California has some of the best year-round weather, plenty of elevation, and tons of different types of terrain, which should make it a freeride mecca. The problem is those variables have brought in millions of people, which in turn has led to billions of dollars in development. Conservation groups try to protect whatever natural land is left, which also leads to limited access for bikes. Even with all that in play, the reality is most bikers either lack the skill or the gumption to ride most ‘freeride’ lines anyway. Us mere mortals clamor to watch Rampage or Fest Series as the best in the world throw down feats that often seem impossible. After Rampage, we may all become a bit courageous and send a drop bigger than we usually would or possibly find the gnarliest trail around to satisfy our desire to ride like the pros. However, if we are being honest, even riding at our best, we do not look half as good, or ride stuff half as difficult as those same pros riding at their worst.
Sam Mercado and I 'met' through social media after I ended up riding with one of his friends. He posted a story of a ridiculous jump and I immediately started inquiring where such a thing could exist in our neck of the woods. After some back and forth, I asked if I could photograph him and his jumps. I have been shooting mountain bikes pretty seriously for a few years and always look for new spots to shoot. I thought it would be fun to hang out and see someone send these behemoths. After a few weeks of planning, we settled on a day to get together. Sam sent me an address of where to park and a general idea of where to go to find his little oasis. When I started to get close to the address, it began to make sense how these jumps are able to exist. Let's just say this area is not the glamorous side of town. California is truly unique in its ability to go from multi-million dollar homes to homeless encampments all within one short drive. After I parked, I squeezed past a few angry dogs and tried to get my bearings. I had to message Sam to ask where I should actually go once I parked, with the build tucked behind some hills as to not be seen from the street. I hiked back for ten to fifteen minutes, past a large homeless encampment (Sam has actually befriended one of the guys that lives there), some graffiti, and a whole lot of trash towards his jumps. The size was even larger than I expected, and the sculpting of the jumps even better than I could have imagined.
Sam watering his perfectly sculpted lips and landings, look at the massive step up hip jump that connects the two parts of his main line!
Sam meticulously blocks off his jumps to stop moto riders in the area from hitting them - he also builds drainage before each storm to ensure his lips aren't destroyed and them fills them in before sending his jumps.
As I walked up, Sam was already carrying Home Depot buckets about, watering down the take offs and landings for each hit. He greeted me with a smile and offered me a banana in case I had missed breakfast. We talked while he prepped. I barraged Sam with a litany of questions: where he worked, his background, his bike, his personal life and Sam obliged me with answers to everything I wanted to know. The funny thing is the answers could not have been more simple. Sam does not have a girlfriend or a family, he does not have any other hobbies, he does not worry about politics or read the news, he does not fret over e-bikes or what athlete signed with which team. Sam's life basically consists of three things: he works in construction, he builds trails, and he rides.
Sam in his element
Honestly, it was hard to believe the whole thing was real, like a mirage in the desert I found myself skeptical. Yet, this was no mirage, the jumps were very real, and Sam is as authentic as they come. It is just jarring to come into contact with someone that lives in your community, but has established a life so contrary to your own. Almost like a sort of domestic culture shock, I found myself trying to make sense of it all. I could not believe the simplicity he had created within his life, or the joy he had found in building and riding his jumps day in and day out. Often building at 4 AM before going to work for ten plus hours, or heading out to the spot AFTER working ten hours, Sam has put in thousands of hours into his creations. I asked if he ever gets tired and he stated he is often exhausted after work but building jumps re-energizes him. Sam's level of commitment to his jumps would make most couples jealous.
Sam has not built one freeride area, but has multiple spots all over town. The craftsmanship is Rampage-level, but all done by one man carrying up each sandbag and sculpting each feature. Each line includes an array of hits that all link up. On top of top-level craftsmanship, there is also some real creativity in creating unique features like a giant step up 180* hip jump, an off-center jump where you take off and yank the bike to the side to land off-center, some really clever natural rock chutes, perfect step-downs to pick up speed, step-ups to scrub speed, and the list goes on. I have never seen someone with the vision, craftsmanship, bike skills, time, effort, and courage to build and send such an array of gnarly features. The photos below encapsulate only a portion of the empire Sam has built.
Sam's moon booter, full speed, full send
Couldn't truly call it freeride if it were only massive jumps!
Another unique hit integrating this amazing artwork into a technical drop which includes a very narrow rock spine run in
Always difficult to capture the true size of these things, shot on the left for the style, shot on the right for the perspective - look at the landing and take off in the background of the 180 hip jump
Endless features litter this trail - the views on this one are pretty spectacular
Don't forget about some epic berms - ones you can rail so hard you pop out of them!
Even the features he considers 'little' aren't small!
The boy can throw some style in there - came out of nowhere with the tuck no hander
In a world where we often only celebrate those who achieve between the tape, I think for me it was important to remember the point of this whole thing: to have fun and create meaningful memories. Sam has gone all in on making everyday fun, creating memories, and pushing himself to prioritize his passion instead of filling his life with other things. It has motivated me to get out and ride, but more importantly, to enjoy my rides instead of worrying about the small stuff. I get caught up in worrying about the components on my bike, or hating on e-bikes when they zoom by, but in the end it is just making me more miserable. Heck, Sam ties his spokes together when they break and keeps having fun. Why am I sweating the small stuff? Even if you aren't ready to sell it all and ride all day, it is a healthy reminder to check your priorities. It was for me. We often uphold value based on monetary or competitive success, but is that really what makes something worthy of praise? I'm not so certain.
Lastly, I would be remiss not to thank Sam for letting me come out and photograph him and his work. I know he was apprehensive at first, but I hope he is proud of our work together. I also hope he gets the opportunity he truly deserves: to be a full-time professional trail builder. Sam still lays concrete more than 10 hours a day despite the fact he is probably the best builder in the state (at the very least). Carson Storch, Darren Berrecloth, Thomas Genon, and Brian Lopes all have photos or edits using his jumps, clearly showing the quality of his work. He has built at Rampage twice: once for Logan Binggeli and last year for Thomas Genon. Out of all of the cruddy stuff we use social media for I think it would be awesome if putting Sam's name out there allowed him to follow his passion as a full-time gig.