It is a truly stunning moment when you are able to witness someone fall in love with riding bikes. Being able to witness this on a large scale, such as the grand opening of the Philadelphia Pumptrack, can change the way you see cycling. I've long said that I believe bikes have the power to save the world. I would be lying if I told you I always believed that. It's easy to lose track of what's important when riding your bike in the sea of noise that is out there telling you what to think, what to ride, where to ride and who to ride with. When riding bikes starts to feel politicized, the doubt it casts over your love for the sport and community can be disheartening. So when the simplest of terrain built for the simplest of bikes ends up in a neighbourhood where many of the bikes are missing pedals, seats and spokes; you can't help but wonder how this recipe is going to turn out. For Philadelphia, the result has been far more satisfying than anyone imagined.
The Philadelphia Pumptrack has been a long time coming. Kenn Rymdeko, Heidi Grunwald and Harlan Price have taken on the almost excruciatingly arduous process of building on public land a half decade ago. "I started on this about 4 years ago when I was president of the Philadelphia Mountain Bike Association and mothballed it shortly thereafter." recalls Kenn Rymdeko. "Then about three years ago, Harlan (Price), Heidi (Grunwald) and I were having dinner after the Mid Atlantic Super Series finale and he asked if we could dust off the plans and so we did. The real reason I wanted to try and put this together is because I wanted a pumptrack to ride. But, I also wanted a long term plan where we could get kids out on their bikes and in a stewardship role where they must take care of what they ride, which is what most of us mountain bikers do anyway."
Harlan likens the initial pumptrack struggles to the long established skate scene and the continued problems they face in the city. "If you look at skateboarding in the city, there are some truly legendary spots here that people from around the world know about. It’s been that way for over 20 years but only in the past 4 have we actually had an officially sanctioned skate park. I mean, FDR still isn’t a sanctioned skate park. It’s considered an accepted rogue activity that is on PennDot land. It just shows that Philly is an old city with a lot of hands in the pot which makes it tough to get things done here." As they dealt with the various groups and departments required to sign off on the project over the years, doubters of the track chimed in often. According to Heidi, a lot of the doubt came from the very people they needed the initial ground swell of support to get things going: mountain bikers. "Back in the PMBA days we were all pretty interested in getting something built that would be along the lines of a bike park or pumptrack. Kenn and I pitched the pumptrack idea to those guys [PMBA] and they thought it would be a distraction to their effort for getting a freeride bike park in. From my perspective, when you’re dealing with bureaucrats and the diplomatic sludge of trying to get stuff done on public lands, you have to start small and prove yourself first."
Enter Jim Dellavalle, former pro BMX athlete, current owner of Dellavalle Designs and the man charged with the responsibility of maximizing the space allotted on the corner of 53rd and Parkside in Philadelphia. Jim's designs are visually stunning and in reality a blast to ride. But for the cyclo-ninja-artist from Monroe County, Pennsylvania, fun can be found in a lot of places. What's more important to him and his designs is making sure he can check off a number of elements and responsibilities he has set forth for himself and his brand. "There’s an agricultural element, an environmental element, a social element and a physical element in all of the designs," he says. "I am always trying to educate and inform people that for the life and fun of the trail, it is important that they are able to manage stormwater well. You’ll find that most of my designs encourage rain gardens and stormwater maintenance." In addition to the storm water requirements he has for all of his designs, there's an overwhelmingly harmonious arc to his ambitions.
|The bike park has absolutely no generation gap, from 8 to 80. What I am trying to promote with the bike parks are harmony within the families who are there to ride. When they go home after riding in the park, they're rejuvenated, they're happy and they're healthier. I won't build a track unless I can do a stormwater design. That comes back and feeds all of the plants. Once it rains and the material is moisturized, those plants are happy and they give off positive vibes. That's stepping away from a lot of things, but when you talk about the life of a plant, you give it good soil and rainwater and it's saturated and held in the garden, it gives those plants a lot more energy and it promotes positivity in the park. It's a bit Jedi but it happens. - Jim Dellavalle|
Jim's designs inspired many of the people who were an integral part of this process. For Heidi, the decision to bring Jim into the fold was one that perfectly aligned with a problem she has long wanted to help provide a solution. "I think there are a ton of kids in this city who aren’t ball sport athletes but they hang around the ball courts because that’s the only social thing they really have available. So our big thing was putting kids on bikes in safe spaces. I work in a part of the city where I see kids riding bikes, popping wheelies, jumping curbs as if the street was the only place for them to ride their bikes. We wanted to create a place where kids can ride whatever they have with their parents and families."
Despite the confidence Jim's design and approach instilled in the group effort, there were still hurdles they would have to overcome. "The leader in this community saw the potential, got excited and communicated that to the rest of the community here." Harlan explains. "I came in with Kenn and did a presentation, they asked us to leave the room while they discussed and 30 seconds later we were good to go. So the community was behind it and it was already supported by the city. It was great and wasn’t too big a challenge. It was once we needed to start building that things began to stall out." They were dealing with the water department, civil engineering, the city lawyers; one thing after another and there were a lot of stall outs. At one point late in the process, it was determined by civil engineering that a site survey of the land needed to be conducted, well after several trailer-loads of fresh dirt had been dumped on site to be shaped by Jim and his crew.
But Kenn, Harlan, Heidi and the local community only worked harder as a result of these hurdles. "The reward for us was showing up to the dig everyday and the kids being there waiting for us." Heidi says. "They look at you with these hugely wide eyes and they so badly want to ride but they so get that they have to dig before they ride. They want to know what they need to do so they can ride. The biggest thing is the offering of a community that didn’t exist before for these kids in this neighborhood."
"You’ll notice that I put the beginner track higher up in the park than anything else." Jim says. "That’s because in my books, the children are what is going to keep our sport and culture alive going forward. When they ask “why are we higher than the big track?” I tell them that they are more valuable. They are the most important. We share our property with the kids and give them highest ground." The kids are the centerpiece of this effort and the kids responded well. Saturdays were dig days and it was common to see 40+ kids at the site ready to get busy with brooms, shovels and anything else they could use to move and shape dirt. Power Corps PHL sent dozens of volunteers to the site as well. The program provides environmental stewardship initiatives as well as the City of Philadelphia’s youth workforce development and violence prevention priorities. Many of the Power Corps volunteers were locals and are itching to get on bike after lending a hand at the track.
According to Chaz Brown, one of the regular visitors from Power Corps and resident of the surrounding neighborhood, this is about way more than just having fun on bikes. "This is also another outlet for people to go and do something positive and that’s really the main reason I’m excited about this being here. A lot of people around here pretty much keep to themselves, which leads to less violence. But at the same time, no one really knows each other. So I feel like the pumptrack is not only good for people to get outside and do something fun, but hopefully it’s a good way for people to connect with each other."
Jim's design paired with the tireless efforts of Kenn, Heidi and Harlan and friends have helped the Philly Pumptrack become not only a centerpiece for bikes but a staple for the community. It is a feature of the city that is unique in its capacity to allow you to witness the birth of a passion for our sport and community. And for the reminder that priorities are important when it comes to riding bicycles. "It’s about creating a healthy lifestyle choice for communities all over the world." notes Jim. "There’s so much of this adrenaline-junkified marketing nonsense. When you go to a bike park, you realize there’s not always a need for competition. It’s a 21st century roller skating rink that’s a bit alternative and environmentally friendly where mom and dad and the kids can go and just have fun." Harlan agrees. "I want to see community programs and working with schools. Philly is full of kids on bikes with no brakes, wires hanging off of them and stopping with their feet. This is a place where they can come ride those bikes. They grab some shovels and get to work. It’s more than just a recreational facility, there’s an engagement that you can’t find at a basketball court."
"Riding a bicycle as a kid was important to me because of the freedom and exploration it provided." Kenn says. "Building jumps was even more fun because I got to be more adventurous and do all kinds of crazy things. So I want to bring that to kids who don’t have that right now." Like the rain gardens that line the ground between the berms and rollers, the Pumptrack is a seed that will hopefully blossom into something bigger for more and more kids throughout the city with time. Heidi is confident in the strength of the roots here. "The biggest thing is the offering of a (cycling) community that didn’t previously exist for the kids in this neighborhood. We want people to see that this is worth all of the time, effort and money we put into this. I think that when other people see all that this can do for the community with kids taking ownership and leadership, it's going to be an easy sell."
The Philadelphia Pumptrack would not be possible without the tremendous support from the following: Specialized, SE Bikes, Fuji and Power Corps PHL.
For more information on Jim Dellavalle and Dellavalle Designs click here
For more information on PHL Power Corps click here
For conditions and information on the Philadelphia Pumptrack click here
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