Thanks to Peter Frick-Wright of the Oregonian who brings this great story of how cooperation between government and individuals has produced a fist class recreational ground which can be enjoyed by all. Thanks also to pacificpointer who put this great video together which shows some of the tougher features that need to be negotiated at Black Rock.
The Black Rock free-ride mountain bike trails are on 500 acres of state forest land about a 25 mile drive west of Salem, the result of an unusual collaboration between local mountain bikers and the Oregon Department of Forestry.
“I was like, ‘What? What are you going to do?'” says John Barnes of the forestry department, remembering when mountain bikers Leo Kowalski and Mike Susee of Salem approached him in 2000 about constructing mountain bike features at Black Rock. “And that still didn’t prepare me for the structures they were going to build.”
Free-riding is a subset of mountain biking in which riding is not as much about getting from A to B quickly, but how much fun you have on your way. You’re free to roam the mountain, no destination but the bottom, linking as many tricks, jumps and stunts as you can fit into a descent.
With trail work by volunteers from the nonprofit Black Rock Mountain Biking Association, the free-riding there is free, for anyone, at any time.
Jumps, drops and “skinnies”
Our ride starts with a climb. After the drive through Falls City — where everyone waves to cars loaded with bikes — we arrive at the parking area. From there it’s a 15-minute ride up an unimproved road to Basic Training.
Designed to let riders cultivate courage and get a feel for their bikes before heading to the big stuff up top, Basic Training looks like what would happen if you gave a bunch of bike-loving, thrill-seeking teenagers tools, time and an expense account at Parr Lumber.
The area includes jumps, drops, a small teeter-totter and several narrow, elevated bridges called “skinnies” spread over a half-acre Ewok village that serves as both a trailhead and a kind of bunny-slope for inexperienced cross-country sloggers like me.
Still, these are potent launches. Trail manager Chris Eggan said he has broken his leg and dislocated his thumb here, and Rich Bontrager, president of the Black Rock Mountain Biking Association, said many other less-serious injuries go unreported.
Black Rock’s one shortcoming may be its limited trails. Riders have three options totaling nine miles, and the forestry agency isn’t permitting any further trail building until it re-evaluates its development plan.
But this hasn’t stopped the volunteers from making improvements. On trail-building days, they add new options for jumps and skinnies in between the old features.
At the top of the hill, and at every trail junction, signs point to Bonzai Downhill, Sickter Gnar and Granny’s Kitchen with a glorious declaration below the name: “Mountain Bikes only. Closed to all other users.”
You read that right: You cannot hike on these trails. (This does not include walking your bike past the bigger features.)
“That’s actually what makes Black Rock unique,” Eggan said. “We clear the area, and the trail is hit by all levels of riders. A natural line appears, and then we put the stunts to the side. It’s designed so that a kid could go out and watch his dad ride the big stuff.”
We take Granny’s Kitchen, watching our friend Kyle Anderson ride the big stuff. The top of the run leads to a large wall ride, then continues to the Cheesegrater, a massive construction that took a year and a half to build. Two takeoff points lead to a landing zone 45 feet long. Riders talk about it like it’s the pride and joy of the mountain.
Kyle whoops at takeoff, tweaking his bike in the air for style. He climbs back up the hill to the top of the jump again and again.
Oregon free-ride projects spin forward
Black Rock’s success has spurred trail-building efforts around the state, and now free-ride trail projects are moving forward at Shellburg Falls in the Santiam State Forest near Mehama and at L.L. Stub Stewart State Park, about 30 miles west of Portland.
Rich Bontrager, president of the Black Rock Mountain Bike Area, said state officials even approached Black Rock’s trail builders about turning a park into a free-ride area to revitalize Holman Wayside Park in West Salem — a public space that became the scene of illegal activities.
Leo Kowalski and Mike Susee also are working on developing a free-ride resort similar to Black Rock with year-round chair-lift access and trails in the Willamette Valley, most likely somewhere in Yamhill County. That project is still up in the air, but if it goes through, riders expect big things.
Tips from the pros
Black Rock’s jumps and stunts look intimidating, but according to ex-racer and free-ride fanatic Craig Cleary, they’re just like curbs along the sidewalk.
“It all comes from that ramp in the street someone built as a kid,” Cleary says. “It’s the progression of the sport, really the epitome of mountain biking.”
The key to surviving the learning curve from curbs to gaps? Start small.
“Ride Basic Training (at Black Rock) for quite a while before you move up,” Cleary said. “Start on the green trails and work your way up to black. Familiarize yourself with the terrain before you commit. Don’t be afraid to ride around.
“The best thing you can do is try to hook up with someone who has been there before and knows the route and knows the speed you want to hit something.”
Joe Lawwill, who won the 2002 Downhill Masters World Championship and now works as an instructor with bikeskills.com, tells his students to visually scan for the safest, best route.
“Acknowledge it and then look where you want to go,” he says. “If you keep looking (at the obstacle), typically you’ll end up getting sucked into that obstacle.”
Lawwill also preaches a 70/30 back to front split of body weight and riding in the “attack position” with elbows up and out, knees bent, out of the saddle, visually scanning the trail ahead and moving your weight farther back as the trail gets steeper.
“As long as you keep your weight back, you’ll get down a lot,” he said. “You’ll get to a point where you feel like your shoulders are going to touch your ears.”
Good advice I’m sure and the only advice that we have to add is that you should go there and try it out. Further informayion can be found at www.brmba.org