Exploring Buffalo’s icy industrial ruins on fat bikes
Photos: Jim Cielencki
Text: Robert Rebholz
Trail riding in the snow can be an amazing experience but is an extremely weather-dependent venture. If there’s too much snow, then the ride will be a slog. When the snowpack dwindles and the trails become icy things can turn sideways in a hurry.
My first choice when conditions are prime is to hit up singletrack. When it doesn't look promising at my local trail centers, I always have a plan B in mind. With the erratic weather Western New York has seen this year, I’ve spent more and more time in the industrial zone along the Buffalo Harbor.
The area along the waterfront has industrial ruins of steel mills and building from the once-bustling grain trade. The grain elevators that once housed Midwestern America’s grain stores now lay mainly vacant, after a more direct route to the Atlantic was created.
Buffalo has moved on economically from its industrial past, but these concrete behemoths still dot the landscape of the city. The area around the grain elevators has by and large been reclaimed by nature. This mix of industrial decay and reclaimed natural area make for some amazing riding, regardless of conditions.
The grain elevators built in Buffalo in the late 19th century were some of the world’s first experiments in concrete. These massive structures drew artists, architects and photographers from around the world to Buffalo to witness these amazing structures firsthand.
It is said that the modern style of architecture was very much influenced by these tubes of concrete that touch the sky.
When I am getting ready for my ride in the First Ward, I always enjoy the smell of baking Cheerios from the General Mills factory down the street. It is one of the few remaining active factories in this area, but has immense production. The mill is a hive of activity with trains, tractor-trailers and barges coming and going.
Once I’m suited up I dive right into the fields, marshes and forests that surround the grain elevators. The amount of wildlife that has repopulated this area is unreal. There are massive herds of deer, turkey and cranes that live in this area.
I always enjoy observing the deer stop feeding to size me up when I pass by. Once on an evening ride I had my headlamp on, and I all I could see was the reflection of their eyes. It felt like the film “Children of the Corn,” seeing dozens of eyes staring at me in the dark.
It’s amazing to see that nature has taken back over in this heavily polluted industrial landscape. You are a five-minute ride away from the heart of downtown, but you feel as though you are in the middle of nowhere.
The Outer Harbor of Buffalo is the city’s connection to Lake Erie. The Outer Harbor is mostly undeveloped and has some terrific winter riding. The bike paths that are usually jammed in the summer are completely open. I take advantage of this time of year to ride places that in the warm months are way too busy to maintain a decent pace.
There are some existing trails in the Outer Harbor, but there is room for more singletrack. A new bike park is in the final planning phases by the city and will be a welcome addition to the terrific riding already in the area. I can’t wait until construction begins.
Recently, my photographer friend and BMX legend Jim Cielencki and I made a trip to the Outer Harbor to scout for shooting locations. He got his drone out and we were both amazed by the visuals he shot over the frozen lake. “Do you think you can ride on the ice?” he asked me with a smile.
I recently swapped my 80 mm wide rims for a 100 mm width wheelset. Even with the same sized tire, the grip with the wider rim was much better. “Here goes nothing,” I said to myself as I rolled out onto the ice.
At first, I just went out a few feet onto the ice and rode parallel to the shoreline. After riding a stretch, I got back onto the sand and wheeled back around to check in with Jim to see how it looked. “Go out further!” he yelled.
Facing my fear of the ice, I pedalled straight out into the Outer Harbor. I remembered something my friend and Rampage podium finisher Glyn O’Brien once told me, “When people get scared, they forget to breathe. In those moments where fear grips you, always take a breath.”
I heard his words in my head and inhaled the freezing cold air through my nose. I immediately felt a sense of calm wash over me. I could feel every bit of energy that I put into pedalling push me across the ice. Free from the friction of dirt or asphalt, every pedal stroke felt like 10 on the ice.
Thanks to Jim C for taking these amazing images. Jim's Instagram, @jimcielencki, is an awesome follow. Thanks to my brother Barry for helping on this shoot. Thanks to my friends Tim and Emily Lowrey for their help with my forays in the First Ward. Thanks to Pivot Cycles for the incredibly versatile LES Fat frame, Industry Nine for the BigRig 975 Carbon wheelset, and Manitou for the Mastodon fork. Also thanks to Hayes Brake, Answer Products, Cane Creek, Wolf Tooth, 9point8, e*thirteen, OneUp Components, Thomson and Lake Shoes. You can follow me @robert_rebholz on Instagram as well.