The newly opened Colonnade Mountain Bike Skills Park has twists, turns, bumps and jumps aplenty for both newbie pedal-pushers and experienced riders.
Bellingham, where I live, is the home of Galbraith Mountain, Northwest-renowned for its too-many-to-count miles and miles of winding, twisting single-track bike trails. Simply put: To mountain bikers, Galbraith is arguably the be-all and end-all of Western Washington fat-tire riding.
So it was with a bit of patronizing condescension that I headed south to the grand opening of Seattle’s I-5 Colonnade mountain bike skills park (all two acres of it, huh), which bills itself as the first ever urban mountain-bike park. I was like someone whose usual Sunday ritual is mass at Chartres Cathedral who decides to visit a tiny chapel in the country. “Oh how quaint; let’s go see the little bike park.”
Was I ever in for a surprise. Colonnade blew my mind!
First of all, the location is pretty freaky — it’s directly beneath Interstate 5 between Eastlake and Capitol Hill. (And thus, mostly protected from Seattle’s yearlong rainy season.) Second, the variety of riding that one can do here is staggering.
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Are you a newbie (or a kid) who just wants to get the feel of rolling over some dirt bumps, maybe riding across a low (that is, safe-feeling) ladder bridge? Or maybe try pedalling up and over your first teeter-totter? Then head to the Tqalu Trail, the park’s learning area, or up to the Pump Track, where dirt mounds and banked turns make you feel like one of those BMX racers who made their debut in last month’s Olympics.
Are you at the other end of the spectrum: a freerider-downhiller type forever bedecked in Transformer-looking body armor and full-face helmet? Someone who favors six-foot drops, steep chutes, high-banked berms, scary-skinny bridges and high-flying jumps? Then the Jump Zone’s got your name on it. (Head here, too, if you like to watch in jaw-dropping amazement as riders push the limits of gravity just about as far as it’s willing to let them.)
Or are you kind of in-between? A cross-country rider who digs the challenge of rolling over rocks and roots, of zipping in and out of tight turns, but also enjoys the flow of forward-motion riding, both up and downhill? Then the winding, twisty Limestone Loop, a half-mile intestine of a trail, is where you’ll want to play.
“It’s incredible to have something like this in the city,” says Dan Heaton, a 26-year-old mountain unicyclist, taking a break from unicycling the log-lined cobblestones of the Limestone Loop. (Heaton is the mountain unicyclist currently featured in a Columbia Sportswear TV commercial.)
“When I heard about it, I thought ‘OK, maybe there’ll be a couple places to ride,’ but this is unbelievable. I could spend all day here.”
Colonnade also features a trials bike area for riders who hop from boulders to tables to stacks of pallets like they’re on pogo sticks instead of bikes, and something called the Lakeview Practice Area. It’s a mostly mellow spot with a few bumps and bridges as well as a short trail that winds through some trees. It’s a good place to warm up.
“The whole idea of this park is progression,” says Jon Kennedy, program director for the Evergreen Mountain Bike Alliance (formerly Backcountry Bicycle Trails Club), which did the bulk of the fundraising and park construction. “At Colonnade, there’s always someplace where you can build on what you already know how to do to get yourself to the next level.”
Cleaning up, clearing out
The seeds of the Colonnade bike park were sown some 10 years ago when Simon Lawton, owner of Fluidride, a Seattle bike shop that offers instruction camps, approached the city of Seattle with the idea of an urban bike park. While the city was open to it, things moved slowly at first. The Backcountry Bicycle Trails Club was brought in to build it, and through grants, the sales of engraved rocks, and sponsorship deals with companies such as REI, Starbucks and Shimano, the club raised the needed $170,000. Ground was broken in October ’05, and since then volunteers have donated more than 14,000 hours to make the park a reality.
“When we first started clearing brush, you had to watch where you put your hands because of all the needles — they were everywhere,” says Ray David, a West Seattle freerider who put in many hours himself. “It was nothing but a place where junkies, prostitutes and worse hung out. It really disconnected the two neighborhoods.”
Phase one of the park, which was mostly just the Limestone Loop, opened a year ago. The rest of the park opened earlier this month.
Along with providing a great place to acquire and improve one’s bike-riding skills, Kennedy says, Colonnade will showcase how land such as this can be a real benefit to a community.
“It’s been shown time and again — you bring active recreation into an area and the drugs and crime go away,” he says.
That’s my boy
Unlike Galbraith Mountain, which is so vast that there’s time and space to recover between rocks, bridges, or stacks of logs, Colonnade, because of space considerations, offers its challenges one right after another. That’s especially true on the single-track Limestone Loop where you’re forever preparing for a tight turn or just coming out of one. Concentration is key.
At the grand-opening event, which drew some 200-plus riders, I had the most fun riding, both up and down. At 40-something, I prefer to keep my wheels on the ground; I’ve no desire to tilt at gravity — except, that is, when I followed Baker, my 9-year-old son whose mountain-biking skills and confidence seem to expand weekly, to Nick’s Tricks at the Jump Zone. It’s rated blue, like an intermediate ski run, though to an avowed gravity-hugger such as myself, seems more like a black run.
After rolling down a wood bridge, we roller-coastered up and down several dirt camel humps before descending steeply down a narrow chute into a wood-banked turn spray-painted with the word “Phaze,” graffiti-style. Baker took it low and glided in and out with no problem.
I, on the other hand, used to Galbraith, had a higher opinion of my skills than warranted, and took the turn high. It was banked more steeply than I realized and, because I hadn’t carried enough speed, I slid onto my butt, instantly earning my first Colonnade tattoo.
“Think I’ll head back to the Limestone Loop,” I told Baker.
Coasting back down to Limestone, it occurred to me that I’d remember Colonnade for something other than being an ultra-cool place to ride. It’s where the mountain-biking son first outgrew the mountain-biking father.
Mike McQuaide is a Bellingham freelance writer and author of “Day Hike! Central Cascades” and “Day Hike! North Cascades” (Sasquatch Books). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. His bike-centric blog is mcqview.blogspot.com.