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Mountain Biking in… Manhattan?



New York City has aimed to be more bike-friendly in recent years, installing bike lanes on city streets and working to introduce a bike-share program. But one New York group is aiming to get more New Yorkers biking on off-road trails, right in the heart of Manhattan.

The New York City Mountain Bike Association (NYCMTB) builds and maintains trails in New York’s five boroughs and offers programs designed to get more New Yorkers, young and old, involved in the sport of mountain biking. Leader Dawson Smith and fellow mountain biker Jamie Bogner founded NYCMTB in 2005 to manage a trail-building process at Highbridge Park, located in Manhattan’s Washington Heights neighborhood. Although land is at a premium in NYC, the association managed to carve out room for three miles of off-road bicycle trails in the park.

There were some things working in their favor at the time. City officials saw improving the park as a catalyst for development in the neighborhood. New York also was still in the running to host the 2012 Olympics, and needed to show it could host mountain biking events.

But perhaps most importantly, NYCMTB members were willing to get their hands dirty. Literally.

“Essentially, our success at Highbridge was we found a long disturbed section of park that was in need of some TLC,” Smith says. “We removed a great deal of trash from the park as a result of decades of illegal dumping.”

Parts of the trails are named after what they found at Highbridge — “Engine Block” after an abandoned car, “Rough Rider” after an old roller coaster once at the site when Highbridge was home to an amusement park.

Today, the Highbridge trails are the hallmark of NYCMTB’s efforts. In addition, the association has helped build trails in other city neighborhoods, including a four mile trail at Wolfe’s Pond Park in Staten Island and 6.5 miles of trails at Cunningham Park in Queens. The organization also is working to promote trails across the globe as a member of the nonprofit International Mountain Bicycling Association.

Mountain biking provides a sense of peace for people looking to get active on a bike without having to brave traffic, Smith says. A Manhattan native, Smith grew up riding a bike but after getting in an accident with a taxi, stopped riding. Mountain biking helped him rediscover his love of the sport, he says.

It’s also helped him stay fit, as mountain biking offers a workout that the flat, stop-and-go nature of street biking doesn’t always provide.

As such, Smith and his colleagues believe mountain biking could be a great way to help people get active. In communities such as Manhattan that are low on open space, “pump tracks” can be used to give mountain bikers a great workout, Smith says.

A pump track is a looped mini-trail filled with mounds of dirt designed to give bikers the ability to ride it continuously. These tracks are often used to teach new riders the basics of mountain biking.

“There’s a great opportunity to introduce people to an alternative to riding in the street,” Smith says. “Riding in the trails with some elevation changes can be a great form of exercise, and combining the trails… with our pump tracks, it kind of highlights the future with what we have to offer.”

NYCMTB sees part of its future in helping kids get active through biking. Last August, NYCMTB hosted a six-week program in which children from the local community learned the basics of mountain biking at the pump tracks at Highbridge. The association hopes to host the program again this year if it can find a funding to support it.

“There is a great benefit to having kids come out and get a great workout,” Smith adds of the pump tracks. “It takes up relatively little space, it’s very affordable to build. Once it’s built, it’s very easy to maintain.”

Smith also is encouraged that more urban communities will carve out space for bike trails, he says. It’s actually very easy to achieve, he notes, once all the relevant parties come together — the fundamental design for most trails goes back to the days of the Great Depression, he notes.