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!"
I snake my way down a trail highlighted by tight switchbacks and lined with oh-that-would-really-hurt rocks. Twice I am forced to dismount because I can't navigate a turn.
Down in the novice area I am content to tool around on low-consequence teeter-totters (picture a seesaw that you ride up, over and down the other side). This doesn't look hard, and really it isn't, but it takes mental commitment. Ditto for the near-vertical banked turns and whoop-dee-doos in the more advanced areas. Most of the features are built of wood, with stone, mesh and other materials used as needed for optimal support and traction. A quick cruise around has me transitioning rapidly from all of the above to dusty earth and back again.
As I pause to watch a couple of teens wail off a jump, I meet Seattle resident Ed Lambert and his 14-year-old son, Otis.
"This is helping me get back into biking," dad Lambert said. "I used to bike a bit, but it was called â??cross country' back then." (See paragraph 1, re escapism.) "These kids are getting pretty radical." He points to a shadowy corner of the park where the highway snuggles against the hill. "You know there's more over there, right?"
Ah, so I see. "More" is a hairball chute, a narrow, knee-quivering straight-line down a steep hill, emptying into the park's lower regions. It looks like something they sent ore down in the old days, and sure enough, some 20-something dude is aligning his tires at the top, readying for a screaming ride. This section bears black-diamond signs, part of a difficulty rating system borrowed from the ski industry.
The ratings are helpful and humbling as I, a black-diamond skier, find myself fretting and double-checking and false starting on numerous blue square Colonnade trails. But I am not alone. While the prevailing demographic is teens and 20-somethings, and the prevailing riding style is airborne, there are also parents here with small children (I met one who said he was 4 years old), a few other middle-aged guys and folks who are clearly trying to determine whether this mountain bike thing is for them at all.
Glover says the park has proved to be a groundbreaker: In May the Evergreen Mountain Bike Alliance held an opening ceremony for a much larger skills and free-ride area, Duthie Hill Park, 120 acres of feature-rich trails on land that had harbored an abandoned archery range in Issaquah, 17 miles east of Seattle.
"The approval process for Duthie went much smoother," Glover says. "They all saw how successful this is here. When you come back out, definitely hit Duthie. You'll love it."
That I believe. Escapism takes many forms.
Briley is a freelance writer in Washington.