MTB Bucket List, 5 Places to Ride at Least Once in Your Life According to Michael Browne
Let's be real for a second. A decade or two ago, when you heard about this legendary trail somewhere on the other side of the world, you knew it was a rare gem; something that absolutely had to be explored. So you packed your bag and your bike, you rallied a few friends and you made some half-researched spur of the moment road trip in search of what was written up in a magazine or posted on a message board as "you must do this before you die."
When you got there, when you saw that legendary view, it was completely and utterly worth it. Your sense of being became a little more complete, and the story you brought home was worth 1,000 times more than whatever you paid in gas and time off and shitty gas station snacks along the way.
But we're mountain bikers. One day reality hits the fan and it splatters on the wall like a partially digested Chipotle extra spicy burrito. Guacamole, black beans and all. You either procreated, spent too much money on XTR, or just had the scant bit of foresight to realize that road trips and epic rides won't change your bed pan in your old age. So you bucked up and got a job that tied you down a little more than your free-spirited nature truly prefers.
But as the saying goes, a dog will hunt. And as I know it, mountain biker will ride. There's nothing worse than knowing what's out there and knowing what you can't have. So you take what you know, and you shape, craft, sculpt and build a piece of heaven in your own backyard. Some of us seek permission, others ask forgiveness. It might be in the form of a pumptrack where a lawn used to be, a ribbon of green, black, and brown on land the electric company forgot they own, or a choose-your-own adventure network of repossessed deer trails strung together in a forgotten city park.
Whatever your situation, you take what you know and use what you have to make it absolutely awesome. Your opus. Your applied collective knowledge of the world's best trails, dropped onto whatever landscape you have available at your fingertips.
Now, I wish I could say I have done exactly that. But you see, I'm still in the collecting phase. I'm still gathering up the best of the best, and to be perfectly honest, have been too goddamn lazy and too absorbed with other things to lay it all on the line in the woods near my house. Plus, I'm incredibly spoiled and have my own trail builder at my place of employment. Shoot me now. Or just ask me for a job. I am looking for interns.
Anyway, my point is that years ago that list of "Epic Rides" was truly a collection of stuff you absolutely had to experience. No doubt, those rides are flawless. They drain well, they have incredible flow, they have supporting infrastructure, and they are guaranteed to be free of debris, have great signage and maps, and are sure to be here years into the future.
But there's a small army of resourceful mountain bikers out there who have made their own thing, and they've made it incredible. With their own sweat, their own vision, and their own praise-worthy selfish motivation of just wanting to have a place to ride while living inside their own reality. To that I applaud you. So, "Epic Ride" or not, I present to you the places I've been that you have to ride before you die. There may be more like them, but I haven't seen them yet. Death be damned, I’m aiming to see them all.
1. Frick Park in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
When I lived in Pittsburgh, I lived in a, umm, disadvantaged neighborhood. The barber shop owner next door was assasinated while I was at Interbike. Standing in his shop, the very gang members he helped lock up ten years prior were released from jail and made him their first stop on the way home. Lesson learned — if you own a gun and intend to protect yourself with it, you should probably clean it.
My ride to Frick Park from East Liberty took me past the church where they filmed the Chasing Amy chapel scene, through a graffiti'd up skatepark, and through the gates of Frick.
This wide and long swath of undeveloped city land makes the east side of Pittsburgh one of the best places to live in the entire world. City meets park and is bordered by housing and vibrant communities. The trails have improved and expanded since the last time I rode them, but nothing beats sculpted trails that are as suitable for a 29er hardtail as they are for a 6-inch all-mountain bike. 200 feet of elevation. To add, an active, multi-use population means if you're in the market for a significant other, you might just nab yourself a runner chick, or a dog walker if you bother to stop and smell the rhododendron. All of this is thanks to the core group of riders who burned in the trails and made this a home for recreation rather than recreational drugs.
This in turn ushered in a bit more organization, trail building and planning to make the park a bit less confusing and disorienting. Even so, no trails are marked which means you have to find a local. Ask about the Blue Slide Trail. Be ready for a bermed thrill ride and be prepared to climb out. Just make sure your climb out lands you at D's 6-packs and Dogs, a place that serves up not only the world's best selection of beer, but also the best veggie hot dog in the city. They serve meat versions, of course, but who really wants to eat a "meat" hot dog anyway?
2. Copper Canyon in Chihuahua, Mexico
This story might seem like a vast departure from the local trail builder hero you got introduced to at the beginning of this article, but hear me out for a second. Copper Canyon is a series of canyons that are larger and, at places, deeper than the Grand Canyon. If you love being immersed in terrain with layer after layer of peaks, valleys, and textured land, then the only other place I've seen that even compares to this is Patagonia. Too bad the land of the small dog happens to be more notorious at the moment for its narcos and war lords than what honestly is one of the most beautiful places in the world.
Besides canyons and dogs and drug lords, in Copper Canyon lives a people named the Tarahumara. This rugged, native society doesn't speak English. When I was perched out on a finger of land with a view that I and the 20 other journalists would later call the "best product launch ever" (thank you so much, Chris Winter of Big Mountain Adventures), I stood next to AskRC as a native man climbed up from the canyon wall beside us with what appeared to be a 50-pound sack of potatoes on his back. No sweat. No speech. Not even breathing hard. We couldn't have been further apart in our worlds. Me, on a multi-thousand dollar mountain bike with suspension and hydraulics and an I'm-just-a-visitor attitude, and he, with handmade moccasins, hands turned to leather, and a faraway stare that didn't carry any animosity or even a desire to understand. Just a "pardon-me-I-need-to-deliver-my-potatoes-to-my-family" look.
It’s that utilitarian motion of generation after generation of Tarahumara "feed the family" mentality that has delivered a vast network of sprawling goat trails that will test the mettle, map-reading and technical skill of the most dedicated mountain bikers.
If you manage to brave the current climate of drug traffic, be sure you also see the "monks," what could be described as a monument park dedicated to non other than the phallus.
Takeaway: Copper Canyon is now your selfish motivation to speak out against the Mexico drug cartel situation. Until this gets sorted, you're not riding here. The only good news here is that while we’re not riding, the Tarahumara are carving in some incredible new trails with their leather feet and sacks of potatoes.
3. Brown County State Park, Indiana
If there was ever a personal story of a hero who brings home the bounty for his native people, this is it. Alex Stewart, thank you very much. When I visited you in 2005, you had a dream. You wanted to not have to drive to Pisgah every year, and to turn this middle-state forgotten park into something real, something awesome, something to write home about. When you explained to me that no mountain bike trail project had ever landed the kind of money you were asking for, you knew that $150,000 was right around the corner. It would be paid out incrementally over years in the form of manual labor, machinery costs, surveys and bridges. Today you have yourself an IMBA-designated "Epic Ride" that's truly worthy of the name.
Sure, the Hoosier state isn't as glamorous as Mexico, or hell, even Pittsburgh. But what they lack in glamor they make up for with flowy earth and undulating climbs and deep woods riding that makes you realize you don't need to hop on a plane or drive to the nether regions of a Canadian province to experience awesomeness. Way to go, Alex. I hope you're still fighting the good fight, cause I hear your trails have only gotten better.
4. A certain Wisconsin-based company's private trails
There's only one rule about this club. You can't talk about it. I might be violating some rule I don't know about by even mentioning the existence of such perfectly manicured acreage, but I'm going to risk it anyway. Here's the not-so-secret fact you may not be aware of: if you are a retailer of this company's products, go to their annual show in August and you'll get to ride them yourself.
That's right. 200+ acres of land. A full time trail builder whose love of power tools is trumped only by his love of making every foot of trail more rideable, more enjoyable, and more challenging than the last.
So if you haven't read through the lines here, I'll lay it out there: Trek, my employer, owns and leases some land near the company's headquarters. Open only to employees and guests of the company, this trail system was the brainchild of Joe V, the company's VP and Director of Product and Marketing, dreamed up as a way to entice more mountain bikers to join the company. It worked. Two years after the initiative kicked off I joined them. Without that dedication to continually evolving, shaping, crafting and dreaming up land that can be considered recreation, meditation, fitness, and product testing space, many co-workers (including myself) wouldn't continue to work there today.
The land is incredible. Jumps, berms, rock gardens, wooden structures, open fast prairie land, dense evergreen wooded maze trails. It's all there, and it ekes out more speed, exhilaration, excitement, and heart-thumping pleasure-in-pain than other places in this world that are given 10 times more natural topography to work with. Proving yet again that when you have to work for it and prove it, you're going to get further than those who have it all naturally.
The caveat: you can’t ride here. Unless you work here.
5. Ray's MTB Park
This one goes out to a guy who put it all on the line. Ray Petro. Some may say the idea of an indoor mountain bike park would've happened naturally, but I'm going to put it out there and say that without his example no one else would've put their neck out there like he did. This pioneer paved the way for a new experience. This guy is the godfather savior of the year-round mountain biker.
Contractor turned mountain biker, Ray literally had an "if you build it, they will come" moment and turned a vacant Cleveland parachute factory into something real, something meaningful, and something that has given to our culture of mountain biking more than any pro racer, or arguably any other trail builder.
Who'd have ever thought that 100,000 square feet of cracked concrete floor and a few truckloads of lumber would be such a significant icon in our sport? Not I, at least until I saw it. That original vision - staggering, inspiring and as beautiful as it was then - is a pittance compared to what exists today. The two locations include foam pits, flowing jumps, technical lines, hamster wheels (yes, the same one you saw on Shipping Wars), and more inspiring t-shirts than you could imagine.
This guy doesn’t rest on his laurels. Nope, every year when summer comes around and the park shuts down, he looks at the place as a clean slate. Wipes it all away year after year to re-imagine, re-envision, and make sure that the experience you got last visit is blown away the next time you show up. That, my friends, is the most inspiring thing that I've seen yet.