Test your mountain-biking skills in this downtown Seattle park

Justin VanderPole of Seattle cruises high up on a wall at the two-acre bike park built in the shadows of a 12-lane urban highway.
Justin VanderPole of Seattle cruises high up on a wall at the two-acre bike park built in the shadows of a 12-lane urban highway. (Ralph Underwood)
By John Briley
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, July 28, 2010; 12:35 PM

I enjoy mountain biking for the escapism it provides: Disappear into woods, race down single-track paths, lean through turns, crank uphill, all to the audio of an adjacent rushing stream. In one session, I can commune with nature, jack up my adrenaline and check off my daily exercise obligation.

So I never expected to find myself straddling a mountain bike beneath a roaring interstate overpass in Seattle, a city with enviable proximity to miles of legitimate bike trails.

But here - beneath 12 lanes of Interstate 5, at Exit 168A - a Seattle area cycling club has turned a former hangout for vagrants and junkies into an urban mountain bike park, complete with short trails, jumps, drops, teeter-totters and other so-called "features" designed to satisfy a range of biking abilities.

The I-5 Colonnade is what mountain bikers call a "skills park," which means that you're never more than a few feet away from a balance-beam-like log formation or a foot-wide ladder bridge or a "staircase" with 18-inch steps - all features that mountain bikers use to hone balance, jumping and control maneuvers.

Fair enough, but under an interstate? Why?

"There wasn't really any precedent for this kind of thing," says Glenn Glover, interim executive director of the Evergreen Mountain Bike Alliance, which, in its prior incarnation, led the push for municipal approval and building of the park. "It took a good number of years for [city officials] to become open to the concept that this was a good use of space and that there was an unmet need for this type of park in downtown Seattle."

Luckily the bike group wasn't trying to replace the Space Needle: The sub-asphalt jungle, which occupies a hill that falls steeply away from where earth meets interstate, had become a seedy den of addicts and prostitutes, and the spillover bad behavior was wearing on the surrounding communities.

City officials, along with those of encompassing King County, eventually came around to support and fund the project. The bike alliance secured an additional $50,000 in private donations, and the park's construction began in 2005, largely with volunteer labor. The park opened to riders with one trail in 2007 and expanded in 2008.

The two-acre mountain bike area is part of the 71/2-acre park, which also includes pedestrian paths, commuter bike trails and an off-leash dog area. The highway hovers high above the riding area. While pedaling, I was well aware that I was beneath an industrial structure, but never did I fear bumping my head.

Small sections of trail and a few features are outside the interstate awning and, from below, a sliver of blue is visible between the north- and southbound lanes, but for the most part this feels like some futuristic movie set, with geared-out kids zipping around, dwarfed by massive cement columns.

This isn't the place for long, out-and-back rides. I did a couple of loops (in the areas that didn't scare the microbrew out of me), then stopped to chat with other riders.

"There's great riding variety here, and everyone is cool," says Matt Fevergeon, a 26-year-old Boeing employee from Mukilteo, Wash. "I see people in here of all skill levels. I've even seen people taking lessons." As I headed off for another loop he called after me, "You gotta make the most of what they give you!"

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