WELCOME TO STEEL CITY
Maybe Pittsburgh, P.A. seems like a random spot for a Local Loam episode. To put it in perspective, the series has primarily visited mountainous locations including Tucson, AZ; Puerto Rico; Costa Rica, Kamloops, BC; and Missoula MT. Good ‘ol Austin, TX, might not classify as “mountainous,” but it’s still a well known hill country enduro destination. With the exception of Austin, none of these destinations are large city centers. So Pittsburgh might not seem to fit the mold, however, the goal of the Local Loam series is not to simply showcase the fanciest riding zones, it’s to showcase the most successful advocacy stories, and the story of Pittsburgh certainly fits that criterion.
I’ve heard a lot about Pittsburgh over the years from my friend Brian Lorence, whom you all see in the video, and also from my wife, who was born and raised in the “small big city.” Wait, what? Is it small or big? Well, it’s both. It turns out the population of 302,500 people is shoe-horned into such a small area that 5,000 people are squeezed into each urban square mile. The city limits have not expanded since 1907. However, the Pittsburgh metro area is home to nearly 2.5 million residents- making Pittsburgh one of the most populous metro areas in the U.S.
The city was established “way back” (for Americans) in 1758, right at the confluence of the Monongahela and Allegheny rivers. Keep in mind the USA itself wasn’t even established until 1776, so yes, we’re talking about a city older than bicycling and the constitution. Since its inception, Pittsburgh has always been known as an industrial hub and a place that’s maybe a little rough around the edges. But these days, Pittsburgh is becoming a leader in science and technology. Pittsburgh has made huge advancements in robotics and medicine- and it is frequently recognized for its impressive environmental design initiatives.
Of all the stories I heard while spending three days in the Steel City, the story of the Dr J freeride trail in North Park might be my favorite. It turns out that a young Jamie Pfaeffle went to Harborview Hospital to complete a fellowship while studying medicine at the University of Washington. While in Seattle, Jamie was exposed to some great riding and, of course, made the obligatory MTB pilgrimage to Whistler B.C., just four hours north. Returning to Pittsburgh, Jamie and friends knew they needed something that offered more adrenalin than their local parks’ standard trails, and they began building Dr J.
Eventually park staff got wind of a “radical new trail” and tensions ran high. Pfaeffle and the park’s director, Andy Baechle, eventually had a meeting to discuss how they could officially incorporate some aggressive trails into the park’s trail network. They went through the tedious process of planning and design, and with the work of many, eventually re-built Dr J trail as an official trail. While it’s not a trail that would rival those in Whistler, compared to the rest of the park, it’s got a distinctly MTB specific flavor to it.
Through consistent trail maintenance, local riders proved that they were capable and dedicated workers, and in turn the park gave them more opportunities. Trail stewards created a zone with several sets of dirt jumps, bridges, skinnies, and other skill-building features, as well as an asphalt pumptrack. Compared to the terrain my wife rode as a kid in Pittsburgh in the mid-1990s, the city has come a long way for the MTB community.
Alameda County Park has an interesting story. It had a trail system up until some logging operations destroyed them- something with which most PNW residents can relate. But after the lobbying of the local advocacy group, the park’s master plan finally called for inclusion of mountain bike trails. The trails aren’t crazy steep or wildly technical, but we did discover one unexpected treat. Mark Kinneer of Rockwater Trails had just put the finishing touches on a new flow trail. Following Mark down his freshly completed trail on a sunny fall afternoon reminded us how mountain biking is a unique sport that combines nature with a trail builder’s creativity to provide a memorable, adrenalin-filled experience.
Mark’s own story as a trail builder is a great example of why Pittsburgh has become a key advocacy destination. Mark’s resume includes work at the Seven Springs bike park before being hired by Trail Pittsburgh. The opportunity for him to work with Trail Pittsburgh is one of the reasons I find advocacy and advocacy groups so crucial to the sport. Without organizations like Trail Pittsburgh, Mark’s earth-moving and machine operation experience would otherwise be used for ordinary construction gigs. Since the park now recognizes mountain biking as a valid trail use, trail development has become a legitimate recreation expense- giving people like Mark unique jobs they can be passionate about. Without an advocacy group in place to lobby for the importance of a builder like Mark, we’d not be riding well-constructed berms and doubles. Instead we’d be at the mercy of whichever contractor has had the best long term relationship with the park, no matter whether that contractor knew the in’s and out’s of making great mountain biking trails.
Another zone, Frick Park, is in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood of Pittsburgh and very much in the city. The high amount of “regular” usage is immediately apparent. However, it’s also been home to folks riding mountain bikes for years and years. These are the trails where my wife first learned to mountain bike in the 1990s. Riding with our daughter on our MacRide, we toured the park after we shot the video and my wife only recognized only about 10 percent of the trails. Thanks to the word of Trail Pittsburgh and its stewards the park has drastically grown and improved.
Although many riders (and builders) love to jump on their bikes, they definitely don’t like to jump through bureaucratic hoops in order to build their dream trails. I can understand that sentiment. Everyone starts to ride bikes for different reasons. I was attracted to mountain biking because it’s a very independent sport that combines adrenalin and exercise endorphins — with a bit of a counter culture as an added bonus. Trying to organize all the different people who enjoy this sport into one cohesive group is akin to telling a dozen wet cats to queue into a single file line. Advocacy will never be as exciting as dynamiting through a giant rock slab or chainsawing out a fallen log and thus it rarely receives much praise. But when the advocates are on the trails, seeing the smiling faces, they know that they’ve done their part to make it happen – and to ensure that riders will continue shredding for another 25 years.
This project was supported by:
Jenson USA: https://bit.ly/JensonUSA2022JKW
Industry Nine: https://bit.ly/IndustryNine2022JKW
PNW Components: http://bit.ly/PNWComponentsJKW
Kitsbow Cycling Apparel: http://bit.ly/KitsbowJKW
Kali Protectives: http://bit.ly/KaliJKW
Wilderness Trail Bikes (WTB): http://bit.ly/WTBlocaloam
Ibis Cycles: http://bit.ly/IbisJKW
Trust Performance: http://bit.ly/TrustMessageJKW
videography by @loganpatricknelson
photography by @brettrothmeyer