For the last year and a half I’ve been living in a mountain biker’s paradise, with anything from mild to wild at my fingertips as far as trail selection went. Unfortunately, the same did not apply to dirt jumps, pumptracks, or any kind of street riding in the area. The street bike that I used to swing a leg over on a weekly basis has been relegated to collecting dust in a corner. So when the opportunity to check out the Philadelphia pumptrack arose, I dusted off the trusty steed and headed south.
I’ve been following the development of the track through the media but haven’t had a chance to check it out for myself until now. I was not disappointed, to say the least. Upon arrival, we signed in to the guest book and headed to explore what was on the menu. There are actually two pumptracks here: the main track that you’ve likely seen in all the photos, and the smaller, beginner track. In between them is the storage container for tools and “rental” equipment as well as benches to hang out at and free water to drink!
There’s even a flow trail in the woods behind the track, called the “Crossbow Trail.” As a matter of fact, this is the only official flow trail in the city of Philadelphia and connects the pumptrack with 15 miles of singletrack of the Belmont Plateau.
The main pumptrack is tight and technical. You really have to work your whole body and seek lines to conserve energy. Just a few laps in, I was reminded of why I used to love going to the tiny, unmaintained pumptrack when I lived in Binghamton. The legs burn and the heart wants to jump right out of your chest. Take a breather and hop back in for a few more laps. The atmosphere is relaxed and everyone gets a turn. No matter the age or the skill level, everyone was having a blast.
I got a chance to catch up with Kenn Rymdeko and Heidi Grunwald, two people without whom the pumptrack wouldn’t be a reality and who remain the backbone of the track today. Hearing these two talk about their creation, you really get to see how passionate they are for the two-wheeled sport as a whole and for introducing kids to something they’d never have the opportunity to do otherwise.
The idea to create a pumptrack emerged from a desire to make mountain biking accessible to kids. The Parkside neighborhood, where the track is located, is reachable by bike or public transit from all over the city. Unlike mountain biking, there is no need for a bike rack equipped transport vehicle, no need for expensive equipment, and for that matter, no need for an expensive bike. Unlike many new bike parks, the Philly pumptrack is absolutely free. It is a service to the community first and a biker destination second.
Earlier on, I put rental bikes in quotations as they’re not really rentals. They are bikes free to use for anyone at the track that doesn’t own a suitable bike or any bike at all. Don’t have a helmet either? No problem, you can get one of those here, too. The only thing they ask for is your ID. Even a school ID works for the younger riders.
The idea is to get everyone involved. Unlike many other forms of parks and recreation, including skate parks, the pumptrack creates a strong community around itself. Just about everything is done by volunteers and a sense of belonging is cultivated. Whenever the park is open, a volunteer oversees the operation along with “tour guides” – older kids that have been there from the beginning of the track’s existence. During the season, Wednedsays are trail maintenance days. Anybody is welcome and is rewarded with lunch and the fruits of their hard labor.
To go farther with getting kids into a positive environment, there’s even a procedure for helping develop skill and awareness on a bike. Some of the attendees of the track have never before swung a leg over a bike. They get a bike and start out on the smaller, easier track. In order to progress to the big track, they need to pass a test: go around the short track 10 times without pedaling and with a finger on the brake at all times. Upon the successful completion, the proud rider gets a medal and an invitation to the main track. This is certainly a rite of passage for the younger regulars of the park.
Kenn and Heidi see the track as immensely rewarding, yet it isn’t without its hardships. The things that make this place so great are also the things that make it difficult to sustain and why so many parks take the easy route with paid admission and rentals. The track relies on volunteers to keep regular hours and while a community of willing volunteers exists, it is a tough situation to be in. A cancellation here, a scheduling snafu there and Kenn or Heidi have to take time out of their schedules to keep the track open. Things like putting a literal roof over the track, in order to stay open in the rain and even winter, are tough without a source of income generated by the track.
Nonetheless, it is my hope that the track can overcome these hurtles and keep being such a positive element in the lives of so many people. The passion I’ve seen from everyone involved makes me believe that this is just the start of something truly great and maybe even a shift in our society’s views of the bicycle and it’s role in our lives. I anticipate many more visits to this place and encourage everyone to check it out for yourself.