Sprain Ridge Park
by Erik Ferguson
When I started offroad riding, trails were different. We rode hiking trails, horse trails, and jeep roads, many of them old rights-of-way from forgotten transportation projects or power and gas lines. Those trails were never intended for our idea of fun. They sometimes included epic sections, but they also featured unrideable stream crossings, rocky washout climbs, missing sections where you had to ride the backroads. Back then, we didn't really know any better, any more than we knew which sections were possible and which would send us crashing to the ground, our feet still firmly clipped in.
Soon we found areas that we could connect by building short stretches of trail, forgotten sections that could be reblazed or rerouted. We began to look at the woods differently. What had been impassable sections became technical challenges, or natural stunts. Soon we were scouting out routes for new trail sections.
That was a unique time to be riding and building trails. A kind of natural selection operated. If a new trail acquired a group of steady riders and someone to maintain it, it would survive. If not, it would be hidden by the leaves in fall, and forgotten before Christmas. By spring time, you'd be lucky to find any part of it remaining.
Most of our trails from those days have been lost. Some were great, but too far out. Others were too steep, too wet, or just plain sucked to ride. A few, however, have caught on. Those ones have lasted for years, developing and improving with age. Studying those survivors, undestanding how a trail would evolve over time, helped me to refine my skills as a trailbuilder.
In the cold spring of 1999, Dave DeLucia told me about Sprain Ridge Park.
Dave, at that time Recreation Director for the Westchester County Parks Department, had worked for years to open trails to mountain bikes. In Sprain Ridge he had struck gold. In a former life it had been the site of the Boyce Thompson Institute, a botanical research center, and its grounds were still filled with unusual and exotic plants and trees. Existing trails, built for the convenience of Institute workers, had been taken over by dirt bikes and quads.
Now Dave was inviting me to design and build an entirely new set of multi-use trails. This was a dream come true, but a huge responsibility. The trails I built would either outlive me, or doom the park to obscurity. And the sheer volume of work to be done was scary. Howeer, all things considered, I just had to accept. How could I pass up a chance like this?
I had learned over the years that, before swinging a rake or saw in anger, I needed to spend time learning the land, finding all the best spots and features, the impassable sections and the barriers. I also had to figure out how the terrain would handle storms and rain.
For the next few weeks, Dave and I walked the park, discussing how to keep the Parks Dept happy and lawsuit-free. We had a number of problems to grapple with.
Firstly, there was overcrowding. How would we accommodate all the visitors? Sprain Ridge is close to the big city, and it's a legal place to ride. Would we be swamped? This issue went hand-in-hand with the problem of the motorized users, people who had grown up riding in the park. Would we be dealing with collisions every weekend?
We decided that the best way to handle these problems was to build tight trails loaded with technical sections. This would keep speeds down, and discourage motorized users. Plus, if we gave people a real challenge, they'd have a reason to keep coming back.
Sprain Ridge's location was another problem. Since the park is small and surrounded by highways, it would be easy to give visitors the feeling that they were riding around in a fishbowl, or worse, a median strip of a highway.
With these considerations in mind, I began sketching out the trails. I tried to keep away from the edges, filtering out highway noise, and keeping a feeling of solitude and natural surroundings. This meant sacrificing some land area, but it was worth it. Within the usable area, I looked for ways to provide a variety of different trail conditions, something to suit all levels.
Work began in the northern area of the park. This is a fairly narrow strip of land that surrounds the large parking lot, but features many amazing rock formations and constant grade changes. Dave had already scouted the area, and marked out the beginnings of a trail.
There were four of us at the first work session in early spring: Dave, Dave's brother Mike, my brother Danny, and myself. From the south-west corner of the parking lot, we snaked the trail down to the lowest point in the park, the place where we'd later build a short bridge. From there, it climbed back up to swoop around through the rock outcrops.
We raked and cleared, making sure to include technical sections and rocky areas. This first session threw up a phrase that was to become our motto: "Don't coddle the mountain bikers." The trails could be tough, just as long as they didn't include hazards like sheer drops or cliffs. Later I added a few twists and turns to Dave's already twisty trail, and brought it back to the opposite side of the large parking lot. In fact, I made it so twisty that we had to come back and smooth out some of the lines to improve the flow. This first trail would later became known as the 'North Brothers Loop'.
As the weather warmed up, the leaves appeared, and some stretches of trail that we had already completed became hard to find. With no one riding in the park except quads, things could change from week to week. We'd hung survey tape to mark the trail, but, with different sections bunched up close, it became difficult to recognise which markers belonged together. More than once, we had to go back and rebuild lost sections from scratch. Other work sessions were spent clearing new growth and fallen leaves out of existing trails.
It is amazing how a trail that takes all day to rake can be ridden in 15 minutes. This experience taught me that marking tape is cheap.
As the weather warmed up, our progress slowed. Our local mountain bike club was burned out from years of organizing annual festivals, and overdue for more volunteers. Newsletters and schedules went unmailed, and trailwork went onto the back burner. Since the website was no longer being updated, people stopped checking it. Throughout April, no-one showed up for the scheduled Sunday workdays. I worked by myself, or with one or two volunteers.
In hindsight this may have been for the best--it is almost impossible to plan and design trails by consensus--but at the time it really pissed me off. I became increasingly cynical about the mountain bike community, and bitter about all the excuses and complaints. As the trails grew longer, I built more and more to my own personal taste. I crossed every tall fallen log I could, and made things even tighter and more technical than they had been before.
If the other riders didn't like it, too bad. They should have showed up for trail work.
With the help of those who did show up--Danny, Dave, local trials rider/trail worker Duane Tiemann, and a handful of others--I was able to complete the trails on the east side of the park.
The main route now extended from the northeast corner of the parking large lot up Sprain Ridge itself. The Ridge is a spine of rock that runs north-south along the East side of the park. It features boulders, spines, natural ramps, and slickrock-like surfaces. I was aware as I worked that we were building one of the best trails in the area, with some of the most technical sections I had ever seen on a mountain bike trail. Parts of it looked more like an observed trials section than singletrack.
I loved Sprain Ridge more and more. What had started out as a volunteer project had become a personal quest. I knew that I was doing something unique in building those trails, but I didn't know what other riders would think of them.
I came back the following year to add the beginner trail on the west side. This time around, I was actually trying to build a trail that most mountain bikers could ride, rather then sticking it to them. After all, things had improved at the club, and there were volunteers to help with several large projects: a wooden bridge (thanks to Brent Penfold), and serious rock work with the IMBA Trail Care Crew. My mood had improved as a result.
Perhaps that's why, although it is as twisty as the others, the Beginner Trail bypasses the more difficult obstacles in its path, and avoids the log crossings which have become the Sprain Ridge signature.
Last year, Hans Rey made a special guest appearance at the Bicycle Film Festival in NYC. I was able to talk him into using Sprain Ridge for a photo shoot. For years I had watched his videos, slackjawed in amazement as he pushed the limits far beyond what I had ever considered possible. Now I saw him riding trails that I built. He was having a great time.
Building those trails made me feel like I'd given something back to the sport that has given me so much. I hope that they will reach a new generation of riders. Some day, perhaps, those riders will build trails of their own.
I hope to ride them.