As a reader of Terrain Magazine, you’ve most likely visited one of our region’s many parks to hike, run, mountain bike or even ride a horse. Places like Castlewood State Park, Indian Camp Creek Park, Cliff Cave Park, Creve Coeur Park and Greensfelder County Park all feature natural surface trails that appeal to a broad range of users. While each particular trail is unique and offers a different experience based on your planned activity, they all have one thing in common: They were all designed, built and are maintained by a local mountain bike group.
That group is the Gateway Off-Road Cyclists (GORC), which is made up of hundreds of individuals dedicated to building and maintaining multi-use trails in more than a dozen local parks. The all-volunteer, non-profit group has spent tens of thousands of hours over the past 20 years advancing its mission and encouraging riders (and all outdoor enthusiasts) to “give back” by helping with trail builds and upkeep.
The result, says Bryan Adams, one of GORC’s five board members, is that the St. Louis area has some of the best trail systems in the country, with more than 94 miles of them hand-built by GORC. Unfortunately, many people outside the region don’t seem to know it.
“We’re really underrated as a mountain biking destination. We just don’t have the reputation yet. The word is getting out, but we’re not quite there,” said Adams. “The park systems haven’t yet embraced it as a resource to increase tourism.”
In the Beginning
John Donjoian, a former BMX racer turned mountain biker, founded GORC in 1998 and has sat on the board since its inception. He said he formed the group because there simply weren’t enough places to ride, so people made their own trails — albeit illegal — on vacant land and in parks. He remembers riding an abandoned rail bed near Southern Illinois University (SIU) in Edwardsville that has since been converted to the paved MKT trail.
Getting things rolling with GORC had its challenges. “We were the new kids on the block. It was easy not to like us if you were a hiker or horseback rider,” he said.
Donjoian knew that forging relationships with area park directors would be key. He also saw the importance of following the standards set by the International Mountain Biking Association (IMBA) on building sustainable trail, not just for mountain biking, but for multi-use. The group learned IMBA trail-building techniques, such as how to slope trails and cut into hills to drain water away from the trail. Tools such as the grade-reading clinometer and learning bench-cutting techniques helped the group build trails that would shed water and withstand high-traffic from a variety of user groups.
Donjoian and Adams are engineers, as are many of the club’s members, and they love the design and construction aspect of trail building.
“I not only enjoy using the trails, but I get to use science and physics to build them,” Adams said. “The goal of any new trail is sustainability. Shedding water — trying to get the trail to dry as quickly as possible — is key to the long-term viability of all trails.”
Partnering with Parks
John Stanger of St. Louis County Parks first encountered GORC 18 years ago when the group wanted to make improvements to badly eroded trails at Greensfelder Park. Unfamiliar with mountain bikers, Stanger said it took him awhile to figure out how to partner with GORC. “They wanted more places to ride, and they had very high standards of what they wanted [in terms of trails],” he said.
Since that first project in 2004, Stanger has collaborated with GORC on numerous projects. “I rely on them greatly, and I’ve learned a lot about trail building from them,” he said. “They’ve really taken charge. The County doesn’t have the staff [to do it]. Without GORC, there would be no maintenance, renovation or new trails.”
Bekin Youngblood of St. Charles County Parks works closely with GORC on trail building and maintenance. “We’ve had a great relationship with GORC, allowing us to have some of the best single track around,” he said. “Although our operations staff assists with trail projects, we don’t have a specific crew that works on trails, making our relationship with GORC and its amazing volunteers all that more vital. GORC opened my eyes to new ideas and philosophies that have worked well for our department.”
Maintenance is a never-ending battle, even just clearing fallen trees, Stanger says. He appreciates the volunteer “trail stewards” who are appointed to care for each of the trails. While not on the county parks payroll, GORC’s trail stewards monitor the health of each park’s trail system and alerts the group to any needed trail maintenance or reroutes.
GORC also provides licensed sawyers — also volunteers — who are certified by the National Forest Service. The county parks have agreed to let them and their “swamper” partner come in and clear deadfall using a chainsaw and safety gear.
An Army of Volunteers
Without its 1,000-plus hardworking volunteers, who average over a yearly combined total of 4,200 labor hours, none of GORC’s work would be possible. Although the official membership count is about 360, three to four times that number show up over the course of a year for trail work days. GORC actively encourages non-members and first-time trail volunteers to attend its trail building events to both learn about the group and to instill a shared sense of community. Many end up joining GORC after attending a group event.
“Working on our local trails has really built a community, a sense of shared responsibility and ownership,” Donjoian said. “It’s four hours of sweat-inducing fun — more fun than you’d think. It’s impressive to be able to see what you built and to later ride it. And you get to meet and know people from a variety of backgrounds. You might be working next to a hiker, a trail runner, a mountain biker or an equestrian.”
GORC averages 16 trail building events per year, split between the spring and fall seasons. At these events, a brief safety talk is given and the various building tools are handed out from the club’s own tool trailer. Several teams are formed, each led by a seasoned trail leader that will guide the group, offer assistance and be able to answer any questions. Lunch is provided at the end of the event, and barring poor trail conditions or bad weather, a group ride may happen.
Even the group’s online presence is a volunteer effort. In addition to updates and announcements posted on social media platforms, GORC board member Matt Hayes partnered with a local web agency to build the group’s current website, and he keeps it updated on a regular basis. Riders can find real-time trail conditions and educational information — and our area’s most comprehensive collection of trail maps and profiles for the use of everyone, not just mountain bikers. The feature-rich site, launched in 2013, has helped grow GORC’s membership base and promote the group’s trail contributions. You can visit it at gorctrails.com and find the group on social media using #gorctrails.
What’s Next for GORC
“Bike parks, that’s the way the industry wants us to go,” Adams said. “Bike companies and organizations are pushing for more bike-specific trails where riders can utilize the newest mountain bikes that are built for more than just cross-country riding.”
GORC has already met with St. Charles County to discuss options. Bike parks typically feature skills courses, pump tracks, jumps, trails and features. They can be connected to other trails or stand alone.
“A bike park is long overdue in St. Louis. People wonder why we don’t have one,” Donjoian said. “Many riders want more challenging trails, like drop-offs and jumps. Those are harder to build and maintain. You need heavy equipment and funding. It’s a real challenge.”
Looking to the near future, Adams and Donjoian say a couple of trails — including the epic Rock Hollow/Bluff View Trail in Wildwood, Mo. — are under construction now and need to be completed, and maintenance will always keep them busy.
As for new trails, “we’ve almost maxed out the available land in St. Louis County,” Donjoian said. “In Illinois, there’s not as much public space available and you’re dealing with an entirely different set of land managers.”
Despite any challenges that come with building and maintaining trails, the GORC members we talked to unanimously said they wouldn’t change a thing. They are proud of what the group has achieved in 20 years, for the benefit of all trail users, and rightly so.
“When I started there were a limited number of places to ride that were fun on a mountain bike,” said Adams “In 20 years, we’ve given people a lot more choices of where to go. Being in the woods on two wheels is a way for me to relieve stress and enjoy nature.”
“Of all the things I’ve done in my life, starting this club is my proudest achievement,” Donjoian said. “GORC brings all these people together who are giving back to the community. Every time you ride a trail, think about the volunteers who built it. What you can ride or run past in seconds may have taken several hours to build.”
Terri Waters is a freelance writer based in St. Louis. She enjoys exploring hiking and biking trails and likes the camaraderie of organized rides as well.