and in Milwaukee on March 9th.
“It’s a super fun, free event for women, by women," Shutt said. "We staff the park with female BMX and MTB pro coaches, and women are able to come in to learn and polish their bike skills. Anything from the most basic to the most advanced. For this event, only the women participating in the event are allowed inside the parks!”
Check out Raysmtb.com for more info.
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