Learn To Ride, Love To Ride

By Nathan Burrell

Most people can remember the first time they rode a bike, but I suspect only a few can remember the first time they rode on a trail through the woods. The city of Richmond, Va., has joined the ranks of a small but growing group that is developing an off-road practice and training facility.


A History Lesson
To understand how the Off-Road Bike Skills Training Area was built, one must first understand the city, which includes the nation’s founding history, wonderful architecture, stately trees, and lush

The newest addition to Richmond's already active community--Off-Road Bike Skills Training Area.

Photos Courtesy Of Richmond Parks, Recreation and Community Facilities parks. Richmond was founded at the falls of the James River by early explorers navigating upstream; the river that flows through the city’s center also gave the city its name because it so closely resembled England’s Richmond on the Thames.

The James River Park now occupies more than 550 acres spanning over 7 miles of riverfront, and portions have been protected in perpetuity by a conservation easement. Both the river, with its Class IV white-water rapids and kayaking, and the park, which offers biking, hiking, rock climbing, fishing, swimming, and more, are annually frequented by almost a million people, and have become a mecca for outdoor-adventure recreation.

A Love Affair
For several years, the park has been the site of the East Coast Xterra Championship Games and many other athletic events, and the bike trails are some of the best in the United States. With the park staffed by only three full-time employees, avid off-road bikers, outdoor-adventure recreation enthusiasts, James RiverPark friends and supporters, and other volunteers have continually provided much of the work to improve the park and trails.

Along with the volunteers’ love affair with the park, the number of park users has grown, especially the bicyclists, due to the environmental movement and the increasing cost of gas. Nearby VirginiaCommonwealth University actively supports bicycling as an alternative form of transportation for its students, faculty, and staff.

A Plan Of Attack
Four years ago, when the national need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions was coupled with the rise in childhood obesity, Mayor Dwight C. Jones set a goal to make Richmond a “bike-friendly city.” To achieve this, a bicycle, pedestrian, and trails coordinator was hired, and a Bike, Pedestrian, and Trails Planning Commission was established.

The commission studied the city’s trails, greenways, and on-road corridors, holding a community charrette to gain resident input for a development plan. Among the recommendations presented in November 2010 was a proposal to build a bike-skills training facility. The plan was adopted unanimously by the city council.

Knowing that location and community support were keys to ensuring a successful project, a community stakeholder committee was formed, comprised of the presidents of the three organizations that actively support the park: the Friends of James River Park, the James River Outdoor Coalition, and RaMORE, or the Richmond Mid-Atlantic Off-Road Enthusiasts.

The committee decided that Belle Isle, a 54-acre island wilderness that is part of the James RiverPark in the heart of downtown, was the place to build the training area. It made sense because the area is in close proximity and easily connected to the park’s existing 16 miles of multi-use trails.

Concept plans were developed for both the on-road- and off-road training facilities. The off-road facility was to be built first, and through the stakeholder committee, members of the International Mountain Biking Association were invited to assist in developing the plan and branding for the park.

At first glance, it seemed unlikely that the $150,000 to $200,000 needed for the off-road facility could be collected; however, after the amassing of 523 volunteer hours, repurposing large granite curbstones and boulders stored throughout the city, and collecting 3,000 cubic yards of dirt from city-owned cemeteries, the estimate was reduced to $60,000. The city’s Department of Public Works delivered all the materials, greatly lowering costs.

A Place To Practice
To build the facility, RaMORE assisted in obtaining grant funding from REI, the national outdoor-gear retailer, as well as funding a contract with Ben Blitch of Alpine Trails, a well-known and widely respected trail builder.

The Off-Road Bike Skills Training Area opened with a ribbon-cutting ceremony and celebration on September 29, 2012. The ceremony was attended by city officials, park lovers, and biking enthusiasts of all ages anxious to try out their biking skills in the new rock gardens and on the pump tracks, log and rock skinnies, and other obstacles that simulate the experiences encountered on actual trails.

The city now has a facility that not only provides the area’s biking enthusiasts the opportunity to improve their trail-riding skills, but also allows almost anyone to learn biking skills so they can enjoy the James RiverPark’s famed trails and pass on those memories of a first bike ride through the woods. With 30 to 40 people using the site on any weather-permitting day, the facility is already serving as a place where the off-road cycling community can meet, connect, support each other, and help spread even more enthusiasm for biking in Richmond!

Nathan Burrell is the Trails Manager for the City of Richmond’s Department of Parks, Recreation and Community Facilities and has led national seminars on trail building.