But will today’s new gonzo mountain bikers ever be content to stick to established trails? Will their drive to push the limits and pull ever-crazier stunts drown out any inkling of a land ethic? Seeking some answers, I head out through the rumble-junked logging towns of Dallas and Falls City west of Salem, Ore. There, nestled between a church camp and a plot of Weyerhaeuser timberland, is the Black Rock Freeride Area.
Rich Bontrager, president of Black Rock Mountain Bike Association, shows me around. An affable, mustachioed 39-year-old who works for a dental supply company, he hardly seems like the X-games adrenaline-junkie type, until he’s armored in layers of plastic leg, arm and torso protectors, and pulling big air on his new Santa Cruz VP Free bike. A former motorcycle rider, he gravitated to biking a few years ago and immediately loved the thrills and camaraderie at a lower cost.
From the base of the area, Bontrager points out "skinnies"— long elevated log rides that test a rider’s balance — "roll-over" bumps, and a large tabletop jump. Up the hill, on the experts-only trails, is 12-foot-tall curved wooden wall where bikers can test the limits of gravity and speed. Despite years of mountain biking and racing, these jumps make my stomach drop: The biggest, which looks for all the world like a bridge that has been hacked off mid-span, spits bikers a good 25 feet into a deep ravine below.
Bontrager tells me riders can really progress here, moving from the rollovers on up to the ravine drop. "It’s all about saddle time," he says. And the only way to get saddle time, is of course to ride, or in my case, just hang on for dear life.
My "hardtail" bike and unarmored flesh aren’t going to cut it here, so Bontrager lends me a pair of shin guards, a full-face helmet, and his old bike, a 48-pound Shore with 7 inches of rear travel and 8 on the front. As we push our giant bikes up a fire road, Bontrager explains the area’s history.
In 2002, the Oregon Department of Forestry discovered that a small group of riders had been building trails and small jumps in the area. This was technically illegal, but instead of shutting down the trails, the department asked the riders to form a club and get their work approved. If they would manage and maintain the trails, the Forestry Department would let them add jumps and other features. Black Rock opened in December of 2004, and since then, Bontrager figures usage has tripled, as riders from Portland, Eugene and even Canada, the holy land of freeriding, have flocked to its trails.
The mountain bike association takes its responsibilities seriously. When the Forestry Department found an illegal trail in the area, the Black Rock cyclists decommissioned it in a week; they even got one of the offending trail-builders to apologize on the association’s Web site. "It was jeopardizing our trails," says Bontrager. "Our goal is to make sure that Black Rock stays."
Black Rock is smack in the middle of prime spotted owl nesting territory. This means that during much of the year, when the owls are laying eggs and raising young, the association can’t use chainsaws or earthmovers to work on the trails. The Forestry Department’s John Barnes says it’s a minor inconvenience, adding that without the owl, the freeriders could be kicked out to make way for logging.
"I’m not objectionable to logging. Falls City is a bit depressed," says Bontrager, who always stops at the town’s small grocery on the way to ride. "But we’re trying to show that we can bring Falls City and Dallas money every year, not just every 40 years" when the timber can be harvested.
Despite the owl’s presence, Bontrager hasn’t had any run-ins with environmentalists, and he doesn’t worry about wilderness issues because Black Rock isn’t near any wilderness.
The bike association is working with the Forestry Department on a long-range plan for the area. Bontrager hopes the park, which already sports six miles of trail, will continue to grow, possibly to include a cross-country loop. "I love converting cross-country guys," he grins.
We crest the fire road at an experts-only trail called Granny’s Kitchen, "because it has everything, just like granny’s kitchen," explains Bontrager. He straps on his full-face helmet and checks his brakes before popping down a trail so steep I elect to walk. At least, I attempt to walk it; I end up sliding down the loose grade on my butt with nearly 50 pounds of sophisticated bike technology tumbling after me.
Bontrager patiently stops and points out the escape routes that go around every jump. I take most of them. Then we come to a clearing, and he explains that Tinkerbell, the last and largest of four small jumps up ahead, was what hooked him on freeriding a few years ago. I dive down the trail, finally getting a feel for the bike, and happily nail each of the jumps. Finally, I fly off Tinkerbell, letting out a yell of joy. The hefty bike cushions the blow with a solid thud and whoosh. Bontrager declares that I’ve sailed at least five feet. Sweet.
At another series of jumps, called Brake Check, I opt to sit out. All weekend I’ve been hearing people call, "Clear?" — a call as important to the freeriding world as "on belay" is to climbing. It’s a warning to anyone below that a rider is on the way down.
As Bontrager hikes to Brake Check’s top, I think of his bottom-line message, which seems to be both a promise to wary outsiders and a call to arms for mountain bikers: "We have to show that this is a valid sport — that it can be safe, can be prosperous to a local community."
Then, from up in the trees, Bontrager shouts, "Clear?" I scramble backwards to a safe spot and yell back, "Clear!" Then I scan the upper jumps, waiting for the dull rumble of bike and rider, thundering down the trail.
Patrick Farrell recently graduated from the University of California Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism. He figures he logged 75 miles on his old-style "cross country" mountain bike for this story.