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Dirt Rag #129 Readings: Highbridge Trails in Manhattan
by Stuart Schrader and Harlan Price

129 readingsA three-mile network of technical singletrack recently opened on a wooded promontory in northern Manhattan called Highbridge Park, not far across the river from Yankee Stadium. In the 1990s, before a crackdown, urban cyclists looking for some dirt often rode (illegally) on the Bridle Path in Central Park. In recent years, however, New York City’s many mountain bikers have been left to pretend the space between smog-spewing taxicabs is singletrack and huck off the steps of the Federal Building late at night. At last, thanks to a year and a half of planning and construction by the New York City Mountain Bike Association, in conjunction with the NYC Department of Parks and Recreation, there are now some incredible—and legal—trails in the heart of the city.

The Highbridge trails are well-marked and intelligently designed, complete with berms, switchbacks, tightly spaced trees, and drops. Just a few feet into the woods, it’s possible to forget that you are riding in Manhattan, although the sounds of cars and the elevated subway are inescapable. The trail ratings range from green to double-black, like ski trails, with the majority blue or black. Even the intermediate trails are tough, with tight turns, short steeps, off-camber sections, roots, rocks, and maybe a little reggae too. Double-black “Hellfighter” begins with a narrow, rocky chute that sends the rider flying between trees toward a tight, high-banked turn—what comes next is for someone less faint-of-heart than me to discover. Though the trail-builders have packed a lot into a relatively small space (but with enough excitement to keep repeat visitors from growing bored), you won’t spend the whole day riding these trails, which is actually perfect. City mountain bikers used to face at least a half hour’s drive (on the rare day with light traffic) to decent trails in New Jersey or the northern suburbs. Now, you can hop on the subway, get dirty, and return home before lunch.

In neighboring Washington Heights, baseball reigns supreme, and stars like Manny Ramirez call the asphalt playgrounds home. But with trails this technical, and a jumping practice course right next to a baseball diamond, a neighborhood kid could now reasonably dream of becoming a pro freerider rather than an infielder. In fact, I watched armored freeride warriors on long-travel bikes patiently giving space (and advice) to local kids who were warily rolling over the jumps themselves. What’s more, the city’s diversity was apparent riding these trails. In just an hour, my riding companion and I shot the breeze and shared a laugh with riders of a dozen ethnic backgrounds, many from nearby neighborhoods. It’s funny: cramped inside the subway, you rarely speak to those around you, but given a bit of space, some leafy treetops overhead and dirt underfoot, you feel like chatting up your fellow New Yorkers. Or maybe watching a spandex-clad dude eat it on a log ramp is just a great ice-breaker.

As part of the grand opening celebration for the trails in Highbridge Park, the NYCMTB Association held the All-City XC Race on Sunday, May 20th. The following is a report from race winner Harlan Price:

If you know anyone who has moved to New York City for the purpose of finding cultural stimulation, they have probably mentioned at some point NYC’s limitless surprises. But if anyone is desensitized to surprising behavior it has to be NYC natives. So I wonder what went through the minds of people at 196th and Dykman Streets in (almost Harlem) Manhattan, when a hundred or so mountain bikers started racing in Highbridge Park through almost three miles of wet, rocky and technical singletrack.

Did the little-leaguers notice us as the trail brought us within an inch of their backs pressed into the chain-link fence, while they sat on benches chanting at the opponent’s pitcher? What were the kids smoking a joint in the woods thinking as we passed through their haze? Was the fun I was having as obvious to them as it was too me? Shouldn’t fun be infectious? Maybe they just thought we were a bunch of dorky intruders. If only sharing a bike was as easy as sharing a joint. I think the guys at the bodega on the corner were a little more receptive to our spandexed bodies since we came with money for water and fruit.

Racing in NYC was everything I expected it to be: overstimulation from the concrete jungle in the form of cars, buses, trains, foreign languages and a random assortment of sounds like the theater before the movie starts; dirty streets, apartment buildings, shade-tree car washers and check cashing stores next to dollar stores. I carpooled into the city across the George Washington Bridge while fellow Philly riders Carl and Chris took the Chinatown bus then the No.1 train to the Dykman stop.

I’m glad I skipped my normal path of doing a local race and attended this first time event in the core of the Big Apple. My pre-ride was a shock to the system. The course was short but brutal and had some of the sketchiest lines I had seen all year. After a little delay, which inspired some pump track action, we got underway to counting off eight laps. Since NYC is one big archeological masterpiece, I wasn’t surprised to see that with each passing lap our tires were slowly unearthing artifacts in the freshly crafted trails. License plates and bottles of unknown vintage surfaced. A metal detector would have exploded from overuse. A win for me made the day extra special, and left me a bit over stimulated. Though I am a big fan of epic single-lap races, this one will go on my calendar for next year.

I’m sure spandex is outside of anything the locals would consider cool. Hopefully with time the population will begin to realize how cool it is to have a pump track, some real doubles, and over three miles of actual mountain bike trails in the neighborhood.

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Dirt Rag #132 Readings: Colonnade Bike Skills Park Opens in Seattle
by Ralph Underwood

132 readingsSeattle is a divided city.

In the ’60s, Seattle was divided by construction of the I-5 freeway. It wasn’t an easy highway project. The available real estate between Puget Sound and Lake Washington through the city’s core consists of a bunch of steep hillsides. The solution was to build an elevated structure, supported by rows and rows of concrete columns (the Colonnade). Neighborhoods were separated by the concrete monster, which now carries 215,000 vehicles per day.

The areas beneath these elevated freeway structures became desolate wastelands, jumbles of blackberries, trash, homeless camps and drug needles. Over the years neighbors avoided these areas unless they wanted to observe others chugging high-octane adult beverages and shooting drugs. Few bikers ventured through the wasteland.

Things changed with the completion of Phase 1 of the Colonnade Park; now the neighborhoods are re-connected and regular people are using the park. Bikers are bombing down new twisty trails and over the technical trail features (TTF).

Seattle area mountain bikers and various dignitaries celebrated the completion of Phase 1 of the Colonnade Park on October 8th with a ribbon cutting ceremony, a grant presentation, a barbeque, and a lot of trail riding.

The trail to completion had as many obstacles as the park has TTF. A group of visionary mountain bikers saw one wasteland side slope as a great place to build a bike park. The vision wasn’t immediately shared by all of the people, governments and agencies involved in the area. From the idea’s inception to riding reality took about eight years. After Seattleites approved a Pro Parks levy in 2000, money became available to fund infrastructure like concrete stairways, public art and ADA-compliant bike paths and walkways that re-connect the neighborhoods. The Backcountry Bicycle Trails Club (BBTC) took the lead in design and construction of the bike skills park using mostly volunteer labor and donated funds.

The 7.5-acre park includes open space, an off-leash dog run, and 2 acres of mountain bike skills trails and thrills under the I-5 freeway. It is a unique place now and it will be an example for similar parks.

Seeing the result of the volunteer labor, provided by BBTC members as well as teams from local companies (Microsoft, Starbucks and REI), you wonder why public art was needed since the trails and features are beautiful. The trails include many technical trail features like tight switchbacks, rock rolls, wall rides and chutes, a suspension bridge, teeter totters and log rides—all good stuff to hone skills and great places to introduce new riders to obstacles they may find in the real woods.

It’s a largely dry place, something important in Seattle. The freeway above provides a roof (too bad they can’t cut in some skylights).

The BBTC now has approval and has already started scheduling work parties for Phase 2, which will include advanced trails with swoops, jumps, drops and ladders. Check out the BBTC web site for maps and more information.

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