- Progressive and inclusive mountain biking comes to St. Louis and Missouri.
- New progressive mountain bike parks and trails under development.
- Missouri Enduro Series launches in 2021.
Brody Burlingame started messing around on mountain bikes about two years ago with his dad, Aaron, who also rides. But it wasn’t until last year that he got “really passionate about it”.
“I definitely see mountain biking in my future and want to try to be a competitive rider,” said Brody. “I’ll stick with it until my body tells me not to.”
What was it that hooked the 14-year-old Oakville resident?
Besides a new bike, it was the creation of exciting and challenging places to ride locally.
“The Eureka Mountain Bike Park gave me the opportunity to progress and made me realize how much I really liked mountain biking,” said Brody. “[The park] has stuff from beginner level all the way up to advanced. If I outgrow one jump, there’s always another one for me to try.”
The growth of mountain biking in St. Louis and around Missouri is part of a larger trend across the US, as local governments see investing in the sport as a way to generate tourism revenue. The headline of a 2017 Outside magazine story read: “How Mountain Biking Is Saving Small-Town, USA”.
Of course, mountain biking is not new. But what is new, and increasingly popular among the younger generation of riders, are more “progressive” trails that incorporate sweeping berms, jumps and drops, and other manmade features, ramping up the thrill factor while also improving riders’ skills.
About two years ago, officials in Eureka were in the midst of devising a strategy for promoting the suburb as a hub for outdoor recreation when they learned about the booming mountain biking culture in Bentonville, Arkansas. That town has garnered a reputation as a “mountain biking mecca” thanks to its sculpted trails and connected landscape — not unlike a ski town, except here in the Midwest.
Eureka thought it could bring a similar scene to its community, says Director of Economic Development and Communication Julie Wood.
“It was an ‘if you build it, they will come kind of thing’,” she said.
The city invested almost $200,000 in an 8-acre mountain bike park next to the Timbers of Eureka Recreational Center, just south of the Interstate 44/Highway 109 interchange. It opened in June 2020 as the St. Louis area’s first purpose-built mountain bike park and includes a dirt pump track for kids learning to ride bikes, jumps of increasing heights, wooden obstacles, and a dual slalom course — side-by-side trails that allow riders to race against one another.
Wood says she thinks the park has had ripple effects in the local economy.
“Eureka used to be known as this bedroom community — had a lot of antique stores — just maybe a little older generation kind of thing. Now, I think we’re starting to appeal more to the outdoor, active lifestyle people,” she said.
The common goal among local mountain biking advocates, including the nearly 400 members of Gateway Off-Road Cyclists (GORC), a volunteer group dedicated to building and maintaining multi-use trail in the bi-state region, is to make St. Louis a destination for the sport.
“Just seeing the community involvement has been amazing,” said Dave Schulz, a founder of GORC Gravity, a subgroup of GORC that is focused on gravity-fed mountain bike trails and family friendly bicycle skills parks.
“People who had no connection to cycling [have come] out of the woodwork to help do things,” Schulz continued. “I can’t tell you how many people have told me they are either opening a restaurant or a campground or buying rental property” nearby the new mountain bike parks in Missouri.
When pitching local government leaders on the economic benefits of mountain biking, Schulz and others often point south to Bentonville and explain how building bike trails costs a fraction of what, for example, a community swimming pool would cost and yet can attract far more people from outside of the area.
“We’re trying to show them that when built correctly, at the right size, you can put yourself on the map. It will allow a community to draw people in that they wouldn’t otherwise,” said Schulz.
The St. Louis mountain biking scene has a scrappier nature than Bentonville, which has the benefit of continuous funding from cycling activists Tom and Steuart Walton, heirs to the Walmart fortune. The $500 billion company is headquartered in Bentonville, and the Walton Family Foundation has provided close to $100 million in grants to develop a bike-friendly culture there. (According to the foundation, in 2017 alone, bike trails provided $137 million in economic benefits to Northwest Arkansas through tourism, events, goods, and services.)
“While Bentonville has some beautiful areas without question, a lot of their trail is fun because they made it that way. They had to manufacture all their features: the bumps, the rocks…. [In Missouri] we’re gifted with almost endless areas of varying rock and dirt and ledges all over the place. It just happens to be here already, and I think that can make us shine,” Schulz said.
Schulz envisions “an indefinite plan of expansion” of local mountain biking trails and an effort to possibly connect existing systems in the St. Louis County suburbs of Ballwin, Eureka, Wildwood, and Pacific, the latter of which straddles the line between St. Louis and Franklin counties.
“These little parks pepper the area, no different than in Bentonville, and then in between you have all the trail systems, so it could become a whole connected community that welcomes everybody, of every riding style,” Schulz said in describing his vision.
Chris Mileski plans to make good use of the growing infrastructure with the Missouri Interscholastic Cycling League (MICL). The former head coach of the Lindenwood University cycling team, he launched the nonprofit youth mountain biking program last year.
He started working on the league in 2018 and planned to stage its first race season last fall but had to postpone the events due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Still, the league began holding small practices and was able to attract 259 student-athletes and 147 coaches, a record for first-year leagues in the National Interscholastic Cycling Association (NICA), says Mileski.
Why does he think there has been such great interest in the program?
“We emphasize positive sport behavior and camaraderie over competition, and so I think that’s very welcoming for a wider group of kids that maybe are disenfranchised with the competitiveness of team sports,” he said.
Liam McMillen, 13, is one of the 30 members of the MICL’s Rockwood Composite team, which is made up of middle and high school students mostly from the Rockwood and Parkway school districts in west St. Louis County.
“For me, things really took off when I signed up for NICA,” he said. “There’s a big variety of skill level, and some kids are really fast. It’s challenging for me to try to keep up with them and helps me to get comfortable. Everybody there has the same passion and goals of improving and doing races. We practice what we’ve learned and compete against each other in the same challenges, and everybody is getting better and better.”
Plus, youth see all the new sites for mountain biking, including the nation’s largest asphalt pump track, which opened last year in St. Charles County, and want to try them out, Mileski adds.
“You are really, really seeing a tremendous amount of mountain bike [sites], not only skills parks but progressive trails and even the old school cross-country trails, that are being built across our state. So, it’s been great for programs like ours,” he said.
The Missouri mountain biking revolution doesn’t show signs of slowing down anytime soon. In fact, it keeps gaining momentum — and elevation.
In late 2019, volunteers of GORC Gravity approached Bob Lourwood, the mayor of Ironton, Missouri, and told him they thought Shepherd Mountain, which lies about 90 minutes southwest of St. Louis, would be a great place for a mountain bike park. The site has “600 feet of vert”, as in elevation, the volunteers told him.
“I had never used the term ‘vert’ in my life before all this started, but what they saw on Shepherd Mountain was the possibility for gravity trails,” Lourwood said. “Up until a year ago, I didn’t even know what gravity biking was. No one here in Arcadia Valley did.”
In June 2020, Jagged Axe Trail Designs, an Arkansas-based company, started building five gravity trails on the mountain. GORC volunteers are also building a climbing trail, one meant to be ridden from the base to the peak, and the city is constructing a park headquarters from which they will sell tickets, run shuttles to the top of the mountain, and offer bike wash and shower facilities.
The cost of the project is about $800,000, and the city expects to complete the downhill trails in Spring 2021.
“I’ve seen a lot [of social media posts] from other kids who have gone to Shepherd Mountain for test riding,” said Liam McMillen. “The features down there are something I would think I’d have to travel many hours to get to. It’s going to be nice to have it so close to St. Louis.”
To top it off, the Big Mountain Enduro race series recently announced that Shepherd Mountain will be the first stop on its 2021 calendar, meaning that the premier mountain biking tour in North America will kick off its season in Missouri.
“It’s very exciting that we’re doing this and that this has all transpired in less than a year and a half,” Lourwood said.
Missouri Enduro Series
The first and, for much of 2020, the only mountain bike race to take place in St. Louis happened on March 14 at West Tyson County Park. Called the Chubb Enduro, it was unique to the area in that the format consisted of timed downhill stages connected by untimed uphill “transitions” (the fastest combined time on the downhills wins).
“I was nervous, being the youngest kid there,” said 14-year-old Brody Burlingame. “The race was exciting, and intimidating at first, because it was so sloppy and muddy that day.
“There were a couple of times that I crashed on real rocky sections. Like, I was going too fast around a corner and cut too far inside and slid out, but I got up and kept going,” he added. “I felt very accomplished to finish. I felt like I had done really good and was happy about that.”
Brody and others like him will have more chances to apply their skills at downhill racing when the Missouri Enduro Series (MES) comes to the Show-Me State in 2021. Matt Johnson, the organizer of the Chubb Enduro and founder of Loki Events, is the mastermind behind the four-race series, currently scheduled for March, April, May, and June in Steelville/Potosi, Eureka, Ironton, and Busiek.
Johnson, 49, who works as a carpenter and heavy equipment operator, has invested a significant part of his life savings in a SPORTident system to time the races he plans to host.
“Trust me, it hurt really hard after [buying] that system, because I’d planned to do a lot more enduro races [in 2020]. When COVID hit, it really socked it to me,” he said.
Despite that unexpected delay, Johnson remains confident in his investment and in the idea of MES.
“I think it’s going to bring the mountain bike community even closer,” he said, “because when you get a bunch of people together that like to do the same thing, whether it be cross country or enduro or gravel, I think it’s going to grow [the sport] even more.”
More information about the Missouri Enduro Series will be posted on the Loki Events website (lokievents.com) when available.
MO’ to Come
Here are some of the other projects that have been recently completed or are planned over the next few years in Missouri (and nearby).
Aerie’s Resort Mountain Biking Course
Details are scarce at this time, but just across the river in Grafton, Illinois, Aerie’s Resort opened its SkyTour chairlift in late 2019 and has expressed its intention to add a mountain biking course to the 300-foot-high hillside on which the resort and winery rest (there’s already a zipline course there). The owners would attach racks to the existing gondolas, allowing riders to shuttle their bikes up to the top and then bomb down to the bottom. Trails could begin construction as early as this spring.
Dirt Route 66 Mountain Bike Trail
TrailSpring, the outdoor nonprofit behind Two Rivers Bike Park outside of Springfield, Missouri, is building 66 miles of natural-surface trail near Historic Route 66. The system will consist of six zones in north Springfield and “offer riders of all skill levels a fun and engaging experience…providing safe passage and alternative transportation for commuting while connecting trail between many of Springfield’s parks,” according to the website. Work is already underway on the first phase, a 6.65-mile trail at Fellows Lake. This segment of Dirt 66 is expected to open in early 2021, followed by more phases throughout the year.
Eureka Mountain Bike Park
A mini park-within-a-park boasting manmade wooden and dirt features was recently added to the kids’ playground area near the main pavilion. Built and donated by social media influencer Seth Gebel of Backyard Trail Builds, the two trails making up the mini park include small drops, an A-frame ramp, a tabletop ramp, and rollers suitable for (pedal-less) balance bikes and small kids’ bikes — as well as for newbie adults.
High Grounds Bike Preserve
Neosho, Missouri, has opened the High Grounds Bike Preserve, consisting of a new bike park and trail system. When combined with existing assets at Morse Park, the preserve has more than 8 miles of trails, including 5 miles of single-track that winds through nearby forest areas, a 1-mile loop called the low ground trail, and a bicycle playground. The project cost $265,000 to complete. Phase two, which includes adding more miles to the trails, is expected to begin early this year.
Jefferson County Bike Trails
Phase one of a proposed plan to add bicycle features to select existing parks in Jefferson County, Missouri, will include skills parks, flow loops, kiddie tracks, and pump tracks. Further additions include connecting parks in the cities of Festus, Crystal City, and Arnold to promote safe cycling between schools, community amenities, and developed areas. Goals include: developing single-track trails that deliver high quality experiences to the community and providing a racecourse venue and training facility for NICA’s Missouri Interscholastic Cycling League.
St. Joseph Mountain Bike Trails
GORC Gravity consulted with officials in St. Joseph, Missouri, a municipality north of Kansas City, who were interested in building a mountain bike park and helped local organizers obtain $1.5 million to build the park through a local tourism tax. Like Ironton, it will be shuttle park, meaning the state will soon have two places where riders pay to enter and then get rides from the base of the trail system to the top.
Youth Activity Park Pump Track
Lights have been added to the nation’s largest asphalt pump track in Dardenne Prairie, Missouri, so users can now ride into the night. Hours are 12 to 8 p.m., Sunday through Thursday; 12 to 10 p.m., Friday; and 10 a.m. to 10 p.m., Saturday. Pro BMX racer and 2019/2020 Red Bull UCI Pump Track World Champion Tommy Zula recently held a clinic and demonstration at the pump track, and St. Charles County is lobbying Red Bull to host its 2020/2021 world championship there.
Authors: Eric Berger is a regular contributor to Terrain Magazine. Brad Kovach is the editor/publisher of Terrain Magazine.