New mountain bike group steps up to fill off-road advocacy void

“We call for better access to city parks and recreation areas for off-road riding.”
–From a statement issued today by a new coalition of mountain bike advocates

Hoping to join the Platinum party and no longer wanting to play second fiddle to its on-street cousin, mountain biking in Portland is poised for progress.

Today, a coalition of mountain bike advocates who want to bring more off-road riding opportunities to Portland, issued a statement congratulating the city on its Platinum award while sounding an alarm that Portland lacks a “comprehensive strategy to provide opportunities for off-road cyclists” and that “the mountain bicycling community believes there is still work to be done.”

Chris King Precision Components employee
Chris Distefano (L) and Commissioner
Sam Adams’ Chief of Staff Tom Miller
riding in Forest Park last summer.
(Photo © J. Maus)

The coaltion includes “a citizens’ group” that has teamed up with the International Mountain Bicycling Association (IMBA) and the Portland-based trail planning firm Alta Planning and Design to “analyze the potential for new trail opportunities in and around Portland.”

This announcement shows clear progress in a conversation around mountain bike opportunities in Portland that has been heating up in recent years.

In June of 2006, local mountain bikers felt snubbed when the Portland Parks and Recreation department unveiled a 20-year vision that didn’t mention mountain bikes at all.

Later that same month, with Portland’s Platinum plans going full steam, the League of American Bicyclists said “access to singletrack” would be a key criterion for achieving the coveted award.

Also adding urgency to the lack of mountain bike experiences in Portland was an article in the New York Times one year ago that showcased how several other major U.S. cities (but not Portland) had found ways to bring fat-tired fun to an urban setting.

Using that article, and the local discussion it spurred as ammunition, bike industry employee and former IMBA Board Member Chris Distefano gave a stirring speech to Portland’s Bicycle Advisory Committee about his dissatisfaction with Portland’s off-road riding opportunities.

(Photo © J. Maus)

Also last summer, the Portland United Mountain Pedalers (PUMP) led local policymakers on a tour of Forest Park — taking them down the only quarter-mile of trail in the city built specifically for mountain bikes.

So why is Portland so dirt-riding deficient?

PUMP has been active for over 20 years, but, as an all-volunteer organization that focuses primarily on rides and trail maintenance, their impact on influencing bureaucrats and forging necessary political alliances has been limited (not to mention that most of their time has been spent on issues in areas where they ride most often — usually more than a hours drive from Portland).

The Bicycle Transportation Alliance (BTA) has the know-how and budget to play politics with the power brokers, but they’ve never really delved into the off-road realm.

This (yet unnamed) fledgling coalition — which solidified at the recent Oregon Bike Summit — hopes to fill a void and work with PUMP, IMBA, Alta Planning, and most likely Metro and Portland Parks and Recreation to create a Portland Mountain Bicycling Action Plan.

According to IMBA trail specialist and member of this new coaltion Jill Van Winkle, IMBA and Alta have both already dedicated professional resources to the effort and she hopes to “use that seed [from Alta and IMBA] to get other contributors on board to be a part of this effort.”

A group in Seattle created a mountain bike
skills park under an overpass of the I-5 freeway.
(Photo: Seattle LUNAChix/Flickr)

Van Winkle says the time has come for action. “Everyone was getting exhausted by just saying ‘we want more trails, we want more trails’…we wanted to take action. Now, with professional resources, we can really help move that forward.”

Van Winkle — whose husband Chris Bernhardt is a former IMBA staffer who now works at Alta’s Portland office heading up the firm’s new soft-surface trails division — says the group will consider some innovative options for creating non-pavement riding experiences.

These might include: building “daisy-chain” links that utilize existing unpaved right-of-way to connect riding areas; following the lead of Seattle’s I-5 Colonnade project that created a mountain bike skills park under a freeway overpass; and working on public/private partnerships to include mountain biking in existing and future parks and open spaces.

According to the statement released today, “These actions could produce substantial new mountain biking facilities for Portland in less than 4 years.”

The group hopes to present more details about their plans at the upcoming meeting of Metro’s new Blue Ribbon Committee for Trails.

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